Two books show us that poetry is alive and vital in the American culture. 

Visions of Life

The late Russian poet Joseph Brodsky wrote that the three major American contributions to world culture in the 20th century were movies, jazz and poetry. I would add rock 'n' roll to that equation — Elvis is probably as significant as T. S. Eliot in understanding this epoch.

There's little evidence of the influence of the author of "The Wasteland" in "The Best American Poetry, 1999," guest edited by Robert Bly (Scribners, paper $16). This is the latest installment in a series that began in 1988. Modernist verse of alienation has been succeeded by postmodernist verse of alienation but with a more subjective tone.

Despite the opinion of series editor David Lehman on the popularity of poetry in contemporary America, I can't help agreeing with poet Dick Allen who opines in the opening poem of this book: "Sometimes I think I'm the only man in America/ who reads poems/ and who walks at night in the suburbs/ calling the moon names."

Once you set aside objections to the idea that someone could discover the best of anything, this anthology contains some fine examples of current poetry. As in painting, there is no accepted school of poetry anymore. A formal poet like Richard Wilbur can coexist with an aging rebel like Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The former writes a moving account on family memory; Ferlinghetti writes a sad elegy on the Branch Davidians in Waco.

There are equally impressive works by poets of a younger generation. "Tired Sex" by Chana Bloch, for example, is a wry observation on putting too much faith in art over life. She writes: "Through the window/ I watch that sparrow the cat/ keeps batting around./ Like turning the pages of a book the teacher assigned — /You ought to read it, she said./ It's great literature."

At times one reads the biography of underground poet Charles Bukowski, "Charles Bukowski: Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life" by Howard Sounes (Grove Press $26), with a grim fascination not unlike observing the lives of the luckless souls who appear on "The Jerry Springer Show." The difference is that Bukowski rose from semiobscurity as a chronicler of the seedier side of urban life — with himself as the chief protagonist — to pop celebrityhood late in life, a celebrity he tried to disclaim.

Biographer Sounes does a good job in trying to distinguish the myth from reality in this chronicle of his sodden hero. But that may be a problem with "Charles Bukowski." While it's hard to imagine a biographer disliking his subject, one expects some critical perspective when detailing the life of a writer. At times, Sounes seems a little too fascinated with the more scandalous episodes of his subject's colorful life.

Moral rectitude, of course, is not a prerequisite for artistic talent. One need only read an account of America's greatest poet, Walt Whitman, to realize that truism. But a main problem with Bukowski's writing is that his direct simplicity and brutal honesty becomes monotonous — not because of the subject matter, but because of a lack of what one might call metaphor.

But for all the flaws in Bukowski's prolific output, one can't help feeling sympathy for the man because his fate seems to reflect the predicament of the poet in our materialistic society. Some of Bukowski's most poignant stories and poems are about the odd jobs he held so he could continue writing on what he affectionately called his "typer." And although he may have been a "bar-room bard," as The New York Times put it in his obituary, to me, his main identity was as a writer, not a drunk or rake. Like all artists, Bukowski's reputation rests on his work instead of his

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