Book reviews: Poetry from Kay Ryan, Edward Hirsch and Robert Hass

By Steven Ratiner
Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A guide to new collections from acclaimed poets.

As numerous literary fashions have come and gone, Edward Hirsch has resolutely produced the personal, quietly narrative, image-centered lyric poems that were the hallmark of the 20th century. Throughout The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems, 1975-2010 (Knopf, $27), we find work rooted in the old-fashioned concept of the poem as a tool for discovery, whether the subject lies in the self or our shared world. When a Hirsch poem strikes its mark, you feel the utter necessity of its impulse: language unveiling the lived moment.

Unfortunately, the poet's penchant for punning and witticism sometimes distracts from his deeper purpose. "Milk," for example, opens with: "My mother wouldn't be cowed into nursing," leaving this reader wincing, hard-pressed to fully engage with the poem on anything but a literary level. "Dark Tour" offers 30 haiku-like glimpses of locales from the poet's life, but many do not rise much above wordplay.

Yet I can forgive Hirsch his clever misses because they are derived from the same unshakable belief in the vitality of language that gives us his solid hits. His elegiac poems about the Terezin concentration camp or the lost Jewish towns of Poland come by their tears honestly. His sensuous depictions of love's pleasures and defeats are unmistakably the product of a heart placed at risk. And when, in "Special Orders," he borrows a metaphor from his father's work at a box company -- "I don't understand this uncontainable grief" -- the poet opens a memory that can secure and assuage our own grief as well.

When I first came across Kay Ryan's poetry, I half suspected she was simply writing formal verse fractured into unorthodox lines to disguise its beauty (beauty being anathema to the postmodern sensibility). But in truth, our current poet laureate has been crafting her own idiosyncratic thought-journeys and lapidary poems for several decades. Only now, with the convergence of several poetic trends, has she been thrust into the national spotlight. Though Ryan is comfortable exploring the natural world, her work is more preoccupied with the realm of ideas than things. The Best of It: New and Selected Poems (Grove, $24) brings together selections from four of Ryan's previous books plus two dozen new pieces. When she's at the top of her game (and, happily, the section of new work contains some of the book's strongest material), she has the uncanny ability to construct a tiny word-mechanism that produces the experience of genuine wonder. Here's the poem "Virga," a particularly heady dose of her lush musicality:

There are bands

in the sky where

what happens

matches prayers.

Clouds blacken

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