Poet's Choice

Sunday, April 16, 2006

This year marks the 10th anniversary of Poet's Choice on our pages. The column was hatched, appropriately we think, at a family birthday party in September of 1995. My sister was celebrating a round, stately number of years, and her colleagues -- English professors at Howard University -- had gathered in my house to raise a glass. One professor, Alinda Sumers, approached me and suggested that Book World feature a column by the current Poet Laureate. I was flabbergasted. Why hadn't we thought of that ourselves? We invited Robert Hass to lunch and the rest, as they say, is poetry.

Book World is very proud to publish this ongoing tribute to verse and versifiers; the column is simply unparalleled in any other American newspaper. Over the years, it has featured ancient as well as contemporary masters, the famous and the virtually unknown, the homegrown and the foreign, and it has seen republication in two books by the same name. This coming Thursday, we'll celebrate the 10th anniversary in a special event here at The Washington Post. To honor the distinguished writers who have hosted Poet's Choice, three of whom are former U.S. Poet Laureates, we offer here a bouquet of excerpts -- a representative smattering of writing by them and about them in Book World through the years.

-- The Editor


From Robert Hass's inaugural column:

So, I was sitting in my new office in the attic of the Jefferson Library, watching the October sun through a handsome open window glisten on the Capitol dome and wondering what a poet laureate could usefully do.

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there --

William Carlos Williams wrote. These are lines that poets know. They help us to remember that what we do matters, especially when we are feeling that the world has not fathomed its importance. But on this particular morning, I remembered that Williams had spent his professional life practicing family medicine in Rutherford, N.J. His lines were a prescription. What I needed to do was apply Dr. Williams's dose to the body politic. In a form, of course -- this is a free country -- in which people could take it or leave it.

Poetry appeared in newspapers almost as soon as the newspapers themselves appeared in the young American republic. There are famous instances. Our national anthem saw the dawn light as a poem entitled "The Defence of Fort McHenry," published in the Baltimore American in September of 1814, and Clement Moore, a professor of Hebrew at the Columbia Theological Union, wandered from his scholarly chores to publish "A Visit from St. Nicholas" -- the one American poem, I've read, that almost everyone can recite a little of -- in the Troy Sentinel on the night before Christmas in 1823. Abraham Lincoln first saw print as a poet in a newspaper, and the few poems Emily Dickinson published in her lifetime appeared in the Springfield Register, touched up by the editor for popular consumption, and Henry David Thoreau wrote aphoristic couplets for a country paper. Toward the end of the century another widely loved American poem, Ernest Lawrence Thayer's "Casey at the Bat," was printed in the new paper of his college classmate William Randolph Hearst, the San Francisco Examiner.

This chorus of voices -- "so many uttering tongues," Walt Whitman wrote -- gave a shared language to American readers all through the 19th century. And in Whitman himself, a newspaperman from his teens, there is an attitude toward reading and toward poetry that is hard even to imagine in the last years of the 20th century.


For many years, Robert Hass has buoyed our spirits with a weekly tonic of poetry: Syndicated in newspapers across the country, "Poet's Choice" has become a national respite. I have met lawyers, tennis players and cashiers who read "Poet's Choice" and ask my opinion on the poems selected. Just recently a woman in my ballroom dance class stopped in the middle of a syncopated waltz turn to say how much she enjoyed opening The Washington Post Book World each Sunday for her "little surprise," like biting into a chocolate without knowing which delicious filling -- raspberry cream, nougat, coconut? -- she'd discover.

Of course, the catch-22 of writing such a column is that we have never been treated to a poem by Robert Hass. A pity, because his is a distinguished literary career: In addition to publishing four volumes of his own poems, he has been an essayist ( Twentieth Century Pleasures ) as well as an editor (of poetry collections by the late Californian Robinson Jeffers and the Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer, and of the charming "wedding anthology" Into the Garden ). We've been treated to selections from his recent haiku translations ( The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson and Issa ); as the primary translator of Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz, he continues to perform a incalculable service to world literature.

High time to rectify this omission. To bookend the conclusion of the old year and the flowering of the new, here's a sampling of Robert Hass's poetry. . . . the beginning to his marvelous poem-within-a-poem, "January" ( Human Wishes , Ecco):

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