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The Once and Future Golden State

California Poetry and City of One

Past and present. Classic and modern. Forgotten and future. For a broad taste of California's poetry of the last 150 years and for the next 50, two books together are essential.

The first is California Poetry: From the Gold Rush to the Present, a sweeping compendium of old favorites, lost gems and difficult decisions co-edited by Dana Gioia, Sonoma County resident and chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts. The second, City of One: Young Writers Speak to the World, commemorates the tenth anniversary of WritersCorps, an organization that fosters creative writing, arts and literacy among poor and at-risk youth.

One constant of California history is risk, be it the precariousness of our perch on nature's limbs, our economic boom-bust cycles or our political vanguardism. California Poetry understands how the historical record of the state, with its ability to attract thinkers, seers and writers, is woven through verse. The anthology's editors Gioia, Chryss Yost and Jack Hicks have focused on this crystalline sense of place -- what Gioia in his introduction calls "imaginative assimilation" -- inherent in so much California poetry, mining both the work of lesser known poets and big names.

Bret Harte, Robinson Jeffers, Kenneth Rexroth, Phillip Levine: nearly everyone you'd expect to be represented is here, but probably not in the volume some fans would prefer. (And excluded are writers who did not live at least half their lives in the state.) To include more poets across a wide historical swath, the editors have assembled a sampler box of chocolates, with just one or two poems from each writer, an excellent stepping stone toward more exploration.

Just as illuminating are the introductions the editors have written to place each poet in historical and artistic context. Packed into these intros, which often run longer than each poet's samples, are great stories and details, such as the rowdy life of Joaquin Miller, an adventurer, killer and charlatan who in the second half of the 19th century roughhoused and dissembled his way through the West, writing poetry all the while and becoming a giant literary figure of the time. (The regional park in the Oakland hills is named after him.)

Ultimately, the poems themselves map California's physical and psychological landscapes, from Jeffers' windswept promontories to Ishmael Reed's East Bay blues, from Ina Coolbrith's evocation of a long-gone, sensual Los Angeles to Samuel Maio's bittersweet bikini-beach scenes.

In City of One, it's all San Francisco. The writers are all preteens and teenagers from the City. (I wrote in the March 26 Literary Arts newsletter about a live reading to celebrate the publication of City of One.) Anyone who slips into lazy stereotyping of kids these days -- indifferent, ironic, materialistic, nihilistic -- should open City of One and flip through its pages. Organized by themes ("In the Worry of the World," "Under Fire"), the poems constantly surprise with their honesty, inventiveness, and a vulnerability that's gone lacking in so much art by younger artists across all media. In an age when a cloak of irony somehow has come to signal intelligence, City of One is a lesson that vulnerability is strength, openness is power.

Because of the honesty, readers of all ages can learn what poor kids, immigrant kids, scared kids and angry kids live through, not to mention simply how hard it is to be a teenager, like 18-year-old Natriece Spicer in "OUTside/INside":

"I am always in the middle of a good conversation
When someone cuts me off,
But hardly ever between cover and blankets
that feel soft.
I enjoy being inside my writing zone
Though I dread always being inside, being alone."

The best budding poets in the collection, like Spicer, are exploring voices and forms. Qiana Powell, 14, shapes her "Anthem to the Tree of Freedom" in the cadences of Martin Luther King preaching tough love and fiery optimism. Samantha Cortez, only nine years old, contributes a short, rich tribute to her mom ("My Mom") that would do William Carlos Williams proud:

"Her arms are two doors I go in
so she can give me a hug.
She is a cherry on the cherry
tree I planted.
Her lips are two apples that I eat.
Her laugh is like the wind
blowing in front of me."

I can't say how much credit goes to WritersCorps teachers who undoubtedly suggest forms, encourage exploration, cajole for one more draft and correct a lot of spelling. But having heard a few of these young writers stand before a packed house last week and read their work with pride, courage and flair, there is no question the future of our city's poetry is in good hands. When the California Poetry anthology is updated in twenty years, I'm sure we'll see names that debuted this year in City of One.

California Poetry: From the Gold Rush to the Present
Edited by Dana Gioia, Chryss Yost and Jack Hicks
Heyday Books; ISBN: 1890771724
Paperback: 378 pages (November 2003)

City of One: Young Writers Speak to the World
Edited by Colette DeDonato
Aunt Lute; ISBN: 1879960699
Paperback: 240 pages (May 2004)