Three Most Recent Poetry Book Purchases
(All three reviews are now up.)
Rob MacKenzie posted another list, this time of his three most recent poetry book purchases along with brief reviews and is asking others to do the same. Since I'm unable to resist making lists, here's mine:
1. New and Selected Poems, Volume I by Mary Oliver. This is a reissue of the 1992 edition to accompany the new Volume II. Volume I selects work from 1963 to 1992 and provides a good survey of Oliver's work during that period. I like some of Oliver's work, but generally find that it's often a mixed bag, with a fair amount of weak work that reads as if it could have used a few more revisions (even though she says in A Poetry Handbook that she revises every poem 40 to 50 times). To give one example, I picked at random one 28-line poem ("When Death Comes," pp. 10-11) and found on close inspection that it broke down the following way:
There were 7 first-rate lines (1-4, 7-8, & 28).
There were 11lines which were all right in context, even if a bit familiar in terms of language and metaphors (9-10, 15-23).
There were 6 lines that seemed really weak, either obvious or heavy-handed (5-6, 11-14).
There were 4 lines which were really bad, the worst kind of blatant, ponderous, oh-so-meaningful lines (24-27).
Not all of her poems break down like this, of course, and a number are quite fine throughout, such as "The Lilies Break Open Over the Dark Water" (pp. 88-89) and "Bone Poem" (p. 195). But at best she's an uneven poet; perhaps for that very reason, a "Selected Poems" is a better purchase for one who wants to begin to explore her work than a specific volume, as the "Selected" provides a wider range and a greater number of successful poems than a shorter volume would seem likely to.
2. The Three Way Tavern: Selected Poems by Ko Un (translated by Clare You and Richard Silberg). Ko Un has been the leading poet of Korea for almost 50 years, and immensely prolific, as well -- over 100 volumes of poetry, fiction, essays, criticism, and children's literature. The valuable introduction to this volume by one of the translators (Clare You) provides an essential biography and makes clear the multiple stages through which he and his work have progressed, best summarized by her thus: "he has lived as a precocious boy, a soul-searching monk, a tormented, nihilistic vagabond, a vitriolic dissident, and, finally, a family man" (p. xvii). This volume draws primarily upon his work since the late 1980s and largely (although not exclusively) reflects the last of those stages. His work is heavily influenced by Chinese and Japanese poetry and by Zen (Son in Korean) Buddhism as well as western poetry. In consequence, his poetry is highly imagistic and suggestive, sharing qualities with the haiku and the koan as well as with the work of the Imagists. There is a certain sadness and nostalgia about a number of the pieces here which deal with his childhood memories, at times an awareness of the emptiness of life and experience, yet also both joy in life (often related to his wife and child) and a fine comic sensibility, as well. In short, there is a fairly wide variety of attitudes and feeling in the work presented in this volume, and certainly worth reading. (I should mention that I first encountered him because he was listed as one of the leading candidates for the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature; I suspect he will be again over the next few years.)
3. The Redshifting Web: Poems 1970-1998 by Arthur Sze. I purchased this book because Sze was giving a reading here locally this past week, and I wanted to familiarize myself with his work beforehand. Arthur is a second-generation Chinese American whose broad background includes familiarity with both Western and Eastern poetry, science, and -- as a result of serving as Professor of Creative Writing for 34 years at the Institute for American Indian Arts -- Native American culture, and his work draws upon all these influences. His earlier work tended to be largely short, lyric pieces, similar to the work of classic Chinese poets. More recently, his work has evolved into a rather different style; typically, his more recent work consists of longer multi-part poems (often 10 or more sections) which consist almost entirely of sequences of juxtaposed, contrastive clusters of images among which the reader is intended to find connections ( "Aqueous Gold" is a recent example); the idea for this type of poetry, Sze said in conversation after his reading (I was fortunate enough to be able to spend some time with him and discuss his work), comes from the Taoist statement, "The one who knows doesn't speak; the one who speaks doesn't know." In other words, his newer work attempts to go beyond language and its limitations by appealing directly to the reader's senses, particularly sight, to show the reader rather than to say to the reader. As a consequence, his more recent work is challenging, but for me, at least, worth the effort involved. Of the three volumes listed here, Sze's is easily my personal favorite.
(A brief extra note: I also purchased Sze's The Silk Dragon: Translations from the Chinese and have found it excellent, especially the rather detailed introduction in which he takes the reader step by step through the entire process of translating a Chinese poem. And having heard him read some of the poetry he's translated in the original was a marvellous experience itself.)