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One Poem by Robert Frost,
Another by Susan Wheeler



   
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Poet's Choice

By Robert Hass
July 19, 1998

Postmodern poetry – experimental poetry – has been for the last 15 years or so trying to figure out how to wriggle out of the sort of direct, personal poetry that the generation of Allen Ginsberg and Adrienne Rich made. Not necessarily because the younger poets didn't like it, but because they felt that work was done and it was time to do something else. The project has gone in a lot of directions, but almost all of them have had in common an effort to subvert narrative, undermine the first person singular, and foreground the textures and surprises in language rather than the drama of content.

A rowdy and engaging instance is a second book from the New York City poet Susan Wheeler, "Smokes," published by Four Ways Books. To give you the flavor of it, here is a well-known poem from Robert Frost's first and much-beloved book, "A Boy's Will," published in 1915, and the poem by Wheeler which gives it a Monty-Pythonesque spin:

The Pasture

I'm going out to clean the pasture spring
I'll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear; I may):
I shan't be gone long. – You come too.

I'm going out to fetch the little calf
That's standing by the mother. It's so young
It totters when she licks it with her tongue
I shan't be gone long. – You come too.

That's Vermont in the tens of the century. Here is Manhattan in the '90s:

He or She That's Got the Limb
That Holds Me Out on It

The girls are drifting in their ponytails
and their pig iron boat. So much for Sunday.
The dodo birds are making a racket
to beat the band. You could have come too.

The girls wave and throw their garters
from their pig iron boat. Why is this charming?
Where they are nailed on their knees
the garters all rip. You were expected.

The youngest sees a Fury in a Sentra
in a cloud. This is her intimation and she balks.
The boat begins rocking from the scourge
of the sunset. The youngest starts the song.

From "Smokes," by Susan Wheeler, published by Four Ways Books.

Robert Hass, former U.S. poet laureate, is the author, most recently, of the collection "Sun Under Wood."

 
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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