Breaking out the big guns
The gathering of the five U.S. poet laureates was never meant as a contest, although a few poets viewed it that way. David Messineo, founder and editor of Sensations literary magazine, reported his take on the events of that night. He had made it to the festival late on the last day -- although in previous years he and his staff had maintained a tent where they distributed information about their magazine.
"It was the first time in 6 years I had the opportunity to hear the Poet Laureates read," he informed me later. "I heard the full programs by Rita Dove, Robert Haas, Robert Pinsky, Stanley Kunitz, and Billy Collins. I thought Pinsky was the best of the five: his poem "The Shirt" was fantastic, and a poem he did related to September 11 was one of the best I've heard on the subject. I liked the different cultures and perspectives that Rita Dove brought to her work."
This was the second time he had heard Stanley Kunitz, and thought the over 90-year old poet "presented an excellent set"
"The Layers was my favorite. However, Jim Haba (Festival Director) was wrong when he introduced Kunitz by saying Kunitz was `the only poet writing in the English language to have a book published after the age of 90.' I believe that honor also goes to Daniel Green, whose fourth book Post Script was published at the age of 93. I know this because Mr. Green has been published (where else?) in Sensations Magazine (no offense to Stanley, of course). I felt Robert Haas' work was a bit too dense. Perhaps it was the humidity and the heat in the big top tent, but I had more trouble focusing on his poems than those of the others. I think I would appreciate them more on the page, in a quiet, air-conditioned room. As for Billy Collins, he did his usual thing, offering excellent poetry and deadpan delivery. 'Nostalgia' was one of my favorites, along with one that has a line that says `You are definitely not the pine-scented air.' My main argument about the Dodge Festival is that it's good for what it does, but it could do so much more to support NJ literary magazines and local poets. I think they should have an hour where the Dodge Festival selects 12 "local NJ" poets to perform 5 minutes each - and forces the Poet Laureates to stay and listen to the local talent. I'm not into the hierarchical structuring it and other poetry institutions try to create for American poetry: like creating an elitist class of haves and have nots. The "haves" get to read in the big top for close to 1000 people: the "have nots" get an open reading in a distant gazebo, with 20-50 listening, clamoring for the microphone like piranha to the smell of blood."
For me, the last set was the grand finale of a particularly potent poetry festival. I felt a mounting sense of anticipation leading up to the afternoon when each in turn would step up to the podium for his or her presentation. Each came in the order in which they had served in the post: Rita Dove, Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, Stanley Kunitz and Billy Collins. Sentimental feelings of the public would have had Kunitz last, the grandfather of contemporary poetry whose work bridged a century of great poetic change. His thin voice was thick with traditions no longer in fashion, yet so full of energy; he could not be ignored. His was the voice of a time past, and his eyes bore visions of hope few of us could maintain in a world full of terrorists and future warfare. Kunitz's poetry seemed unable to satisfy in me the growing hunger for order his time had known, and ours never would. Seated among the 2,000 or more spectators, I felt as if I glimpsed the fading past in him, and felt a swelling of nostalgia rise up in me for his era.
Rita Dove and Robert Hass did not touch me at all, although I appreciated their technical abilities. Each were as devoid of contact with my world as I was with Kunitz's -- as if we all lived on different plants, using language and image, but without the necessary devices to provide emotional translations.
Pinsky and Collins reached me best, but both for different reasons. Collins reminded me of a Cole Porter with his clever and witty poems, none of which went very deep, yet managed to shape tiny portraits of a particular scene. His poems were like peanuts. You could listen to one after another in an endless sequence, enjoying their momentary pleasure without feeling filled up by their accumulation.
Pinsky's poetry reached deeper (whether or not these succeeded I'm not wise enough to tell). Instead of being the Cole Porter of poetry, Pinsky was George Gershwin, (whose modern combination of jazz and folk encompassed the feelings of our culture in a way few had previous to him). Pinsky seemed to define us as a generation, his poetry climbing out of personal diatribes into that rare stratosphere of national monument. He wasn't talking about himself (although he was contained in that monument), but of a passage of a people through uncertain times. He didn't merely seek to find a vision of his our own, but to define us as a society.
Again, I am hardly wise enough to know if he succeeded. But his poems felt right.