In his 1989 22-page "Autobiography," the late Robert Creeley wrote of his founderings trying to explicate Hart Crane in the Harvard poetry class of F. O. Matthiessen. He contrasted them with then-fledgling poet Richard Wilbur's "brilliant exegesis. . . of Marianne Moore's nifty poem " "See in the Midst of Fair Leaves and Much Fruit, The Swan. . . ' " in the same Matthiessen class. Twenty years later, wrote Creeley, the two now-major poets meet and Creeley asks Wilbur if he ever sent a copy to Marianne Moore. Wilbur did. Moore's reply? "She didn't understand it." Creeley's 1989 comment is succinct: "Wow!"
No one ever said that poetic exegesis is breezy work -- not even in April, National Poetry Month -- which is one reason why Break Blow Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-Three of the World's Best Poems (Pantheon, 248 pages, $20) is such a pleasure for tyros and adepts alike. After thanking one's preferred deity for Paglia's forebear Harold Bloom -- who fearlessly led a professorial charge into the Western canon for the common reader -- you have to cede that Paglia, bless her, does a very "nifty" job of it all, even if her 43 poems include Joni Mitchell's song lyric "Woodstock," Ralph Pomeroy's "Corner" and Norman H. Russell's "Tornado" rather than anything by Creeley (or Charles Olson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot or Ezra Pound to name a tiny handful of Paglia rejects). Not surprisingly, she is quite personal, non-theoretical and yet thoroughly challenging to the "general reader" she's writing for.
Even more so is Michael Schmidt in his remarkable The First Poets: Lives of the Ancent Greek Poets (Knopf, 410 pages, $30), which makes a good many more demands on Virginia Woolf's not-so-mythic "Common Reader" than Paglia but is an immensely rewarding work of accessible scholarship on Ionian poets from Orpheus (whose reality, in some way, Schmidt presumes worthy of discussion) to Homer, Hesiod, Anacreon, Pindar, Callimachus, Theocritus and many poets in between. It is not, to put it mildly, ordinary to find five pages of apostrophe to "Ibycus of Rhegion" whose poetry "runs like sap in the veins of a tree" or Corinna of Tanagara who, according to Plutarch, told Pindar his poetry was "too poor in myth and legend, too dependent on obscure diction, over-stretched meanings, periphrasis, mere prosodic virtuosity," only to have Pindar come back to her with a poem laden with myth. A remarkable and unexpected contribution to the month's books from the author of the extraordinary modern "Lives of the Poets."
More typical of the month's publishing festivity is the 150th anniversary edition of Whitman's Leaves of Grass (Oxford, 168 pages, $22), which replicates the typeface, layout and design Whitman himself supervised. Not to mention 180 More: Extraordinary Poems for Every Day (Random House, 373 pages, $14.95 paper), in which former poet laureate Billy Collins continues his delightful poem-a-day collaboration with the Library of Congress whose intent is a full integration of poetry into American life that Whitman -- rather more noisily and visionarily -- might have approved wholeheartedly. There is nothing remotely demeaning or questionable about Collins' choices (which includes no Creeley or Irving Feldman but does include resident Buffalo poet Carl Dennis' deceptively witty "Amnesty.")
The happy -- often, in fact, hilarious -- and scabrous noir spew of the late Charles Bukowski continues unabated with Sifting Through the Madness for The Word, The Line, The Way (Ecco, 395 pages, $14.95) and The Flash of Lightning Behind the Mountain (Ecco, 320 pages, $27.50), the latest in a plan to publish five -- count 'em -- posthumous volumes of poems by the sardonic, alcoholic working class Villon who died in 1994. No well-appointed American home library should be without a little Bukowski.
-- Jeff Simon