PHILIP LARKIN once wrote that "what I want readers to carry away from the poem in their minds is not the poem, but the experience; I want them to live something through the poem, without necessarily being conscious of the poem as a poem." This may seem surprising, coming as it did from a writer who was so conspicuously a maker of objects that were constructed, finished, in the best sense refined, in a way that never confuses the reader into thinking the objects aren't poems. Yet it is sympathetic, too: Larkin recognized that there is such a thing as subject-matter, which can seldom be evaded by a mere show of technique. There will always be some readers (perhaps mainly other poets) whose concerns are primarily technical. But most readers look for an "experience," and lose interest when it doesn't seem to be there.
Not that it is enough for the poet to be "confessional," or even plain "sincere." The magazines (and books) are full of poems that are one or the other, and sometimes both; and most of them are bad or boring, and sometimes both. To first come across a poet who has written at least half a dozen poems that say something unfamiliar in a way that catches one's interest, that make one carry away the experience (in Larkin's terms), is refreshing and exciting.
I have found this in Michael Ryan's God's Hunger (Penguin, $9.95). The title at first put me off, drawing on a poem that, though it begins well, is not one of Ryan's best. He takes a number of risks in a lot of his poems -- risks of a sort that don't always pay dividends: risks of nakedness, of banality, of casualness, pushing an anecdote too far or an emotion too hard. For example, there is the final stanza of "Her Report":
Nothing I can tell you now
will say how much I missed you then.
I thought you were dying, yet all I cared about
was that I would never see you again.
But at his best Ryan fuses the story, the manner and the emotion in such a way that the experience is memorably re-created: in "Boy 'Carrying-in' Bottles in Glass Works" (which looks at a 1911 photograph from West Virginia, reproduced on the cover), in the haunting anecdote "Meeting Cheever," in "Portrait of a Lady," in the significantly-titled "Larkinesque," and (taking a risk with a form that has been perilously in and out of fashion) in "Milk the Mouse":
He'll pinch my pinky until the mouse starts squeaking.
The floorlamp casts a halo round his big, stuffed chair.
Be strong Be tough! It is my father speaking.
I'm four or five. Was he already drinking?
With its tip and knuckle between his thumb and finger,
he'll pinch my pinky until the mouse starts squeaking.
What happened to him that he'd do such a thing?
It's only a game, he's doing me a favor
to pinch my pinky until the mouse starts squeaking.
because the world will run over a weakling
and we must crush the mouse or be crushed later.
Be strong Be tough! It was my father speaking
to himself, of course, to the child inside his aching,
not to me. But how can I not go when he calls me over
to pinch my pinky until the mouse starts squeaking,
Be strong Be Tough? It is my father speaking.
This is, quite plainly, a "personal" poem, a reminiscence; but it is not plainly done, it uses the peculiarly formal and complicated and dangerous resources of the villanelle to achieve that reminiscence. The result is a brilliant harmonious union, in which the impulse and the form come inevitably together. Ryan can almost equally well follow through less strict measures to get his effects, as in "Crossroads Inn," seven casual quatrains that concentratedly fix a real moment now and a presumed moment 200 years ago in a single timeless nexus; in "Switchback," which draws on the same sort of background as "Milk the Mouse" but which does so in a controlled free verse; and in "One," which gropes through a half-remembered image ("from nowhere particular -- / books or movies or newspaper/ stories") of a little girl in a death-camp having her head shaved, itemising the details in short-breathed lines, without pleading but with terrible effect.
Ryan is so good at his best that some of the time I was helplessly, and uselessly, pushing the prerogative of the editor -- suggesting a cut here, a re-phrasing there, a reversal somewhere else. "A Burglary," for an example, is an enticing anecdote that outstays its welcome and becomes a long shaggy-dog story. Sometimes Ryan is prattlingly verbose, and he can too slackly push forward reminiscences and emotions, as in "Two Rides on a Bike" and "County Fair." And he can be too complicated and overloaded, as in "The Crown of Frogs," which yokes together a sadistic sequence from a Bertolucci movie and a sadistic story from Ryan's own childhood. But my impotent editorialising should indicate how very impressive I think Michael Ryan is. Most new poems one reads are beyond such fussing: They are irredeemably what they are, too raw or too cooked, and one passes by on the other side. Knowing When to Stop
THE OTHER poets I have been reading in this batch have been, unlike Ryan, fairly familiar (or sometimes very familiar) to me: and I have to take that into account. Familiarity can breed contempt, or at least prejudiced laziness.
With Galway Kinnell, I can see his movement -- let's not say "progress," which doesn't happen in the arts, pace Mao -- from the formal amplitudes of his poems of the 1940s and earlier 1950s, to the freer but sometimes portentous measures of The Book of Nightmares and Mortal Acts, Mortal Words. Romantic, passionate, celebratory, Kinnell's chief disablement has always seemed to me his inability to know when to stop. This is a version of the Whitman ailment, to British eyes the habitual American disease.
In When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone, (Knopf, $18.95; $9.95 paperback), Kinnell appears almost to have thrown it off, especially in the title sequence, a group of 11 13-line poems, each of which begins and ends with the line of that overall title. They look raptly, concentratedly and accurately at solitude, each poem knows exactly when to stop (the choice of 13 lines may look arbitrary -- but then why should a sonnet have 14 lines?), and both the parts and the whole add up to something. I was also glad to see Kinnell showing not only a sense of humor, something he has shown flickeringly before, but -- in "Oatmeal" -- a fully-fledged sense of the marvellously ridiculous. Mysterious Simplicities
WHITMANESQUE unstoppability has never been a danger in Charles Simic's poems. Rather, he has inclined to the Austerities of one of his earlier books, taking his lead from such poets as Vasco Popa (Simic moved from Yugoslavia to the United States in his teens) and Miroslav Holub, wry and cryptic Eastern Europeans. In The Book of Gods and Devils (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $17.95; $8.95 paperback), his mysterious simplicities and humorous bleaknesses sometimes sound like very good translations, as in "Babylon":
Every time I prayed
The universe got bigger,
And I got smaller.
My wife almost stepped on me.
I saw her huge legs
Rising to dizzying heights.
The hair between them
Glistened like a god's beard.
She looked Babylonian.
"I'm getting smaller every minute,"
I yelled, but she could not hear me
Among the winged lions and ziggurats,
The mad astrologers of her painted eyes.
Simic is adept at such runic inscriptions, fragments of dislodged civilizations, the shards of universal disjunction and poignant ruin. But such universality spells out its own limitations, in the way Simic's inventions lack much verbal color. It's the situation -- the "experience," if you like -- that has to carry the fully weight of the poem; and what this means is that one often gets a momentary pleased shock from the invention, but nothing much actually stays in one's head. Jugglers and Magicians
J..D. MCCLATCHY and Brad Leithauser are entirely different from this. Both are splendidly clever technicians. Both know exactly how to play with line-lengths, with stanzas, with rhyming structures, with words themselves, savoring everything as they juggle and prestidigitate. McClatchy, in The Rest of the Way (Knopf, $18.95), writes "An Alphabet of Anger," in which each line of the three-line stanzas begins with consecutive letters of the alphabet. But that's not enough: each stanza follows this pattern too:
A Greek once told the aged emperor Augustus
A maxim since proved advantageous
As well as, of course, as just:
Before you turn your anger against your friend,
Be circumspect, recite the alphabet --
Backwards, if you must.
Already the pattern is clear -- the third line must rhyme with the sixth, and so on, through all 26 letters. It's a most ingenious exercise, followed through with unfaltering skill. And this is only the most extreme example of the patterning that McClatchy achieves in other poems. It's only, perhaps, later that one's dazzled technological scrutiny lapses into something like the old Leavisite response, "Yes, but . . ."
The blurb for The Rest of the Way comments on a "heartfelt directness that sacrifices none of his characteristic subtlety," and it is true that AIDS and the awful goings-on in the Middle East form some of the subject-matter of the poems. Yet, though I admired several of these poems a good deal, from few of them did I carry away anything I could call an "experience".
The same, but even more so, was my feeling after reading The Mail from Anywhere several times (Knopf, $18.95). This is Brad Leithauser's third book of poems. I read his first two with a great deal of interest, and seldom can there have been an American debut in recent years that earned such enthusiasm from people whose opinions I respect, and not only respect but expect to agree with: Anthony Hecht, Richard Wilbur, John Gross.
Leithauser is a wonderfully delicate, clever, adroit inventor of individual images, of strangely wavering but confident stanza forms, who ranges across the world (Japan, Thailand, Iceland, many parts of America) in a way I find congenial. He has what one could properly call "an interesting mind." But I read this new book, again and again, in a kind of stupor. Poem after poem seems to be the work of a conjurer, but a conjurer who produces little but elaborate patter. In various parts of the world, the sun comes up, goes down; the light changes accordingly; there is ice, and rains, and sun, and the sea; and the sky takes on various colors. And so on. But it was a long way into the book before I came across anything I could retrieve as an "experience": Each time, I knew very well that I was reading a finically exact poem by Brad Leithauser.
This is a terrible thing to say, and I regret it; and I was overcompensatingly happy when, towards the end, I found a few poems -- among them "Your Natural History," about the conception of one of the poet's children, "First Birthday," "Old Bachelor" -- that took firm purchase on moments and emotions that had a palpable presence: They were recognizably Leithauser's, and they were about something.
Anthony Thwaite's most recent book of poems is "Poems 1955-1988." He edited Philip Larkin's "Collected Poems," and is preparing a volume of Larkin's letters.