A look at the National Book Awards nominees/ Poetry

Randall Jarrell once said, "A poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times; a dozen or two dozen times and he is great."

Over the years, that quote has been paraphrased to mean that writing a handful of great poems makes one a great writer. And, by extension, that a book with a dozen or so strong, memorable poems becomes a towering achievement.

That may be an exaggeration.

But by any standard, the poets nominated for this year's National Book Award have earned their laurels. All five have wonderful moments of clarity, color, and depth. Each sings with an original voice and, page after page, conveys something insightful about the human condition.

None of these volumes achieves perfection. But in each there is something to celebrate.

Wednesday night, about 1,000 writers, editors, and publishers will attend the $1,000-a-plate awards ceremony in Times Square. Novelist Walter Mosley will serve as the host, and horror-meister Stephen King will receive a lifetime achievement award.

The National Book Foundation sponsors literacy and book-appreciation programs in city schools, urban libraries, native American reservations, and other underserved communities. They also conduct a summer writing camp for young authors.

- Elizabeth Lund

Sparrow, by Carol Muske-Dukes, Random House, 63 pp., $22.95

The book jacket describes this volume as an exploration of love and grief. But Muske-Dukes doesn't just memorialize her late husband, the actor David Dukes, and she doesn't rehash familiar literary ground. As the poet looks back on their 18-year marriage, or across their now-empty bed, she wonders about the masks they both wore, the disguises they donned as lovers and artists. In "Love Song" she writes: " ... Love/ was a camera in a doorway, love was/ a script, a tin bird. Love was faceless,/ even when we'd memorized each other's/ lines...." The poet constantly questions, considers both the past and her new solo life. Some of the earlier pages feel a bit stiff, as if her grief was something she literally had to work through. But Muske-Dukes writes masterly endings, in every case opening up her subject matter in compelling, thoughtful ways.

The Owner of the House, by Louis Simpson, Boa Editions, Ltd., 407 pp., $19.95

The sense of foreignness in Simpson's work doesn't come just from his stories about Russia and the West Indies. Somehow, the poet always manages to keep one foot in those distant lands and one in America, his adopted country, without losing his balance. That's true even in this volume, which spans six decades. What's more, Simpson, who was born in Jamaica, never seems to lose his keen objectivity, his outsider's eye. He tells his truth simply, directly, not one for charged emotion or obvious adornment. In the compact "Shoo-Fly Pie," he writes: "The plain-faced Mennonite woman/ with her little white cap/ selling cheese and shoo-fly pie .../ Existence can be so peaceful -/ you only have to be good./ What am I doing here?" Some readers might find the poems too plain or consistent in their tone, especially since they fill 400 pages. But this is a poet who risks mundanity to convey his own insight and clarity.

The Singing, by C.K. Williams, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 72 pp., $20

Williams has been described as a poet's poet. His 1999 book "Repair," which won the Pulitzer Prize, was smooth as glass and technically ambitious, though it had an icy veneer. In "The Singing," though, the speaker is accessible and direct. He renders his various subjects - looking at a Rembrandt self-portrait, recalling a friend who was horribly burned - with accuracy and humanity. His shorter, more regular lines invite readers into the work, as in the opening poem about a deer: "Near dusk, near a path, near a brook,/ we stopped, I in disquiet and dismay/ for the suffering of someone I loved,/ the doe in her always incipient alarm." In this book, much of William's work is a pleasure to read because it has so thoroughly thawed and warmed.

Jelly Roll, by Kevin Young, Knopf, 190 pp., $23

At a reading, these poems would be real crowd-pleasers. Young brings a sassy, jazzy voice to one of poetry's oldest subjects - love found and then lost. The emotions in "Jelly Roll" may be familiar - excitement, desire, despair - but the language and approach are certainly not. Young dances with his subject, leading the reader from a fox trot to a swing dance, and then to a full-bodied shimmy. There's a touch of a Southern accent here, a bit of slang there, and then, a few pages later, familiar phrases are turned on their head, as in these lines from "Jitterbug": "... You burn me/ at both ends, send/ the geese bumping/ within my skin." The result is easy, enjoyable reading; poetry that can be absorbed in one sitting. But the frothy music does play on too long. Readers may wish the book had been a bit shorter or that it had more weighty moments, as when Young writes about his aging parents.

The Voice at 3 A.M., by Charles Simic, Harcourt, 177 pp. $25

Simic takes readers for a fascinating journey through a surreal landscape. At their best, these poems are haunting, mysterious, and exquisitely crafted. The imagery constantly shifts and surprises, weaving together seemingly disparate threads, as in "Happiness, you are the bright red lining/ Of the dark winter coat/ Grief wears inside out" (from "Romantic Sonnet"). Simic demands much from readers, since he makes great leaps. His logic satisfies the subconscious mind but just eludes the conscious. This quality has earned him both devoted fans and a Pulitzer Prize, but "The Voice," which spans nearly 20 years, shows the limits of Simic's approach. Sometimes, especially in later sections, the work lacks a sense of urgency or discovery. The poems become flatter and simpler, perhaps because they lack some measure of emotional truth.

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