Friday, May 1, 1998
National Poetry Month
by Peggy Hilton
April 1998 was designated National Poetry Month by the Academy of American Poets. This third annual event, celebrating poetry’s place in the culture of the United States, culminated on April 22 in a Millennium Evening at the White House, one of a series of lectures and performances by great thinkers, creators, and visionaries that reflect its theme: "Honor the past, imagine the future." Perhaps some of you saw this stimulating evening broadcast on CNN. Our three living Poets Laureate, Robert Pinsky, Robert Hass, and Rita Dove all performed poetry readings of their own works as well as those of other American poets. Audience members joined in with poems meaningful to them. We in the Concord/Carlisle area should be pleased that President Clinton closed the glittering event with his own reading of Emerson’s "Concord Hymn!"
Robert Pinsky, the widely honored 1998 Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress, has been very visible this year. Teaching in the graduate writing program at Boston University, Pinsky has shown up everywhere from Washington, DC schoolrooms to Jim Lehrer’s Newshour; he is scheduled to present a poetry reading at the DeCordova Museum on May 14. His latest collection is The Figured Wheel (1996), collected poems from 1966 to 1996, including a canto from his widely acclaimed translation of Dante’s Inferno. Pulitzer Prize winner Rita Dove, Poet Laureate in 1993, is represented in the library’s collection by Selected Poems (1993), which includes poems of slavery and freedom, home and the world, and a verse cycle based on her grandparents’ lives.
Another recent poetry title in the library is The Collected Poetry of Amy Clampitt (1997) by the late MacArthur Prize Fellow and Visiting Writer at Smith College whose first book of poetry was not published until she was 63 years old. Featured in her poetry are themes of place and displacement as well as profound images of birds and wildflowers. The Library of America has added The Collected Poetry & Prose of Wallace Stevens (1997) to its excellent series of American literature. Stevens, "America’s supreme poet of the imagination," has inspired generations of poets and readers.
Two Nobel Prize winners should be mentioned: Seamus Heaney and Octavio Paz. The Irish poet Heaney has often been called that country’s finest poet since Yeats. He has taught at Oxford and Harvard; his Selected Poems, 1966-1987 (1990) demonstrates his concern with the violence in his homeland. Paz, Latin America’s foremost poet and an icon in his native Mexico, died last week. The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz, 1957-1987 (1991) is a landmark bilingual gathering of his work.
New Englanders treasure New Hampshire’s Donald Hall. After teaching throughout Europe and the United States, he returned to his grandfather’s farm, Eagle Pond Farm in Wilmot, N.H., from where he has continued writing poetry and books for young people. Recently he gave a reading from his newest volume, Without (1998), at Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, Mass. Married to the late poet Jane Kenyon, Hall chronicles her losing battle against leukemia and his daily grief in these quiet poems. Kenyon’s own posthumous collection, Otherwise (1996) describes her joy in everyday things and her ongoing struggles with depression. Make sure to read the title poem.
Poems are meant to be heard and the library has recently added audiocassettes and videos in this field. May Sarton Reading Her Own Poetry and The Spirit Level: Poems of Seamus Heaney are new to our collection. A fascinating addition is In Their Own Voice: A Century of Recorded Poetry beginning with Walt Whitman’s own voice and continuing through Yeats, Roethke, Dylan Thomas, Plath, and Jong to Li-Young Lee, born in 1957. Recent videos include four volumes in The Master Poets Collection: The World of Emily Dickinson (read by Claire Bloom), Robert Frost (performed by the First Poetry Quartet and filmed in Massachusetts), William Shakespeare (filmed at Stratford-on-Avon with Alan Howard), and The Spoon River Anthology of Edgar Lee Masters (starring William Shatner).
Poetry does allow us to honor the past while imaging the future. Don’t limit yourself just to April but enjoy it all year long.