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Wednesday, 13 February 2008 00:00

Poetry dying for readers

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In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus: New and Selected Poems, 1955 by X.J. Kennedy. — The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007. 224 pages

Although tens of thousands of American citizens today may call themselves poets, the fact is that poetry has hit hard times. Despite the fact that verse seems conducive to our hamster-wheel, ADD culture — poetry does, after all, have the virtue of brevity; even a slow reader could gulp down three or four poems of average length in less time than it takes to eat a Happy Meal — we have more poets than ever before and fewer readers of poetry. Some commentators have remarked that even poets themselves don’t read much poetry anymore.

Readers, critics, and some poets blame the loss of their audience on the state of poetry itself. They cite the obscurity and technical difficulty that marks much of our modern verse. They claim that many poets have turned their backs on their possible national audience. Like so much else in our modern world, poetry has became politicized, split, fractured.

While these charges ring true, however, factors outside the realm of poetry have also taken their toll. Competition from other media — the music “industry,” movies, television, electronic games, and electronic devices in general — have doubtless wounded poor Calliope, muse of the epic, and her sister Erato, muse of lyric and amorous poetry. In the last century Americans have embraced the visual and the tactile, possibly to the detriment of our oral and verbal skills. Our electronically streaming culture has blunted our imaginations. Even in the realm of the best-seller, the picture trumps the word. Hundreds of thousands of people, for example, have read The Bourne Identity, but millions upon millions have seen the film.

Our diminished regard for poetry is unfortunate, for there are fine poets writing verse today, men and women whose craft and insights deserve our attention.

In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus: New and Selected Poems, 1955 — 2007 (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 0-8018-8654-6), X.J. Kennedy, who has written verse and books for over half a century, brings us many of his best poems as well as some new verse and another 50 poems that have been unavailable to his readers, as the book’s jacket cover states, for decades. Kennedy is known primarily for his wit and his light touch. Here in full is “To His Lover, That She Be Not Overdressed:”

And why take ye thought for raiment?

Matthew 6:28

The lilies of the field

That neither toil nor spin

Stand dazzlingly revealed

In not a thing but skin

And in that radiant state

Sheer essences they wear.

Take heed, my fashion plate.

Be so arrayed. Go bare.

Yet Kennedy writes of the darker places of the heart as well. One of his most moving poems “Celebrations After the Death of John Brennan,” tells of the death by suicide of a young poet and former student. Kennedy helps us give us a sense of this young man, writing lines like “Teachers and shrinks had pestered him to vow/He’d walk in straight lines — John the circler-by/And lazy wheeler? Does your infinity/start sooner than mine?/How could he die ....”

Written many years ago, “Nude Descending a Staircase” is probably Kennedy’s most anthologized poem, the volume by that same name his best-known work. Readers who are only familiar with that poem, however, will find many pleasures and even stronger poems in this latest collection. In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus is also one of the finest collections by a contemporary poet for luring lost readers back to the muse.

•••

In Imperium (Enitharmon Press, ISBN 1-900564-19-X), Hilary Davis gives us verse that satisfies both emotionally and intellectually. The title of her collection, Imperium,” is also the title of the central poem, a work which covers the time of the Napoleonic Wars and runs from the London docks to Trafalgar. She also includes a short section of seven poems on the sacraments and several poems in a section called “Southwark,” which also contains poems whose action is set in the past.

The book’s most accessible poems are the sonnets written by Davis to her father. Entitled “The Dismembered Spirit,” she writes with affection of her father — she calls him “Daddy” in the poem, which may remind readers of Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” a bitter diatribe which is the polar opposite of this piece paying homage to his life and trials. In the last sonnet she says:

So pale you are. Daddy, I had not expected

How suddenly red life departs, no crown

Nor purple but your own ribcage, loins, feet,

To bear it. Towering as the tortured god you sleep

And into his anointed prospect grown.

You said, ‘I’m happy.’ This is your work perfected.

In the long poem “Imperium,” Davis gives us an array of fictional and real figures from the naval engagements of the Napoleonic Wars. In a section named “At Sea: Off Monte Christi,” she writes a beautiful love poem of a man, presumably Nelson, missing his lover:

My wife before God, my guide, with whom my mind and person

Stand in perfect union, you alone of women

Could have taken those sweetest liberties with me

No other ever dared. I kiss you fervently

And trust, when we meet again — please God!-

Tomorrow, to find you faithful

For no love is like mine towards you.

The back cover of Imperium reports that Hilary Davis is Head of Languages at St. Paul’s Girl School. If she teaches as well as she writes verse, the young women at that school are fortunate indeed.

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