Henry Purcell in Japan
There has been a resurgence, among poets born in the 1950’s, of forms and techniques based on the British tradition. Brad Leithauser, Molly Peacock, Mary Jo Salter, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, and Rosanna Warren are among the very best practitioners in this revival; though each of them writes in a distinct and identifiable voice, they share a curiosity concerning the uses and the limits of “traditional” rhyme and meter, and a familiarity with past literatures, which has not generally characterized the work of young poets since the mid-1960’s. Robert Hass, one of the leading poets of the generation a decade older, describes the situation thus, in an essay entitled “One Body: Some Notes on Form”:I don’t think we have thought about the issue very well. What passes for discussion of it among younger poets has been an orgy of self-congratulation because they are not writing metrical poems. A marginal achievement, since many of us, not having worked at it, couldn’t write them competently if we wanted to.
Now a significant group of younger poets has begun to “work at it” and to produce poems of extraordinary grace.
Mary Jo Salter’s first book, Henry Purcell in Japan, takes its epigraph from George Herbert’s “The Temper”:
How should I praise Thee, Lord! how should my rhymes Gladly engrave Thy love in steel If, what my soul doth feel sometimes, My soul might ever feel!
This is more than an evocation of occasional “poetic inspiration” or of acknowledgment to the past; in a few of her poems, Salter makes glancing reference to rare recognitions of religious feeling, the more powerful because they seem unexpected. The collection opens with one of these. “For an Italian Cousin” recounts the speaker’s reaction as her cousin shows her the Catholic church she attends, and describes the local observance of Good Friday. The speaker is shocked by the waxen image of Christ on the chapel’s crucifix and explains herself to herself:
To simplify, I’m a protestante.But this, she tells me in careful Italian,is called the Catholic religion. You know of this? You have read some Dante?Tempted to joke, I’m silenced bythe trusting expression on her face,flushed with the light of this stained glasswhere Christ is always about to die.
Yet, the speaker thinks of another church, San Marco in Venice, where images have shown her “a world I’ve pieced/ together with a kind of faith, at least”; the mosaics there seem less stone than flesh:
A puzzle of figures floats on the wallsand in golden domes, and you have the feelingthis heavenly gold is not a ceiling—but space itself, from which no one falls.
“For an Italian Cousin” makes a fine entrance into this collection. The voice, as in most of the poems, has a controlled casualness; the speaker’s mind makes rapid connections and associations, many of them metaphorical; and the speaker often finds herself, elsewhere in the book, bringing an American sensibility self-consciously to bear upon European or Asian surroundings.
Henry Purcell in Japan is divided into three sections. The first takes up nearly half the book and is more miscellaneous than the other two sections. The second section contains five love poems—which is to say that they recount episodes in a relationship’s deepening toward marriage and parenthood. The final section is devoted to views of Japan and meditations on living there; these six poems are astonishing for their depth, honesty, and resourcefulness.
The somewhat shorter second and third sections, then, might be thought of as the specializations of the poet after practicing as a generalist in the seventeen poems of the first section. Certainly, practice is a word that comes to mind in connection with one of two of these poems, in which difficult forms are tried with varying success or in which traditional subjects are essayed yet again, sometimes with unusual daring, even brilliance.
“Refrain,” for example, is a villanelle which avoids the usual trap set by this highly repetitive form; to use two lines four times each, in a poem whose total length is...
(The entire section is 1932 words.)