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Asking Questions Year By Year With 'Poems For The Twentieth Century'


For his latest poetry collection, MacArthur fellow Campbell McGrath gave himself a challenge - write one poem for every year between 1900 and 2000. Appropriately enough, the book is called "XX: Poems For The Twentieth Century." Tess Taylor has our review.

TESS TAYLOR, BYLINE: Campbell McGrath's whizzing, ambitious project captures each of the 20th century's years in the voice of some great cultural icon. 1904 goes to Henry Ford, 1950 to Charlie Parker, 1937 to the painting "Guernica." 1963 goes to Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, 1996 to Dolly the cloned sheep, and 1998 goes to Bob Dylan.

While this might sound a bit like Time Life journalism, reading McGrath's whole collage is to revel in panorama, to hang out in a pleasant, buzzy (ph) fast-forward, like watching time-lapse clouds move across the sky.

How recently the Berlin wall came down. How recently we did not have a word for hyperlink. How recently Einstein was developing relativity and Matisse was playing with what McGrath calls planes of joyful, unfettered color. Leaping between the folk lore of Zora Neal Hurston and the ciphers of Gertrude Stein, we, too, are in the thrall of newness, even if some of the newness is already 100 years old.

This book can make you feel smart on the cheap. You don't have to have read Derrida to enjoy the shard-like poem to him that inhabits the year 1970. This a book of ideas. But even more than this, it is a book for velocity itself. You only have to get caught up in its sweep.

Not everything is weighted evenly. Hitler and Stalin get no poems, while Mao gets many. Some figures make one appearance, while Picasso makes 11. Meanwhile, McGrath also inserts his own teenage self, a bit like a Renaissance master would in some 15th-century "Last Supper."

The century is gaining traction, the century is full of steam, trains are running down the tracks of Einstein's imagination, says the poem for 1905. (Reading) Suppose he could run beside a beam of light at its own pace. What would he see? Who constitutes an objective observer? What is the fixed measure? Where is the point of rest, McGrath asks. We hold our breath. We still don't know.

CORNISH: That's Tess Taylor reviewing "XX: Poems For The Twentieth Century" by Campbell McGrath. Taylor's newest book comes out in April. It is called "Work And Days." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tess Taylor
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