Decades of Poems: Webb, Kumin, Hirsch

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Shadow Ball: New and Selected Poems. By Charles Harper Webb. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009. Pp. 145. $16.95 pb.

Where I Live: New & Selected Poems 1990-2010. By Maxine Kumin. New York: W. W. Norton, 2010. Pp. 235. $29.95 hb.

The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems 1975-2010. By Edward Hirsch. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010. Pp. 237. $27.00 hb.

As all readers of poetry know, a special burden of significance weighs upon a volume of New and Selected Poems. Publishers rightly consider it an opportunity to spotlight an author in their stable and, on the most altruistic level, make a contribution to contemporary letters for which posterity will pay and repay them with gratitude (and cash). Unlike the single volume, which statistically fails to achieve visibility many many more times than it catches the eye of reviewers and readers, the first monumental collection of a poet's career, preceding the Collected Poems late in life and the Complete Poems posthumously, alerts the public that the history of poetry may shift a bit, or seismically, thanks to this amplified text. It is not just another book any more than the midterm examination is just another quiz. This one matters.

For the poet, of course, the New and Selected volume is fateful, not least because it is the point where he or she has to make those minute discriminations, those maddening choices, that separate the worthy survivors from the left behind. Especially if the poet has been prolific and massively published, like Charles Harper Webb, the triage must be painful - but also an opportunity to define himself as an artist. Webb has sacrificed not only poems from each volume he reprints but at least one whole book - Everyday Outrages (1989) - in order to shape this present collection, which selects from only nine years of published work and adds fourteen new poems, none of them more than two pages. In today's market such restraint is the better part of wisdom. Though poets and publishers complain about the public indifference to verse, in fact there is an overabundance of poetry volumes circulating in the back channels, if not at the big bookstores. Nobody any longer is thankful for books that present hundreds of pages of inferior writing, even from major reputations like Allen Ginsberg and William Wordsworth.

Because poets tend to define their careers by situating themselves among the constellation of public figures, including other poets, it's always interesting to me which historical persons they choose to praise, or even mention, in their work. Some, like Emily Dickinson, display almost no interest in big names; of her 1,775 poems, fewer than six make reference to non-Biblical personages (see especially numbers 371, 555, and 741). No Pound or Auden, she. Webb writes whole poems in tribute to Marc Chagall, Allen Ginsberg, Wynton Marsalis, and Little Richard. We get a cat's view of John Keats, and elsewhere Keats, Shelley, and Byron are reimagined as the Three Stooges - one of Webb's rare misfires. But the most surprising eminence to be honored by a poem in the New and Selected volume is Pliny, whose voracious curiosity about the mysterious nature of all things Webb elevates to a level of virtue higher than faith, hope, and charity. Pliny's capacity for wonder makes his writings on natural history a sacred book, Webb's guide in poem after poem about the oddities of existence, and the chief oddity of all, human nature itself.

"In Praise of Pliny" begins with several quatrains cataloguing the bizarre creatures Pliny reported in Historia Naturalis as either actual or reliably rumored:

He tells of headless people with eyes on their shoulders,

dog-headed people who bark, one-legged people

who hop fast, mouthless people fed by the scent

of roots and flowers, whom a stink can kill.

Webb makes the case for Pliny as a model for the poet, whose task is to nourish our fascination with the extra-ordinary, the singular, even the monstrous. …