Updated: July 23, 2011 12:22AM
“SELECTED POEMS,” by Robert Pinsky (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 224 pages, $26):Former Poet Laureate of the United States Robert Pinsky’s second Selected volume covers a lot of ground. Pinsky’s first book was published in 1975. He hasn’t stopped. A middle-class Jewish kid from Jersey, he learned his poetic aesthetics at the heels of American masters Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, to name but two. With such mentors to live up to, with a keen practiced ear, and with particular subjects that are familiar to the everyday lay person (Bruce Sprinsteen recently did a performance with Pinksy in which The Boss read from Pinsky’s Jersey and Pinsky sang a tune, perhaps), the poet cuts a wide cloth. He wants to write poems that encompass the universal, quite literally everything — to speak for America. A strong musicality, heavily ambiguous overtones on occasion, but an intense precision in word and structure, Selected is more than a good glimpse into the poetry wanderings of a talented, focused poet. Now near the end of the middle stretch of road/What have I learned? Some earthly wiles. An art.
“HOROSCOPES FOR THE DEAD,” by Billy Collins (Random House, 128 pages, $24): Billy Collins, America’s best-selling contemporary poet, is known for his “accessibility” (a word that brings debate to the poetry crowds). A sleight-of-hand poet, Collins works wordplay the way Bruce Lee worked kung-fu. He offers a darker, lyrical glimpse here, opening with “Grave,” laying across his parents’ plots: “Then I rolled over and pressed/ my other ear to the ground,/ the ear my father likes to speak into,/ but he would say nothing.” The high-jinks of horoscopes play against the desire for those long-gone in the title poem: “Every morning since you disappeared for good,/ I read about you in the newspaper.” Delivered with a likable Jiminy Cricket presence that the reader feels lucky to be privy to, there is humor in Collins latest and (perhaps) darkest collection.
“RISE OF THE TRUST FALL,” by Mindy Nettifee (Write Bloody Press, 110 pages, $15): Mindy Nettifee’s poems are powerful observations. The poet detail’s her experiences in a colloquial fashion: “Now that Joni Mitchell lyrics have started to make sense to you./ Now that your beard is no longer a fashion statement,/ but a crude three-dimensional graph illustrating/ the number of years you pictured her lips while failing her.” While the subject matter is engaging and often tough, it is highly readable: “I would like to thank my constant nightmares/ for their vivid, arresting creativity—/ their cheerful execution of ritual disembowelment.” She is bold and, at times, riveting, but there are places where chance taking and pause would serve her: There is an over abundance of first person and an octane-rich pace. Subtlety with a more varied style would have moved this collection in a different, welcome space. With detail to craft combined with her already brutal, and important, revelations, Nettifee’s writing and Write Bloody Press books are a welcome, important vehicle in poetry for some time to come.
“THE LIVING FIRE,” by Edward Hirsch (Knopf, 237 pages, $27):Edward Hirsh’s new and selected volume is a welcome addition to his already weighty collection of books. A popular critic and author of the seminal text on the pleasure of poetry, How to Read a Poem, The Living Fire spans a career of poetry collections that began in 1981. In his first collected poems, he has chosen well with broad scope: childhood, desire and loss together, loves gains and failures in a broken marriage, and, most interesting, his continual phrasing of place and time. Throw in there pieces on artists Hopper and Celan, with allusions and persona in Baudelaire and Gertrude Stein, with his always present critically reflective gaze at the self; all of these poems are led by empathy and dive into the greater human question. He writes about all of this while remaining true to the core of his theme — what it means to feel. “Maybe it’s past us, maybe it’s the shape of nothing/ Being born,/ the cold slopes of the absolute.”
“POETRY’S AFTERLIFE:VERSE IN THE DIGITAL AGE,” by Kevin Stein (University of Michigan, 276 pages, $26.95):Illinois Poet Laureate Kevin Stein’s criticism is a timely companion piece to important essays like Joseph Epstein’s, “Who Killed Poetry,” Donald Hall’s “Death to the Death of Poetry” and Dana Gioias’ “Disappearing Ink.” When Stein was appointed laureate, he took his own poems on the road. Choking up over 100 readings, he realized something that the poetry slam and spoken word community has known and developed for well over two decades: Poetry is alive and well. Although the national media doesn’t pay much attention to poetry, the way poems are written, produced and distributed has been dramatically altered. Where is the paper page in relationship to poems these days? And what is the voice of the poetic youth desiring? Stein offers (mostly free of academic rhetoric) memoir, essay and academic wherewithal to point the next generation in a direction where the digital culture and poetry enhance one another, not kill each other.