Poems of Old Truths Relearned

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 23, 2004 | Go to article overview

Poems of Old Truths Relearned


Byline: Amanda Kolson Hurley, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

To say that no one reads poetry anymore is a truism. Even the best poetry written in English today struggles to find an audience outside a small circle of academics and writers. Alarmed by poetry s marginalization from our culture, intellectuals point fingers at the rise of visual media, the decline of oral traditions, and general "dumbing down."

All these have surely played a part - but I would add to this list the narrowly abstruse concerns of much contemporary verse. Poetry that values the obscure and labyrinthine over direct expression, that rejects traditional forms for a daringly experimental style, can hold little appeal for the uninitiated.

Readers who have been disappointed by their encounters with modern poetry - and readers who haven t - should discover the work of Rachel Hadas.

An English professor at Rutgers University, Miss Hadas is the author of nine previous volumes of poems and translations. Her latest collection, "Laws," displays the fluid gracefulness, the generosity of intellect and emotion, that have come to distinguish her best writing.

Read one of her poems, and it will (to use one of her favorite metaphors) open wide a window on human experience, on "the ache we live and live within." Whether she is uncovering the latent meanings in our everyday speech, as in the poems "Pronoun Variations" and "Synecdoche," or extrapolating timeless laws from personal longings, her verses sweep us effortlessly along on the current of her thought.

The inviting, window-like openness of the poems in "Laws" brings to mind some expansive lines by the late British poet Philip Larkin: "Rather than words comes the thought of high windows: / The sun-comprehending glass, / And beyond it, the deep blue air . . ."

Miss Hadas mentions Larkin in her poem "The Twins," and reflects on a claim Larkin once made that novels are about other people, but poems are about yourself. Poetry, she observes in this piece, "leaps the chasm" from the alien to the familiar:

Walls that separate, doors

tightly shut,

all barriers that proclaim

PRIVATE! KEEP OUT!

poetry breaches, having

made us so

porous I can suddenly be

you,

explore your mazy brain, as

you can mine.

Live and forget, but read

and recognize.

"Live and forget, but read and recognize": Throughout this volume, Miss Hadas celebrates the strange power by which literature reveals us to ourselves more clearly than any mirror.

In one poem, "Demeters," she marvels at how the intuitive lesson of a Greek myth - that mothers love their daughters and want to be near them - can still seem fresh after thousands of years. (Demeter, a Greek fertility goddess, mourned abjectly when her beloved daughter Persephone was kidnapped and taken to the underworld. …

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