Corrections or additions?
This article by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
April 8, 1998. All rights reserved.
Poetry in Person: Chilling & Moving
If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold
no fire can ever warm me I know that is poetry," wrote Emily Dickinson.
"If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off,
I know that is poetry."
Poetry can do that to a poet — and to ordinary people, too.
Ecco Press has asked six prominent poets and writers to read works
by some of their favorite poets at Barnes & Noble on Tuesday, April
14, at 7 p.m. Featured are Russell Banks, Daniel Halpern, Joyce Carol
Oates, Arnold Rampersad, Chase Twichell, and C.K. Williams. The event
is part of the collaborative effort, coordinated by the Academy of
American Poets, to celebrate the third annual National Poetry Month.
Even though one might expect a new "national anything" month
to fall flat with an observance-weary public, National Poetry Month
has proved a surprising hit. It seems to have captured the imagination
of poets and poetry enthusiasts across the nation. And in case anyone
suspects that any one company or nation has a stranglehold on publishing
in America today, Hopewell’s Ecco Press is one of almost 100 publisher
sponsors of this year’s poetry fest.
Among the month’s most pro-active events is one implemented by Andrew
Carroll of the American Poetry and Literacy Project. Carroll, who
co-founded the project in 1993 with Nobel Prize winner Joseph Brodsky,
plans to drive across the country, from New York to San Francisco,
distributing 100,000 free books of poetry in supermarkets, hotels,
jury waiting rooms, schools, libraries, literacy centers, highway
rest stops, on Amtrak trains, and in other public places.
Daniel Halpern, Ecco’s editor-in-chief, applauds any venture to get
poetry into people’s hands. He is himself a widely published poet.
Among his many books of poetry is Halpern’s most recent collection,
"Selected Poems," published in 1994 by Knopf. He hopes to
finish his next collection, which includes poems about his young daughter,
by the fall. His wife, Jeanne Wilmot Carter, is a former Manhattan
attorney, a fiction writer, and Ecco’s president. Their daughter,
Lily, is four years old.
The proportion of Ecco’s book list devoted to poetry has changed over
the years since Halpern founded Ecco Press in New York in 1971. The
press moved to Hopewell in 1992.
"When we first began, we were known primarily as a poetry press,"
he says in a telephone interview. "We have a group of poets —
some of whom we’ve published for 25 years. And most of our poets almost
immediately did well — Louise Gluck, Jorie Graham, and John Ashbery.
Czeslaw Milosz won the Nobel Prize in 1980. We now have more of a
balance between poetry, fiction, and non-fiction."
Among Ecco’s poetry projects is a 23-volume series of anthologies.
These diminutive, keepsake editions, in hard covers and in paper,
feature the works of such eminent dead poets as Dickinson, Keats,
Whitman, Hardy, Blake, Wordsworth, and Rossetti. What is unique to
the series is its editors: the anthologies are selected by an array
of noted living artists that includes Philip Levine, Galway Kinnell,
Seamus Heaney, Amy Clampitt, W.S. Merwin, and Joseph Brodsky.
Editor of Ecco’s "Essential Emily Dickinson" is Princeton
author Joyce Carol Oates. She describes her "Essential Dickinson"
as a personal selection. "It includes poems generally considered
great, and they are many. It contains the much-anthologized; but it
also contains the virtually never anthologized," she says. Oates
began reading Dickinson in adolescence and has continued through her
life. She characterizes Dickinson as "one of very few poets whose
work repays countless readings, through a lifetime."
"Her work retains, for me, the drama and `white-hot’ intensity
of adolescence, like the work of Henry David Thoreau," says Oates.
"Certain of Dickinson’s poems are very likely more deeply imprinted
in my soul than they were ever imprinted in the poet’s, and inevitably
they reside more deeply, and more mysteriously, than much of my own
Halpern says matching poet-editors with canonical poets is not such
a mystery. A strong affinity and an equally strong commitment make
"We look for a poet who is committed to the work of one of the
poets to make the selection," he says. "The feeling was that
the public would be guaranteed a very professional selection, and
a selection that represented the very essence of that poet, from the
hands of a poet who really understands the work and has strong feelings
about which poems are in fact essential poems."
"The poet also writes an introduction to help make the poems come
to life. The idea being, the reader who loves the works from this
small selection will turn around and get the complete works."
Halpern says it’s not hard to recognize the affinities the living
poets have for poets of the past — Galway Kinnell on Whitman,
for instance, or Philip Levine on Keats. Halpern says Joseph Brodsky’s
edition of a selection of poems by Thomas Hardy took him 15 years
to complete and includes a 75-page introduction.
If imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, Halpern adds that
after Ecco launched its series, Random House came out with one designed
to resemble it. What the Everyman series lacks, however, are the poet-editors.
Halpern is cautiously optimistic about the status of poetry and poets.
"There is a heightened awareness, broader than in the past,"
he says. "But it’s not easy. So many people are writing now, and
a lot of people are publishing." He points to increased sales
by Ecco’s first-time poets as evidence that promotional efforts to
involve the public in poetry are paying off. The post of U.S. Poet
Laureate has become a bully pulpit.
Joseph Brodsky used it to get poetry books placed in hotel rooms alongside
Gideon Bibles. Current poet laureate Robert Pinsky is working extensively
Most poet laureates preach to the converted, says Halpern. "That
isn’t a big help. The poet who has done the most in the last 20 years,
in my mind, is Robert Hass [who served from 1995-’97]. He concentrated
on those areas not sympathetic to poetry: corporations, business,
he spoke to Kiwanis Clubs, environmental groups. He was tireless for
Among Hass’s projects was a weekly column for the Washington Post’s
Sunday book section, which was also syndicated. "Each week he
would pick a poem and write a mini-essay about it. He tells you just
enough so you feel you understand the poem, but not so much that feel
like you’ve been lectured to for two hours," says Halpern. Ecco’s
just published collection of the columns, "Poet’s Choice, Poetry
for Everyday Life," is currently a good seller.
"It’s unrealistic to believe that because we’ve had two or three
National Poetry Months, that everything’s going to turn around,"
says Halpern. "It’s a slow process. But it’s so important for
people to learn that poetry is like good music and good food —
it nourishes the body and the soul."
— Nicole Plett
609-897-9250. Russell Banks, Daniel Halpern, Joyce Carol Oates, Arnold
Rampersad, Chase Twichell, and C.K. Williams. Free. Tuesday, April
14, 7 p.m.
Naming the Unborn
Marry late and the next question
Who doesn’t want a child
before they are taken away?
Of a sleepless night
I’ve imagined a girl,
myself a devoted but strict,
To call her by name now
could be bad luck,
although my superstitions
are easily overcome:
a piece of paper
in the absence of wood. I call her
by her hundred names,
and await what will come,
this vigil we keep for the nameless.
by Daniel Halpern
From "Selected Poems," Alfred A. Knopf,
1994 by Daniel Halpern.
Going and Staying
The moving sun-shapes on the spray,
The sparkles where the brook was flowing,
Pink faces, plightings, moonlit May,
These were the things we wished would stay;
But they were going.
Seasons of blankness as of snow,
The silent bleed of a world decaying,
The moan of multitudes in woe,
These were the things we wished would go:
But they were staying.
Then we looked closelier at Time,
And saw his ghostly arms revolving
To sweep off woeful things with prime,
Things sinister with things sublime
by Thomas Hardy
From "The Essential Hardy," selected by Joseph
Brodsky, The Ecco Press 1995.
"Hope" is the thing with feathers —
That perches in the soul —
And sings the tune without the words —
And never stops — at all —
And sweetest — in the Gale — is heard —
And sore must be the storm —
That could abash the little Bird —
That kept so many warm —
I’ve heard it in the chillest land —
And on the strangest Sea —
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb — of Me.
by Emily Dickinson
From "The Essential Dickinson," selected by
Joyce Carol Oates, The Ecco Press 1996.
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