Wednesday, May 23, 2007



POET’S BOOKSHELF: Contemporary Poets On Books That Shaped Their Art, Edited by Peter Davis
(Barnwood Press, Selma, IN, 2005)

What a fabulous anthology concept! Poet’s Bookshelf can top a list of books for recommending to, not just poetry lovers but, those who don’t follow poetry but are curious to learn more. For Poet’s Bookshelf, by showing how poets are in love with poetry, can make the reader fall in love with poetry, too. This book, also replete with deep insights, is a far more attractive alternative than other anthologies to which people usually turn for poetry introductions.

Poet's Bookshelf was created as a result of editor Peter Davis’ desire to know which books had a profound impact in shaping various poets’ poetics and poems. From the Editor’s Preface:
When I was studying for my MFA I was required to read 25 books, of my choosing, per semester. Once, I asked one of my professors to give me some suggestions and she gave me a list of 30 or so writers that she thought I should read. I didn’t know if these were writers that were personally important to her, or if they were simply writers she thought might become important to me, but, either way, I thought it was a great list. Soon after, I got the idea for this book and began asking leading contemporary poets to respond to these prompts:

1) Please list 5-10 books that have been most “essential” to you, as a poet.
2) Please write some comments about your list. You may want to single out specific poems or passages from the books, discuss how you made your decisions or provide thoughts about the importance of these books in your life. Feel free to write as much as you would like.

It’s an anthology concept that transcends the “best of” listing to which certain anthologies lapse, though at least one respondent here clearly was stuck in that POV. It’s also an anthology concept that transcends poetic styles, which makes it attractive to poet-readers of all stripes.

What makes this anthology a great read are the so many different ways with which the 81 poet-participants responded to Davis’ query. For instance, it’s often nice to learn the first time that a poet gets “swept away” by a poem, such as Nin Andrews:

I still remember the first time I was swept away by a poem. I was thirteen, working in a bookstore after school, still wearing my kilt and knee socks, when I flipped open Yannis Ritsos’ book, Gestures, to the mystical little poem, “The Third One”:

               The three of them sat before the window looking at the sea.
               One talked about the sea. The second listened. The third
               Neither spoke nor listened; he was deep in the sea; he floated.
               Behind the windowpanes, his movements were slow, clear
               In the thin pale blue. He was exploring a sunken ship.
               He rang the dead bell for the watch; fine bubbles
               Rose bursting with a soft sound—suddenly,
               “Did he drown?” asked one; the other said, “He drowned.” The third one
               looked back at them helpless from the bottom of the sea, the
               way one looks at drowned people.

I felt then as I feel now when I read Ritsos, as if I were holding my breath, listening and looking through a keyhole at another world, which is in fact this one, only suddenly lit, more beautiful, and terrifying…Which reminds me of Rilke’s lines: “For beauty is only the beginning of Terror, which we are still just able to endure.”
(P. 15)


Part of the enjoyable education one gets from a project like this are the unexpected. I looked for names beyond the usual-usual invoked, such as these authors whose mentions ran in the double-digits—the numbers within the parentheses are the number of times these poets were cited:

William Carlos Williams (17)
Emily Dickinson (16)
Walt Whitman (16)
Frank O’Hara (12)
William Shakespeare (11)
William Butler Yeats (11)
Wallace Stevens (10)

Not a particularly surprising list, yah? But check out the more unique mention by Antler of Francois Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel because

“Rabelais proved for me that triumph of humor and extended imaginative playful delight in exploring any subject, especially sexuality, at any length and on every level”
(p. 18)

or Angela Ball’s mention of Jean Rhys’ Good Morning Midnight (a personal favorite novel of mine) because

books for me (and not just poetry, of course—novels, and stories and plays) have been a way to loosen my construction of experience, to let me respond with something other than plain, bred-in-the-bone bewilderment and despair. // This brings me to Jean Rhys…[who] found her vocation through a back door. After being discarded by her wealthy lover, Rhys the actress/chorus-girl/masseuse bought a notebook and colored pens and sat down to record her story, becoming a writer in the process. My poem-bio of her in my book Quartet imagines her saying:

               Only the books matter.
               If I stop writing my life
               It will have been a failure.
               I will not have earned death.
               Only writing is important, only books
               Take you out of yourself.

Writing isn’t only a way to escape the self, it’s a way of exposing socially accepted hyporcrisy. To do her experience justice. She enlisted the objectivity of craft. Far from a complaint or lament, Rhys’ work is an indictment and a vindication. As my colleague Steven Barthelme says, “Next to Jean Rhys, everyone else is just kidding.” In her introduction to Jean Rhys: The Complete Novels, Diana Athill declares:

               …the writer must be able to stand back from the experience far enough to see the whole of it and must concentrate with a self purging intensity on the process of reproducing it in words. Jean Rhys could stand back, and her concentration on the process was a s intense as that of a tightrope walker. As a result her novels do not say “This is what happened to me,” but “This is how things happen.”
(p. 24)

Or check out Clayton Eshleman citing Wilhelm Reich’s The Function of Orgasm because

Reich argued that the goal of individual life was self-regulation, and that the “function of the orgasm” was to enable the individual to become self-regulative and creatively response. For Reich there was no contradiction between sexual fulfillment and imaginative realization—they wer antiphonal, mutually reinforcing. Reich’s position hit me like a thunderbolt: and it emboldened me to do something I had never done before: to cut through all obligation and to proclaim my right to live for myself alone, on the assumption that such was fundamental to do anything original as a poet.
(p. 64)

But then Eshleman continues—a poignant moment, “The downside of this personal revolution was my guilt for what I had first put my wife through, and then my mother.”

Or check out B.H. Fairchild’s mention of Ernest Thompson Seton’s Biography of a Grizzly because

We use the phrase, ‘It changed my life,” rather too easily these days, but I think that Biography of a Grizzly, read when I was a boy of ten, actually did that. Arriving at the last unforgettable page of this story, when the old bear goes into the last canyon, where he knows he will die, I came to understand something about nobility and dignity and the Greek sense of tragedy long before I had words for such things.
(p. 66)

or Gabriel Gudding who explains why he “adores” No One May Ever Have the Same Knowledge Again: Letters to the Mount Wilson Observatory, 1915-1935, edited and transcribed by Sarah Simons:

No One May Ever Have the Same Knowledge Again is a book of fascinating but totally mad and, I guess, ‘ignorant’ letters written to the astronomers at the Mount Wilson Observatory by laypeople who earnestly want to convey their individual and often bizarre understandings about the stars, planet’s geometry, cosmological origins and other features of the universe. Theories contained in the letters are arrived at by the writers’ own experiments or intuition. So captivating and happy-making are the letters, stuffed as they are with non-sequitur and invention, they’ll reach anyone lost in the farthest grief (trust me, I know); they stand, for me, as testimonies to the glorious resourcefulness of the human imagination, of poesis, in the face of appalling ignorance and scant access to facts. I adores this book.
(p. 79)

or Dara Wier on Michael Faraday’s The Chemical History of a Candle:

I include…The Chemical History of a Candle for its absorbing, precise and obsessive philosophical analysis of everything regarding a candle; by being fascinated with this book the idea of what abstraction might be slowly began to dawn on me.
(p. 185)

These moments brought the Poetry to life—rather than, say, J.D. McClatchy’s unsurprising three-title list of Shakespeare, The American Heritage Dictionary and Virgil’s The Aeneid. While McClatchy’s list is as legitimate as anyone else’s, Poet’s Bookshelf doesn’t lapse to textbook dryness because other poets were willing—or maybe, I should say, had the time (and not all poets have the same amount of time to respond to queries like Davis’)—to reveal more about their personal experiences with poetry. This personal involvement need not bypass serious criticism; here is Wanda Coleman on one of the books on her list, You Better Believe it: Black Verse in English, edited by Paul Breman (if you don’t know, Coleman is African American):

I know I’m presumed to like African American poetry, but I find most of it written prior to the 1970s terribly uninteresting, and embarrassingly bad and corny (like most African American visual art), and imitative of better craftsmen of the Caucasian persuasion for obvious reasons; however, some of the finest of what’s excellent in diverse Black voices is found in You Better Believe It. Sorry, but I’m not a big fan of Langston Hughes, even if I respect his “contribution” and voted for the stamp. I was invited to contribute to this anthology back in the day, but my naivete and paranoia (at the time) kept me from submitting work. I’m now glad that I didn’t, because at that time my fledgling work was as bad as some of the worst in this collection. Thanks goodness, I don’t have to live that down. Whew.
(P. 42)

My one wish on this book is that it would have been nice if the poets were more specific as regards mentioning examples of their work that reflect the cited inspirations. That way, a reader could check out that poet’s work to see how that resulted from the (poetics) process that the poet described. But that’s a minor quibble and the Editor’s Preface certainly alludes to the time constraints on many poets who were contacted as regards this project.


I had to smile over Timothy Liu’s contribution which begins with his mention of an old mentor who once counseled:

"If you want to be a great poet, then read five books of poetry a week for the rest of your life."

I heard of Liu practicing this when I interviewed him for my first book BLACK LIGHTNING. In fact, I thought it, too, to be a great idea and, indeed, I still try to read at least 5 poetry books a week.

More significantly, Liu’s essay is a marvel of compression regarding an expansive subject matter whose borders are not necessarily visible/defined (Eshleman, for one, turned in the longest response at 12 pages, and the length was warranted for him; other poets caveated their contributions by admitting they could have responded at greater length).

I wish to replicate Liu’s essay for revealing a poet who’s found the gold from sifting through many shades of brass…and so I will! Here is Liu’s essay, certainly bespeaking a wonderful mind:

By Timothy Liu

Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text
Octavio Paz, Children of the Mire
W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn
Christa Wolf, The Quest for Christa T
Simone Weil, Waiting for God

If you want to be a great poet, then read five books of poetry a week for the rest of your life. That’s what I overheard the Mentor say to the Young Poet over fifteen years ago. If you do the math (and the reading as I have done), that’s 3,900 books. So I will not be recommending specific poetry titles per se, but rather recall the infamous words of the late Joseph Campbell: “Follow your bliss!” What remains are a few books I have found to be indispensable companions on the journey toward the Promised Land, call it Parnassus or what you will. Some of these titles I have read over a dozen times, others just once. Each offers its own particular sustenance, its own kind of lastingness.

What is poetry without a consciousness of its own poetics? Can one imagine literature without theory? Not in any kind of responsible writerly way, only by way of enchantment found perhaps in one’s readerly innocence once upon a time. As a primer, then, Roland Barthes’ The Pleasure of the Text maps out the seductive relation between writer and reader that serves as the sublimated base for attentions to fixate upon: the art of the textual striptease. A quickie demonstration on how to shake that money-maker whether bedecked in prose or verse, inspiring all the nations to go a-whoring.

Hot on the heels of such wanton philosophy comes literary history to the rescue, the contextual mise en scene for the various performances of verbal debauchery. Octavio Paz’s Children of the Mire documents his international travails through the landscape of belles-lettres. If I seem partial to disunited states, it’s only as necessary antidote to the provincial epidemics of internalized xenophobia that have broken out on our Continent sinces its bloody founding. Now at the End of Wilderness, the trailhead’s clearly marked: Modern Poetry From Romanticism to the Avant-Garde. These campfire chats, disguised as Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, bear resemblance to noble initiatory rites.

For further ruminations under an Abrahamic tent of stars, one only need contemplate W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, our author himself having been untimely ripped from our company and returned to cosmic dust via la forza del destino, alas. The past is too much with us, our Guide seems to say, as we follow him along the Eastern Coast of England, no longer sure just which world we are walking in. What remains is pure mystery, sentences as spells that conjure the sublime in a genre that has no name. A crash-course, then in the Elegiac, the root of all poetic discourses that straddle the epic/lyric divide, time’s horizontals endlessly derailed by a series of spirals whose verticality hurls us from the profaned mundane into some eternal realm.

If Sebald inhabits a world dominated by masculine imagination, then surely Christa Wolf’s The Quest for Christa T would offer a complementary portrait of a Guide who journeys by staying in place, East Germany in fact, imprisoned as it were by domesticity and a life cut short, the flow of cause and effect difficult to ascertain. When if not now? is the rallying cry throughout its pages, a contemporary summons to carpe diem not served to Marvell’s Coy Mistress but to Shakespeare’s imaginal Sister. And indeed, have we not all played Cinderella to the masked fetes of Literary Soceity to which we have been denied formal invitation? How then gain access to princely Parnassus if its gates remain forever shut against it?

Simone Weil offeres no glass slipper. She never even makes it to the ball. Hers is a time of ashes, not for herself alone, but for humanity. Hers is the Martyr’s striptease, not of raiment but of the Flesh itself so that Spirit might eventually be reclaimed by the Bridegroom who never arrives, at least not in this life. Waiting for God transcends earthly ambition. It is the poetry of prayer itself, only to be answered in cloistered death. It puts vanity in its place, all books to be burned when the Earth is baptized with Fire. Poetry then will no longer be necessary. But until we can be brought back into the Presence, there must be those who have gone before us who can somehow show us the way.


Eileen Tabios HEARTS wine, dogs and Thou. She can't do anything but shrug over the loudness of her Silences...


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