In the Zoo of the New

The Triumph of Achilles

by Louise Glück
Ecco Press, 60 pp., $13.50

Local Time

by Stephen Dunn
Morrow/Quill, 110 pp., $6.95

Cats of the Temple

by Brad Leithauser
Knopf, 70 pp., $7.95 (paper)

Thomas and Beulah

by Rita Dove
Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 79 pp., $6.95 (paper)

The catchall nature of the label “lyric poetry” is put into relief by four such different species of the genus as the books under review. A duckbill platypus, a panda, a whale, and a monkey, gazed at, do not immediately suggest the label “mammal.” And what we remember, visually, of these animals is not their uninteresting potential for lactation but their wonderful singularity of appearance. In the zoo of the new (Sylvia Plath’s phrase) the four books under review are arresting forms. Of their authors, two (Dunn and Glück) are in midcareer, while Dove and Leithauser, both in their thirties, are publishing third and second books respectively. In writing briefly about each of these poets, I want to take up the aims of lyric as they become visible in their work.

Louise Glück has tried in her poetry to give experience the permanent form of myth. Hers is the sort of lyric poetry that turns away from specific details and observations (names, places, dates, quotidian details—what Lowell, for instance, made the stuff of poetry) to an abstract plane, sometimes narrative, as in the Greek myths, sometimes archetypal, as in the encounter of Man with Woman. The tendency for lyric to turn mythical is often irritating to readers who yearn for biography (Who was the Fair Youth? Who was the Dark Lady? Who, for that matter, was Shakespeare?) as if facts would resolve meaning. We all began as sophomores in this respect; but we learn as we read more poetry that it is possible for novelistic detail to obscure, rather than reveal, fictive experience—that the lean shape of myth is the nakedness guaranteeing all stories.

A better argument for mythical lyric is that the beauty possible in mythical or archetypal poetry—with its own lexicon and thesaurus of images—is different from the beauty of the historical quotidian (which too has a lexicon of its own, a specific museum of images). In the treatment of Christian anecdote, for instance, there have always been what one could call artists of essence (those, e.g., who painted hieratic crucifixions showing a monumental and untormented Christ in glory on the cross) and, on the other side, artists of the actual (those who painted crucifixions exhibiting a tortured corpse in a realistic social setting).

The chief obstacle in writing mythical or archetypal poetry is that the story is already known, its conclusion familiar. Interest consequently has to center almost entirely on interpretation and manner. (It is no accident that Milton, who decided to retell archetypal stories that every literate person already knew by heart, became the poet with the most highly developed manner in our history.) Glück retells, in “Mythic Fragment,” Ovid’s story of the myth of Daphne, saved from Apollo’s advances by her father the river god Peneus, who turned her into a laurel tree. The lyric poet, facing a narrative, must choose the point at which the lyric aria will occur: Glück gives us Daphne’s postmetamorphic voice …

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Letters

It Wasn’t Knopf November 6, 1986