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New Directions 49 : AN ANTHOLOGY OF POETRY AND PROSE, edited by J. Laughlin with Peter Glasgold and Elizabeth Hunter (New Directions: $19.50; 186 pp.)

March 09, 1986|Nancy Shiffrin | Shiffrin writes frequently about women's issues for The Times and other publications. and

"Poems are notes/written down/to obliterate/the shimmering," writes Michael McClure in "April Arboretum," a poem dedicated to the late Kenneth Rexroth. This poem about man's greedy taming of nature opens the current New Directions, an international magazine of contemporary poetry, fiction and creative prose, published yearly in book form. Issue 49 closes with an essay by Eliot Weinberger on Rexroth's contribution to American letters, thus it is tempting to judge the work between according to Rexroth's aesthetics.

Rexroth embraces "the shimmering." Unlike McClure, who seems to have given up on poetry, and whose leaden ear reflects his sense of futility, Rexroth remained committed and impassioned until the end of his life. He created a persona, Marichiko, a Japanese woman, through whom he sang some of the best lyric poetry of our time. "Your tongue thrums and moves/ Into me, and I become/ Hollow and blaze with/ Whirling light."

Much of the work in New Directions 49 is poetry about poetry. "Poem in Which I Ask for Help," by Sally Fisher, retains faith. The narrator addresses Marianne Moore, whose work she is reading on a bus. "I say Oh Miss Moore you must help me/I still believe love is a swoon, with music."

"Poetry is the unreasonable letter/openly registered and addressed to everybody," writes Juana Rosa Pita, "the only letter that we consider lost/if it just reaches somebody." It is from this Cuban poet that we get the deepest commitment. "Poetry is written by hope/the letter that results from the irrational rite of filling the inkwell with blood."

The fiction in "New Directions 49" tends to be less interesting than the poetry. "A Sense of Humor," by Alan M. Brown, is disembodied, distanced from its characters, without conviction. The protagonist, Daphne, is so embarrassed at not having a date for Christmas, that she turns down all invitations. To the author, she is a specimen. He maneuvers us into an unholy alliance of patronizing ridicule--as if all of the pain and longing surrounding the holiday season could be reduced to a poor sense of humor. I squirm.

The translations are worth the price of the book. "Alphabet," by Inger Christensen, a Danish poet, is an assertion of the value of experience. In an intriguing associative style, probably only suggested in translation, the poet cherishes existence. "Apricot trees exist/in countries whose warmth will call forth the exact/color of apricots in the flesh."

"Rexroth alone," Weinberger writes, "encompasses most of what there is to love in this country: ghetto street-smartness, the wilderness, populist anti-capitalism, jazz and rock-and-roll, the Utopian communities."

Rexroth is ignored in the schools, Weinberger says, because of his ability to put complex thoughts into simple language. English departments have no use for simple language. Writing departments abhor complex thought. If we all wrote the way we spoke, would departments of writing and literature disappear? Should they? Weinberger's essay raises valuable questions and is one of the high points of "New Directions 49," which after all does have enough simple language and enough complex thought to satisfy.

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