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Verse for the poetry skeptic

Poetry Speaks: Hear Great Poets Read Their Work from Tennyson to Plath
Edited by Elise Paschen & Rebekah Presson Mosby
Sourcebooks, Inc.

Reading a poem silently instead of saying a poem is like the difference between staring at a sheet of music and actually humming or playing the music on an instrument," so wrote Robert Pinsky, the United States' thirtieth Poet Laureate. When heard out loud -- and in the poet's voice -- a poem makes just a bit more sense and comes across just a little more as the poet intended it.

Poetry Speaks is an essential collection of poems and biographies of the world's greatest English language poets including Whitman, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Dylan Thomas, Denise Levertov (plus many more), with critical essays by some of today's most influential poets like Billy Collins, Dana Gioia, Sharon Olds and Mark Strand.

But what makes this fat hardcover collection of 42 poets and over 200 poems unique are the three audio CDs of the poets reading their works, including 42 previously unreleased recordings with CBS's Charles Osgood narrating. The tracks range from 19th-century wax cylinder recordings of Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning and Walt Whitman done on Thomas Edison's then-newly invented phonograph to Library of Congress recordings and live public readings.

This summer, instead of sunning yourself to a radio station, pop in one of these Poetry Speaks CDs and lose yourself in Edna St. Vincent Millay's theatrical recitation of "I Shall Forget You Presently My Dear" or Dorothy Parker's thoughtful, to-the-point reading of "One Perfect Rose" and EE Cummings' slow, pronounced reading of "anyone lived in a pretty how town."

Although poetry originated as a spoken art, it has spent way too much time on dusty shelves and in dark classrooms. This book, and the accompanying CDs, will thrill any poetry lover and possibly convert a poetry skeptic. Stop staring at the page and start listening. Your ears will ring with song and your mind will thank you.

-- Carrie Simison

You Never Know
Ron Padgett
Coffee House Press

When Walt Whitman wrote Leaves of Grass (first edition published in 1854), his lines spread out across the page the way Manifest Destiny was spreading out across America: with complete abandon and a nave belief in "Democracy." Despite all the inherent complexities of the colonization of what is now the good ol' U.S.A., Whitman's poetry was great because it embodied everything that America truly wanted to believe it was: never ending and completely free. Ironically enough, 1892 was both the year that Whitman compiled his last version of Leaves of Grass (and died) and the year that the frontier was officially declared closed.

The psychological impact of the frontier's closing on the American poetic imagination can then be traced through T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound. Their ruptured aesthetics and return to European sensibilities reflect the increasingly shattered dream of utopian American freedom as the country woke up to the 20th century and two world wars.

After World War II, poets like Frank O'Hara, Barbara Guest, James Schuyler, and John Ashberry (of the so-called "New York School") began to redefine the American "frontier" as an unending poetic landscape of language and the infinite freedom of its arrangements and recombinations. Poetic democracy was now taking place on the landscape of the page.

Though this is in no way meant to be a definitive history of American poetry, it does provide a useful context for understanding the poetry of Ron Padgett, author of the recently published You Never Know (Coffee House Press).

When Padgett came along in the so-called "Second Generation New York School" at the beginning of the 1960's, America had spent a full generation exploiting the unbridled freedom of world domination and materialism. For Padgett, as for many other artists who came of age during the 1960s, pop culture had defined their experience of freedom.

With his first four books, Great Balls of Fire, Toujours L'Amour, Tulsa Kid and Triangles in the Afternoon, Padgett, like his predecessors, began to redefine the American poetic landscape. For Padgett, the new America was highly accessible and narrative (democratic), materialist (pop, vernacular), and spread out on the infinitely vertical landscape of the imagination rather than the limited field of the page.

You Never Know brings Padgett's vision into brilliantly sharp focus as he opens the gates to the carnival of his mind. Take "Sudden Flashes," for example:

Hit the sky hot
As javelins vibrating in a baobab
That became a mast with chevrons
aflutter, and the ghost ship
floats into an icy abyss,
and the abyss heaves forth
a mighty guffaw shot through
with jagged rays of yellow light:
the curtain rises and before you
is a desert decorated with a solitary
snack bar owned and operated
by you! So get to work, you lout!
Serve up those corn dogs and zut alors!
the telephone. Another take out order!
The "Sudden Flashes" -- like Padgett's imagination -- quickly, freakishly and seamlessly mutate in a way that so casually invites the reader along you can't help but be happy that you now work at a snack bar.

Whether "the author" is wishing he were an Austrian maiden, musing on the pleasures of hugs, woodpeckers, writing itself, French poets, age and mortality, or "How to Become a Tree in Sweden," Ron Padgett is the poet that people who don't like poetry have never read.

-- Noel Black

  • Verse for the poetry skeptic

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