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Strongly Spent: 50 Years of Poetry

John Sears

This is a consummately chosen selection of powerful poems, rewarding to read, and remaining in the reader's mind long after the book has been put down.


Spring / Summer 2003

Edited by R. T. Smith

Washington & Lee University

Published quarterly. Current Issue: 269 pages, $16

Poetry Meaning and Mattering

Shenandoah's formidable 50-year track record in publishing high quality work by the most significant poets around is exemplified in this anthology. Gathered together here are pieces, mostly short but occasionally longer, by 100 poets, some of whom (for apparently arbitrary reasons) get more than one slot, and all of whom have contributed significantly to the development of American and British poetry over the last five decades.

Issues of hierarchies and privileges are largely evaded by the editorial decision to publish the poems in alphabetical order of the poets' surnames, leading to some interesting collocations and juxtapositions (James Merrill and W. S. Merwin sharing a double page spread, Philip Larkin immediately preceded by Maxine Kumin, W. H Auden and John Berryman facing each other), but also to an overriding sense of the democratic values of twentieth-century poetry, its extraordinary range and diversity, its liberating abandonment of formal constraints in favour of formal freedoms. These poems, in this order, present a consistently surprising, rewarding and refreshing experience for the reader.

The poems are framed by two essays which could stand in their own right as admirably crafted pieces of writing. Richard Wilbur's 'Poetry and Happiness', delivered as a lecture at Washington and Lee University and then published in Shenandoah, opens the volume, and does so with a flourish of stylish, well-couched observations on the perennially difficult question of how poetry can matter in the modern world. Wilbur takes a double definition of poetry as "a collective activity by means of which a society creates a vision of itself" (poetry as art), and as "verses written by poets, imaginative compositions which employ a condensed, rhythmic, resonant, and persuasive language" (poetry as literary tradition, a collection of verbal icons or artefacts).

This anthology goes some way towards fulfilling both definitions. Each poem stands alone as a fragment, a representative of the work produced by its author. Together, the 100-plus poems signify a particular set of takes on the culture of post-war Western society, a series of positions aware of their inheritance and of their moral and political responsibilities, judiciously unsure of their limits and wary of their potentialities. These are poets as, in Shelley's words, "unacknowledged legislators", offering an ethical commentary on events and situations, which becomes at moments an ongoing murmured dialogue as each poem communicates with its predecessors, forming an echo-chamber of words and themes.

R. T. Smith's essay, 'Strongly Spent', concludes the anthology and draws out many of these connections and repetitions, as well as differences and distances, between the works collected here. Smith's title, and the title of the anthology, comes from Robert Frost's 'The Constant Symbol' ("Strongly spent is synonymous with kept"), and implies in its economic metaphor the banking up of poetry, its investment in and for the future, its traditions as a resource of interest for the present. Frost figures centrally in Wilbur's argument, and Smith foregrounds the editorial role of selecting poems with a view to Wilbur's comments on poetry and happiness: "all the emotional, intellectual and visceral components" of happiness are to be found in these poems, along with "the unclassifiable element of surprise which yokes the orchestrated appeals to mind, heart and body".

Shenandoah represents the poetry anthology as celebration, offering a community of voices whose harmonies outweigh their diversities of origin. The anthology itself opens with Betty Adcock's 'Penumbra', a complex meditation on poetry, photography, memory and autobiography that unsettles any complacent reading with its concluding twist:

I am six years old, buried
in the colorless album.
My mother is dead.
I forgive no one.

As the poem shifts from 'her' to 'me', its emotional intensity develops like the photograph it describes, imprinting its central image on the conscience as well as the consciousness. Adcock's poem is a skilful pattern of words (the missing hyphen in that final "no one" cementing the bitterness barely contained throughout), a tough act to follow (even if we read it as a poem of unhappiness rather than happiness), and the measure of many of the poems here is that they do follow it, powerfully, convincingly and with the appropriate measures of respect necessary for poems to succeed.

Dead mothers are returned to by other poets here, notably Susan Ludvigson in 'Not Swans' ("I drive towards distant clouds and my mother's dying"), a poem which, in turn, links up with several others that explore the poetic legacy of W. B. Yeats. Ludvigson's 'not-swans' write back to Yeats's 'The Wild Swans at Coole', while Daniel Hoffman and Nancy Sullivan offer poems that directly engage with Yeats, suggesting (along with the editorial prominence of Frost) that it's a Romantic-Modernist tradition that predominates here.

These kinds of links and connections send the reader flicking backwards and forwards through the anthology, looking for this or that line, turn of phrase or word that resonates with a later or an earlier poem, reinforcing the impression that this is a consummately chosen selection of powerful poems, rewarding to read, and remaining in the reader's mind long after the book has been put down, confirming Archibald MacLeish's assertion in 'The Infinite Reason' (and in the middle of this anthology) that "Man is a creature to whom meaning matters".

Steve Mueske reviewed the July 2002 issue of Shenandoah in PopMatters.

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