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Wednesday, 24 October 2007 00:00

Forgotten poetry illuminated by Dark Horses

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Dark Horses: Poets on Overlooked Poems by Joy Katz and Kevin Prufer.  University of Illinois Press, 2007. 232 pages

Dark Horses: Poets on Overlooked Poems (University of Illinois Press, 2007) might seem at first glance merely another collection in the plethora of literary anthologies that have recently become, like the locust swarms in ancient times, a plague upon the land. Closer inspection of this compilation by Joy Katz and Kevin Prufer, however, reveals that Dark Horses is truly a treasure house of neglected poems.

Here, for example, is Emily Dickinson’s little-known “This World Is Not Conclusion” in which the poet rejects religion but seems to affirm faith:

 

Faith slips — and laughs, and rallies —

Blushes, if any see —

Plucks at a twig of Evidence —

And asks a Vane, the way —

Much gesture, from pulpit —

Strong Hallelujahs roll —

Narcotics cannot still the Tooth

That nibbles at the soul —

 

Richard Forster, the poet who comments on this poem, states that only a few of Dickinson’s poems make the popular anthologies, yet Dickinson’s collected works include nearly 1,700 poems. Foster also points out that Dickinson’s own biographers have overlooked this poem. As a result, “The World Is Not Conclusion” may seem almost new to us, an exciting prospect for all who love verse.

Other poets appear in Dark Horses whose unusual tinkering with verse may startle some readers. Dadaist Man Ray’s poem is actually a non-poem ( — — — — — — — ) in which the title and the verse itself are simply heavy blank lines that appear to be drawn through words; proponent Dean Young reminds readers that “Man Ray’s poem endures with a frontal assault that makes the avant-garde pretensions of today seem like wormy appeals for tenure.” Tim Dlugos in “Gilligan’s Island” explores in a prose poem the connections between television, sex (particularly the feelings between The Professor and Ginger), the Kennedy assassination, and a boy engaged in solitary sexual pleasures. The poem entertains, as poet David Trinidad tells us, but he then goes on to point out the complexity of “Gilligan’s Island,” its many layers of meaning and of characterization, its mixture of entertainment, sex, and death.

Still other poems in this intriguing collection lead us to an appreciation of small things, the beauties of nature, the value of silence. Charlotte Mew’s lyrical “The Trees Are Down” gives readers a chance to discover a lovely poem by a poet nearly unknown today, at least in the United States. Elizabeth Bishop, who on the other hand is well known indeed, a leading lady of many anthologies, appears here with “Poem,” in which Bishop brings to life a tiny countryside sketch once done by one of her uncles, who later became a well-known artist in England. “Poem” is a simple piece, seemingly concerned with “munching cows,” “iris, crisp and shivering,” and “steel-gray storm clouds,” but the beauty lurking behind these images exerts a strong attraction on any reader fortunate enough to discover this poem.

Two qualities in particular set Dark Horses apart from other collections. First is the fervor with which Katz and Prufer set out to resuscitate certain poems for which they and other poets felt vast affection. In their introduction to the book, Katz and Prufer tell us how they sat one evening in an Italian restaurant in Kansas City discussing with three other poets the lesser known poems and out-of-print poets that they loved. Katz and Prufer then decided to approach 100 and ask them for their personal favorite unappreciated poets or poems. Of these, 67 responded. Katz and Prufer brought these responses together, amazed at how many wonderful poems were recommended by writers they’d never met. Given their chaotic collection methods, they decided that Dark Horses would be a kind of orchestrated clamor. Like our original conversation, the poems would be united by the ardor and enthusiasm of their promoters.

The work of many of these poets is so little known, and yet so clearly it’s a part of the canon and makes Dark Horses unique. This “motley mix of screeds, personal stories, and more scholarly investigations” by the writers promoting beloved and neglected poems and poets demonstrates to doubters that contemporary poets, poets who still practice their craft with diligence and love, continue to read poetry themselves. On Naomi Lizard’s “In Answer to Your Query,” a delightful poem about how products or services, though still valued, cease to exist, Carolyn Kizer, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1985, writes that “these poems should not be allowed to be forgotten. They are truer than ever today ... Won’t someone please reprint Ordinances? I know at least fifteen major poets who would leap at the chance to introduce it.”

A good part of contemporary poetry’s failure to attract an audience has to do with the lack of craft in many poets and a surfeit of bad poetry. Many poets whose work appears in self-published chapbooks write awful stuff: ugly free verse, mawkish sentiments, verse dripping with tone-deaf confessions. The majority of poetry magazines today actually have more people submitting verse than they do readers. Some commentators on the miserable state of modern poetry blame readers for being poorly educated and so lacking the skill and training to enter the realm of modern verse. Others blame it on the poets themselves. A few attribute the diminished status of poetry to the influence of technology over the last 75 years: the abundance of popular music, the movies, the television, the computer.

Despite these obstacles, poets and readers of poetry still hold out hope that strong poetry will continue to be written and to find readers. In Dark Horses, both the poets and the poets who appear as their advocates give all who wish the best for poetry a real reason to hope that the best will be recognized and will live among us.

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