are two American academics - creative writing teachers - and you might have
guessed it from their poetry which is polished and, I think, rather detached.
David Keplinger is an elegant, intellectual poet. The Clearing is his second collection - the
first won the TS Eliot prize in 1999. Perhaps detachment is the wrong word
for the pensive coolness of Keplinger's poetry. There is an understated
compassion in such poems as 'Death Mask of John Keats', 'Clocks Kept Upside
Down...', 'Sleep', and a gentle regret for loneliness and for the failure of
relationships in 'Basic Training', 'North' and 'Late Realism':
Love wants to
be sadness. Therefore,
cannot be saved. The farmers
to ardent prayer. In their cornfields,
A Bronze Age
stalks. The tassels will not fight.
woman who sparked
A forest fire
that spread a hundred miles:
She was a
ranger burning letters from a former love.
burned them out of love
Did not save
the land. The land cannot
Be saved by
us. It does not need the past.
Keplinger is obviously a cultured man who has read widely and travelled.
There are references to Keats, Blake, Cortez, Matisse, Frost, Donne, Darwin,
Chekhov, Lorca; various locations in Europe and America; Egyptian funerary
exhibits - he's certainly a poet who thinks. Quotations from Blake, Eliot,
Meister Eckhart form the starting points for poems. God, angels, death-camps,
the slaughter of pig, fish, chicken are all grist for his questioning mind.
Myth is important too, both existing myth as something to be explored, as in
'Icarus After Matisse', and myth-making as a way of organising ideas, as in
'Correspondences' and 'Attractions'.
He is good at the neat, exact descriptive phrase: 'the small mouse just born
into this world, / Total as a thumb.' ('Elegy for the Precious Time Before
Dinner'); 'Pay attention to the crow. / The windpipe / With its tiny rungs.'
('Instructions for the Lost'); 'The corn, like frail miraculous cilia,
wheezes / Whenever wind spears through those narrow alleys.' ('Breast Exam');
'The small TV atop the mantle // Blabbed like in a basket in the clouds;'
('The Birth of Tragedy')
Keplinger's poems need to be read more than once, and preferably slowly, at
the rate of three or four a day. I found them dry at first but they grew on
I might prefer Hugh Seidman, who is clearly older. Somebody Stand Up and
Sing is the
latest of several collections. But I didn't. Again, I was looking for some
sort of emotional communication and I didn't get it. The poems tend to be
sophisticated, urban, cerebral. I found the collection over-long and the
poems often seemed 'bitty'.
However, Seidman has many strengths. He is a master of conciseness, which I
like. Quite often his lines contain only two or three words. A number of very
short poems such as haikus are included in the collection. I admired some of
year's pay in
from 'Filthy Lucre')
face bones; black
hair not white-blonde.
How dark a
from '5 Poems')
Others passed me by:
from 'Composition: 7 Poems')
Very terse lines can be puzzling as in these first three stanzas of 'Ally,
to keep up.
One came in
And sometimes the poem feels like jottings - notes towards a poem rather than
the thing itself. 'Burial Garden Memorial: Father-in-law' starts:
Granddaughter's clarinet "Rock of Ages."
brother's Armageddon eulogy.
The poems cover or at least mention a wide range of topics - serious ones,
important ones - father, mother, wife, previous girlfriends; homeless,
mutilated or dying people; Biafra, Sudan, Freetown, Hiroshima; but rarely do
the poems move me. As I read them I tend to feel baffled. Am I missing
something? But some poems do work for me. The spareness of 'Thinking of
Warsaw' and 'Thinking of Baghdad' can't disguise the poet's outrage and