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On Poetry

Perhaps the greatest generation

By David Barber
Globe Correspondent / February 7, 2010

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Was it something in the water? Classifying artists by generation is an inexact science at best, but by just about any calculation it’s safe to say that the Prohibition years produced a bumper crop of major American poets the likes of which make practically any other epoch look like a dry spell. If it’s all but impossible to cram them all into one big tent, their clustered birth dates nonetheless seem to affirm that their times were ripe for letting 1,000 flowers bloom. And if their ranks have inevitably thinned of late, those who are still with us continue to serve notice that it’s premature to close the book on their estimable era.

John Ashbery, born in 1927, has been bewitching, bothering, and bewildering readers since the first Eisenhower administration, and he shows no sign of slowing down: A dozen new collections of his trademark cognitive dissonance have appeared in the past 20 years, in addition to such curatorial editions of earlier work as last year’s 1,000-page doorstop in the Library of America series. What’s the secret to his staying power? That’s anybody’s guess, but let’s just say that Ashbery’s brute productivity has done nothing to diminish his legendary inscrutability, nor sap his notorious zest for playing havoc with nearly every convention and fixed idea about poetry under the sun.

For all that, it’s hard to imagine Ashbery conjuring up anything that can really shock or surprise us anymore. His industrious longevity has by now made his subversive novelty feel all too strangely familiar, and the modus operandi that once seemed to personify willful obscurity has made a seamless transition to something approaching effortless artifice. No matter: There’s never been much middle ground when it comes to taking a stand on Ashbery, so while “Planisphere’’ isn’t liable to win him new converts, it surely won’t disappoint the faithful either.

Assembled alphabetically by title, from “Alcove” to “Zymurgy,” the 99 compact poems are laid out for inspection like a boxed set of embossed calling cards, the latest installment of a runic style that has long since gone viral but for better or worse unmistakably remains the original model. After all this time, nobody does meta better or makes word-happy mystification look half as fun.

Philip Levine, born 1928, ranks as Ashbery’s peer in having no truck with genteel dotage, but that’s just about where any similarity ends. Born in Detroit back when Henry Ford’s assembly lines were still the heartbeat of industrial America, Levine made his name half a lifetime ago as our foremost Rust Belt elegist, a bare-knuckled vernacular poet whose odes to working-class travails and immigrant aspirations are indelibly distinguished by their fierce moral urgency and their pensive lyric intensity. Although he taught college for many years in California’s Central Valley and now divides his time between Fresno and Brooklyn, Levine’s poetry remains almost preternaturally grounded in its genius loci - an erstwhile promised land that’s at once an epic American dreamscape and “an actual place in the actual city / where we all grew up.”

All the more remarkable, then, that in his 17th full-length collection Levine gives little indication that he’s close to exhausting his primal material or losing his grip on his ruling passions. “News of the World’’ may have all the earmarks of a valedictory testament, what with its autumnal ruminations on personal history and its haunted remembrances of things past, yet Levine is too canny a craftsman to settle for dutiful curtain calls, and too much the hard-bitten ironist to fall prey to false nostalgia. If certain obsessions here are bound to strike longtime readers as old news (innocence and experience, manual labor and class struggle), the visceral language that fleshes the poems out still feels hot off the press.

Gary Snyder turns 80 this year, and the mind reels a little at the thought. Has it really been half a century since his slim volumes of sinewy, gnomic poems began to get stuffed into backpacks and hunkered over in beatnik hangouts as totems of higher consciousness, ecological enlightenment, and Bohemian hipness? No amount of revisionist history is likely to emancipate Snyder from his cult status as a spiritual godfather of the counterculture, but as the newly reissued edition of his first book attests, it’s his writerly prowess at making his authentic presence felt on the page that made him a force to be reckoned with in the first place.

Originally printed in Kyoto in 1959 where he was then living as a disciple of Zen Buddhism, “Riprap’’ broke new ground in a radically different spirit than the landmark collections of confessional verse by Robert Lowell (“Life Studies’’) and W.D. Snodgrass (“Heart’s Needle’’) published the same year: scrupulously composed poems of concise surfaces and contemplative depths that implicitly linked the life of the mind to living off the grid. About 10 years later the book would be packaged with a clutch of Snyder’s deft translations of the T’ang poet Han-Shan’s “Cold Mountain Poems.” To revisit the book all these decades later (and to listen to Snyder intoning the poems with flinty aplomb on the accompanying CD) is to appreciate its lasting value as something more telling than a period artifact: paradigm-shifting wordsmithing that already marks the young poet as a master of free-verse and a rare American savant in non-Western modes of expression and perception, still earning its keep with no trace of moss or rust.

David Barber is poetry editor of The Atlantic and the author of ”Wonder Cabinet.”

PLANISPHERE By John Ashbery

Ecco, 160 pp., $24.99

NEWS OF THE WORLD By Philip Levine

Knopf, 80 pp., $25

RIPRAP AND COLD MOUNTAIN POEMS

By Gary Snyder

Counterpoint, 96 pp., $24