It's that time of year again: Like IRS payments and hay fever, every April brings National Poetry Month, when the city is filled with readings and the bookstores with new poetry titles. This year, April brings collections from some of America's best-known poets, including a brace of Pulitzer Prize winners: Louise Gluck's "Averno" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $22) brings her elemental lyric voice to bear on the myth of Persephone, while Franz Wright's "God's Silence" (Alfred A. Knopf, $24) continues his urgent confrontation with suffering both spiritual and mundane. And in a few weeks, Seamus Heaney returns with "District and Circle" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, $20), his first new collection in five years, which shows that his instantly recognizable voice has lost none of its power.
National Poetry Month is also a boom time for anthologies. The biggest one this year, in both size and scope, is "The Oxford Book of American Poetry," a 1,132-page tome that stretches from Anne Bradstreet to Anne Carson. Chosen by David Lehman, editor of the Best American Poetry series, the "Oxford Book" has ample room for poems both canonical ("The Waste Land," the complete 1855 "Song of Myself") and minor (Trumbull Stickney, Elinor Wylie). The part of the book guaranteed to start debates, however, is the last few hundred pages, where Mr. Lehman dares to predict which living poets deserve a place in this putatively canonical anthology.Some of his choices are inevitable (Richard Wilbur, Adrienne Rich); others (Billy Collins) will likely make this book a curiosity for the reader of 2106.
Three smaller anthologies are the latest installments in the Library of America's American Poets Project, whose handsome volumes (each $20) are objects of desire for any reader of poetry. As we have come to expect, the latest group is eclectic. If "Cole Porter: Selected Lyrics" defines the American elegance of the 1920s and 1930s, "Louis Zukofsky: Selected Poems" showcases the period's modernist challenge; "A.R. Ammons: Selected Poems" offers a brief introduction to the work of that roughhewn metaphysician, who died in 2001.
Meanwhile, the most talked-about new book of this poetry month is by Elizabeth Bishop, who died in 1979. "Edgar Allan Poe & the Jukebox: Uncollected Poems, Drafts and Fragments," (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $30), edited by Alice Quinn, presents the rough drafts of a famous perfectionist. Readers new to Bishop should definitely start with the "Complete Poems," but to those who already know and love this quietly mysterious poet, "Edgar Allan Poe" has many revelations in store.
Hayden Carruth has been a major presence in the poetry world for nearly five decades: A prolific writer, he has edited Poetry magazine and received all the major awards. Several selected and collected editions of his work have appeared over the years, but the new "Toward the Distant Islands: New and Selected Poems" (Copper Canyon Press, $17), edited by Sam Hamill, is the most reader-friendly introduction to his work.The compact volume includes a handful of poems from nearly every one of Mr. Carruth's books, from 1959's "The Crow and the Heart" to new poems written over the last four years. Though his subjects have changed over time - from the Buddhist spirituality of his early work, shared with other 1950s poets like Gary Snyder and Robert Bly, to his plainspoken New England georgics, to his recent poems on aging and death - his inspiration has been remarkably consistent. Mr. Carruth's lodestar is authenticity, and the plain language of his poems captures both the glamour and the sentimentality of his masculine attraction to hard truths: "giving / our love to the hard dirt / the water and the weeds / and the difficult woods."
Poetry in translation should not be forgotten in National Poetry Month. In fact, Poetry magazine has devoted its April issue entirely to translations, from French, Arabic, Polish, Greek, German, Yiddish, and half a dozen other languages. Georg Heym, one of the classics of 20th-century German poetry, is little known to English readers; you will come across a hundred references to Rainer Maria Rilke, his older contemporary, for every mention of Heym. But his place in German literature is an almost mythic one. Born in 1887 to a conventional Prussian family, he rebelled against his class and nation to become the German equivalent of Rimbaud, a surreal poet who made grotesque beauty out of violence and dreams. Like Rimbaud, too, he wrote his masterpieces while practically still a child: Heym died, by accidental drowning, at the age of 24. His poems achieve their peculiar effect by channeling the wildest visions - of corpses, executions, war, urban phantasmagoria - into extremely strict forms, quatrains and sonnets. In his new translation of Heym's "Poems" (Northwestern University Press, $22.95), Antony Hasler communicates Heym's strangeness and visionary power to the English reader, as in "The Sleeper in the Forest": "He seems to smile out of the hollow skull, / he sleeps, a god by a sweet dream laid low./ In his festering sores the fat worms swell, / they crawl engorged along his scarlet brow."
Finally, no poetry month would be complete without a notable poetic debut. "The Apparitioners" (Three Rail Press, $19.50) is George Witte's first book of poetry, but you would never guess it from his confident, ironic style, which moves easily from colloquial speech-rhythms to rich natural description. (Though a new author, Mr. Witte is a publishing-world veteran, currently the editor in chief of St. Martin's Press.) Like a Frost of the suburbs, Mr.Witte regards the cozy, domesticated landscape he inhabits with an unsettling lucidity, which gives everything he sees - a beehive, a scenic overlook - the aspect of a parable or a warning. Mr.Witte's discovery of threat in a place created as an asylum from fear - "We moved here,urban refugees who bought / The brochure pitch" he writes in "Birch Grove" - makes him an uncanny poet, a kind of specter at the barbecue.It is no accident that the collection's title poem deals with children's fear of death,"their common nightmare, the thrum of wings": that deepest, oldest threat,which no gated community can keep out. Anyone who has felt intimations of mortality in our American abundance will recognize the power of Mr.Witte's poems.