Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

"The Auspicious Place"

Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

"The Auspicious Place"

Article excerpt

Susan Aizenberg. Muse. Southern Illinois University Press 2002. 63 pp. $12.95 (paper)

Priscilla Becker. Internal West. Zoo Press 2001. 64 pp. $14.95 (paper)

Joy Katz. Fabulae. Southern Illinois University Press 2002. 59 pp. $12-95 (paper)

Richard Matthews. The Mill Is Burning. Grove Press 2002. 112 pp. $13.00 (paper)

Thorpe Moeckel. Odd Botany Silverfish Review Press 2002. 64 pp. $12.00 (paper)

If the best things in life are free, it follows that the next-best things are extraordinarily cheap. I once walked into the Booktique, a shop that sells castoffs from the collection of the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library, with a fifteen-dollar gift certificate, and walked out with all the books I could carry and ten dollars in change. I picked up James Schuyler's The Morning of the Poem, a first edition still in its sun-faded lavender dust jacket, for a quarter, and a hardbound Volume XL of Poetry magazine, April-Sept. 1932, for seventy-five cents-considerably less than it would have cost me when it was new. It may be my favorite possession.

Volume XL is a layer of subsoil loaded with artifacts, a generous cross-section of American poetry from one of its most fertile periods. Here are the first published poems of Theodore Roethke, Ben Belitt, and May Sarton, along with the last published poems of Vachel Lindsay. The April issue closes with the second movement of Louis Zukofsky's "A," and the May issue, the "Southern Number," opens with a formal sequence by Robert Penn Warren. Harriet Monroe had both eclectic editorial taste and the only game in town, so a single volume of Poetry was-to an extent that's no longer feasible for literary journals-representative of the day's poetry. Volume XL is a primary document that reads like a reference book, but without the historian's gloss, and with all the complicating detail that concise histories tend to elide.

The poets we now call "minor"-Lindsay, Allen Tate, J.V. Cunningham-are lucky; we're still talking about them. James Whaler, Idella Purnell, and Glenn Ward Dresbach had every reason, in 1932, to believe that their poems would fill our anthologies. George Dillon, a twenty-five-year-old who was sailing for France on a Guggenheim Fellowship when word arrived that he'd won the 1932 Pulitzer, might secretly have pitied an old, obscure poet like Wallace Stevens. The wheels of canonization grind exceedingly fine, but they grind slow. Exceptional poems, or poems that bespeak an exceptional gift, don't necessarily distinguish themselves right away.

There's one poem in Volume XL, however, that I'd like to think I would have recognized as special at the time, and it's the only one that was destined for our anthologies. "The Steeple-Jack," by Marianne Moore, rises like a spire over the poems to either side of it. Other poets of the day were still inverting their syntax in order to rhyme "flowers" with "hours"; Moore was writing plain American that cats and dogs could understand, but with a lexical and technical precision that was simply beyond her peers. The poem is an elaborate syllabic exercise-sestets with lines of eleven, ten, fourteen, eight, eight, and three syllables, and rhymes that register quietly but with perfect regularity, like a distant chapel bell tolling the quarter-- hours. Yet Moore maintains an easy fluency throughout: IMAGE FORMULA84

This, unlike just about every other line in Volume XL, is the sort of thing a person could actually say without sounding ridiculous. A contributor's note calls Moore "a leader of the more radical group in America and England," which is amusing both because contributor's notes mustn't say such things anymore and because it was true: Moore's lack of affectation was radical. Her diction was so ordinary it was exotic.

I've kept Volume XL within easy reach while reading and considering these five first books. It's been a sensible companion, as pragmatical as I am precipitate, reminding me that durable poetry is rare and sometimes inconspicuous-that I should hesitate to declare anything either immortal or ephemeral. …

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