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Tuesday, September 27, 2005

A Word Association Test.

by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Words Brushed by Music ed. by John T. Irwin.
Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.
200 pp. $12.95 paper. ISBN 0-8018-8029-7. $27.50
hardcover. ISBN 0-8018-8028-9.

In 1979, while the poetry world as a whole was marching with ever greater determination towards quote-unquote free verse and one or another variation of anti-poetry, Johns Hopkins University Press staked out its own territory. Its new Poetry Series would provide a haven for poets who had chosen to write the only truly alternative poetry that remained: a poetry which stayed connected to the tradition of the craft. In the words of John T. Irwin, then chair of the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars:

This project began with two simple guiding principles: to publish works of poetry [...] exhibiting formal excellence and strong emotional appeal and to publish writers at all stages of their careers [...]

The series kicked-off with John Hollander's Blue Wine. (The Fiction Series began every bit as well, in the same year, with Da Vinci's Bicycle, by Guy Davenport.) A more auspicious beginning can hardly be imagined. Although the names have not always been as recognizable, the level of the poetry has remained high throughout.

"The governing criteria in selecting the poems for this volume," according to Irwin -- now the editor of Words Brushed by Music, an anthology of poems drawn from the series --

as in selecting the poetry collections for the series, were that the chosen works put to full use the musical component of the English language, [...] What attracts one in a poem is not much different from what attracts one in a person -- wit, elegance, wisdom born of experience, mastery of language.

It is a fair description of what the reader will find. A table of contents sprinkled with names like Hollander, X. J. Kennedy, Wyatt Prunty and David St. John round out the description.

What is just a little surprising, however, is how well the work of poets such as Tom Disch and Charles Martin show beside these better known contemporaries -- how well all of the poets compare. Disch's "Joyce Schrager Poems", with their lack of capitals and punctuation, and their flights into the jejune, are a delicious satire on the Marge Piercy school of poetry. Disch, primarily a genre novelist, has also long been an outstanding poet.

Martin's "Stanzas after Endgame" is the equal of anything in Words Brushed by Music. The poem, basically written in iambics, is composed of four and five stress lines with numerous extra unstressed or ambivalent syllables. The result is a flattened diction, punctuated with more pointed iambic commentary, undoubtedly deemed appropriate for reflecting upon a play by Beckett. The play is showing in "a tiny Off-Off-Off-/Off-Broadway theater on the Bowery" and the street scenes provide context:

We step around a shouting match of gruff
Derelicts whose poverty
This Sunday afternoon
has found a small
Stage to enact its outrage on,...

After the play the fidgety audience emerges variously unaffected or to argue about the meaning of the play in a trendy fast food restaurant nearby. The poet is alone again with his own thoughts:

Meaning emerges out of random act
And lasts as long as there are those intent
On finding it and keeping it intact
In fables of impermanence.

Too formal to satisfy the mainstream writing-program style demanded by most journals, metrically too loose to satisfy any of the small number of Neo-Formal venues, and its ending too "grandiose" for either, this is the kind of poem that tends to stay at home if it gets written at all. In the Johns Hopkins Poetry Series it finds a place in the "greatest hits" volume.

Martin's is not the only poem-at-large in Words Brushed by Music. In "Pacific Rim", Timothy Steele, out for a swim, asks the ocean:

A brutal century
Draws to a close. Bewildering genetrix,
As your miraculous experiment
In consciousness hangs in the balance, do
You pity those enacting it?

This kind of high wire work presents more of a challenge to prevailing orthodoxies than rhyme and meter. It seems fair to assume that the fact that it is done as well as it is only exacerbates the offense.

On the whole, however, the poetry in Words Brushed by Music stays much closer to home. Poems such as Wyatt Prunty's classic "A Note of Thanks" and Josephine Jacobson's "The Minor Poet" provoke laughter while going no farther afield than the possibilities of our own personal experience. In his forward to the volume, Anthony Hecht singles out Adrien Stoutenburg's darting description of a hummingbird in the poem "Mote". Robert Phillips' time-lapse poem about his years at "603 Cross River Road", in which, in the final section, his wife is gently referred to in the past rather than the present tense, is a paean to companionship and place:

no one felt luckier to have landed somewhere.

Contemporary poetry -- formal or otherwise -- has its definite boundaries and they are only rarely exceeded in the volume. It is the work accomplished within those boundaries that the reader will find exceptional.

This is an anthology with considerably more to offer than most. The reader who will credit musicality in poetry will find much in it to appreciate. Moreover, the twenty poets presented in its pages are twenty distinct personalities. Shuffle the poems of most anthologies and ask yourself which poet wrote which poem. Even having read the poems over a number of times, the rate of success is likely to be low. Do the same with the poems of this volume and all but a handful will be neatly in place in short order. Whichever of the two outcomes to this "word association test" you find more meaningful will go a long way toward determining whether or not Words Brushed by Music is to your taste.

Gilbert Wesley Purdy has published poetry, prose and translation in many journals, paper and electronic, including: Jacket Magazine, Poetry International (San Diego State University), The Georgia Review (University of Georgia), Grand Street, SLANT (University of Central Arkansas), Consciousness Literature and the Arts (University of Wales, Aberystwyth), Orbis (UK), Eclectica, and Valparaiso Poetry Review. Links to his work online and to a selected bibliography of his work in paper venues appear at his Hyperlinked Online Bibliography. This review first appeared in The Catalyzer Journal.

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