Poetry Speaks Expanded is a huge and ambitious book with three accompanying CDs, bringing us an overview, from a USA perspective, of English language poetry from the end of the 19th Century to the later years of the 20th Century. In this post I review the book. I review the CDs here.
The 40 poets included here were chosen from influential poets who have lived and died since the invention of sound recording. The poets are arranged in order of date of birth, starting with Alfred Lord Tennyson and ending with Sylvia Plath. For each poet we are presented with a brief biographical introduction, an appreciation from a living poet and a selection of their work. The biographies are fascinating, offering real insights into the influences different poets had on each other artistically and personally. The appreciations are all excellent, each writer obviously chosen for their keen interest in the featured poet they are matched with. Each writer takes their own approach to their subject: Brad Leithauser for example gives us a clear overview to the work of e.e. cummings, while Robert Bly concentrates on William Stafford's 'genius in sound and his relation to reverie'.
Nature has always been an important topic for poetry and certainly the three 19th Century poets represented here (Tennyson, Robert Browning and Whitman) all have natural images in almost all their poems, whether to set the physical scene or the emotional tone of the poem. I was struck for example by Whitman's detailed description of the gulls in Crossing Brooklyn Ferry:
- saw them high in the air, floating with motionless wings, oscillating their bodies,
Saw how the glistening yellow lit up parts of their bodies, and left the rest in strong shadow
In the 20th Century, many poets started to write less about nature, reflecting the increasing urbanisation of society or concentrating their writing on social issues (race issues are particularly well covered in this book which includes several major black American poets). However, nature continued to be integral to the writing of many poets in the 20th century, WB Yeats, Dylan Thomas and Robert Frost, for example, all represented here, were poets embedded in the natural world.
Some poets started to bring a more analytical eye to our relationship with nature. Wallace Stevens for example, whose wonderful 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird isn't just about the blackbird but is also about how we think about nature and our relationship with it.
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.
Elizabeth Bishop's The Fish explores the complexities of human relationships with nature, the narrator examining the fish so closely that she couldn't bear to keep it and let it go back into the water. William Stafford explores similar issues in Travelling through the Dark, in which the narrator is conflicted about what to do with a deer he has injured on the road. Ted Hughes' Thought Fox captures the experience of writing about nature and making it real for the reader:
with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hold of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.
The 20th century saw the emergence of the poet as environmentalist, for example, Robinson Jefferson was a fine observer of nature in his writing but was also very aware of the follies of humankind and conveyed that well in his poetry, though his views were sometimes extremist.
Many poets, particularly HD (Hilda Doolittle), Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath use nature mostly as imagery to heighten mood or to explore their emotional landscapes. Others have a more mystical approach, Robert Graves in particular, but also Robert Duncan in his poem The Sentinels, which gives an eerie description of burrowing owls.
Denise Levertov though, is rightly here described by Nancy Willard as the 'poet laureate of rabbits and serpents, llamas and armadillos....... She urges us to bear witness to the earth itself'. I have quoted from her wonderful poem Animal Presence in an earlier post, so here I quote the sad ending of Her Sadness:
weighs on my shoulders.
too much about Time for a pig.
The development of poetic attitudes to numerous other themes can can be traced through this book, it's also instructive to look at how the style and form of poetry changed through the period. Some readers outside the USA may be surprised by some of the poets included or excluded, but as a guide to the greatest influences on the development of US poetry over the past century it is an invaluable resource.