A COUPLE of years ago an enterprising professor in Ann Arbor, Mich., rented a vast auditorium and hired four nationally acclaimed poets to read there. On my way to the sold-out event, I was accosted by several furtive types who offered to ease my passage into the empyrean -- for a price. Ticket scalpers at a poetry reading! What could it mean? Had poetry finally overcome its image problem?
To me the scalpers were a symptom of the quiet renaissance American poetry has enjoyed over the past decade. Here are a few others: During the late '80s, PBS produced "Voices and Visions," a series celebrating one version of our poetry's past. Then Bill Moyers gave us one interpretation of poetry's present. Scribners began publishing its annual Best of American Poetry, providing a poetic forum akin to the O. Henry fiction collections. In his introduction to last year's poetry anthology, Donald Hall asserted that "more people read poetry now in the United States than ever did before."
Maybe the growing appetite for poetry is comparable to the sudden taste for short fiction in the early '80s. The relative brevity of most poems assures a quick payoff for efforts expended. And, if the four authors under review are any indication, poets themselves are fascinated with the intersection of private and public catastrophes known as "history." Although they have little else in common, none of the four can resist the temptation to cast an Orphic glance over the century as it vanishes. Philip Booth
AT 65, Philip Booth is the senior member of the group. His eighth volume, Selves (Viking Penguin, $17.95; paperback, $8.95), is to literature what Gustav Stickley is to furniture. The poems are austerely made, with a minimum of figurative language. Their mortise-and-tenon music depends upon internal rhyme, pivotal repeating words and multiple meanings. The resonant syntactical gaps recall Dickinson, while the tough American vernacular -- the technical talk of Popular Mechanics and hardware stores -- brings Frost to mind. Booth subtly conducts the pace of the poem through the visual placement of the lines. The white space functions like a musical rest: a means of enforcing pause and silence.
This aesthetic is well-suited to the diminished lives and spare scenery of the content. The topic is often the terror behind the bright windows of other lives: the elderly incarcerated at "Farview Home"; the couples smothered in fail-safe unions; the wage slaves trapped in knee-jerk jobs. The poems also acknowledge the impossibility of feeling what another human feels: the realization that none of the houses or people make "adequate windbreak/ for any other . . ."
Booth fears for the future as he considers ecological disasters of the past. Yet his view isn't unfailingly bleak. He's something of a puritan voluptuary, combating grimness with the sensual delights of music, food and sex. Many poems give thanks for the heart that seems to say "so far/so good, so far so/good . . ." Measure is a preoccupation: the brief span we have before we're turned into memory, and the power of memory to subvert metric distances. The reverent final poem, "Presence," admits mortality but praises the chance gift of consciousness: "Still, as the physicist said, the mystery is/ that we are here, here at all, still bearing with,/ and borne by, all we try to make sense of . . ." David Graham
DAVID GRAHAM'S second book, the immensely readable Second Wind (Texas Tech University Press, $15; paperback, $8.50), should earn him a place among today's most gifted writers. Graham begins by recalling what it's like to be a boy "condemned to/ childhood," yearning for the second wind of escape. The book's title also points to the replenishments of sexuality, creativity and reflection, as the speaker moves out into a wider world. The arts are another second wind, affording a newly interpreted life to objects and experience.
Graham's lines are rich with assonance, half rhymes -- all the devices that make poems sing. And the book's larger scheme is as beautifully composed as that of a novel. In fact, Graham is fascinated by structure and by our attempts to locate it within random events. One poem tells of arriving at a party during a chimney fire and finding everyone on the lawn "with wrapped bottles of wine/ as if in tribute to this lord of chance." Over dinner the guests try to outdo each other with tales of woe, as if the past were "all twinkling sky/ of hit and near miss, the same stars/ wheeling, giving shapelessness its shape."
The small towns of America also figure among Graham's subjects. Yet there is nothing small about his stance. In one startling implosion of the foreign and domestic, a child discovers some aerial views of Hiroshima taken by his father. The boy's world expands as he notes that it looked "just like our town dump, but with here and there/ a chimney, phone pole, or charred tree trunk/ to give us a sense of scale." Part of Graham's charm is a modesty that acknowledges, without Uriah Heepish posturing, the limitations of authority. He asks "What can be known/ without living here, eating cabbage rolls/ in church basements . . .?" Second Wind gives us a second country. It is America, made new. David Lehman
NOBODY'S certain what "postmodern" means, but an intermingling of genres often is associated with the term. In David Lehman's hands, such crossbreeding leads to a wholly fresh poetry in which the deadpan reportage of Raymond Chandler ("Day breaks like a bloodshot eye") soul-kisses the insouciance of Frank O'Hara. Lehman's second book of poems, Operation Memory (Princeton University Press, $17.50; paperback, $9.95), adroitly splices epic to lyric, tragedy to comedy, detective story to fairy tale. It might frustrate those who want a book to be like the "moving sidewalk" at an airport: something to convey them passively to their destination. Reading Lehman can be like following the signs to Gate D and arriving instead in a cave, a jail or a hospital.
Those sites, along with cathedrals and movie houses, number among the book's archetypal arenas. The cave, for instance, serves as a repository for mythic cultural memories. And since Lehman's historical conscience dwells upon the Holocaust, "jail" becomes an emblem for memory's function of trial and conviction. The hospital is a place of reckoning, though "No one could say what the nightmare meant/ In the operating theater or the circus tent."
As that quote indicates, the poems are anything but programmatic. By means of double negatives, slippery antecedents, near non sequiturs and repeating lines, Operation Memory rejects a textbook singleness of history in order to implicate onlookers as well as agents. The voyeurs include everyone who receives the news at one remove. Memory in this century is not so much the product of lived experience as of experience lived through various media. Hence travelers remember Vienna, where they've never been, and tourists "buy/ Postcards of paintings never looked at." Haunted by disembodied voices -- canned laughter, answering machines, talking clocks, radios, soundtracks -- the book reminds us that until fairly recently human speech issued from a human face.
The form of the poems often dismantles the expectations of genre: "Defective Story" starts a new narrative in each stanza, pulling the plug on gumshoe plotting. "Next to the lightest heart, the heaviest is apt to be most playful," Hawthorne noted. Just so, Lehman's wickedly funny parodies ("Henry James: The Movie"; "One Size Fits All: A Critical Essay") are forms of elegy. His apocalyptic fairy tales are staged in Manhattan or Los Angeles, suitable settings for a poet as urban as he is urbane. The dangers of retrospection are signaled by allusions to Orpheus, Lot's wife and by the book's title, with its connotations of battle plans and medical procedures. "The Square Root of Minus One" wonders "that we can conceive/ Of numbers for things that don't exist, assign them values,/ And construct vast mathematical edifices around them,/ Monuments to absence and negation." The poem's complex metaphysic suggests that if negative numbers can be real, so can demons -- or angels. Here Lehman takes evasion and indeterminacy to task, admitting that comprehension without acknowledgement of consequences "Reduces history itself to the level of a fairy tale."
By turns outrageous, ironic and lovely, these poems shimmer with informed doubt rather than ignorant conviction. Such steadfast questioning makes Operation Memory more brilliant than comforting. You won't soon forget it. Thomas Lux
IN HIS fifth book, The Drowned River (Houghton Mifflin, $16.95; paperback $8.95), Thomas Lux looks "into the depths of rooms, their far,/ humdrum, even sour, corners." Among his subjects are lifestyles of the poor and obscure: the powerless, invisible millions who comprise history. Other poems -- about the Civil War, World War I -- contemplate a more public suffering. Lux also is fascinated by America's backyards with "the classic Olds on chocks," its seedy motels and wretched, lunatic misfits. He captures the negative epiphanies of "the winter child, the one so filled with world." But lux means "light," after all. Though selfishness, cruelty and mortality drive him wild, this is a poet who can't stop hoping. "For My Daughter When She Can Read" alternates examples of greed and fear with their antidotes. It ends by advising the child "to go forth -- in one hand the rage/ I hope you have, in the other the rapture."
Love poems are rare in contemporary poetry -- perhaps because they're hard to write. The pitfalls of sentimentality and self-indulgence lie in wait. As a result we have many poems that illuminate family affections, but few that dare to approach romantic, sexual passion. It was with admiration, then, that I read Lux's magnificent poem, which begins "I have a friend whose hair is like time: dark . . ." and ends "O Ultimate Abstract, is there time/ in time, is there rest, in time,/ from wanting here?" It's been a while since I've heard a poem strike that note.
Time -- a weighty abstraction -- is central to the book's broad concerns. Fortunately, Lux's rhetoric is so striking that the subject never becomes ponderous. The most touching poems (and there are many) frame their large questions in riveting terms: "What creates the purpose,/ what fuel, what feeds the fire/ in the skull?" Like good conversation, this poetry thinks as it moves. Its urgency is due in part to the poet's fervor and in part to his distinctive style. Although the poems refuse to deny our earthly hells, while reading them we can be, to borrow Lux's neologism, "imparadised" within a perfect language.
Alice Fulton, who teaches at the University of Michigan, is the author of three books of poems: "Dance Script with Electric Ballerina," "Palladium" and the forthcoming "Powers of Congress."