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by Aaron Belz


The charms and annoyances of "collected poems."

Reissue! Repackage! Repackage!
Reevaluate the songs,
Double-pack with a photograph,
Extra track, and a tacky badge.


One benefit of a "collected poems" is that it allows us to read a poet's work in context of his or her larger vision. A collected can reveal strengths, poems that haven't received much attention, and it can reveal weaknesses. A collected, like a box set with B-sides, can prompt a sudden, sad realization: I don't like everything this poet has done; in fact, it seems that what I do like is something of an anomaly. A collected might well lead to the disposal of individual works, either because they have been made redundant, or because they are no longer cherished. A collected has a way of shaking the tree.

The physical presence of a collected can be intimidating or even discouraging. The Collected Poems of Charles Olsen, a handsome volume published a few years ago by the University of California Press, defies even the average attaché case—and that volume doesn't include Olsen's massive Maximus Poems. Tempted to slip a collected into your backpack, you need to remember that the unusual weight of the thing often leads to ripping of the dust cover. Indeed, some collecteds are like cinder blocks wrapped carefully in Kleenex. This changes the reading experience from one of possible momentary pleasure to one of carefully planned engagement.

For publishers, a collected represents a new way to market an author, an opportunity to schedule readings and lectures, and possibly to cultivate a new readership. A collected can be a good way to cash in on a legacy. It's easy to become a bit jaded about this whole "collected" business—for a business it is. Of course, Bibles are big business too.

Of the four new collecteds and two selecteds under review in this essay, Allen Ginsberg's is the heftiest and at $39.95 the most expensive, despite the fact that he often denounced consumerism.  In "America" he asks, "When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?" Not yet, rings the answer fifty years later. "America I will sell you strophes $2500 apiece $500 down on your old strophe," he announces, and it's hard not to wince at the irony, especially in light of Ginsberg's sale of his papers to Stanford for around a million dollars just a few years before his death. Columbia, his alma mater, had been outbid.

But it's unfair to hold Ginsberg to the impossible standard of pure communism he himself espoused. He was, as he says, "a famous sissy … and the American public's sissy too." We've all made concessions to capitalism. Perhaps Ginsberg earned the right to late-life mercenary indulgence by writing so eloquently about America's besetting materialism during the Fifties and Sixties. One virtue of this book is that it includes the classics "Howl," "Supermarket in California," and "Kaddish."

It may also be unfair to hold Ginsberg to his own reputation as a Great American Poet, heir to Whitman, cultural revolutionary—standards Ginsberg himself would have likely resisted. Ginsberg's primary concern, or so it would seem perusing this volume, is sex. And he often wanders unnervingly close to NAMBLA territory. "I needed a young musician take off his pants sit down on the bed sing me the blues," begins one poem; another, in its entirety, reads, "How lucky we are to have windows! / Glass is transparent! / I saw that boy in red bathingsuit / walk down the street." More often the poems are "graphic," as the euphemism has it. Check out "The Guest" on your own.

Ginsberg's poetics are toned and muscular. The lines of these poems sparkle with verbal juxtaposition, wild shifts in tone, and rapid movement through a montage of visual images. Sometimes Ginsberg's language is as slippery as Gerard Manley Hopkins': "Green horned little / British chickweed, / waxlight-leafed black / seed stalk's / lilac sweet budcluster / Ah fluted morning / glory bud / oped / & tickled to yellow / tubed stamen root / by a six legged / armed mite / deeping his head / into sweet pollen / crotches." More sexually charged than Hopkins, granted, but just as verbally remarkable.

By contrast Zbigniew Herbert, whom The New Yorker blurbs on the back cover as "one of the greatest Polish writers of [the twentieth] century," is known for his world-weary irony. The poetics are slower, quieter, more understated. The dust jacket of this book is shiny black, featuring a striking black-and-white photo of Herbert lighting a cigarette. It seems we're in for something rather serious.

Herbert's poetry is full of images of bleak mid-century Poland, of entwined family and political histories, and it focuses on physical objects as symbols of larger spiritual realities. Herbert's poems are is shot through with allusions to figures from Greek mythology, comically reduced to the proportions of 20th-century man. They circle persistently around the subject of war.

Herbert teaches that war is useless, comical, its characters pawns. The prose poem "Attempt at the Dissolution of Mythology" begins, "The gods gathered in a barracks just outside town. Zeus gave his usual long and boring speech. The final conclusion: the organization had to be disbanded; enough silly conspiracies; it was time to enter rational society and somehow make do. Athena was sniveling in a corner."

He shows us that war is also heartbreaking. "When my older brother / came back from war," begins "The Rain," "he had on his forehead a little silver star / and under the star / an abyss." His brother had been badly injured in a shrapnel blast and his health quickly deteriorated: "into musical shells of ears / entered a stone forest / and the skin of his face / was secured / with the blind dry / buttons of eyes."

But war is the basis of history—especially, it would seem, for Eastern Europe. "The End of a Dynasty" describes the last moments before the execution of Czar Nicholas II and his family: "The windows had been painted over with lime. His Majesty was improving the regulations of the Holy Trinity regiment, the occultist Philippe was trying to soothe the Queen's nerves by suggestion, the Crown Prince, rolled into a ball, was sleeping in an armchair, and the Grand (and skinny) Duchesses were singing pious songs and mending linen."

Dark, yes, but not exactly dismal: there's a hopefulness in Herbert's poetry that shows itself as comedy, the myth made cartoon, radical social failure redeemed by the simple absurdity of everyday life. A clock, for example, is inherently absurd: "Rap a knuckle on the wall— / a cuckoo will jump / from a block / of oak," just as war is inherently absurd: "the bullet I fired / during the great war / went around the globe / and hit me in the back," he writes.

On the cover of C. K. Williams' sensibly packaged retrospective is a color photograph of the author, smiling, in a red turtleneck, pleasant brown v-neck sweater, and winter coat—navy blue with plaid lining. He looks as though he's been foraging for firewood and has just returned to recite a few poems. His eyebrows are slightly raised. "Ah, you're just in time," he seems to be saying, with "COLLECTED POEMS" printed in large white letters across his chest.

The poetry is accordingly earnest and narrative-based, probing the psychological and ethical contours of human relationships, mostly romantic. Williams has a fondness for  long lines that break just after reaching the page's right margin—this is the most distinctive feature of his poetics—and if you leaf through this volume, you'll notice the half-blank lines. At first glance, the pages resemble erroneous computer printouts.

But the poetry, if you're patient, usually delivers. Williams moves in and out of a conversation with himself, his shifting inner monologue carefully pinioning observed external action. Here are observations made during dinner with a married couple: "My friend's wife has a lover; I come to this conclusion—not suspicion, mind, conclusion, / not a doubt about it, not a hesitation, although how I get there might be hard to track; / a blink a little out of phase, say, with its sentence, perhaps a word or two too few; / a certain tenderness of atmosphere, of aura, almost like a pregnancy, with less glow, perhaps."

Williams analyzes like a psychologist—almost, one might say, like a psychic. He knows what he's observing, and his burden is to provide evidence. His approach is reminiscent of Henry James. He's concerned with the surface, the movement, the phrase, the ocean that lurks beneath those things, and the aura that the surface projects.

Here is a sampling of random lines from throughout the book: "He's telling her in too much intricate detail about a film he's seen: she tries to change the subject"; "But now comes an intimation of distraction; might the moment already be lost?"; "the vibrations, though, as subtle as they were, crystalline, were tearing me apart"; "How was he to know that what he'd taken as playful after-intercourse endearments were threats?"; "All she was really doing of course was mouthing my words a split second after I'd said them myself."

If those sound like lines from the same guy-being-overly-sensitive poem, you're beginning to get a sense of what reading Williams is like. But he's won a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, and a National Book Critics Circle Award, is widely extolled with all manner of superlatives, and many respectable poets embrace him as one of the greats. Those might be reasons enough to warrant giving Williams a look.

Ted Berrigan's collected, now in its paper edition (the hardcover came out in 2005), has a more user-friendly price point, a pleasing squarish trim, and modernist/minimalist cover design. It has a chunky heft. It looks basic, like an instruction manual. The poetry inside, however, is anything but basic; it might be more accurately described as oddball: "She comes as in a dream with west wind eggs, / bringing Huitzilopchtli hot possets: / Snakeskins! But I am young." And Berrigan might be described as an inheritor of Wallace Stevens. He has been associated with the New York School—John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Frank O'Hara, and company.

Hence one reads Berrigan as one would read the text of a dream, or would gaze at an abstract painting. "Vast orange dreams / Are unclenched," he writes in one of his early sonnets, as if predicting his entire oeuvre. "Sleep half sleep half silence and with reasons," begins the next, "For you I starred in the movie / Made on the site / Of Benedict Arnold's triumph."  The movement in these poems is mostly visual and often disorienting, like a film running loose through its rollers. And, in keeping with the New York School approach, Berrigan's poems contain plentiful references to popular culture.

Berrigan excels in the short form, whether in individual poems—"Meanwhile the papers were reporting masochists shooting / tacks, with rubber bands, at apes in zoos" ("A Proverb")—or in longer fragmentary works, such as "Erasable Picabia," which contains numerous small sections divided by asterisks: "I have always loved / a serious jackoff scene"; "There is no death / there is only dissolution"; "me, I disguise myself as a man / in order to laugh."

Present, always, is the information age anxiety with which most of us are familiar. As we click around the internet or flip from text message to text message on our cell phones, the bonds of rational continuity dissolve until all that's left are self-contained informations—instances of language. We begin to be defined by the ephemeral. "I'm interested in / anything," writes Berrigan in "Around the Fire"; "Like I could walk out the door right now and go some- / where else. I don't have any center in that sense."

Mark Strand's poetry represents a comforting counterpoint. For one thing his new selected is much smaller and easier to tote around than those already discussed, looking a bit like a first-edition trade novel. For another, the poetry is not dissociative but associative, with a strong homing instinct.

From the first lines of the first poem we're introduced to the theme of safety: "Unmoved by what the wind does, / The windows / Are not rattled, nor do the various / Areas / Of the house make their usual racket." The storm re-enters in the third poem, in which "the rain / Beats down in gales / Against the roof. We sit behind / Closed windows, bolted doors, / Unsure and ill at ease." Registering threats to equilibrium, Strand has a way of putting the reader right at ease and ready to listen.

Most of the imagery in Strand's poetry is domestic and deals with questions of identity and safety. That sounds like too sweeping a generalization, but even Strand's "outdoor" poems—those that seem conscious of not being indoors—are in a sense domestic. Or at least pastoral. Early poems suggest this thesis, and later poems bear it out in subtler ways.

The fourth poem, "Old People on the Nursing Home Porch," concludes, "These tired elders feel / The need to go indoors / Where each will lie alone." The sixth poem describes the world seen through a living room window, the seventh begins "A man has been standing in front of my house," and the speaker of the eighth invites a flustered mailman "inside." Several pages later a poem begins, "I walk down the narrow, / carpeted hall. / The house is set."

Not to reduce Strand to a poet of domesticity: his poetry is funny, smart, and formally polished, in spare, easygoing stanzas. The syntax is remarkably simple, and so is the action. Some of the poems almost sound like children's verse: "It is cold, the snow is deep, / the wind beats around in its cage of trees." Almost every poem begins with a description of someone doing something and then expands to provide some context.

Soon into a Strand poem, however, something strange is bound to happen, and what had seemed simple becomes complicated. "On the eve of my fortieth birthday / I sat on the porch having a smoke / when out of the blue a man and a camel / happened by," begins the aptly titled, "Man and Camel." In a successful Strand poem, those simple images begin to glow with possibility, suggesting ultimate questions of human existence. We shouldn't hesitate to regard Mark Strand's poetry as "comfort poetry," as if to do so were to patronize him. Comfort is a pretty important thing, and undervalued in contemporary culture.

Still in his forties, Carl Phillips is too young to publish a collected but too popular not to publish some kind of overview of his small oeuvre. Quiver of Arrows selects 84 poems from Phillips' first twenty years of publication, the fewest poems from the shortest span of time of any of the books under review (and, at 25 cents apiece, the most expensive). The book's gold and black aqueous-finished cover conveys rarity, significance, dignity. A small photo of the author is reserved for one of the inner pages.

There's an air of profundity in Phillips' writing that, at its best, gives his poems the kind of gravitas one expects from post-Confessional American poetry. Phillips describes rooms "fraught with light" and laces his poems with Latin tags. Reading Phillips is like having an appointment with a man who is soft-spoken but well dressed and intent on articulating so precisely that sometimes, just occasionally, he resorts to academese. He is a professional poet. His job is to speak to you clearly and carefully.

A poem begins: "Thank you for asking— / yes, / I have thought on the soul." The reader might notice that "thought on the soul" is not exactly street jargon. The poem continues:

I have decided
it should not be faulted for
its indifference. That is as it
must be.
How blame
the lantern whose limits
always are only the light of
itself, casting the light
That the body enjoys
some moment
in that light, I regard
as privilege.

Only a third of the way through and we've had at least two instances of upscale rhetoric—"it should not be faulted" and "I regard // as privilege"—and one downright archaism—"how blame / the lantern?" How blame the lantern? That Phillips is so successful, I regard as an indication that readers don't mind these high old tones. Maybe they even like them. Perhaps Phillips' old-fashioned style gives him an air of authority that readers find, well, as irresistible as that cute English professor who always wears a bow tie and whose lectures always seem deep.

Is it wrong to pigeonhole Phillips as an academic poet? Let's read more and see if we can expand our view. Here's a poem, "Late Apollo": a classical reference. The first image is of "two boys, throwing a ball between them" "in the light of a streetlamp." It is a winter scene in which "snow" is regarded as "unoracular," which as far as I can tell is not even a word; if it were, it would mean "non-oracular"—laid back, unassuming. Later in the poem Phillips writes, "You're in a garden / you've trellised the dwarf cherry." A bit esoteric, but seeable. Even later he writes, "this is / how, in the old, illuminated paintings, / the saints can be most easily picked out // from the crowd around them." In a poem titled "Bright World," Phillips describes his body as having been "cast … aegis-like" over people, which, in addition to being a rather effete phrase, is nested in such complex syntax that it is hard to interpret exactly what he's lamenting—something about his past, it would seem.  A few lines down, magnolia flowers are compared to "miniature versions of a lesser / gospel deemed, over time, apocryphal, or redundant." So, if this poetry is not to be termed "academic," if that adjective carries too many negative connotations, it must at least be characterized as allusive, private, coy. Sort of the opposite, one might point out, of Ginsberg's. Ginsberg described verse like  Phillips' as "high teacup."

In an overall appraisal, the selecteds are more reader-friendly than the collecteds, at least when it comes to actual reading. Their lighter weight, smaller trim size, and more manageable contents make them conducive to subway perusal and fireside dozing alike. Of course collecteds serve a purpose, but caveat emptor—everything (or more likely close to everything) the poet published is in there, from first-book follies to the self-contentment of dotage. It might be wise to trust an editor's selective eye if you hope to enjoy the book you're reading rather than use it as a reference tool.

Aaron Belz is assistant professor of English at Providence Christian College. He is the author of a collection of poems, The Bird Hoverer (BlazeVOX), and he has a new collection forthcoming from Persea.

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