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Poetry in action: Comings and goings; protests and prizes

Sunday, September 07, 2003

The practice of poetry is usually conducted in quiet fashion, but this year has been a media circus, relatively speaking.

It started early, with the Poets Against the War protest in February that caught the White House off-guard and drew national attention.

It continued in May with the news that Ruth Lilly's $100 million literary gift had led to the creation of the Poetry Foundation, the world's wealthiest literary organization. (A Lilly family gift helped create the museum in the Stephen Foster Memorial here in the 1930s.)

Last month, the Library of Congress named Louise Gluck its next poet laureate, replacing Billy Collins. She'll take over in October.

Not long after that announcement, it was revealed that Joseph Parisi had resigned as executive director of the Poetry Foundation less than three months into the job.

Who said poetry is for sissies?

Parisi had been with the foundation's predecessor, the Modern Poetry Association, as editor of its magazine, Poetry, for 20 years. That publication dates to 1912, and many of America's greatest poets have appeared in its pages.

After the Lilly windfall, the organization was restructured and renamed. Among its projects are the Lilly Poetry Prize and Fellowship.

Parisi said he's leaving to pursue writing projects, including the second installment of the history of the magazine. There's been no successor named.

The Gluck appointment appears to be a departure from the recent mold of activist poets laureate, such as Rita Dove, Robert Pinsky and Collins, who used the largely ceremonial post to spread the gospel of verse throughout the land.

The 60-year-old Gluck, however, has kept a low profile during a career that includes the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for "Wild Iris."

"She's not likely to be as active and hands-on as people like Billy Collins," said Ed Ochester, poet and editor of the Pitt Poetry Series at the University of Pittsburgh Press. "I think she will be the other side of the coin to Collins."

Kevin Larimer, associate editor of Poets & Writers magazine, agreed.

"Collins was a very public figure, but I think Gluck could do a lot of good without being as public a persona."

Larimer called her appointment "a pretty positive sign that the Library of Congress wants to represent a wide range of poetic voices and aesthetics."

Gluck was a "safe choice," added Ochester. "She's likely not to roil anyone over there."

Several months after the Poets For Peace protests, Collins expressed his opposition to the Iraq invasion as well. Gluck is expected to return the laureate post to the largely ceremonial and honorific role it was originally given.

Its official responsibilities are confined to organizing an annual reading at the library. It pays $30,000 a year.

"I am not a person with a gift for public forms," Gluck told The Boston Globe. "I'm here to restore the old order."

Both Ochester and Larimer called "Wild Iris," the collection that brought Gluck the Pulitzer, her best work.

Gluck is "widely admired in the field for her language and style," Ochester said. "She's a very smart writer." He added that her work is "quite readable."

Larimer called her poetry "quite beautiful."

Gluck has written eight other collections: "The Seven Ages" (2001); "Vita Nova" (1999); "Ararat"(1990); "The Triumph of Achilles" (1985); "Descending Figure" (1980); "The Garden" (1976); "The House on Marshland" (1975); and "Firstborn" (1968).

She teaches at Williams College but did not earn a college degree. A bit of trivia: Gluck's father invented the X-acto knife. She takes over Oct. 21 with a reading at the library in Washington, D.C.

Collins has returned to teaching. His laureate project, Poetry 180, set up a Web site -- www.loc.gov/poetry/180/ -- aimed at high school students who were encouraged to read a poem daily.

Pinsky, who served the most terms -- three, from 1997-2000 -- of any U.S. laureate, created the Favorite Poem Project that continues under the library's direction today. He crisscrossed the country holding public programs featuring readings of poetry lovers' favorite works.

His successor was Stanley Kunitz, who at 96, understandably, kept his activities to a minimum.

One final poetry note: National Endowment for the Arts chief Dana Gioia, himself a poet, has distributed nearly $1 million to poets and translators of poetry this year.

However, Gioia's focus appears to be on the theater. He recently announced "Shakespeare in American Communities," a project to send six regional theater companies coast-to-coast presenting the works of the English playwright.

It starts this month.


Bob Hoover can be reached at bhoover@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1634.

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