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Two contemporary poets. Graham and Jennings: poles apart in form and subject

The End of Beauty, by Jorie Graham. New York: Ecco Press. 99 pp. $16.50. Collected Poems, 1953-1985, by Elizabeth Jennings. New York: Carcanet. 213 pp. $10.50, paperback.

The contrast couldn't be sharper. Jorie Graham, a young American poet schooled in France, her new book already making literary history as an exploration of the perhaps unraveling edge of poetic art. And Elizabeth Jennings, a British poet active since the '50s but only now being widely recognized, her fiercely traditional ``Collected Poems'' having won the W.H. Smith Literary Award for 1987.

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Graham and Jennings represent the poles of contemporary poetry.

Graham's poems sprawl on the page, visually antithetical to the tight, songlike patterns of words produced by Jennings. Graham sometimes divides her poems into one-line units and numbers them. But the unit is that of thought and sensation, not grammar; the syntax often runs on into the next numbered line. The music of her words is based on repetition, on starts and stalls, on fluttering hesitations and hoverings, and abrupt falls. Her favorite punctuation is the question mark.

Jennings prefers closed forms. Her poems sit in the middle of the page like verses on a greeting card. Brimming with life, the poems are brief as songs; roughly 200 pages of text yield, including translations from Michelangelo and Rimbaud, just over 300 poems.

These formal differences extend to subject matter. Jennings's short poems concentrate a life's experience (during the period covered by this volume, fewer than 10 poems a year). Taking experience as a starting point, Jorie Graham's poems are more speculative. She uses her new forms to explore the thought process they make visible. In ``Pollock and Canvas,'' she starts with the great ``action painter'' Jackson Pollock, whose huge canvases were strewn - artfully! - with paint in sinewy lines that have been called calligraphic. The poem discusses, as it exemplifies, Pollock's notion that modern art does not refer to subject matter ``outside'' the piece, but works ``from within.''

Alert to contemporary theory, Graham has a penchant for visualizing abstractions. ``What we want is to paint nothing how can one paint nothing?'' she asks, then goes on to define ``the look of spontaneity'' as a ``girl,'' and, in a tantalizing phrase, imagines the moment of change ``as the possible slips off the shoulders of the true....''

Throughout her book, Graham artfully avoids statement and definition, prizing rather the moment of hesitation, of delay, of the still blank canvas. She's iconoclastic in her attitude toward ``shape'' - one of her favorite words; and the ``girl'' that haunts these pages is as coy and shy as a classic nymph.

If Graham is ultimately a tease, Jennings may appear artless. Far from it!

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Jennings was as much a part of the scene in the '50s as Graham is in the '80s. Her often anthologized and very moving poem from that period, ``One Flesh,'' is about her parents ``lying apart now, each in a separate bed''; it suited the realism of the times.

But Jennings has continued to change, not only with the times, but in keeping with her strengths. She's one of the finest love poets since Thomas Hardy (1840-1928). Like Hardy, she concentrates the essence of experience into language so plain that it seems almost anti-poetic. ``There is a shyness that we have,'' she writes in ``Love Poem,'' ``Only with those whom we most love.''

In ``Shall All the Loves,'' a complicated triadic stanza becomes sinuous in her probing of hope beyond hope, the ``dark parenthesis'' of waiting for love's return.

The paradox: Starting with the stiffest, most conventional of means, Jennings produces passionately plain, yet subtly qualified, statements about art and life. Jennings loves the discipline of the self-portrait. In ``Rembrandt's Late Self-Portraits,'' she writes, ``...Your brush's care/ Runs with self-knowledge. Here/ Is a humility at one with craft.'' And: ``...To paint's to breathe,/ And all the darknesses are dared.''

In a series of animal poems, Jennings finds aspects of her essential self in sparrows, field mice, hedgehogs, sheep. Her sense of humor does not fail her. She's also a fine devotional poet.

All the many things she does so well reduce to this: ``...paring simplicities to a peace no Emperor was ever enticed by or even dreamed of'' (from ``A Chinese Sage''). Deliberately minor, Jennings has become one of the touchstones of life and art.

It's good we don't have to choose between Jorie Graham and Elizabeth Jennings. But if I had to choose one for that desert island, it would be Jennings. Graham's preoccupation with technique, verging on coy narcissism, wears thin, while Jennings's ``humility at one with craft'' keeps revealing the world.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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