Joe Queenan Loves Books. Poets? Not So Much.

joe queenan

I just finished a round-trip to South Carolina, traveling my favorite way–on a train where I can read to the rumble of tracks in that glorious Amtrak invention known as the quiet car (all *$%& cellphones SILENCED, thank you). After wrapping up the complete Jack Gilbert poetry collection, I turned to a light read in the form of Joe Queenan’s One for the Books, wherein Joe throws elbows and opinions on all things bookish.

This book has more italics than Maine has mosquitoes. That’s because Queenan cites so many book titles, all italicized. And although it is a book lover’s bonanza, there are, alas, few if any poetry books mentioned. Like many bibliophiles, Queenan is happily addicted to reading and books. Just not reading poetry and poetry books. Quelle surprise!

In one amusing section, Queenan is grousing about speakers at libraries. Listen in:

“Library events scare me, as they provide refuge for local historians, fabulists, tellers of tall tales, historical reenactors, and even dream weavers. Not to mention the single most feared creature on the planet: the self-published poet.”

Sorry, team. I laughed. I’m sure traditionally-published poets like me aren’t many levels above the woeful self-published ones in JQ’s eyes, but ha-ha and que sera, sera! If you can’t laugh at yourself, you can’t laugh, non?

Queenan loathes book clubs, too. When friends asked him to join one, JQ writes, “I left town for about six weeks, disconnected my phone, stopped answering e-mails, and told people that I had a weird retinal pigmentation disease that made it impossible for me to read books. Especially books like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.”

From there, Queenan goes on to belittle those ubiquitous “Questions for Discussion” found at the end of many books these days. It is the editors’ and publishers’ hope that you, gentle readers, will select their book as the next “book club selection of the month” so that everyone will buy a copy. These questions just make life that much easier for you.

With one book out and one on the way (if December can be considered “on the way”), I wondered why I didn’t think of this ruse before. So easy! Perhaps the second edition of my debut effort can include an amendment for Book Clubs in the back? It might look something like so:

The Indifferent World

  1. In the poem, “Barnstorming the Universe,” Craft discusses a space-traveling barn that crashes in the middle of a Maine field, mid-July. Do you believe barn landings should have a central location like Cape Canaveral, or is the meteor-like randomness of their crashes half the fun? Discuss.
  2. “Astapova Station” describes Leo Tolstoy’s final flight from death, which ended at a train station with wife Sofya (and a “Honey, do” list) hot in pursuit. How important is Czarist Russia’s lousy train service to this poem’s denouement? Who do you sympathize with more–Team Leo or Team Sofya?
  3. This book includes two poems about a large-animal veterinarian in Vermont treating a horse in “Tonsillectomy” and a cow in “Young Brain in the Dairy Barn.” Are bloody operations in a barn appropriate material for poetry? Would Li-Po approve? What about the Lake Poets?

Yes. Discussion Questions for Poetry-Reading Book Clubs. The sort of thing that might move poetry book sales from double digits to, say, a mighty three. (Not many books of poetry challenge the mighty comma, which is only forced into action once your sales cross No Poet’s Land, a. k. a. terrain over 1,000).

In any event, I am an omnivorous reader (maybe more so than Joe), so despite the dearth of poetry collection titles, many fiction and non-fiction recommendations were garnered while reading this book. Also many rereads (Queenan calls Dubliners the single best collection of short stories ever, for instance, so I said to myself on the train, “Hmn. Long time no Dubliners. Time to move it up on the the list. Done!”)

Overall, a few laughs and a lot of book titles added to the borrow-or-buy list. Not bad, eh? Now I just need to find a paperback called One for the Poetry Books. One that sniffs its nose at fiction and talks all poetry all the time.