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Reading poetry: an obscure but exquisite kind of pleasure

In America, where few people read poetry anymore, a poet can be great but largely unknown.

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    Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Connie Wanek writes of simple things that, on closer inspection, are not that simple at all.
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Two decades ago, on a whim, I picked up a review copy of Lisel Mueller’s “Alive Together: New and Collected Poems” that had arrived in my newsroom and fell in love with it.

I was an unlikely fan of the book, having read little poetry after college, but Mueller’s distinctive voice charmed me. As if spinning straw from gold, Mueller could make a sublime poem about anything: pigeons, cicadas, raspberries, snow. In a poem called “A Grackle Observed,” Mueller writes about the color revealed in a flying bird as it tilts in the sun, “yellow, purple, and green,/ Where the comb of light silkens/ unspectacular wings....” Her poems are like that, too: a burst of revelation that comes from a subject turned at a slightly different angle, allowing you to see it in a new way.

Or so I said in a small review that was tucked in the back pages of my Sunday paper, perhaps read by no one else. The obscurity of Mueller and what I had said about her didn’t especially bother me. If she were really that good, or so I told myself, then surely she’d be famous.

Several months later, Mueller won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, an honor that taught me a crucial lesson. In America, where few people read poetry anymore, a poet can be great but largely unknown.

All of this comes to mind because April has brought another observance of National Poetry Month, an annual celebration meant to reconnect all of us with the wonders of poetry. There are all sorts of good reasons to read poetry, but let me offer another one: Dip into this neglected literary genre, and you too can have the guilty pleasure of discovering a writer that almost no one else seems to know about. It’s a giddy experience, like coming across buried treasure all by yourself.

Or so I was reminded last month, when I stumbled into Connie Wanek. I had gone online to look for a book by former US Poet Laureate Ted Kooser and found Wanek instead. Kooser is a big fan of her work, so the search for him had led to her. Kooser is one of my favorite poets, so I knew that if he liked Wanek, I almost surely would, too.

He introduces “Rival Gardens,” her new collection of old and new poems, and it’s become an instant favorite of mine. Wanek lives in Duluth, Minnesota, where she works as a librarian and restorer of houses. What I like best about her poems is how planted they are. Wanek’s life is a doing life, and her poems grasp their subjects as she might grip a hand tool – with clear intention and skill. She writes of simple things that, on closer inspection, are not that simple at all. A Christmas tree after the holiday’s passing speaks of the transience of time. She tells of a January day when “Raindrops splash on the lake/ like handfuls of minnows.” In “Comb,” Wanek writes of the comb her grown son has left behind, reminding her of how he once stood “before the mirror in the morning light/ untangling the night.”

Why doesn’t everyone know about these beautiful poems, this lovely presence on the page? I don’t know. But for now, I’m content to do what poetry lovers often do these days – sit quietly in a room with a major talent that somehow, much of the world has overlooked.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is also an essayist for Phi Kappa Phi Forum.

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