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Bringing poetry back to life

Once upon a time the queen of literature, poetry finds itself nowadays, like the tale of Cinderella run in reverse, a poor stepchild of pen and paper, pale-limbed, gray ashes on ashen cheeks, seated on a broken stool off in some odd corner, half in shadow, a tatterdemalion with large wondering eyes that ask: What in the name of Shelley happened to me?

Some critics argue that poetry, like some of the plastic arts, lost its way when it ignored its audience; when poets turned so far inward that only a few could follow, or be bothered to follow, them; when rejection of meter and rhyme, which once gave an audience a “hook,” that is, memorable lines that stick like burrs in the heart and brain, gave rise to the plethora of free verse that attracted poets but not their readers (It is said, in fact, that today’s poets themselves rarely read their contemporaries).

And yet ... and yet ....

Each year new anthologies of poetry pop up out of publishing like bits of life-saving flotsam from a sinking ship. The great bulk of these anthologies harken back to poets past and are often centered around specific themes: poems for lovers, for men, for women, for children; poems to comfort the afflicted and the dying; poems from different religious faiths; poems on war. Sometimes a well-known author — a novelist, an essayist, a biographer — will issue an anthology of favorite poems; Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-Three of the World’s Best Poems received, for example, fine reviews and was a national best-seller.

Catching Life by the Throat: Poems from Eight Great Poets (W.W. Norton, ISBN 978-0-393-06607-4, 2008, $26.95) stands apart from many of these anthologies for several reasons. Josephine Hart, the commentator and collector of these poems, has devoted a great deal of time and money to the cause of great poetry. Since 2004, she has hosted the Josephine Hart Poetry Hour at the British Library. In her “Introduction,” Hart writes of her passion for verse:

“Poetry, this trinity of sound, sense and sensibility, gave voice to experience in a way no other literary art form could. It has never let me down. At various times it has provided me with a key to understanding; it has expressed what I believe inexpressible, whether of joy or despair; it provided me, a girl with no sense of direction, with a route map through life .... Without poetry I would have found life less comprehensive, less bearable and infinitely less enjoyable.”

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Catching Life by the Throat also differs from many anthologies on account of the CD included with the book. Though there are books of verse that include recordings of the authors reading, this particular anthology includes actors, directors, and writers reading the poets as recorded during the Josephine Hart Poetry Hour. Here popular stars like Ralph Fiennes and Roger Moore join classically trained actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theater to give us engaging and passionate readings from Auden and Plath, from Yeats and Eliot and Emily Dickinson. Poems, great poems, are written to be read aloud, and here the readings do justice to the poetry. The voices of these performers couple like lovers with the words of the poets, delighting and intriguing their listeners.

Finally, Hart’s selection of Marianne Moore and Rudyard Kipling as two of her eight poets sets her anthology apart from many of the others issued in the last few years. Those unfamiliar with Marianne Moore’s poetry will find in these eight poems and their readings a delightful discovery, a poet whose mind, as Hart tells us, “enchants us with its truthfulness, its clarity, its wit.” An American of Irish descent who “adored gardenias, beautiful clothes, Beatrice Potter and baseball,” Moore died in 1972, leaving behind a wealth of words.

Rudyard Kipling is even more a surprise guest in Hart’s anthology. Since World War II, universities and many poets have denigrated Kipling for his belief in imperialism and his “jingoistic” stances toward the military and his country. Recently, given a closer reading, his work has attracted the more favorable attention that it deserves, but it is nonetheless daring of Hart to include Kipling in Catching Life by the Throat. Here are the well-known verses of Kipling — ”Danny Deever,” “Tommy,” “The Gods of the Copybook Headings,” and “Recessional,” which was written as a warning to the English on empire and materialism. Yet here too are less familiar poems like “The ’Mary Gloster‘”, “The Children,” and “Epitaphs of the War,“ a collection of short verses in which Kipling, who had lost a son in the First World War, wrote:

An Only Son

My son was killed while laughing at some jest. I would I knew

What it was, and it might serve me in a time when jests are few.

Common Form

If any question why we died,

Tell them, because our fathers lied.

Catching Life by the Throat will prove a particularly efficacious gift for those who don’t know much poetry, but who need poetry in their lives. The graduate of high school or college who needs a clear-eyed approach to the world, the young person who feels in need of some direction or solace, the man or woman with a love for the written and spoken word: these are the ones who will gain most by this small treasure.


Looking for a great summer read? Try Robert Morgan’s Boone: A Biography (Algonquin Books, ISBN 978-1-56512-615-2, $18.95). In this book Morgan, author of Gap Creek, The Blue Valleys, and other novels, gives us a splendid portrait of a remarkable man. Morgan’s portrait of Boone — the father and husband, the hunter, the trailblazer, the man of legend and myth — is, as another reviewer wrote, “historical biography at its best.

Catching Life by the Throat: Poems from Eight Great Poets by Josephine Hart. W.W. Norton, 2008. 256 pages.

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