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The new American poetry; Summer Celestial - Poems by Stanley Plumly. New York: The Ecco Press. 52 pp.

By Steven Ratiner / January 6, 1984



Writing recently in the New York Times Book Review, David Bromwich took as his subject new books by three well-respected American poets. Bromwich, a Princeton professor specializing in 19th-century literature, made short work of the selections using little more than 1,000 words to trivialize the efforts of all three poets.

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Judging from the tone of the professor's prose, the poems weren't so much read (let alone wondered at) as examined. The matrix of academic preference and formal specifications through which the critic viewed each specimen created such definite expectations that the poems were simply tested, found lacking, and discarded.

I was left wondering: Just what is happening in contemporary poetry that is obviously so vital to its practitioners but causes many academic critics to see red? For an answer, I returned to one of Mr. Bromwich's selections - ''Summer Celestial,'' Stanley Plumly's fifth collection of poetry. In reading it I found a book that, despite some weak moments, contained honest, personal, emotionally charged, tonally subtle poetry.

In the Times critique, Mr. Plumly's poems were faulted for aiming at ''an incantatory eloquence too decorous to reveal its motive.'' My attention was snared by that word ''motive,'' and I realized that Bromwich was greatly disturbed by the motive behind all three of the poets' works. This itself may only indicate that there is a changing direction in the current work, one that does not fit the accepted critical models.

But considering the increasingly intimate focus of poetry, I think it is unavoidable and in fact appropriate for a reader to react to the driving force behind the production of a poet's work. Yet it is perhaps through patience and a willingness to risk a deeply subjective reaction to the poem that the best contemporary work reveals its power and its purpose.

Where do you detect this intangible ''motive'' in a poet's writing? Anyone who has ever studied poetry in an academic setting will quickly cross the linguistic bridge from ''motive'' to ''motif.'' It is within these patterns of imagery that poets have traditionally secreted away their actual ideas and intentions. But this literary cryptology produces fairly unsatisfactory results when applied to most contemporary writing. Too often a book seems to contain a haphazard constellation of images and metaphors; others weave too many designs to decipher. The recurring themes are less the product of predetermined conception and more a reflection of the poet's present experience and preoccupations. This perhaps reveals the new inclination in work since 1950: The emphasis has shifted from the structure of the poem inward to the voice of the writer. Poetry has become a personal and social response to the daily business of living, an act of exploring and ordering experiences and thoughts.

Having said this, it is not surprising that one of the most prevalent motifs in contemporary poetry is the poet, himself or herself. We've seen a preponderance of poems about the poet thinking aloud, the special perspective of the poet, the poet in the act of making life into poetry. The so-called ''confessional school'' pioneered by Robert Lowell popularized the personal chronicle, and several other poets this past decade have used that approach to produce works of startling intimacy. But this same style has been the excuse for some of the most self-indulgent verse ever to receive publication. This has fostered a more cynical view that poets have become one more breed of media star , their poems moved by the need for public exposure like some high-grade form of gossip.