UNLIKE NOVELISTS, no poet in America entertains hope of getting rich from his art. The effect of this impossibility of material success is often debated among poets themselves. Does it make us more generous to our peers because poetry is a sinking ship and, after all, we're all in this together? Or does it have the opposite effect, making poets even more competitive because reputation is all we have?
I don't know the answer, certainly I've seen evidence of both, though on the whole more generosity than cut-throat competitiveness. I'm reminded of this when it becomes my job to put together a "round-up" of "the most important" or "the best" poetry of the year. Who to put in, who to leave out? I don't like rankings, hierarchies, and so it seems to me the only thing to do is to tell you of some of the poems I've read this year and why. There will no doubt be sins of omission and commission -- tastes differ and not everything will have come to my attention in the past year. All of which is to say that the following round-up is not necessarily an attempt to choose "the best" or "the most important" to the exclusion of everything else. Just some of the books I think worth knowing about.
Selected Poems, by Margaret Atwood (Simon & Shuster, $9.95). In the last decade Margaret Atwood has emerged as a champion of Canadian literature and of the peculiarly Canadian experience of isolation and survival, a theme that runs throughout her poems, three novels and criticism.But Atwood is no narrow, doctrinaire chauvinist, and her popularity has grown in the States in the last few years. This collection brings together selections from her six books of poetry -- some of which are almost impossible to find -- including the long narrative poem "The Journals of Susanna Moodie" in its entirety. It is fascinating to be able to see the development of Atwood's style and subject matter from book to book in this way; from the beginning, Atwood has had a start-lingly original voice, full of toughness and energy and a very powerful intelligence, and she has continued to explore a basic core of subjects -- the function and nature of myth; humanity's relationship to nature; the nature of power in human relationships and in the natural world; the possibilities for change and metamorphosis.
Standing Watch, by Christopher Bursk (Houghton Mifflin, $8.95; paper-Bursk (Houghton Mifflin, $8.95; paperback, $3.95). A new volume in Houghton Mifflin's New Poetry Series, this book feels like a discovery. Bursk, previously unknown to me, is a poet unafraid to walk the tightrope between emotion and sentimentality, rarely falling off. On the surface, these poems about growing up seem simple, easily accessible, but the power accrues as they move from the experience of being a child to the experience of being a parent, until one realizes the richness of the language, becomes aware of just how many risks Bursk is taking.
Cleared for Landing, by Ann Darr (Dryad Press, $3.95). Another poet who is unafraid to take risks is Ann Darr, when she succeeds, she succeeds brilliantly, as she does in many of the poems in her third collection. She has a keen perception of the darker side of things, and the book's title poem, "Cleared for Approach, Cleared for Landing," is a moving, haunting long poem about the crash of a TWA jetliner near Weather Mountain a few years ago.
The Illustrations, by Norman Dubie. (Braziller, $6.95; paperback, $3.95). Of all the poets in their late twenties and early thirties, Dubie has in some ways had the greatest impact on his contemporaries because of the uniqueness of his style. One aspect of his distinctiveness is that in his most recent work (The Illustrations is his third book in as many years), Dubie takes on the persona of some historical figure, often drawn from the world of literature or art -- Proust, Virginia Woolf, Mandelstam, Czar Nicholas, Paul Klee. The situations in which he places these speakers are based on historical fact but a great deal of what happens is the poet's invention. He is almost like one possessed by ghosts as he moves in and out of these personas; yet in a very real sense the speakers are always Norman Dubie, their concerns are his concerns -- grief, death, loss, art as emblem -- and after a while what Dubie is doing seems an escape, an avoidance of himself. His greatest strength as a poet is his image-making ability; sometimes, in fact, the reader not only sees, but hears and smells the scene Dubie has created, as in "The Boy Brueghel," my favorite poem in this collection. Some of the poems, particularly "The Moths," a long elegy for his mother, indicate that Dubie's art is growing more personal, and it will be interesting to see where he goes from here.
Young Men's Gold, by Daniel Mark Epstein (Overlook Press, $7.95). Daniel Mark Epstein is 30 years old, has written four books of poems, has a one-act verse drama about to be produced in New York, and last year won the prestigious Prix de Rome of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He has been compared to Donne, Browning and Pound and it has been predicted in places like The New Republic and The Sewanee Review that he will become "one of the best poets of the century." And he is indeed very good. Epstein is basically a poet of love and celebration. His greatest strengths are wit, tenderness, a kind of energetic muscularity and great technical skill, qualities observable in the very first lines of this book: "In a free country I would be shot for my thoughts of you./Where thought was free as radio waves/my mind would broadcast your outrageous beauty." The surprise of the conceit, the energy of the words take one in immediately. Not all the poems are so successful, however, and sometimes Epstein gets caught up in the sound of his own words, too pleased with himself, and then he becomes precious and mannered. The tour de force of the book is the title poem, a moving 600-line narrative in which a Civil War veteran speaks to a grandson about to go off to fight in France in World War I. But though the title poem and two or three others are memorable, I find it impossible to conceive of Epstein's becoming a major poet: the world has changed since Browning; and despite all his skills, he lacks the psychological depth and complexity that contemporary life requires.
Life Among Others, by Daniel Halpern (Viking, $8.95). This fourth book by a poet (also editor of Antaeus and Ecco Press) whose last book was called Street Fighting, could be called either a departure or a new beginning. For, despite the book's title, these are poems about being "among others" and still not being outside oneself, still being turned inward: "This is the life that feels too little outside itself...." In a sense the book is one long poem in which the poet, saddened by his isolation, attempts an exorcism by way of memory; as he says in "Stillness," his work is "to stand still and see everything... to rethink the immobile" and by so doing release himself and "let everything live again, recalled into movement and loved, wholly still." Halpern owes something to the work of poets like Mark Strand, who has also used memory as a kind of exorcism, but when he is at this best, his voice is truly his own.
Bells in Winter, by Czeslaw Milosz, translated by the author and Lillian Vallee (Ecco Press, $8.95). One of the most important things that has happened to American poetry in the last 10 to 15 years is its internationalization, due to the increased availability of translations of the great European and Latin American poets. Certainly one of the most influential of these is the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, now a professor at the University of California at Berkeley and the winner of this year's coveted Neustadt International Prize for Literature. There are many, in fact, who consider Milosz one of the major poets of this century, and it would be difficult to argue that assessment. Written from a viewpoint that is basically Christian existentialist, Milosz's poems portray a mind relent lessly pursuing the great metapnysical questions of our time. One of his chief themes is the guilt of the one who survives the horror of war, of the Holocaust, of oppression; yet dispite all the horror, all the doubt that results from the human predicament, this poet can still look with amazement on the natural world, can still say, "earlier than any beginning/They waited, ready, for all those who could call themselves mortals,/So that they might praise, as I do, life, that is, happiness."
The Five Stages of Grief, by Linda Pastan (Norton, $8.95). Linda Pastan's work has not always received the attention it deserves, but these short quiet lyrics carry much weight. Pastan's central concern in this book, her third, is how we come to terms with life and death. These poems are full of grief, guilt, loss or the fear of loss; what makes the poet's grief especially memorable are her surprising images and metaphors, sometimes slightly surreal, sometimes having their roots in the folktales which are part of Pastan's Russian-Jewish heritage: An egg, for example, becomes "a moon glowing faintly in the galaxy of the barn, safe but for the spoon's ominous thunder, the first delicate crack of lightning."
The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974-1977, by Adrienne, Rich (Norton, $9.95; paperback, $2.95). The dream of a common language has long been Adrienne Rich's dream -- to find a language that breaks through all barriers, all pretenses in the ways we relate to each other. Her greatest strengths as a poet have always been her passion and energy and her ability to give us images and metaphors that made us feel, like Emily Dickinson, that the tops of our heads were being taken off. But I find myself slightly disappointed in The Dream of a Common Language because I think Rich is losing some of that power; too many of these poems seem written to fit a predetermined statement of belief rather than as acts of discovery. The "21 Love Poems" seem to be an exception and the strongest work in the book.
Palm Reading in Winter, by Ira Sadoff (Houghton Mifflin, $6.95). With his second book, Sadoff seems to have come into his poetic own with sureness and maturity; these poems show a new fluency, a stronger, more intimate lyrical voice, a sense of emotion worked through, rather than merely worked over. Sadoff's chief concern is history, both personal and social, our need to know how we've become who we are:
"What is not enough? What we have and what/we want, the need to know the ache that complicates." But his real subject is how we go on living: "Like it or not, as though we had a choice, we'll love to survive, we'll refuse anything that refuses to move."
The Late Hour, by Mark Strand (Atheneum, $6.95). For over a decade, Mark Strand has been our chief poet of what one critic has called "the rhetoric of silence," writing spare lean poems that "speak only of absent things... of a world existing on the other side of this one." The poems in this new collection replace the earlier tone of despair with a kind of guarded optimism, a recognition of the possibility of redemption through the power of love and memory. More specifically personal than his previous work, the poems of The Late Hour bring Strand to a reconciliation with his past so that by the book's end he is able to celebrate a world in which each morning "we come back whole to suck the sweet marrow of day...."
Now and Then: Poems 1976-1978, by Robert Penn Warren (Random House, $8.95; paperback $4.95). Now past 70, Warren achieved his fame as a novelist (All the King's Men ) and critic; yet he has always been a poet and now is well on his way to being considered one of the outstanding poets of our time. What is amazing about Warren is that it is almost as if he had to wait for the great giants of Modernism -- Eliot, Pound, Stevens -- to pass on before he could do his best work, before he could rise above that inheritance and, almost in opposition to them, create a poetry more open, freer, more Romantic than theirs. The book is divided into two sections: the "then" section, called here "Nostalgia"; and the "now" section, which Warren terms "Speculative." The first section contains poems of reminiscence, memories of his boyhood and introduces at least two poems which must stand out in the Warren canon: "Evening Hour" and "Red-Tail Hawk and Pyre of Youth." The poems in the second section confront questions of existence and mortality and draw their tension from the war going on in the poet's mind between a Romantic transcendence and a Puritan's concept of a just, unforgiving God. These poems indeed confirm that Warren, like few other American poets, is moving, as the closing "Heart of Autumn" tells us, "Toward sunset, at a great height."