Classic review: Poetry collections to cherish

Short reviews of three delightful poetry collections.

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    GOOD POEMS FOR HARD TIMES
    Edited by Garrison Keillor
    Penguin
    368 pp, $16


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[This review from the Monitor's archives originally ran on April 19, 2009.]

Good Poems for Hard Times, edited by Garrison Keillor, is a top seller nationally, and with good reason.

The book is full of strong, memorable poems that stick with readers like a friend during a long, hard night. Some of the poems, such as Mary Oliver’s “Spring,” capture an experience with such clarity and precision that everything else fades away. Others provide solace not by denying the gloom but by facing it and finding moments of light within the darkness.

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Jane Kenyon’s lovely “Ice Storm” is a good example of the tone and timbre of the collection. She describes “a longing not of the body.../ It could be for beauty –/ I mean what Keats was panting after,/ for which I love and honor him,/ It could be for the promises of God.”

That longing – for connection or redemption – appears over and over, whether the setting is a hospital waiting room or a letter to a daughter. But often what readers find is a matter-of-fact resignation, as if the best one can do is endure the discomfort and bear witness to what Keillor calls “the common life.”

For seasoned readers, this clear-eyed approach may be what is needed. But for those in search of more hopeful work, Keillor’s previous book, “Good Poems,” is a better place to look.

ENDPOINT AND OTHER POEMS

By John Updike

Endpoint and Other Poems is a book readers should know, if not one they will love. The poems here, written during the last seven years of John Updike’s life, are predictable at times, especially in the first section, where he describes several birthdays and his approaching death.

That impulse, while understandable, isn’t nearly as interesting as when he shifts to the past, recounting some of the influences that shaped his development as a writer.

In those places, which have a more narrative feel, the language becomes tighter and more engaging. In “My Mother at Her Desk,” Updike describes his mother, whose ambition eclipsed her writing talent, as knowing “non-publication’s shame/ obscurity’s abyss.” Later he says of himself: “Mine was to be the magic gift instead,/ propelled to confidence by mother-love.”

As “Endpoint” progresses, the writing becomes even stronger, as if Updike had warmed up his pitching arm. There are memorable poems in later sections too, such as “Half Moon, Half Small Cloud,” which contains some wonderful lines about the moon.

We grow up as children with it, a nursemaid
of a bonneted sort, round-faced and kind,
not burning too close like parents, or too far
to spare even a glance, like movie stars.

In its best moments, “Endpoint and Other Poems” feels less like a poet saying goodbye and more like a few final words from a master.

POEM IN YOUR POCKET
Edited by Elaine Bleakney

Poem in Your Pocket is one of the most inventive poetry collections this season. That’s no surprise given that it was published in conjunction with the Academy of American Poets, the organization that started National Poetry Month. Last year, the academy encouraged Americans to carry and share a poem on April 30, the first national Poem in Your Pocket day.

This spring, the academy hopes that people will pull a page from this unusual collection, which looks like a hardcover embracing a daily calendar. Or better yet, tear out a poem every day.

“Poem in Your Pocket” includes a wide range of styles and authors – from Ben Johnson to Walt Whitman to Kevin Young – and is divided into sections such as Love and Rockets, Friends & Ghosts, and Sonic Youth. That eclectic mix, plus the lack of page numbers and a glossary, leaves readers feeling as if they’ve been thrown in the deep end of a pool.

That’s not a bad thing, especially given what Kay Ryan, the US poet laureate, writes in her engaging intro.

Good poems, she explains, “disconnect us from that pestering illusion that we are almost connecting to the world.” They also make us feel more alone, she says, “Alone in the sense of experiencing inside yourself a cascading series of exquisite discriminations and connections which leave you in the fullest possible possession of your self while simultaneously providing the most intimate escape from self....”

Ryan’s intro intrigues and challenges while also leading readers into shallow waters, before they head out again.

Elizabeth Lund regularly reviews poetry for the Monitor.

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