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Illinois Issues Summer Book Section

Poetry from the sane side of life


Benchmark: Anthology of Contemporary Illinois Poetry.
Urbana: Stormline Press, Inc., 1988.
Pp. 331. $11.95 (paper).

Michael Van Walleghen. Blue Tango.
Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989.
Pp. 87. $8.95 (paper).

Dennis Schmitz. Eden.
Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989.
Pp. 54. $8.95 (paper).

The anthology can be a very practical vehicle for poetry because it offers the widest sampling for the money. Lately, however, editors have often adulterated the anthology form. A recent local example, Benchmark: Anthology of Contemporary Illinois Poetry, is as far from the Greek anthos + logia (literally, flower gathering) as one is likely to find. It fails on several fronts because, by definition, anthologies are supposed to be inclusive, not exclusive.

I question the editors' and judges' apparently conscious decision to ignore the diversity of poetry in Illinois. Most anthologists at least acknowledge the contemporary "prismatic" canon by

The poems in Blue Tango
are like a child's
'round dance,'
including the poet
and the child-within
that most poets harbor

including more than token representation of minority writers, while a growing number move beyond that and into reflecting the multicultural nature of American poetry as well as experience.

The Illinois anthology showcases instead the next crop of regional poets "cultivated" (in its strictest sense) by the more established professor-poets whose nihil obstat, or authoritative approval, can only stunt the poetry of the 21st century. I maintain that Benchmark reinforces the erroneous idea that Illinois poetry is (almost exclusively) a white, middle-class, professorial craft.

This is a national trend, so I turn to the individual poetry collection of a wordworker — regardless of background – with whose craft I am familiar through singly published poems or favorable book reviews in small press literary journals. Michael Van Walleghen's poetry has received a great deal of attention since he was awarded the Lamont Prize, an annual honor for a poet's second collection of verse. Blue Tango, Van Walleghen's third collection, is like a romp through an amusement park. His preference for short lines and short stanzas in his poems quickens the reading eye; in turn, the accelerating reading pace adds brevity and child-like giddiness to the work's effect.

Right from the start, he gives us a narrator who is young and precocious enough to enjoy the finer things in life: the various ways to kill a trapped rat in a barrel or the sights and sounds of a bowling ball careening down an alley from the pinboy's point of view. Van Walleghen's poems seem less grounded in an exact place than in an overall sense of topography: the plains of the Midwest, where a farm may be called "Tranquil Acres" or where the teenagers go to neck in "Kickapoo Park." Each poem is centered by the recollection of activity: trying to row a "keening ore-boat," or walking through a dark barn with only "the flashlight/sputtering like a wet match."

Van Walleghen effectively evokes adolescent experiences with sheer delight. I, too, can only look back at such times from an adult's distance, but Van Walleghf makes it work so convincingly. The poems in Blue Tango are like a child's "round dance," including the poet and the child

July 1989 | Illinois Issues | 32

Chicago: State & Van Buren

Pupet-woman pulled to tiptoe
sings gospel
in a man's counterfeited voice.
It's almost dusk,
but you can see sneakers down

under the cloth backdrop; you can see
strings let down through sky-holes
twitch her into an alto

"How Great Thou Art."
Loop theaters wink out of the Chicago collage
the street guy named Apostle
pasted behind his box-sized stage —
minute world, the focus

concentrates desire not belief.
A tired clerk turns off the power
in Goldblatt's southwest window

behind Apostle & begins to undress
a dummy, first
skinning off the checked skirt.

© Dennis Schmitz, from Eden

within that most poets harbor.

More importantly, Van Walleghen's poems display wit, a precarious balance between intellect and humor. "Starship Lands in Cornfield!" is already one of my favorite poems in this book.

The witty poem seems to be making a return in contemporary poetry, which I believe is a hopeful affirmation, helping to counter our hyper-awareness of apocalyptic atomics and its nihilistic representation in art. Most of the poems that come from the poetic "mainstream" march their narators across our minds' eyes like erudite saints on the way to recreate their martyrdoms. Poets, professor-poets and readers of poetry will find themselves refreshed by well-crafted verse like Van Walleghen's; poems like this help us stay both human and sane.

On a more academic note but with far from an erudite voice, Dennis Schmitz's Eden offers poetry that is distinctly imaginistic and associative. However, I find that Schmitz's linear narrative sometimes becomes convoluted, too associative. I have to stop and backtrack before I begin to understand where he is taking his reader in many poems.

Schmitz's poem "Chicago: State & Van Buren" is more straightforward than most of his works. Interestingly, it appears in Part II of the book, "Fictions," the only one of three parts of the book to be identified by a subtitle. How are we to take the poems in this section as fictions? Narrative qualities run through Schmitz's poems in the other sections, so such a subtitle creates only confusion, at least for me.

I must also add that I do not always find Schmitz's poems opening up for me, or else I do not open up for them. Nevertheless, each work is extremely well-crafted and enjoyable to read, particularly aloud. If Schmitz were to give a poetry reading, I would be front row and center, because I did not fully appreciate "Chicago: State & Van Buren" and other poems in the book until I read them aloud. Lines like "[a] tired clerk turns off the power/in Goldblatt's southwest window" look flat upon the page, but when the poem is read aloud from the beginning, the quality of the lines is heightened, providing a wistful nature to otherwise prosaic lines. Undoubtedly, Schmitz works his lines with a sharply tuned ear, an aural character which is the music of a poem.

For reasons mentioned earlier, I value and recommend individual books of poetry, like Eden and Blue Tango, over the anthology form. They are meant to capture a reader's attention and draw it toward one poet's work exclusively, which is how I prefer to read poetry. Poetasters and wordmongers abound in anthologies like Benchmark. The poems in this particular anthology are less a tribute to the vitality of Illinois poetry than additional proof of the waning essay form; most of these poets would be better off expressing their ideas in essays because their prosaic and didactic wordiness just doesn't read like poetry. However, wordworkers, like Van Walleghen and Schmitz, show more commitment to the poem form. Unfortunately, that translates into more expense for poetry fans, but if it is any consolation, these two books are a relative bargain.□

Glenn Sheldon is a published poet and a critic of multicultural American literature and contemporary poetry. A former resident of Illinois, Sheldon is currently pursuing his doctorate in Minority Literature at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

July 1989 | Illinois Issues | 33

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