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Poets' Corner

June 27, 2004|Carol Muske-Dukes

The 64 Sonnets

John Keats

Introduction by Edward Hirsch

Paul Dry Books: 136 pp., $12 paper

Though he died shockingly young, though he died in despair, of consumption, away from his country and the woman he loved, John Keats knew exactly who he was. "I shall be among the English poets," he said before his death -- and his prophecy was fulfilled: Keats is numbered among the greatest poets of the English language.

Keats has always seemed a natural genius: The fluidity and power of his verse enact his own conviction that poetry should come naturally, "as leaves to the tree." He amazed witnesses by occasionally producing a finished poem in a dazzlingly short time. Yet this illuminating collection of Keats' 64 sonnets reveals both his impatient, flawed, quick-written compositions and the timeless, brooding, unforgettable masterpieces -- as he worked within the armored form.

Edward Hirsch's engrossing introduction reveals Keats as less the famous boy genius and more the developing practitioner, a young poet who learns profound lessons from the masters, then begins to experiment on his own. Hirsch (echoing a famous fragment in which Keats offers his dead hand to the living) notes: "You can sit down and read these poems in a single night and have a complete Keatsian experience -- he breathes close and offers himself to us; his presence is near."

The collection begins with a sonnet written when Keats was 18 and ends with one written five years later. It is riveting to watch his growing mastery but even more absorbing to shadow his startling consciousness, his transformative power, following along as he "had only to think of any thing in order to become that thing," as Hazlitt said of Shakespeare. Hirsch underscores this lack of egotism again and again and traces the flashes of jubilant insight generated from reading and the impassioned search for perfection (and his "perfect" sonnets are all here, from "Bright Star" to "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer") -- and, later, for a more "malleable sonnet" that eventually led to the enduring rhythmic structures of the great odes. Keats spoke of "soul-making"; this book invites us into the mystery of that animation, "awake forever in a sweet unrest."

*

The Cuckoo

Peter Streckfus

Foreword by Louise Gluck

Yale University Press: 80 pp.,

$13 paper

The word for "cuckoo" in Japanese, hototogisu, is also meant to represent the onomatopoeic sound of the cuckoo's song. This linking of the word to its enactment in the senses (and the differences that the ear hears) is one of a number of thematic preoccupations of this year's Yale younger poets' series winner, Peter Streckfus, in "The Cuckoo."

Streckfus is the first winner of the contest under its new judge, Louise Gluck, and he has been called a combination of John Ashbery and Ezra Pound -- his quasi-"translations" and journal fragments and anecdotes not only substantiate this heady comparison, they borrow the style of the mimicking cuckoo to reinforce the point. Everything here is up for imaginative grabs. Gluck is correct when she notes in her foreword that "the case for nonsense is not the case against meaning." These poems mean what they say in their cryptic, spooky, Zen-like manner, mesmerizing the reader with the peculiar hypnosis and acrobatic grace of the jester-bird:

The tiger down the slope of the mountain, saw

the gold cicadas casting their shells, and left

his skin.

Here are three notable books to mention in passing: "Night of a Thousand Blossoms" by Frank Gaspar (Alice James Books), "The Book of Motion" by Tung-Hui Hu (University of Georgia Press) and "Dancing in Odessa" by Ilya Kaminsky (Tupelo Press).

Each book offers a rhetoric of persuasion: Gaspar's long, prose-like lines -- like translations from dreams -- surround the reader with their capaciousness and flowing diction. "The Book of Motion" has a contained surreal style that deftly shapes a philosophical argument that somehow remains pure lyric. "Dancing in Odessa" is a rich, reverberative dance with memories of a haunted city -- and memory itself: "letters with a child's signature, a raspberry, a page of sky."

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