April is National Poetry Month, the poetry world's annual effort to soothe its bad conscience about practicing a minority art in a democratic culture. Institutional attempts to make more people read poetry always have something forlorn about them, because they are based on a basic error in economics: They try to address a shortage in demand by creating a glut in supply. But if no one likes to read poetry — or so it can often seem to the discouraged poet — then putting poems in hotel nightstands or on subway cars only multiplies the public's opportunities to ignore them.
More troubling than the indifference of the public, which has never loved poetry and never will, is the indifference of what Samuel Johnson called the common reader. Why is it that people who read novels and biographies, who go to operas and art museums, and who even read the poetry of the past, so seldom open a book of contemporary poetry? Robert Pinsky, the former poet laureate, was haunted by this question in a recent poetry-month feature in Slate magazine, where he parried a series of imagined objections: "Half of the time I can't figure out what [a new poem] means." "How come modern poets don't write in rhyme?" "How come real poetry — in our great-grandparents' time or, anyway, some other long-ago time — was easy to understand and great?"
Rather than silence such objections by pointing out that, in fact, old poetry is often hard to understand, it is better to meet them by introducing the common reader to living poets who offer the kind of civilized pleasure he is looking for. Civilized is a tricky word in current literary criticism. Ever since the modernists launched their demolition raid on Victorian decorum, "civilized" has sounded like an alibi for bloodlessness or hypocrisy. But if the vice of 19th-century poetry was overrefinement — willingness to shut out too much of human experience, in the name of a wan ideal of beauty — our own literature has different vices. Today, when poetry is usually formless, unintelligent, or overly theoretical, it is a rare achievement for a poet to be truly civilized: that is, to write as a human being speaking to human beings, out of a generous desire to enlighten, move, and delight.
Two new collections of poems, by Adam Zagajewski and David Yezzi, offer different demonstrations of that rare virtue. Mr. Zagajewski, who was born in Poland in 1945, is one of the few foreign-language poets to be regularly translated into English. He is often mentioned in the same breath as Czeslaw Milosz, in part simply because he is the most famous Polish poet of the generation after Milosz's. Mr. Zagajewski is writing Milosz's biography, and it would be surprising if he didn't eventually follow his subject to Stockholm. But there is also a deeper similarity, since the two poets, products of the same Polish experience, share a basic theme: the dilemma of the spirit trapped in history, of freedom constrained by necessity.
These are two ways of naming the opponents invoked in the title of "Eternal Enemies" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 116 pages, $24), Mr. Zagajewski's fifth collection of poems to appear in English (translated by Clare Cavanagh). For Milosz, who survived the Nazi occupation of Warsaw and defected from Poland's Communist regime, spirit and history were mortal foes, locked in a permanent death grip. For Mr. Zagajewski, who belongs to the generation of Solidarity and of the Velvet Revolutions, their enmity is less acute, more a chronic condition to be lived with. In his poems, the ordinary world is always quivering at the brink of, but never quite yielding to, ecstasy. "Poetry searches for radiance," Mr. Zagajewski writes, "poetry is the kingly road / that leads us farthest." But that radiance remains always suspended in the distance, "like that moment at the seashore / when a predatory ship appeared on the horizon / and stopped short, held still for a long while."
Forced to emigrate from Poland in the 1970s, Mr. Zagajewski lived for many years in France and America. He has now returned to Krakow, the city of his youth; but the habit of wandering remains, and "Eternal Enemies" alternates views of his childhood streets with a traveler's snapshots. The second poem in the book is titled "En Route," and begins:
To travel without baggage, sleep in the train
on a hard wooden bench,
forget your native land,
emerge from small stations
when a gray sky rises
and fishing boats head to sea.
Yet most of the traveling in "Eternal Enemies" is done under rather plusher circumstances than this suggests, and there is a certain danger — as we follow the poet from "Sicily" to "Rome, Open City" to "Camogli" and "Staglieno" — that Mr. Zagajewski's voyaging will turn into a higher tourism, yielding a succession of interchangeable epiphanies. "What happened to summer's plans / and our dreams, / what has our youth become," he asks in "Camogli."
This kind of undefended, melancholy lyricism has always been one of the distinctive notes of Mr. Zagajewski's verse. It makes one think of songs by Schumann, more than anything in English poetry, and in fact Mr. Zagajewski often invokes music to achieve his effects. In "Music Heard With You," he mentions "Grave Brahms and elegiac Schubert, / a few songs, Chopin's fourth ballad...." Here, one of the risks of being a civilized poet comes into view: the temptation to simply refer to emotions already captured in other artworks, rather than capture them anew.
But in his best poems, Mr. Zagajewski does capture them. Unsurprisingly, these tend to be the poems about Poland and his childhood, realms that he experiences directly, unmediated by culture. In "Long Street," he employs his gift for surprising, witty metaphors to describe a remembered Krakow street: "a street of dwarves and giants, creaking bikes, / a street of small towns clustered / in one room, napping after lunch, / heads dropped on a soiled tablecloth...." The drama of homecoming, after a lifetime filled with so much experience and reflection, is very moving, and gives "Eternal Enemies" its beautifully autumnal quality. As Mr. Zagajewski writes in "Star":
I'm not the young poet who wrote
too many lines
and wandered in the maze
of narrow streets and illusions.
The sovereign of clocks and shadows
has touched my brow with his hand,
but still I'm guided by
a star by brightness
and only brightness
can undo or save me.
David Yezzi, an American poet who is executive editor of the New Criterion (where, I hasten to disclose, he has sometimes edited me), is a generation younger than Mr. Zagajewski, and in his new book, "Azores" (Ohio University Press, 56 pages, $24.95), autumn is just starting to cast its shadows. "He's not so young or so nave to think / his death would be that wry or notable," Mr. Yezzi writes in "In the Morning," one of several poems dealing with emblematic experiences in adult life — in this case, a domestic quarrel: "In the morning, he argued with his wife," the poem begins. Such fights do not lead, usually, to any tragic rupture or dramatic infidelity. The irony of maturity lies in the contrast between our violent feelings and our safely regulated behavior. This kind of irony is Mr. Yezzi's province:
He thought then of a book he'd read last week,
in which a character takes his own life
by hammering a pair of scissors through
his sternum with the heel of his shoe.
He felt the flesh above his heart and tried
to visualize the passage of the blades.
He looked down at his shoes. The toes were scuffed.
Those scuffed shoes could never commit such an outrageous act of violence. But that doesn't mean the impulse to violence doesn't exist, or can't be imagined; and it is his ability to make us believe in both sides of the balance, the passion and the restraint, that makes Mr. Yezzi a genuinely civilized poet. The same balance is struck in the book's title sequence, "Azores," in which a sailing trip across the Atlantic is simultaneously a sexual adventure, and the dream of one:
Hove to: the tiller lashed and set against
a backing foresail trimmed to contradict
a strong impulse to fall off from the wind:
two canceling passions, each one meant to end
the other's outsized wish to turn away
and toward: each countermands the other's sway,
until the bow lies flummoxed in the gale,
stunned and bleating, as the rigging flails
and, heaving, we lie on the cabin floor.
Like Hart Crane's "Voyages," "Azores" is suffused with the eroticism of the sea. Unlike Crane, Mr. Yezzi concludes by recognizing that "we are not suited to live long at sea," that our "lust for water" is countered by a "fidelity to land." The sophistication of Mr. Yezzi's language perfectly suits the sophistication of his understanding, and some of the poems in "Azores" — "Very Like a Whale," "Dog's Life," the brilliant and unexpected dramatic monologue "The Ghost-Seer" — display a mastery reminiscent of Philip Larkin and Donald Justice, which no poet of Mr. Yezzi's generation can match. Anyone who enjoys those great civilized poets should read this one.
Mr. Kirsch's second collection of poems, "Invasions," will be published this week by Ivan R. Dee.