Click Image to Visit the Pecan Grove Press Web Page for Poetry from Paradise Valley


Poetry From Paradise Valley

Pecan Grove Press has released an anthology of poems, a sampling of works published in Valparaiso Poetry Review during its first decade, from the original 1999-2000 volume to the 2009-2010 volume.

Poetry from Paradise Valley includes a stellar roster of 50 poets. Among the contributors are a former Poet Laureate of the United States, a winner of the Griffin International Prize, two Pulitzer Prize winners, two National Book Award winners, two National Book Critics Circle winners, six finalists for the National Book Award, four finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award, two finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, and a few dozen recipients of other honors, such as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, etc.

Readers are encouraged to visit the Poetry from Paradise Valley page at the publisher's web site, where ordering information about the book can be found.

Best Books of Indiana 2011: Finalist. Judges' Citation: "Poetry from Paradise Valley is an excellent anthology that features world-class poetry, including the work of many artists from the Midwest, such as Jared Carter, Annie Finch, David Baker, and Allison Joseph. It’s an eclectic and always interesting collection where poems on similar themes flow into each other. It showcases the highest caliber of U. S. poetry."
—Indiana Center for the Book, Indiana State Library

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Ellen Bryant Voigt: MESSENGER: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS 1976-2006

In his recent collection of essays on history and the arts, Cultural Amnesia, Clive James includes a profile of Italian literary scholar Gianfranco Contini. James concentrates on Contini’s lament that “the custom of learning by heart has disappeared in the schools, and as a consequence the very use of memory has gone with it. Nobody knows how to read verse. My best students, notably gifted philologists, can’t recognize by ear whether a line is hendecasyllabic or not: they have to count on their fingers.”

During his consideration of Contini, James also discusses the rhyme and rhythm of traditional and formal verse in contrast with the free verse style of most modern or contemporary poetry. James cites Robert Frost’s famous aphorism declaring that writing without rhyme or a metrical pattern is like playing tennis without a net. Despite my great admiration for Frost’s poetry and most of his commentary on the poetic art, I’m often reminded of my own experiences as a boy growing up in New York City, where the park tennis courts often lacked nets, stolen or broken by local vandals, and I recall the increased difficulty as players were forced to test their sense of perception and exercise more careful judgment with every shot taken as they delicately discerned whether a ball was deemed good each time it passed to the opponent’s side of the court.

Similarly, James states: “The most difficult way to rhyme is not to rhyme at all, and yet maintain coherence. The hard part of doing that is to square unrelenting vigilance with the free play of the mind that will let a new idea break through to the surface.” Though expressing a preference for formal poetry and a fondness for memorization of rhyming lines in metered verse, James argues some free verse poets, “without rhyming at all, achieve an alert tension in every line and an unfailing sense of coherence in the strophe.” As an example, James praises Philip Larkin, who “could have written verse forever without rhyming even once. It is very interesting that he usually chose otherwise, and rhymed solidly . . ..”

The stylistic dexterity and poetic expertise Clive James detects in Philip Larkin’s poetry can be found as well in the works by Ellen Bryant Voigt. Whether writing in free verse, blank verse, or a more formal sonnet sequence, Voigt almost always displays an ability to create great lyrical lines that communicate clearly to convey through images their important emotional content. Throughout her more than thirty years of publishing, including seven collections of poetry, Voigt has demonstrated her talent as a writer who combines lyrical craftsmanship with compelling content. Indeed, in Messenger: New and Selected Poems 1976-2006, evidence exists, through an accumulation of esteemed poems, of Voigt’s immense and continually increasing talent.

As early as the initial lines in this collection’s opening poem, “The Hen,” which first appeared in Claiming Kin (1976), Voigt presents a powerfully gripping description that alerts readers about the intense and vivid language they may expect from her other poems as well: “The neck lodged under a stick, / the stick under her foot, / she held the full white breast / with both hands, yanked up and out, / and the head was delivered of the body.” She is a poet from a rural background in Chatham, Virginia, who moved to Vermont in 1969, and she frequently depicts harsh images concerning human interactions with nature or sharp observations of natural elements in one’s environment.

Voigt begins “Snakeskin” with a vivid and lyrical stanza: “Down on the porch, the blacksnake / sits like a thick fist. / His back is flexed and slick. / The wedge of his forehead turns / to the sun. He does not remember / the skin shucked in the attic, / the high branches of our family tree.” However, she allows the scenes depicted to suggest interpretations or inventive associations, as when she comments on other ways transitions and transformations occur in nature: “The moth will not recall the flannel / cocoon. The snail empties the endless / convolutions of its shell. Think / of the husk of the locust, / sewn like an ear to the elm. / How easily they leave old lives, / as an eager lover steps from the skirts / at her ankles.”

The poet always appears aware of passages of time in nature and the subsequent progressions in life, and she consistently creates memorable similes or metaphors, often containing ominous connotations that foreshadow endings and emphasize mortality: “we turn toward each other / in the ripe air of summer, / before the change of weather, // before the heavy drop / of the apples” (“Tropics”). In a poignant poem, “Year’s End,” taken from The Forces of Plenty, Voigt’s second collection, the poet describes a harrowing moment: “a child was dead / and his mother so wrung by grief / she stared and stared / at the moon on its black stalk, / the road glistening like wire.”

In “The Last Class” drawn from The Lotus Eaters, her 1987 volume, Voigt again speaks of grief: “I tried to recall how it felt / to live without grief.” She also seems to indicate one of her main reasons for writing poetry: “I wanted to salvage / something from my life, to fix / some truth beyond all change.” The speaker examining an old picture of her mother notices “her hair / is a spill of ink below the white beret, / a swell of dark water” (“The Photograph”). By the close of this poem, the poet confides further her intentions of confronting mortality by connecting differing ages or eras through the use of her poetry, in this case joining generations together, from her mother to her daughter, with a recurring image: “Sometimes I hear the past / hum in my ear, its cruel perfected music, / as I turn from the stove / or stop to braid my daughter’s thick black hair.”

Voigt sometimes makes a case for accepting mortality and valuing the temporal world in which we live, though filled with imperfections and disappointments. “Two Trees,” the title poem from a 1992 collection, begins with a depiction of Eden: “At first, for the man and the woman, / everything was beautiful. / Which is to say there was no beauty, / since there was not its opposite, its absence.” Cleverly, the poet proposes perfection as a possible enemy of beauty because one cannot appreciate such splendor or elegance without the presence of flaws, faults, and fallibilities with which to draw contrast. Consequently, into the garden “God put two trees, different from the others.” With contrast temptation exists, a desire to have what is different. Therefore, nature becomes the alluring source of grandeur and the cause of the human fall from grace, a constant and occasionally uncomfortable reminder of our frailties, of human nature: “So God kept them from the second fruit, / and sent them into thistles and violent weather, / wearing the skins of lesser beasts— / let them garden dust and stony ground.”

Indeed, Voigt’s views of nature are often realistic rather than idealistic, and she is a poet whose romanticism remains tempered by thoughts on the difficulties of life that occasionally suggest such temporal hardships actually prepare and strengthen one in the long run. In “The Farmer” she depicts a man overcome by bees from the hives he keeps: “Suddenly, like flame, they were swarming over him. / He rolled in the dirt, manure and stiff hoof-prints, / started back up the path, rolled in the fresh hay— / refused to run, which would have pumped / the venom through him faster.” Arriving home in his kitchen, “he tore off his clothes / crushed bees dropped from him like scabs.” Later, readers understand: “What saved him / were the years of smaller doses— / like minor disappointments, / instructive poison, something he could use.”

A number of poems in this book refer to the poet’s personal background as a pianist, and her musical experiences seem to lend lyricism to the poetry she offers readers. For example, the opening stanza of “Largesse,” the first poem from Shadow of Heaven (2002), displays smoothly written imagery: “By noon, the usual unstinting sun / but also wind, the olive trees gone silver, / inside out, and the slender cypresses, / like women in fringed shawls, hugging themselves, / and over the rosemary hedge the pocked fig / giving its purple scrota to the ground.” Among the new poems in the Messenger section, Voigt’s musical influence continues (“ragtime, American stride left hand / a steady measurement, the free right hand // a stitch ahead of the beat, then a stitch behind, / the stammered math of feeling . . . ,” and her lyricism lingers in natural descriptions like that in “Harvesting the Cows” (“Stringy, skittery, thistle-blurred, rib-etched, / they’re like a pack of wolves lacking a sheep / but also lacking the speed, the teeth, the wits . . .”).

“The Art of Distance,” an extended poem from Shadow of Heaven and one of Voigt’s best works, is presented in sections and it seems to emphasize connections between the speaker’s memories of her father and the natural scenes she sees around her. Again encountering a snake, this time one damaged by her dog, the poet begins: “Wrinkle coming toward me in the grass—no, / fatter than that, rickrack, or the scallops a ruffle makes, / down to about the fourteenth vertebra. The rest of it: rod / instead of a coil.” After a number of lines with wonderfully descriptive language, the speaker reveals “the damaged part, / two fingers thick, was torqued / pale belly up, sunstruck.” The speaker’s reaction to this vision of “what seemed / a peeled stick” becomes one of conscious inaction, as she watches the snake drag its marred body through the long grass. Nevertheless, such nonintervention also represents an act of defiance, liberation, and independence when the speaker reveals: “My strict father / would have been appalled: not to dispatch / a uselessly suffering thing.”

In this decision, the poet creates a greater distance between herself and her father, a powerful and influential figure already distanced by time and death. Remembering him, a man whose identity she repeatedly links with nature in her pieces, the poet recalls a significant and surprising moment of revelation about her father: “What didn’t fit / was seeing him cry. He’d stand alone in the field / like a rogue pine that had escaped the scythe, / as he would stand beside the family graves, / a short important distance from the car / where we were hushed until the white flag / had been unpocketed, and he jangled his keys / and got back in, not ever looking at us.” In another section of the poem, Voigt relates advice she’s heard: “Detachment is my friend’s / discovery, what he commends / against despair. // And though my father claimed / I never listen, of course I do.” At the close of this section, Voigt concludes: “to see a thing // one has to push it away.”

Ellen Bryant Voigt devotes one of the collection’s sections to her book-length sequence of sonnets, Kyrie (1995), spoken in the voices of personae and offering ample evidence of her ability to succeed in a more formal style of writing. The sequence treats historic events, World War I and the 1918-1919 influenza epidemic, in strong carefully chosen language and striking imagery, as when the schoolteacher speaks: “All day, one room: me, and the cherubim / with their wet kisses. Without quarantines, / who knew what was happening at home— / was someone put to bed, had someone died?” The young speaker’s concerns narrow to specific acts, such as when “they sneezed and spit on books we passed around / and on the boots I tied, retied, barely / out of school myself.” In the final lines of the sonnet, the speaker confides her conscious decision to separate herself physically and acknowledges the difficulty of distancing herself emotionally: “when the youngest / started to cry, flushed and scared, / I just couldn’t touch her, I let her cry. / Their teacher, and I let them cry.”

Like the teacher speaking in that sonnet, Ellen Bryant Voigt frequently seems conflicted, appears to be a woman who knows the realities of human existence and nature’s complexities sometimes require a practical approach to life that does not permit merely idealistic visions or strictly romantic writing, and who is aware that along the way those realities or complexities may cause consternation or emotional turmoil. Indeed, a poet raised in the farmland with this kind of thinking, one who proposes “the past is not a scar but a wound: / I’ve seen it breaking open” (“Rubato”), certainly knows the importance at times of simple survival.

Despite its often-vivid imagery and lyrical stanzas that “achieve an alert tension in every line,” as Clive James might claim, Voigt’s poetry does not just present delicate language. She offers incisive insights honed with a razor edge. Whether employing the formal pattern of sonnets to portray personae enduring the dark events of war and disease or exploring the difficulties of personal relationships and one’s own mortality in free verse, Voigt recognizes each day may bring a struggle of some sort, but she seems to believe every endeavor to continue forward and enjoy life or eventually appreciate the enrichment nature contributes is well worth the effort. So, too, is the reading of Ellen Bryant Voigt’s fine work worth the effort to discover her development as a poet and her notable accomplishment over the past three decades.

Voigt, Ellen Bryant. Messenger: New and Selected Poems 1976-2006. W.W. Norton, 2007.


Anonymous said...

Terrific, smart review of a great book.

Thank you for this.

Anonymous said...

I didn't read past the nonsense about not rhyming being more difficult than rhyming or tennis without a net being more demanding than with. It's amazing that anybody still believes any of this decadent, elitist nonsense anymore. Go read some Spenser, and tremble at what you can never achieve.

Edward Byrne said...

Thanks for your comment, Bob, but I hope you consider reading beyond the second paragraph. As you will see from the rest of the review, I express my admiration for the use of free verse and traditional form, particularly the sonnet sequence.

Indeed, I regularly teach a course on rhyme, meter, and the history of traditional forms that encourages creative writing students to appreciate those options used by past writers, including Spenser (who is on the syllabus), and to attempt those methods in their writings.

Anonymous said...

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