Emerging poets with vision and imagination; Sad Days of Light, by Peter Balakian. New York: The Sheep Meadow Press (145 Central Park West, 10023). 80 pp. $13.95 in hard cover, $7.95 in paperback.
Second Seasons, by Coburn Britton. New York: Horizon Press (156 Fifth Ave., 10010). 64 pp. $6.95 (paperback). Reading through small-press poetry from across the country, I can't help being impressed by the variety of styles and voices. But if many of the poets possess the technique and the will to create, it is rare to come across one with an empowering vision that elevates personal experience to something equally vital to the distant reader.
Somewhere between his first book of poems and this new collection, Peter Balakian grew into just such a depth of style. Though his earlier poems were well crafted, ''Sad Days of Light'' offers a profoundly personal vision and the poetic ability to share it. And it is a shocking story he has to share. In exploring his family background and their flight from Turkey to the ''new world, '' Mr. Balakian also portrays the history of the Armenian genocide of 1915 and the subsequent scattering of an entire people. His grandmother, a survivor of the diaspora, is a central figure in these poems. In reliving her personal experiences, Balakian brings the reader face to face with the trauma of war and homelessness - experiences that are tragically common elements of the 20th century. The poet's raw imagery and exacting language convey that part of life that the historian's analysis often overlooks.
If this book were political diatribe, it would never have the power to move us as it does. It is in its restrained but intimate tone, its faithfulness to the small human detail, that the poetry reaches its broadest context. As we witness the destruction of a kitchen or the anguish of one old woman, we somehow come to understand the meaning of ''holocaust.'' And later on, in the tender portraits of his family in their new life, Balakian approaches the complex of broken and expectant dreams which has always been a central ingredient of American history.
''Second Seasons,'' the second collection by Coburn Britton, steers a very different course from ''Sad Days.'' Mr. Britton is concerned less with the actuality of events than their emotional and imaginative sway. Experiences - whether childhood memories, natural observations, or philosophical speculations - are only as real as they are inspirited with creative potential. Britton uses an intricate, compressed, playful web of language to catch the light from even the simplest moments.
Many of the poems are formally challenging (there are six sestinas in the collection), and the rich interplay of rhyme and resonant language invokes the ancient conjuring power of poetry. Britton's artful concoction makes a dance out of thought patterns, and his performance both charms and mystifies. But more than the mere expertise in the poet's writing, we can admire the ease with which he makes us want to savor our own powers of word-magic.