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AT a party recently, a group was discussing the funding crisis in the arts, and one practical-minded businessman complained: "But tell the truth: What good is poetry? What does it really do for people?" I wanted to say: "It marks off occasions of beauty in the midst of our daily struggles"- though I realized this argument would make little impression on "the bottom line."

But if one would like to seriously examine "what good" poems bring about in our lives, a fitting place to begin might be with the writing of Marge Piercy. Through 12 collections of poetry (not to mention 11 novels), her passionate voice has been embraced by diverse groups of readers for its political fire, feminist determination, spiritual questioning, and, not in the least, for the sheer pleasure of its music.

As you read through "Circles on the Water," her selected poems, or the new collection, "Mars and Her Children," the various threads of her work are braided together to form one expansive journey.

More than feminist polemic, her poems contain visions of a woman's struggle to take responsibility for her own life and set out the fierce honesty necessary in a loving relationship. Her political poems make human faces and recognizable neighborhoods of what would otherwise be merely abstract ideas and cold statistics. At readings, rallies, study groups, and celebrations, her poems are used like hammer and nails - basic tools for building new lives.

In the last several years, many of her poems have become part of the liturgy of the Jewish Reconstructionist movement, in which she and her husband (the novelist Ira Wood) are active. Her "poems of praise" are pure lyrical affirmations of the simple experiences we tend to gloss over amid the "important" business of our days: the first spring greens of the garden, the heron glimpsed in the marshland, the lighting of the Sabbath candles.


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