Last of the Chosen Few

Three mainstream American poets publish their mid-career greatest hits

Although different in many ways, three poets—Henri Cole, Edward Hirsch and Kay Ryan—have all witnessed the demise of mainstream American poetry during the course of their careers. They are no longer able to count on readers knowing the tradition or rules of their art. Few general interest magazines or newspapers publish poetry anymore. In its place, American poetry has become a series of autonomous universes each with its own websites, publishers and magazines.

As a result, the cohort of poets who began publishing in the ’80s became the final generation to be sifted through major New York publishing houses. Cole, Hirsch and Ryan were among those to be so chosen for publication. All write in a way that is striking by being accessible compared with their immediate predecessors—from Wallace Stevens to James Merrill.

Three decades later, all three have now reached that moment that calls for them to make a book of selected poetry. Each book offers a lifetime’s highlights culled by the poet for inclusion, kind of like a musician’s mid-career Greatest Hits album. Poets know that this will be the book stocked in every local library, the book that has the best chance to find readers. And most poets also know that after “the selected” falls a writer’s “later poetry” ending, of course, in a “collected poems” published posthumously. But for now, enjoy what is fast becoming an anachronism with one of these tomes:

Edward Hirsch, The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems (Knopf, 2010).

Transcendence is a particular favorite fervor of Hirsch though remembering is at the core of Hirsch poems. Like Cole, this is a poet whose memories love moving from the personal to the transcendent. A Hirsch poem frequently pivots on two qualities critics hate: sentiment and nostalgia. “The Beginning of Poetry,” the opener in this collection perfectly captures Hirsch’s romantic view of his art:

“Railroad tracks split the campus in half/and at night you’d lie on your narrow cot/and listen to the lonely whistle/of a train crossing a prairie in the dark.”

If not for the campus, this is closer to Woody Guthrie (or the explicitly invoked Hank Williams) than Auden. Hirsch is best known for a surprise best-seller on loving poetry—How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love With Poetry (Harcourt Brace, 1999). And, his poetry is in love with poetry. His lines froth with images, and often artistic heroes are invoked and duly paid tribute. Hirsch has a real gift for narrative which is the primary trait of his longer poems. The downside of Hirsch’s storytelling ability is that often his poems read like prose broken into lines. The many poems about his childhood are as interesting as the view into the time they offer. That is a prose pleasure. Yet, Hirsch is also capable of flawless poetic concision as when addressing insomnia, a favorite topic, in “4 A.M.” Hirsch writes: “Let 5 o’clock come/with its bandages of light.”

Henri Cole, Pierce the Skin: Selected Poems, 1982-2007 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010).

Freud may be out with the world at large, but a cigar is never just a cigar in the poetry of Henri Cole. In fact, even a cigar is often too much metaphor for Cole. A typical poem begins:

“I am lying in bed with my mother,/where my father seldom lay.” Yes, that “lay” is an unsubtle double entendre. The entire scene of course was already transparently, nakedly and desperately Oedipal. This unabashedly autobiographical poetry features titles and lyrics that are either called “Self-Portraits” or refer to the author’s life, parents and sexual experience. Despite the personal content, Cole’s poems are meant to be accessible. The lyric author sees himself as everyman enough to reach from his life to offer readers a mystical experience somehow meant to illuminate us along with him. The mystical experiences Cole invokes—usually Christian, Classical or pagan nature—end his poems by reaching for a transcendent note. But you need to offer buy-in. So, to truly appreciate Cole you must accept that a bug on a poet’s bed is not merely interrupting his reading but flies away “a tiny god-horse hunting for her throne-room.”

Kay Ryan, The Best of It: New and Selected Poems (Grove Press, 2010).

If one book can make an argument for why poetry still offers rewards unavailable in other writing, the jewels by the reigning U.S. Poet Laureate do so. Ryan’s poems do not invoke a prosody tradition for an audience with no expectation of iambic pentameter or any particular rhyme scheme in mind. Instead, Ryan’s highly compressed poems invent their own prosody using eccentric rhymes and off rhymes, occasionally heavy meter, to create miniatures packed in complexity worth reading and pondering. Ryan’s tiny poems also have an inner hardness. Her poetry understands predators and prey in life and metaphor. Perhaps echoing the harshness of the Mojave desert, where she spent part of her childhood, there are venomous snakes, spider webs and deer all acting in the prism of these abbreviated lines amid the obscuring thicket of word play. “How a Bird Sings” in its entirety: One is not taxed;/One need not practice;/one simply tips/the throat back/over the spine axis/and asserts the chest./The wings and the rest/compress a musical/squeeze which floats/a series of notes/upon the breeze.

This poem embodies Ryan’s art though, not her process, because a bird’s song is natural and her poems are gorgeously, artfully forged.

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