Stanzas Spun From Inspiration

Poets Annie Dillard, Rita Dove, and Galway Kinnell give readers reason to reread

MORNINGS LIKE THIS: FOUND POEMS By Annie Dillard Harper Collins, 75 pp., $20 MOTHER LOVE By Rita Dove Norton, 77 pp., $17.95 IMPERFECT THIRST By Galway Kinnell Houghton Mifflin Company 81 pp., $19.95 Poets have worked hard in recent years to hook the general public on poetry performances. But how, if at all, does this effort to make the genre accessible translate into printed work? A look at three recent books of poetry sheds some light on this. The most reader friendly is Annie Dillard's, ''Mornings Like This.'' This collection is unlike anything most readers have seen. The book contains 39 ''found poems,'' which Dillard pieced together from sentences she copied from various sources, including natural history books and a 19th-century manual on boys projects. While most poets would take this raw material and use it as inspiration or a starting point, Dillard doesn't add a word to the original texts. She does take the liberty to cut excess verbiage and to give the bits an order they weren't intended to have, but she describes her task as ''editing at its extreme: writing without composing.'' Much of the book's appeal comes from a skeptical curiosity to see what ''extreme editing'' looks like - and ''Dash It,'' the first poem, provides reason to be hopeful. Dillard pastes together lines that are surprising and skillfully rendered. There's a certain mystery to the poem, and readers will want to go back for more. Unfortunately, there is very little energy and momentum in the poems that follow, and the language often reads too much like prose. The title poem, on Page 2, is typical of what one can expect: Sunday. What still sunny days We have now. And I alone in them. So brief - our best! So much is wrong, but not my hills. I have been thinking of writing A letter to the President of China. Do it, do it, do it, do it. I beseech you, I beseech you, I beseech you, I beseech you.... The poem only begins to reach its potential with the last stanza, where the language moves more gracefully and has more power: Pools in the old woods, full of leaves. Give me time enough in this place And I will surely make a beautiful thing. But with each successive poem, it becomes clear how dependent - and restricted - Dillard is on the insights and abilities of the authors she borrowed from. There are sprinklings of good poems - or at least nice sections - throughout the text, but a majority of the work feels spotty, like something beginning writers would pen. Many poems are near-misses because of flat endings or lack of any sense of discovery. Others are hampered by word choice or awkward arrangements. If readers are content to ''dig deep with a shallow tool'' and to let half the poems stand as ''just jokes,'' as Dillard describes her work in the author's note, then perhaps they'll get what they paid for. But those familiar with the powerful voice of this Pulitzer Prize-winning writer (known more for her essays) will be left wondering what these poems might have been if she'd pushed them further. Better vision ''Mother Love,'' the fifth book of poems by Rita Dove, poet laureate of the United States, has the voice and vision that Dillard's word-play lacks. This Pulitzer Prize winner also begins with an author's note. She tells the story of Demeter and Persephone (respectively: a mother, goddess of the harvest, and daughter, goddess of Spring, in Greek mythology) around which most of these poems revolve. Dove explains the myth succinctly and alerts readers to the form (unusual for modern poets), the sonnet, that she employs in many of the poems. Readers who expect the text to be as linear as the forward, however, might be in for a surprise. ''Heroes,'' the opening poem, takes great liberties with the myth, stretching it so that the poem has to be reckoned with on its own terms. ''Primer'' has a modern speaker and seems to be wholly unrelated to what has preceded it. The verse begins: In the sixth grade I was chased home by the Gatlin kids, three skinny sisters in rolled-down bobby socks. Hissing Brainiac! and Mrs. Stringbean!, they trod my heel. I knew my body was no big deal but never thought to retort: who's calling who skinny? (Besides, I knew they'd beat me up.) ... The poems become easier to follow once it's understood that Dove is not strictly or consistently following the myth's storyline. Poems that evoke modern mother-daughter relationships are interspersed with those that focus more obviously on the myth itself. Some of ''Mother Love'' is quite stunning and could be considered Dove's best work yet. However, the collection also feels a bit unfinished. Both the modern and the classical elements of this book are filled with richness and possibility. What Dove has here might leave some readers thinking that she's only scratched the surface of both. Rare popularity ''Imperfect Thirst,'' Galway Kinnell's 12th book of poems, has the rare distinction of having gone into a third printing. Kinnell covers a lot of familiar themes - mortality, the preciousness and fragility of life - with the sensitivity and honesty that has made his reputation as a major poet (the Pulitzer is among his honors). He is someone with whom readers feel a great sense of kinship. Many of the poems seem filled with a familiar sense of sweetness and regret, as are these lines about an adult daughter who cares for her ill father: Standing behind him, she presses her cheek to his, kisses his jowl, and his eyes seem to stop seeing and do nothing but emit light. Could heaven be a time, after we are dead, of remembering the knowledge flesh had from flesh? There are some quietly satisfying poems in this collection, but many are looser, flatter, and less compelling than the highly polished gems of the poet's earlier work. Some even feel a bit self-conscious. Kinnell is too gifted to need techniques such as addressing himself in his poems and relying on long buildups, as he does toward the end of the book. But despite such weaknesses, there's enough in this offering to satisfy readers who don't want to be either spoonfed or left in the dark.

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