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POET'S CHOICE

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, June 10, 2007

In 1923, Alfred A. Knopf published the first book of poems by Wallace Stevens, Harmonium, a collection of lyrics passionately devoted to the imagination. The poems, so far, seem to have outlasted many of the best-selling books, radio shows and popular songs of that year. It is easy to see why: the poems retain their freshness, characteristically exuberant even about the dreariness of conventionality:

DISILLUSIONMENT OF TEN O'CLOCK

The houses are haunted

By white night-gowns.

None are green,

Or purple with green rings,

Or green with yellow rings,

Or yellow with blue rings.

None of them are strange,

With socks of lace

And beaded ceintures.

People are not going

To dream of baboons and periwinkles.

Only, here and there, an old sailor,

Drunk and asleep in his boots,

Catches tigers

In red weather.

The poem is clear, though a certain kind of classroom experience may interfere with that. Possibly readers in 1923 were better able to appreciate this poem than some of today's readers, who may be over-anxious to interpret and analyze its celebration of the unexpected and the extraordinary. The imagination of the poet, like the dreams of the drunken sailor, exults in weather that is "red."

That adjective -- "red," suggesting vividness, risk, surprise, passion, even violence -- may be one of the links in a striking new book of poems by Meghan O'Rourke, Halflife, that reminded me of Stevens's energy. Here is O'Rourke's poem "Hunt," with images that in a similar way are familiar, yet disrupt trite expectations. Her shade of red, associated with the fox, is different from the red of Stevens's poem, and her emotional weather is quite different, too. Her poem involves a process, rather than a time of day:

HUNT

The light of the mind is red. It is a red street,

it never ends, it must be kept to

like a schedule. When it is fine, it is fine,

and the night's hounds flinch from it.

Foxes run under dark cover of leaves;

the glacier, trapping everything unused, melts.

Everything natural to us must be learned.

The broken laugh, the branching glance,

the wood beneath the green, embarking skin.

The light of the mind is red. It is a red street,

and a cold home stands at its darkening end,

toward which foxes run through clicking leaves.

Beyond the coincidence of a color, these poems, old and new, share an alert sense of the mind and the mind's quick, invisible, pervasive movement.

(Meghan O'Rourke's poem "Hunt" is from her book "Halflife." Norton. Copyright 2007 by Meghan O'Rourke. Wallace Stevens's poem "Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock" is from his book "The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens." Random House. Copyright 1982 by Holly Stevens.)

Robert Pinsky was poet laureate of the United States from 1997 through 2000.

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