'The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry': top-notch
By that special alchemy of language put under pressure, the mundane is made extraordinary
February 22, 2015 12:00 AM
"The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry"
By Kristofer Collins
Here are just a few questions a reader may reasonably ask after reading the new third edition of “The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry”: Are there any poets in the country not currently teaching at a university? Does Tony Hoagland always look as smug as he does in his author photo? How could so many excellent poets have escaped my attention until now? Certainly these were questions this top-notch anthology raised for me.
“THE AUTUMN HOUSE ANTHOLOGY OF CONTEMPORARY POETRY (THIRD EDITION)”
Edited by Michael Simms, Giuliana Certo and Christine Stroud Autumn House Press ($34.95).
Local publishing house Autumn House Press opened its doors in 1998 as a reaction to what I will politely call the “abandon ship mentality” of the major book publishers when it came to contemporary poetry.
The publishing industry was in a state of upheaval at the time, and in an effort to streamline things, a commitment to offering works from the best and most challenging practicing poets was mostly jettisoned.
Smaller publishers such as Autumn House, Ugly Duckling Presse, Nightboat Books and many others operating on flyspeck budgets and a profound love for the writing picked up the sizable slack.
Often the trickiest aspect of an anthology such as this one is the organizing principle. Without a clear methodology for why this poem or poet is represented while other just as worthy writers are not, anthologies can feel chaotic, overbearing, and, at their worst, unintelligble. Not so here.
The editors, as Michael Simms explains in his foreword, adhere to the idea that “poetry is just like people talking.” This is by no means a new concept, but in practice it does tend to surprise a general public who flash on the antiquated verbal gymnastics of Shakespeare when, if ever, they consider what poems sound like.
This is no knock against Shakespeare, or even against the reader unfamiliar with the everyday speech variety of poetics. It just happens to be a fact that we all had to read and even memorize soliloquies from The Bard back in high school.
That attention to ordinary workaday American speech is what allows this anthology to maneuver readers gracefully through the work of poets as singular as Lucille Clifton, Ed Ochester, Stacey Waite, Li-Young Lee and Philip Levine to name but a few, without the reader ever feeling they are being dragged herky-jerky down some endless potholed street.
But Mr. Simms goes on to insist that, while these poems are built from the words you and I use daily in the most humdrum ways, “It is everyday speech that has something special or amazing about it, something that makes us think, wonder, or marvel.”
Like these erotically charged lines from Ruth L. Schwartz’s “Falling in Love after Forty”
I don’t want you young again, nor me I want every sadness we’ve lived to stand here beside us between the swaying soldiers of dead corn, I want loss rolling around in our mouths where our tongues collide, I want death sitting naked between us lowering its head to lap out our champagne.
or these from Bob Hicock’s wry “Cutting Edge”
I can’t be in the avant garde because I cry when dogs die in movies. Worse, I sniffle if they’re abandoned or hit with even the rolled and tepid discipline of Newsweek.
The refusal to weigh down the lines with showy ornament and 10-cent words allows the language to be quietly revelatory. These poems are sexy and humorous and unabashedly emotional.
Throughout this anthology the reader is confronted with the familiar — family, work, illness, war — and by that special alchemy of language put under pressure, what we call poetry, the mundane is made extraordinary.
Kristofer Collins lives in Stanton Heights. He is the books editor at Pittsburgh Magazine and the manager of Caliban Book Shop.
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