For this week of Thanksgiving, I thought I’d say a few words of thanks to David and Stacey Lehman for all they do for poets and poetry--and especially for this blog. Like so many poets, I love stopping by here, and I am so grateful to Stacey for keeping it going through good and difficult times.
I also wanted to thank David for his many books and anthologies. Today, as on many days, I’ve been flipping through his Oxford Book of American Poetry—an all-time favorite of mine.
Now, let me first confess (a bit sheepishly) that I am not a natural fan of anthologies. I especially don’t care for the thin-paged Norton’s that make me feel as if I am in a chilly and distant room full of discordant strangers who have little to say to another and even less to me. (I tend to think that there’s something about the nature of poets, both on the page and in the body, that likes to be seen as the one and only.) But Lehman’s Oxford anthology breaks that distance down, first with its wonderful selection of poems (so I know immediately I am in good company), and second, by its informative and fun introductions to each poet. I particularly love thinking about how and why poets write--comparing and contrasting their visions.
About A. R. Ammons, Lehman points out that “he writes in the American idiom, switches rapidly from low to high diction, and in one mood may remind his readers that “magnificent” in North Carolina comes out ‘Maggie-went-a-fishing.’ But his sly wit does not obscure the visionary nature of his poetry, the aim to affirm the magnificence of creation, however lowly in appearance and dark in design. Asked what moved him to write poetry, Ammons commented ‘anxiety.’”
Charles Simic, on the other hand, wrote once that “Awe is my religion, and mystery is my church.” And he compared poets to six-legged dogs.
Berryman, not surprisingly had a less amusing idea of the life of the poet. Lehman quotes him saying that the “artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he’s in business.”
Sharon Olds commented that it was easier to write poetry than not to write poetry. And Jean Garrigue “described her work as a ‘dialogue of self with soul, the quarrel of self with world.’”
And I love this excerpt from the introduction to Robert Creeley:
“Hall observes that if you took a sentence from a late Henry James novel like The Ambassadors and arranged it in two-word lines, you would ‘have a Creeely poem worrying out its self-consciousness.’ Creeley seems often to substitute speech rhythms for imagery as the engine of the poem.”
I could keep going, but I think every poet should own her own copy of this anthology. I cannot imagine how long it must have taken to select the poems for this book and write all these wonderful introductions. But as a result, the book promises its readers as many hours of pleasure.