FROM A SIZABLE GROUP of new books by American poets, I found myself most interested in the two by women. The men -- I shall name no names -- tended to place themselves at the center of their poems and worlds, then strike heroic or morbid poses and attitudinize about time, death and existence. They formed a considerable stylistic spectrum ("all the way from New England to New York," as a sarcastic friend of mine likes to put it), but their egotism and the familiar ways in which they asked the reader to unerwrite it grew quite opporessive. Wendy Salinger and Karen Snow have difficulties of their own, but in their quite different ways they poved refreshing next to their male counterparts.
Wendy Salinger's Folly River (Dutton, $795; paperback, $4.95) won the open competition of the new National Poetry Series. It is very much a first book, full of uncertainties and pecarious experiments, but I found myself agreeing with Donald Hall, who chose the manuscript from among 2,000 about Wendy Salinger's promise. Like most true poets, she makes large demands upon the reader. Her short poems can be starting examples of foreshortening and compression, while her longer pieces, often set in the coastal areas of the Carolinas, are elusive as to subject and tone.
She's a visionary, really, balancing between a love of this world and the otherwordly signals she encounters in it. She writes of dawns, twilights, and fogs, of moments of absence, transition, and transformation, as when the sea at dawn grows metallic and "mullet crack the steel cover," or a scene with a "trawler fine as a ghost/ the merest water,/ a flake of daylight moon/ over the fair-heated oats." The tension between her firm sense of place and a constant threat of dislocation, which she handles less melodramatically than Sylvia Plath, makes her poems hum with significance and glint with wonder. She walks edges, explores margins, drifts into risks. The resulting poems may falter in diction or go off in too many directions, flying apart from inadequate centers, but one wants to grant such an adventurous writer her right to make mistakes.
A short poem that illustrates her strengths weaknesses is the brief "Time in the Body and Time of the Body": I think the buried beat at the dirt. Violent hallucinations of azaleaus burst over the gravestones. In the very dark of a friend of mine, a spine formed and bloomed. This is what I called foreshortening: life and death are here shown to be interpenetrating, even identical, in much less space than we expected. My reservation involves the wording and movement of the third sentence. I assume that the friend is pregnant, but I'm not quite sure; the phrase lacks precision, so that poem closes more awkwardly than it should, just when the reader is asked to do most work.
More characteristic of Folly River are its longer poems -- landscapes, seascapes, memory and travel pieces. These can take surprising turns, as in "European Strangeness," about a family vacation in Europe, which becimes a poem about love and the loss of virginity, or "No Children, No Pets," about some children vacationsing in Florida with their mother, in which the absent father's imminent return merges with a hurricane to become a threat of that otherworldliness I mentioned earlier. When Wendy Salinger takes you into one of her stilled, humid landscapes, you never know quite where you are going to come out. Some readers will find that unsetting. I liked it.
Karen Snow's poetry in Wonders (Viking, $11.95; paperback, $6.95) is of quite another kind. Its mode is narrative, and most of the material seems to be autobiographical. The poems tend to run five pages or more. Many of them are attempts to portray and exorcise a mother who is almost unbelievably awful. At first I feared I was in for yet another indullgence of the confessional mode, but toward the end of the second poem, "Grit," I began to laugh. The mother is a monster, but a comic monster, and the book is laced with saving humor. At their best, the poems rise above therapy and go beyond narrative. I still think the question of how it feels to be 13 and in love with your teacher is better suited to fiction (as in, say Ella Leffland's Rumors of Peace), but I also know that if it is going to be a poem, Karen Snow can be counted on, as in "Thirteen," to handle it with integrity and gusto.
I prefer her poems when she experiments with possibilities of transcendence. In "Grit," the mother's twin passions of housework and the details of other people's medical histories expand into a cosmology, as "Billowing with borrowed sufferings,/ she seizes the stepladder. 'I've a good mind/ to wash the ceiling!' she sings." A few lines later, "She soars to the ceiling/ and scrubs the stains from her heaven." In "Apricot Light," a young mother's religious vision by her sick son's besides is fenced with irony -- it is "like a home movie" or "an old Sunday School picture" and exuberant in its unorthodoxies -- Christ has an "auburn muzzle," resembles "a looting fox," is a "rascal" -- so that its vision of godhead is somehow the more convincing for being imaginatively flamboyant, like some of the best moments in Yeats.
For me, the title poem of Wonders, about a woman who gets telepathic political predictions and disaster notices from trees and plants, was less successful in finding a convincing tone. Sometimes Karen Snow is simply too cute, as in "Sunshine" and Whelping," but she can turn her hand to many subjects -- a fast cousin who died young, an adolescent lesbian affair, a senstive child's adjustment to kindergarten, that monster in various stages of her career -- and she treats them with imagination, confidence and finesse. The book may not live up to the blubs that proclaim its formal originality, but it deserves its Walt Whitman Award (of the Academy of American Poets) and many readers.
I was contemplating some interesting differences between two established British poets and two new ones, when I learned that I had stumbled into a School. We don't have those very often in poetry these days, but if my source, a newspaper mention, is correct, both Christopher Reid (Arcadia, Oxford, $8.95) and Graig Raine (A Martian Sends of Postcard Home, Oxford, $9.95) belong to the "Martian School" of poets, who pres presumably try to look at the world as though they had just arrived from another planet, seeing it new and making it new by powerful and unusual metaphors.
It isn't wise to take jouralistic mentions of literary schools too seriously, but I can testify that I was mildly intrigued, before I had any notion of a connection between these two poets, by their joint effort to introduce some new vitality into British poerty. I had been looking at new books by two established poets, Ted Hugh (Moortown, Harper & Row, $10.95) and George MacBeth (Poems of Love and Death, Atheneum, $9.95; paperback, $5.95), and shaking my head in dismay. Hughes has produced some fine poetry during his career, but his work has grown ponderous and forced. Archetypal nouns are beset by feverish adjectives and melodramatic verbs. Every event is milked for mythic significance, and the same ideas are hammered into place in poem after poem. Our equivalent of Victorian High Seriousness -- Life is Real, Life is Earnest -- seems to be something like "Life is Mythic," and Ted Hughes is among its most dedicated purveyors. I wish he could let up; write less, be more playful, etc. A lot of these new poems are about his life as a farmer in Devon, and occasionally, as in "New Year Exhilaration," he captures that life and its weather without overwriting, but mostly it's all about the bloody afterbirth hanging out of the back ends of ewes and cows and how that tells us what Life if Really Like. George MacBeth is an urban equivalent,and the way he places himself in his poems as their existential hero is even more glib and empty. His title, I'm afraid, is not a send-up, and the poems, while they have moments of sharp observation and wit, are embarrassing and self-regard, so I won't go on about them.
That's the context, anyway, in which I found myself intrigued by Craig Raine and Christopher Reid. Both books (softcovers -- too bad Oxford has overpriced them) are uneven, as though their authors were feeling their way into something new, but both have an air of freshness and discovery. These poets seem to locate the interest in poetry in its genius for metaphor and transformation, so that their work is less pretentious and more imaginative than that of Hughes and MacBeth. Raine, for example, holds himself to a strict program of going from one comparsion to another, stepping-stone fashion. In Athens he finds "columns of corduroy, weatherworn/ lions vague as Thurber dogs" and "pillars sleeping if off/ or standing tipsily." These comparsions -- to cloth, cartoons, drunks -- are reductive and comical. "Mosquitoes," says Raine in the same poem, "drift with paraplegic legs." So they do, and what a strange kiss of particulars that that turns out to be. Often the poems add up merely to clever fragments, and sometimes the comparisons ("a naughty wind has blown/the dress of each tulip/over its head") strike the reader as simply childlike, but in his best poems, as for instance "Flying to Belfast, 1977," Craig Raine brings his talent for metaphor to bear on his material in an evocative and reverberating way.
Christopher Reid allows himself more commentary, and backs his metaphors with narrative and better scene-setting, with the result that his control of the "Martian" style seems a little firmer. He seeks the verbal equivalent of naive painting and fold art, a world bristling with wonder, where a pigeon "pecks for crumbs like a sewing machine," white ironwork garden furniture is "Brobdingnag lace," and "A wriggling, long-tailed kite leaps like a sperm/at the sun, its blurry ovum." The results can be exhilarating, as when a butcher shop becomes a heaven where "The butcher/opens his glass door like St Peter,/ as angels heave in flanks jof pork that are stung with ribs like enormous harps." Some would dismiss all this as frivolous next to the heavy ponderings of Hughes and MacBeth; I think it offers the reader something genuine and promising. It hasn't happened yet, but if the exuberance of early Auden and Day Lewis and MacNeice were to creep back into British poetry, who wouldn't be grateful? These Martians may bear watching.