“More Poems from Maine: Take Heart”

Wesley McNair, editor

Down East Books/Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, Maryland, 2016

200 pages, hardback, $18.95

Poetry anthologies, in our day and age, are kind of a routine item in most literary circles because we’ve all grown up with them. If you took a literature class in college, chances are you read out of an anthology – a Norton anthology, or a poetry anthology like the “Pocket Book of Modern Verse,” a tattered copy of which I have dragged to far corners of the Earth over the past 35 years.

Actually, anthologies go back long before they burgeoned in the 20th century. Our word anthology comes from the Greek words “anthos,” or flower, and “legein,” to gather or pick up. So an anthology is a gathering of flowers, according to the ancient Greeks, who started compiling books of epigrams on particular subjects or by particular poets as early as the 300s BC. Such work went on more or less continuously in Europe after that, through Roman and medieval times and into the Renaissance, when the printing press changed reading routines at least as profoundly as computers have in the past 30 years.

In the 19th century poetry appeared pretty frequently in newspapers and magazines, and while anthologies circulated too, they really took off in the 20th century, largely in response to the growing numbers of college students who were required to get some grounding in how their language works and what its most powerful effects can be.

While poetry anthologies ballooned in number, you don’t see many poems in newspapers any more, though Maine had the Bangor Daily News’s weekly Uni-Verse column in recent years, and Wesley McNair, just off his tenure as Maine’s fourth poet laureate, in 2011 instituted the Take Heart column, which has found a place in many of Maine’s newspapers for a poem each week. “More Poems from Maine: Take Heart” is McNair’s second gathering of those weekly offerings.

Literature lifts the heart, to paraphrase William Faulkner. Flowers do that naturally, which is the main reason people keep them around, and so does the best poetry — even (or especially?) when its topics are morally or spiritually grueling. Read a poem and “take heart,” advised the poet laureate every week, and the anthologies enable us to keep them around permanently.

The poems in “More Poems from Maine” are arranged thematically in five sections: “What It’s Like There,” “What the Creatures Say,” “A Journey of One,” “What Happened Back Then,” and “Together and Apart.” Three of the most popular American poets of all time — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Edwin Arlington Robinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay, all Mainers — are represented. “No matter what I say, / All that I really love / Is the rain that flattens on the bay,” begins Millay’s “Eel-grass” near the beginning, just following the opening poem, “Home,” by Dawn Potter, of Harmony.

As the section titles and the first poems suggest, most of the book is reflecting different glints and angles of life as it’s lived in Maine. Former Maine poet laureate Kate Barnes’ “Another Full Moon” begins with an image oft experienced hereabouts but ne’er so well expressed:

The house, lit by moonlight

on the snow, glows inside

like a huge jewel

And in “Coyotes” by Leslie Moore, of Belfast, another unforgettable image true to the nature of the place:

They hug the margins of fields,

slip into creases between trees,

glide across gravel roads at dawn or dusk,

bellies close to the ground, tails

trailing. We hardly know they are here …

You could select out any number of gorgeous lines like this from any number of Maine’s most skillful and affecting poets — Patricia Ranzoni, of Bucksport; former laureate Betsy Sholl, of Portland; Tom Sexton, who divides his time between Eastport and Alaska; the wry observations on nature of Robert Chute, of Poland; the good-humored twists in the poetry of Carl Little, of Ellsworth, and in “Why I have a Crush on You, UPS Man” by Alice N. Persons, of Westbrook, and “Chick Magnets” by Thomas Moore, of Belfast.

Too many poems to mention in this limited space. A bouquet, you might say, and not have carried the metaphor too far. A nice local contribution to a long, heartening tradition.

Off Radar takes note of books with Maine connections every other week. Contact Dana Wilde at [email protected].