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Culture Zohn: Poetry Cocktails--Come Join The Party

05/25/2011 12:30 pm ET

It's easy to forget that the only response to electoral politics and war isn't a snarky blog or a scathing editorial. Another way to parse the frenzy of red and blue or devastation and death is a more considered, but no less passionate reaction: reading or writing a poem.

April is Poetry Month and while the Culture Zohn has only occasionally conformed to the dictates of federal cultural mandates, it seemed an auspicious time to begin hosting a forum for poets and poetry --a kind of poetry cocktail--all year long.

Of course poetry is Paul Simon (the most celestial blugrass rendition of Sounds of Silence and other hits with Gillian Wearing and David Rawling at the last of his three stands at BAM this week) and Joni Mitchell. But there's so many wonderful poets we don't hum along to--and for those I went to

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my go-to-girl for all things poetic, Margo Viscusi. I met Margo in her capacity as the Executor of Mary McCarthy's estate, but she was also a member of the founding board of Poets House and followed one of the two founders, the poet Stanley Kunitz, as President many years ago. She self describes as " not [being] a poet but a sort of everyman/woman who reads poetry and likes to pass along poems to friends like me, literate but perhaps a little scared of poetry since junior high school days. I reassure them that poetry today isn't full of the thees and thous they remember, that it has important things to say about our lives now."

Which, I know, is just the kind of person we need at The Huffington Post to help us figure it out.

Margo tells me, "Poets House, 22 years old, is a library and national home for poetry in New York open to all. Now between homes, in a few months it will move into a glorious new space in downtown Manhattan overlooking the Hudson River and the Statue of Liberty."

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She continues, " For 16 years now, Poets House has celebrated Poetry month with the Poetry Publication Showcase, a public exhibition of all the poetry books published in the previous year (roughly April to April). This year Jefferson Market Library, a beautiful red brick public library in Greenwich Village, housed the exhibit."

At my behest, Margo spent some hours with the 2,128 new books, from 622 publishers, on the shelves noting poems to share with Huffpo readers.

A sampling of Margo's suggestions, and her introductions to each:

Here's a poem ostensibly about a disappearing king. Does it remind you of someone we all know? From Mark Strand's NEW SELECTED POEMS (Knopf):

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The King

I went to the middle of the room and called out,

"I know you're here," then noticed him in the corner,

looking tiny in his jeweled crown and his cape

with ermine trim. "I have lost my desire to rule,"

he said. "My kingdom is empty except for you,

and all you do is ask for me." "But Your Majesty---"

"Don't 'Your Majesty' me," he said, and tilted his head

To one side and closed his eyes. "There," he whispered,

"that's more like it," and he entered his dream

Like a mouse vanishing into its hole.

War, aggression, death and duplicity permeate much of the work published this last year. Here are the final lines of "Army Tales" by Kevin Prufer, from NATIONAL ANTHEM (Four Way Books):

Sometimes a boy thinks he is unloved, so he retires to a dark tent where
he will not be disturbed--

Then, the cells wink out like lights on a tall office building in a strange
city at dusk--

His friends said it was a sad day, it was very sad. They thought he'd been
kidding, they told him not to laugh like that--

You pull the string and out it blooms--

And what was he doing off the base late at night? What was he doing on
the open water, in the plane, driving so fast down unfamiliar roads? His
mother--

Someone would tell her. Someone would write her a letter, thank God.
There's a template for that--

A guy who puts your name on the hard drive, a distant office, a simple
program and printer--

You punch in the name and out it comes.

The exhibit includes two handsome volumes published by the exemplary Library of America in their American Poets Project series: SELECTED POEMS OF KENNETH KOCH (1925-2002) and AMERICAN SONNETS, AN ANTHOLOGY. In the anthology you'll find an incredible variety of voices and styles all fit into one package, the 14-line sonnet. This one, first published in 1938 by e.e. cummings (1894-1962), poet of quirky punctuation and spacing and few capital letters, shows that describing "red" and "blue" Americans is not a new preoccupation:

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he does not have to feel because he thinks
(the thoughts of others,be it understood)
he does not have to think because he knows
(that anything is bad which you think good)

because he knows,he cannot understand
(why Jones don't pay me what he knows he owes)
because he cannot understand,he drinks
(and he drinks and he drinks and he drinks and)

not bald. (Coughs) Two pale slippery small eyes

balanced upon one broken babypout
(pretty teeth wander into which and out
of)Life, dost Thou contain a marvel than
this death named Smith less strange?

Married and lies
afraid;aggressive and:American

Speaking of Smith, this year a hip, poetic book of memoirs in six words from Smith Magazine caught my attention and I had some playful moments of exchanging sentiments in that highly restrictive form with a word(smith) friend; like haikus they really make you think about distilling.

(Visit the national database on all things poetic, a site which will lead you in almost any direction you want to go.)

Finally, even Mayor Bloomberg got into the mix this year and wrote a poem which also has a kind of sixish, haiku feeling to it and perfectly captures, I think, his clear eyed, non-royal view of himself, and his job, and of poetry.

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PRESS CONFERENCE
by Michael R. Bloomberg

Pardon me, sir, I've a question or two ...
You.
Sir, you said poetry is a delight...
Right.
Reading it makes you smarter, more mature?
Sure.
But is it better for people not to read verse?
Worse.
Do you read sonnets? Limericks? Odes?
Loads.
All these short answers. Why?
I -
Follow-up! What do you do in your free time?
Rhyme.
Could poems appeal to the Press?
Yes.
But can they help with traffic congestion?
Next question.

The mayor's office also proclaimed last Thursday as Poem in the Pocket day but this, I fear, ghettoizes poetry as much as the federally-mandated month.

I prefer thinking of a poetry cocktail, one we can sip slowly at the end of day of media onslaught of all kinds and which helps us gain a little perspective. If we kept a book of poems out on the kitchen table we could dip into that to help us slow down a little bit instead of the Pinot Grigio.

We invite readers to share their favorites with us, even if their favorites are their own work.

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