- My Pal Keats: Contemporary Poets at Play in the Anthology
That was the deep uncanny mine of souls.
Many years ago, to fulfill a class assignment, I memorized Rilke’s “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes” in Stephen Mitchell’s translation. I can still conjure the first fourteen lines perfectly and the next eight imperfectly before my memory falls apart, but it is the first line that floats up to whisper through my days. I have often listened to its grave rhythm and almost as often said it to myself as the most inside of jokes. Stuck in traffic that feels like a precursor to hell itself? Boy, is that the deep uncanny mine of souls!
This line is the most frequent visitor from the poems of my past, but others pop up too—Frost’s What but design of darkness to appall? Auden’s If it form the one landscape that we the inconstant ones / are consistently homesick for . . . These snatches of poems come not as message [End Page 186] or music but something in between. They feel like incantations, a kind of spell the purpose of which feels obscure yet important. My rational mind thinks they serve as antidote to my Internet habits. In spite of many well-founded concerns about the persistence of our digital footprints, the online experience feels to me like the opposite of persistence. The pleasure of a well-made sentence still exists online, but the context is so immediate and dissolving that it seems to beggar our ideas about what it means to be well-made.
It is, of course, as old as Plato to worry and complain about the effects of new communication technologies on our mental capacities, so the problems the digital world presents for our attention spans and depth of thought are not worth rehearsing here. Besides, the web has been a boon for recordings of poets’ voices, connecting us to the heard quality of poems that gets lost in books, so maybe we poetry lovers will reap a net gain when it comes to new media. In any event, if you are an interested reader of poetry, there are inevitably some lines that stick for you the way Rilke’s uncanny mine does for me, lines you don’t need Google or Lit Genius to find or explicate.
The four books under review here are, in varied ways, about the pleasure of such echoes and the way poets cherish, cultivate, resist and revise the voices of other writers inside their heads. The poetic sources that recur across these collections include revered writers, the most canonical of the canon—Eliot and Dickinson, for example. Keats is everywhere, an intimate of whoever aspires to write poetry. Poe also pops up more often than one might guess; these poets testify that his rhythms in poetry are idiosyncratic and indelible. Prose writers like Henry James make their presence known as well. Together these recent poets’ responses to their forebears constitute a sampling of influential poets in English, showing both breadth of reading and the limitations of the tradition they inherit. These rewritings of the poetic past are irreverent, but it is significant that they mostly leave intact the sheer whiteness of the “greatest hits” list of poetry in English. Maybe the anthology heavyweights are most in need of reinvention.
The Waste Land and Other Poems
by John Beer. Canarium Books, 2010, 128 pp.,
Of these books, John Beer’s is the most extensively engaged with a single poet and poem. By the audacious act of titling his book The Waste Land and Other Poems, Beer fully commits to his rewriting of a poem some readers might consider sacrosanct. Like Eliot’s poem, Beer’s “The Waste Land” surveys an urban landscape scarred by violence, but rather [End Page 187] than international...