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Selection of Poems

A “selected poems” represents one story among many, the larger inventory from which it comes having had the potential to combine in countless ways to become any number of narratives. To select 100 poems from twenty-nine books is thus not only to condense a poetic career but more fundamentally to misrepresent it. That is the sin of the editor, one that Cogswell knew well. But “circumstance,” one of the twin villains in this world (Cogswell, “In This World...” 50), necessitates such condensations and the false readings and emphases they inevitably impose. Still, all editors of collections such as this one have an obligation to present a writer in what the editor determines to be characteristic fashion, balancing the poet’s best work with his most representative. If an editor doesn’t know his subject thoroughly enough to do that, he has no business attempting the task.

In choosing these 100 poems, I have tended toward the lyrical and personal impulses in Cogswell more than the speculative or philosophical. As such, I have favoured the preoccupations, though not the poetry, of his earlier career. To some, that may seem like an error, for Cogswell, like Louis Dudek, turned his poetry increasingly toward the meditative in later life. With that turn, however, came no dimming of the generative impulse that is most characteristic of Cogswell’s best work. He called that impulse “energism” (“Energism” 37), referring to it metaphorically as the enlivening friction by which humans seek freedom from the quotidian. That friction is best displayed in Cogswell’s personal rather than speculative poems, and is still evident in his later work, such as the poem “Sarcoma” about his oldest daughter’s death:

In this way sarcoma took my daughter’s life
And made into a brainless virus’ food
What once was normal, healthy flesh and bone,
In time reduced her strong, athletic form
To status of a wheel-chair resident
And added pain with which no nerves could cope.

I grieve her death; grieve life and death dependent
Upon each other’s form and scope for food;
But live because there’s murder in my blood. (28)

The Irish poet W.B. Yeats, a Cogswell favourite, wrote similarly in “Sailing to Byzantium” that “An aged man is but a paltry thing, / A tattered coat upon a stick, unless / Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing / For every tatter in its mortal dress” (10). Cogswell sang to the end, and his singing is always a straighter path to his soul than his speculations. Hence the choice of poems in this collection.


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