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Poet's Choice

By Mary Karr
Sunday, March 2, 2008

Editor's Note: Poet's Choice, the only poetry column of its kind in mainstream newspapers, was born in 1995 at a boisterous birthday party in Bethesda for my sister, an English professor at Howard University. There was no shortage of literature lovers about, and plenty of vinuous talk about the relevance -- no, indispensability -- of poetry, when one professor tossed out a challenge to Book World: Why not inject a little poetry into the lives of general readers? Why not feature a weekly column by a poet? Like whom? we asked, a bit daunted by the prospect. Like the current Poet Laureate! the professor shot back. Like Robert Hass.

Hass was delighted to accept our invitation. He was followed by the no less celebrated Rita Dove, Edward Hirsch and Robert Pinsky. And now, in this 13th year of the column, I am delighted to announce our new steward -- a writer variously described as "a spitfire" and "an inspiring teacher" -- the incomparable Mary Karr.

Karr is the author of four books of poetry, the most recent of which is "Sinners Welcome." She is the Jesse Truesdale Peck Professor of Literature at Syracuse Univ. and the author of two bestselling memoirs, "The Liars' Club" and "Cherry."

It is a pleasure to welcome her to this page.

* * *

To take up this column, kicked off 12 years ago by my mentor, Robert Hass, is to inherit my poetic father's former post. However flattering it may be to follow him, his shadow feels daunting.

Harold Bloom argues in The Anxiety of Influence that each writer struggles against influences in an Oedipal fight to slay overbearing patriarchs. But Hass taught me that dialogue with one's historical betters is more privilege than threat. In poetic ancestry, an alleged tormentor may make the best mentor -- and vice versa.

In this poem, young Hass crosses that campus near where his hero Randall Jarrell had translated his own patriarch, Chekhov. Jarrell -- a tennis player famous for charm -- captured the misery of housewifery in the effortless '50s. "Moving from Cheer to Joy, from Joy to All . . ." He later shocked everyone with his suicide. By cross-dressing in Jarrell's angelic tennis garb, Hass questions the faux ease of academic life and the perils of inherited habits:

Old Dominion

The shadows of late afternoon and the odors

of honeysuckle are a congruent sadness.

Everything is easy but wrong. I am walking

across thick lawns under maples in borrowed tennis whites.

It is like the photographs of Randall Jarrell

I stared at on the backs of books in college.

He looked so sad and relaxed in the pictures.

He was translating Chekhov and wore tennis whites.

It puzzled me that in his art, like Chekhov's,

everyone was lost, that the main chance was never seized

because it is only there as a thing to be dreamed of

or because someone somewhere had set the old words

to the new tune: we live by habit and it doesn't hurt.

Now the thwack . . . thwack of tennis balls being hit

reaches me and it is the first sound of an ax

in the cherry orchard or the sound of machine guns

where the young terrorists are exploding

among poor people on the streets of Los Angeles.

I begin making resolutions: to take risks, not to stay

in the south, to somehow do honor to Randall Jarrell,

never to kill myself. Through the oaks I see the courts,

the nets, the painted boundaries, and the people in tennis

whites who look so graceful from this distance.

Even Los Angeles -- city of cool -- sounds like lost angels, and the Californian Hass vows to honor his ancestors with a distrust for any false charm or inherited boundaries. That's what this column's for. That's what I hope to live up to.

(Robert Hass's poem "Old Dominion" can be found in "Praise." Ecco. Copyright 1979 by Robert Hass.)

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