June 4, 2009

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Essential Pleasures: A New Anthology of Poems to Read Aloud, edited by Robert Pinsky, Norton, 2009, 488 pages
It may sound strange, but generally poets do not know how to read poetry aloud. There’s always a lot of rolling Rs and “Acting!” waving about. But there are a few who will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. No one can read “The Wasteland” like T. S. Eliot himself, and the recordings of him doing just that are scary amazing. Garrison Keillor can read a laundry list and make it sound meaningful.

And then there’s Robert Pinsky. Perhaps it’s because the former poet laureate has spent so much of his career bringing sound to words through his favorite poem project or the readoutloud.net Web site that he seems particularly fitted to tackle some of the world’s major poems. In this new anthology Pinsky does three things very well. First, he organizes the collection into thematic sections that emphasize particularly vocal elements of the selected poems: short lines, ballads, repetitions, odes, etc. Second, he provides brief introductions to the sections to prepare the listener to hear certain tones, phrases or word selections that make the poem a classic. And finally, a CD is included with Pinsky reading those works.

And what a selection; Pinsky knows his poetic history and “Essential Pleasures” is a dream team of literally all of poetry’s major players, from Emerson to Whitman to Shakespeare. What’s even better is that even though the selected poetry may be from the world’s most famous poets, the poems themselves are lesser known, chosen by Pinsky for their relationship to sound. No “Mending Walls” or “Road Less Taken” here. Instead, the first poem in the anthology by Frost is “Dust of Snow,” a mere eight-line ditty that Pinsky reads with feverish passion that I’ll bet would even raise Frost’s considerable eyebrows. And make no mistake, the CD is the real treat here. Pinsky takes his time, lingering over each piece. Like a foodie relishing each bite, Pinsky absorbs the weight and meaning of each poem, yet manages to stay true to his own cadence.

He even manages to make Emily Dickinson sound interesting. Well done, sir!

The price tag on this collection is the only reason to hesitate, and even that is a small reason. This collection works for a family volume, a casual reader or a scholar looking to delve more deeply. Pinsky’s readings are lively and vital, and this anthology is one of the best to appear in a long, long time. ADan Szczesny