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Life Studies

April is National Poetry Month: time to thank the academy and get out the vote.


Kathleen Norris, author of three books of poetry and three books of autobiography (Dakota, The Cloister Walk, and Amazing Grace), spent four years of college out-of-it and five years at the Academy of American Poets in the thick of it. Both scenes she describes in all honesty, no rancor, splendidly in The Virgin of Bennington -- Bennington being the college in Vermont she attended; virgin being Norris' self-described state upon entering it and, in ways more than one, upon leaving it.

Technically, though, a virgin she was not, having struck up a sexual relationship (discounting an earlier crush on a fellow female student) with that most dependable of love objects, given the time (the mid-'60s) and the place (a small, very expensive, very East Coast, very arty liberal arts college): a professor. The man goes nameless, not blameless, but Norris wastes no pages getting back at him and instead gets on with it, it being the story of a supersensitive girl whose bright idea of a good time, age 16, was watching Through a Glass Darkly accompanied by a dog-eared copy of The Sickness unto Death.

The politicized, sexualized, "aggressively au courant milieu" of Bennington taught her one thing, however: how not to read a poem, how not to make it a mere "puzzle," a subject for "pitiless dissection," a "problem to be solved using intellectual means." She went the opposite extreme -- to steeping herself in the Romantics, "which meant becoming immersed in heady notions of the poet as mystic, seer, lover, hierophant, drunk, and all-around screw-up, an identity just foolhardy enough to attract [her] at the time." Exit college. Enter Elizabeth Kray.

Kray did not establish New York's Academy of American Poets, but she did greatly expand its financial base, its visibility, and its mission to fund and defend poets and poetry's practical place in people's lives. She set up prizes. She set up high-school programs. She set up reading tours. She set up translations of foreign poets' work. And she set up Kathleen Norris, who calls Kray her "mentor," a "force," the best reader she ever had, and one of two women (the other being the academy's founder, Marie Bullock) who "indelibly changed the landscape for poetry in America." From 1969 to 1974 Norris also called her boss.

The job was tailor-made, one that required Norris to attend poetry readings several times a week ("my idea of heaven on earth"), attend to the poets themselves (screw-ups included), and attend to office chores ("behind a mask of efficiency"). But this "ideal" life was itself "a kind of fiction," a "retreat from the pressures of having to create a life," a perfect place for one who "often acted," Norris writes, "as if I had made a pact not to be present in my own life." The mere purchase of salt and pepper shakers in big, bad New York could fill Norris "with trepidation." Imagine then the will it took for her to answer the office phone. (When finally forced to, it was "Mr. Auden" on the other end, on a pay phone, down to his last coins, stuck on Long Island. Norris succeeded in very efficiently cutting him off.)

The will to establish a personal life during these years took its own turns, though, quite outside anyone's definition of virginity and, in the case of this book, quite good if your goal is good copy: brief affairs, longer friendships with Gerard Malanga (poet and photographer, "prince and punk") and Jim Carroll (heroin addict but sweet); nightspots ranging from that "state-of-the-art den of iniquity" Max's Kansas City to what must count, in its day, as ground zero: the women's bathroom at Sanctuary (where a transvestite offered the author makeup tips, valuable consolation, and one life-altering lesson); buddiedom with Ultra Violet (from whom Norris nearly rented a room) and Andrea Dworkin (with whom Norris shared dorm space); plus guest appearances by Patti Smith, Holly Woodlawn, Jackie Curtis, and yes, some dozens of poets, on and off the reading circuit that Kray masterminded and Norris got very good at publicizing.

Kathleen Norris has done her bit. Now you do yours. Click on to nominate your favorite poet for future stamps from the U.S. Postal Service. The site belongs to the Academy of American Poets, which is alive and well thanks in every part to Elizabeth Kray, lastingly brought to you courtesy of The Virgin of Bennington. -- Leonard Gill

The Penultimate Suitor, By Mary Leader, University of Iowa Press, 76 pp., $13 (paper)

Mary Leader's second volume of poetry, The Penultimate Suitor, winner of the 2000 Iowa Poetry Prize, is a work of stunning ambition and confidence that attempts an array of lyrical forms and manages to rally them toward her singular cause: the explication of the idea that love and art serve as impetus for one another.

Leader, who teaches at the University of Memphis, has a knack for imbuing her poems with a taut emotional focus. It is this focus that allows her to show equal fascination with words and the visual dalliance of those words with the page.

In several poems, Leader becomes an avatar of the obsessive structuring of poets like Dylan Thomas. "Heavy Roses" relies heavily on the @ symbol to represent rosebuds seen from above. One section of this poem is written in the shape of the stain a clipped rose might leave if pressed in a book. The concern with the meaning of the visual as it relates to the art-fraught meaning of what is said proves interesting enough here, but I find the poetic whimsy perhaps a little much.

It seems the use of more visually appealing elements has mitigated the power of some of these poems, in that they are somewhat vain as to their appearance and not necessarily vain as to the importance of what they intend to express. This is most bothersome in one poem, "Depiction of a Game as if by Pieter Brueghel the Elder," which is lovely in its wordplay but not in its ambiguity. Of three sections in this poem, one seems to have actually been verse at one point, but Leader has changed the font to what I can only describe as dingbats, an alphabet of symbols that say little, especially if the piece is to summon Brueghel for the reader.

All this aside, I must allow that Leader is just having some fun with us. My ultimate concern with a book of poetry is that the sum be greater than its parts. I want to be rewarded for giving my full attention to what the poet has to show me. And Leader does reward the keen observer of her lines. It must be said that much of today's poetry is bereft of that simple songlike quality that made poetry poetry ages ago, but Leader hews close to tradition while exploring the other ways the medium affords a poet to express herself and experiment with form.

-- Jeremy Spencer

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