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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

work."

Halpern says matching poet-editors with canonical poets is not such

a mystery. A strong affinity and an equally strong commitment make

the match.

"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

with schools.

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

two years."

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

Writers Celebrate Poetry, Barnes & Noble, MarketFair,

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

concerns children.

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,

adoring father.

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,

touch wood,

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

Alike dissolving.

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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