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VOL. 35 | NO. 46 | Friday, November 18, 2011

Poems are good, but forewords are fantastic

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Unlike a day, a year, a month or a season,

A week hasn’t a name; what is the reason?

No quotation marks. The couplet is mine. Almost deep, but not quite. Consider the work that inspired the above (warning: it’s deeper):

“The days are in order, the months, the seasons, the years. But the weeks are work. They have no names; they repeat.” This is from James Richardson’s Even More Aphorisms and Ten-Second Essays from Vectors 3.0, which I ran across in The Best American Poetry – 2010 (guest editor: Kevin Young; series editor: David Lehman.)

Other quotable aphorisms from Richardson’s piece include:

“Sophistication is upscale conformity.”

“Too much apology doubles the offense.”

“Don’t touch, don’t stare. But no one minds how hard you listen “

“Roadkill. Something eats the eyes first, starved for … what?”

I love these collections, which have been coming out since 1988. The forewords and introductions alone are worth the price of admission, which, for me is the cost of a library card.

Lehman’s foreword in the current edition could be titled "What is Poetry and Why?” The essay reads like a series of poems and provides a dozen or more pithy definitional remarks about poetry. For example, “a pheasant disappearing in the brush” (Wallace Stevens); “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings (Wordsworth); “what gets lost in translation” (Frost); “strips the veil of familiarity from the world and lays bare the naked and sleeping beauty” (Shelley).

Noting that “American poetry today is as plentiful as it is diverse, Lehman wraps: “To the extent that we can bring to the publishing of poetry the same imaginative energy that goes into the writing of a poem, we will have succeeded in doing something important ....”

In his intro, Poetry’s New Economy, Young writes, “Poetry does not seek money, but it does seek immortality” by, among other things, “inventing new forms.” He cites Richardson’s work as “elevating the aphorism from wit to witness:

“‘Sure, no one’s listening, English will die in a hundred years, and the far future is stones and rays. But here’s the thing, you Others, you Years to Come: you do not exist.’” I’d have added “yet” after “exist.” And that might have ruined it.

All the poems in the book are worthy. How shall I choose which others to briefly allude to?

From Toadstools by Charles Wright: “Grief is a floating barge-boat, / who knows where it’s going to moor?”

The Cloudy Vase by Jane Hirshfield, in its entirety:

“Past time, I threw the flowers out/ washed out the cloudy vase./How easily the old clearness/ leapt, like a practiced tiger, back inside it.”

Family Math by Alan Michael Parker begins, “I am more than half the age of my father, / who has lived more than twice as long/ as his father, who died at thirty-six.” And gets better.

From Pillow Talk by Jeni Olin: “… A broken thoroughbred – / I need a passport & vertigo pills to reach you. / Godspeed, galloping into your Misty Blue/ OMG I miss you.”

From Jude Nutter’s Word: “My mother’s sentences become shorter/ as her needs grow smaller. And then/ shorter still …”

The Best American Poetry. Check it out.

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at vicfleming@att.net.

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