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Volume 10, No. 4 - May 2000
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We asked seven critics and poets to write about their favorite unsung poets.

Eliot Weinberger, translator, editor, essayist, and author of Karmic Traces (New Directions, forthcoming).

"In the largely underground world of poetry, the most obscure workers are the translators, and the most obscure translators are those who work with classical texts, beyond the familiar epics. Two of the best of these secret revivifiers are Peter Cole and David Hinton. Cole has taken the medieval Hebrew poets of Spain and transformed them in lively and resonant American speech, in the tradition of Ezra Pound and Paul Blackburn. Thanks to his Selected Poems of Shmuel HaNagid (Princeton, 1995) and his forthcoming Selected Poems of Solomon Ibn Gabirol (Princeton, 2000), those of us who don't know Hebrew can, for the first time, hear why HaNagid and Ibn Gabirol have been revered for centuries. Meanwhile, Hinton's ambitious project of retranslating the classic Chinese poets has resulted in volumes of Li Po, Tu Fu, Meng Chiao, and Tao Chien that range from superb to masterpiece. Hinton attempts to reflect the density of the classical language without resorting, as others have, to a telegraphic English. His latest is Selected Poems of Po Ch-i (New Directions, 1999)."

Heather McHugh, writer-in-residence at the University of Washington and author of The Father of the Predicaments (New England/Wesleyan, 1999).

"Jack Gilbert and Frederick Seidel are underrepresented in the anthologies and attentions of contemporary editors. Gilbert's characteristic poem is a short, deceptively modest narrative, free of all but the barest rhetorical ornament: Its profundity arises from its status as a kind of parable. His latest book, The Great Fires (Knopf, 1996), is only his third. Seidel, the author of My Tokyo (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994), writes an elegant, sometimes downright misanthropic plaint. But one disposition they share may condemn them to be under-loved, I fear, in an era that fancies itself particularly gender-tender: These poets don't pull their punches in accounts of encounters with women. Theirs are conspicuously male slants on matters of sexual engagement. As a woman, and more precisely as a woman alert to every stripe of lyric fire, I find myself more moved by Seidel's brutal, excruciated 'Recessional' or Gilbert's wooden 'Michiko Dead' than by any of a thousand more conventional mournings. Their works deserve more celebration than they get."

Peter Gizzi, a poet who teaches at the University of California at Santa Cruz and author of Artificial Heart (Burning Deck, 1998).

"The idea of unsung poets could easily run to volumes, but two books that immediately come to mind are Robin Blaser's The Holy Forest (Coach House, 1993) and J.H. Prynne's Poems (Bloodaxe, 1999). Both are about four hundred pages long and reveal a life's work. As the language of Blaser's book unfolds, his early orphic, private poems gradually open into an increasingly public, crowded, and fragile art that redefines the power and intellectual intimacy of eros. Prynne draws on the vocabularies of physics, economics, and geology; the verbal play in these poems is by turns elegiac, demotic, intimate, and expansive."

Mary Jo Bang, poetry co-editor of Boston Review and author of Apology for Want (New England/Middlebury, 1997).

"Bill Knott is a meld between Gerard Manley Hopkins and MTV, producing poems with the formers violent beauty and the latters largely ironic postmodern presence. Knott is difficult to categorize — a sometimes spirited social satirist, a sometimes rueful confessionalist, a sometimes lyric lover dishing up oddly syntaxed sweet-nothing fricatives to a beloved. He is frequently wryly self-effacing and always wonderfully strange. He never has been and surely never will be a poster boy for any one of poetry's pluralist factions so much as a formidable poet recording his idiosyncratic viewsthe story slants in twisted lines and tangled neologisms: "For years those held-in tears froze / mammoth this moan-shrine, fused this / unknown heart, core, coronary / you've grown toward. It creaks and carries / down like a cloud your own death near." Except for his self-published editions, xeroxed and enclosed in card stock stapled at the center, his books are few and far between, so The Quicken Tree (BOA Editions, 1995) is a particularly important addition to the oeuvre. Fortunately, another volume, titled Laugh at the End of the World: Collected Comic Poems, 1969-1999 (BOA), is scheduled for release in May."

Bonnie Costello, professor of English at Boston University and author of Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Mastery (Harvard, 1991).

""If you go back far enough in my family tree there are birds," begins Susan Mitchell in her new volume, Erotikon (HarperCollins, 2000). And you don't have to go back very far. This poet sings, and while her debt to the Western lyric tradition is great, she has a voice all her own, at once archaic and colloquial, quirky and eloquent. Her 1992 volume, Rapture (HarperTrade), was similarly populated by birds -- not Romantic skylarks but those living among us, like Chaucerian fowles and Whitmanian thrushes, a nightingale from Chekhov, not from Keats, birds with a taste for chlorine, willing to whet their gorges in a human (and artificial) element. In Rapture, ecstasy comes not from soaring but from entering and breaking apart language, history, the body, to find surreal beauty and uncanny music in a dark world. Erotikon is less burdened with history and more whimsical. Mitchell scans the braille of the body for new sensation, thrilling in the erotic play of language. The long poem "Bird: A Memoir" warbles wildly, the manifold self flittering between phonemes in modern English, Middle English, Latin, and German. ('Flagellum and flageolet,' 'scrannel and scratch,' 'forswonk, forswatt.') If history has stepped aside in Erotikon, myth and allegory have taken its place as structures for articulating the zigzag path of desire."

Kalliopi Nikolopoulou, assistant professor of English and comparative literature at Hobart and William Smith Colleges who is working on a manuscript titled Reading the Disaster: The Ethics of Negativity in the Poetry of Paul Valéry and Paul Celan.

"For a long time now, poetry has been thought of as a distant land, and poetry in translation seems to legitimize even further our unwillingness to take the trip. Richard Sieburth's recent annotated translation of Gerard de Nerval's Selected Writings (Penguin Classics, 1999) makes the journey worthwhile. The first of its kind for Nerval, the volume allows access to a multivalent and haunting figure of French letters who, despite the lyric tone he infused in all the genres he tried — drama, novella, travelogue, memoir, and poetry — insisted on effacing himself as a poet. What's interesting about this translation is that Sieburth renders Nerval's sonnets, "The Chimeras," into prose poetry. Sieburth's justification — true to the subtlest of translators tasks — is to preserve the foreignness of the poet, to show that even without faithfulness to technique, an ingenious text shines through its translation. Sparing Nerval the artificiality that Baudelaire, for instance, suffers from translators who try to mimic his form, Sieburth does justice to the poet by also translating his quasi-ironic self-description as a prosaic writer. In the United States, Nerval was introduced by postcolonial criticism because of his Orientalist travelogues. This translation and its meditative commentary expand his imaginative spectrum and find in his visionary, German-bent Romanticism the nineteenth century's own Zarathustra."

Stephen Burt, poet and author of Popular Music (Colorado, 1999).

"More good poets than ever now write about motherhood, domestic responsibility, and the violently mixed feelings that can accompany them. Laura Kasischke's Fire and Flower (Alice James Books, 1998) handles these earthly subjects adeptly even while making visionary leaps. Growing up in Kasischke's Michigan and raising a child there can feel either smotheringly restrictive or dangerously protean: "even / the tadpoles in the muddy pond / imitate stars and swans / as they fume themselves into frogs." Balancing the quotidian with the estranging, fluent sentences with tumbling stanzas, and tenderness with anger, Kasischke shows as superb a feel for bravura enjambments as for single details. Poems plummet into apparent melodrama, pull out of it, and then pull off (like stunt fliers) maneuvers that depend on those perilous dives. Kasischke can recall James Wright, Randall Jarrell, or Jorie Graham, but she resembles none for long. Volatile, sometimes shocking, and seamless, her poems greet, tame, or confront a box of baby pigs; golf in hell; home confectionery; fifth grade; an ominous lettuce; "the hot- / washcloth stars that fall / when an infant turns, bawling"; the trials of puberty, medicine, and marriage; "Barney the dinosaur, swallowing / the sorrow of children"; and a guest who tells the grown-up poet, "I'm / here to ruin your party, Laura," and he does."

--John Palattella

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