Everybody has their own favorites: big-name poets and big-name poetry books that have spoken to them in a big-name way. Here are a few of mine. The order is random, but the appreciation is sincere.
- All of Us: The Collected Poems of Raymond Carver
Sometimes reading an entire collection of poems cover to cover is exhausting and maybe even inadvisable work. In fact, I often read poetry collections on the side as I’m reading fiction (or non-) because it requires such focus.
You know the feeling. Especially with poems that yawn and stretch out over a page or two. You’re reading and suddenly you realize your mind has drifted, like a newbie meditation acolyte trying on Buddhism for size. You go back. Remind yourself. Focus on the words! Start over! Deep breath and go….
With Raymond Carver, this is less of an issue. One reason is his style. It is quite idiomatic, often written in chummy vernacular. Deceivingly simple, too. A Hemingway of poetry, then. And before long, due to the repeating themes coming at you in waves (like, say, Bach’s music), you feel like ole Ray is your bud. Your best pal. Sympatico. Amigo.
And, say. I can write like this, too! Look how simple! Just as Hem breeds legions of aspiring short story writers who crash into the craggy shores of imitation, so does Carver with poetry imitators. The Scylla and Charybdis of deceptively simple. Scrivener sailors beware.
If, like me, you’re not at home with narrative poetry and caught up with the Johnny One-Note of lyrical poetry, Carver’s the antidote. He’s known for his short stories more than his poetry, but so many of these thrive on the same strengths–the ability to choose a few key details from his own life or another’s, to quickly build a story, to deftly find emotion or one small note of truth in it.
Many of the poems focus on simple things that make life worth living. And on death. Which is ironic and not. On the one hand, death is a theme in most all writer’s writing from the dawn of days. Where do we go? And why me? Special old me? The other irony is Ray’s own early demise to cancer. Struck down at age 50. The last poems are written through that glass darkly.
This particular collection contains every poem Raymond Carver ever wrote. In the back there are appendices, the first one containing his early, unpublished poems. I read these first, then went back and read in order of his four published collections so I could see his growth as a poet. He’s an end-stop guy. When he’s in an enjambment, he knows how to get out of it, so to speak. Lots of dependent clauses with periods. If you’re enamored of complete sentences in your poetry and if grammar violations bother you, enter at your own school marm-ish risk.
Here are some sample works I like:
On the Columbia River near Vantage,
Washington, we fished for whitefish
in the winter months; my dad, Swede-
Mr. Lindgren-and me. They used belly-reels,
pencil-length sinkers, red, yellow, or brown
flies baited with maggots.
They wanted distance and went clear out there
to the edge of the riffle.
I fished near shore with a quill bobber and a cane pole.
My dad kept his maggots alive and warm
under his lower lip. Mr. Lindgren didn’t drink.
I liked him better than my dad for a time.
He lets me steer his car, teased me
about my name “Junior,” and said
one day I’d grow into a fine man, remember
all this, and fish with my own son.
But my dad was right. I mean
he kept silent and looked into the river,
worked his tongue, like a thought, behind the bait.
This morning was something. A little snow
lay on the ground. The sun floated in a clear
blue sky. The sea was blue, and blue-green,
as far as the eye could see.
Scarcely a ripple. Calm. I dressed and went
for a walk — determined not to return
until I took in what Nature had to offer.
I passed close to some old, bent-over trees.
Crossed a field strewn with rocks
where snow had drifted. Kept going
until I reached the bluff.
Where I gazed at the sea, and the sky, and
the gulls wheeling over the white beach
far below. All lovely. All bathed in a pure
cold light. But, as usual, my thoughts
began to wander. I had to will
myself to see what I was seeing
and nothing else. I had to tell myself this is what
mattered, not the other. (And I did see it,
for a minute or two!) For a minute or two
it crowded out the usual musings on
what was right, and what was wrong — duty,
tender memories, thoughts of death, how I should treat
with my former wife. All the things
I hoped would go away this morning.
The stuff I live with every day. What
I’ve trampled on in order to stay alive.
But for a minute or two I did forget
myself and everything else. I know I did.
For when I turned back i didn’t know
where I was. Until some birds rose up
from the gnarled trees. And flew
in the direction I needed to be going.
“My Dad’s Wallet”
Long before he thought of his own death,
my dad said he wanted to lie close
to his parents. He missed them so
after they went away.
He said this enough that my mother remembered,
and I remembered. But when the breath
left his lungs and all signs of life
had faded, he found himself in a town
512 miles away from where he wanted most to be.
My dad, though. He was restless
even in death. Even in death
he had this one last trip to take.
All his life he liked to wander,
and now he had one more place to get to.
The undertaker said he’d arrange it,
not to worry. Some poor light
from the window fell on the dusty floor
where we waited that afternoon
until the man came out of the back room
and peeled off his rubber gloves.
He carried the smell of formaldehyde with him.
He was a big man, the undertaker said.
Then began to tell us why
he liked living in this small town.
This man who’d just opened up my dad’s veins.
How much is it going to cost? I said.
He took out his pad and pen and began
to write. First, the preparation charges.
Then he figured the transportation
of the remains at 22 cents a mile.
But this was a round-trip for the undertaker,
don’t forget. Plus, say, six meals
and two nights in a motel. He figured
some more. Add a surcharge of
$210 for his time and trouble,
and there you have it.
He thought we might argue.
There was a spot of color on
each of his cheeks as he looked up
from his figures. The same poor light
fell in the same poor place on
the dusty floor. My mother nodded
as if she understood. But she
hadn’t understood a word of it.
None of it made any sense to her,
beginning with the time she left home
with my dad. She only knew
that whatever was happening
was going to take money.
She reached into her purse and bought up
my dad’s wallet. The three of us
in that little room that afternoon.
Our breath coming and going.
We stared at the wallet for a minute.
Nobody said anything.
All the life had gone out of the wallet.
It was old and rent and soiled.
But it was my dad’s wallet. And she opened
it and looked inside. Drew out
a handful of money that would go
toward this last, most astounding, trip.
The best compliment I can pay a book is to say I won’t pass it on to a like-minded friend. When I get a little selfish about a book, when I make permanent space like a star on Hollywood on the bookshelf so I can return to it for inspiration, ideas, and unpacking, it’s a five plus. I realize he’s not everybody’s cuppa. He’s not into rhyme, meter, or form poems of any sort. But that’s a snapshot of me, too. Those don’t much appeal to me.
As Mark Twain said of classics, so I say of poetry: I prefer water to fine wine. And if that says something about me, so be it!
- Jane Kenyon: Collected Poems
Often with a book of poetry–especially a collected book of poetry spanning over 300 pages, you are advised to take it piecemeal and slowly, savoring as you read another book with a plot. In the case of Jane Kenyon: Collected Poems, however, that might not be necessary. Although I can’t argue a plot hides in these collected works, I can argue a discernible and growing voice does.
Granted, I’m predisposed to Kenyon’s work because she speaks my language: New England, plants, animals, weather, dogs, small towns, small joys, and melancholia. But the deceiving simplicity with which she pulls it off! Almost matter of factly, she always gives you a surprising image, an unexpected adjective, a sharp noun or verb. And yes, quite often, the little unexpected turn that is the life of so many good poems.
Kenyon mines both her past (parents, grandparents, growing up in Ann Arbor, MI) and her latter days (as wife of Donald Hall–who’s still kicking!– in Wilmot, New Hampshire). She notices the little things in a quotidian life and renders poetry from it. Of course, there’s her most famous poem, “Let Evening Come,” on the back of the hardcover as well as p. 213. And there’s the poem I teach each year in school (“Trouble with Math in a One-Room Country School”), like an old friend throwing a surprise party as I turned the page to 116. But I was happy to make the acquaintance of many quieter joys–too many to number. I’ll share two, though. Two that spoke to me for personal reasons:
Twilight: After Haying
Yes, long shadows go out
from the bales; and yes, the soul
must part from the body:
what else could it do?
The men sprawl near the baler,
reluctant to leave the field.
They talk and smoke,
and the tips of their cigarettes
blaze like small roses
in the night air. (It arrived
and settled among them
before they were aware.)
The moon comes
to count the bales,
and the dispossessed —
— sings from the dusty stubble.
These things happen…the soul’s bliss
and suffering are bound together
like the grasses….
The last, sweet exhalations
of timothy and vetch
go out with the song of the bird;
the ravaged field
grows wet with dew.
It reminds me of Russian novels (which she loved, as these poems reveal)–Turgenev’s Sketches from a Hunter’s Albumand certainly Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in the scenes where Levin takes to the fields to work with the peasants. And here’s another:
The hen flings a single pebble aside
with her yellow, reptilian foot.
Never in eternity the same sound–
a small stone falling on a red leaf.
The juncture of twig and branch,
scarred with lichen, is a gate
we might enter, singing.
The mouse pulls batting
from a hundred-year-old quilt.
She chewed a hole in a blue star
to get it and now she thrives….
Now is her time to thrive.
Things: simply lasting, then
failing to last: water, a blue heron’s
eye, and the light passing
between them: into light all things
must fall, glad at last to have fallen.
The book wraps up with some Kenyon translations of another favorite, Anna Akhmatova. Here Kenyon takes Akhmatova’s form verse and renders it into free verse. A kindred soul, Akhmatova also knew the power of the twist, the subtle, unexpected turn, the juxtaposition of the ordinary with a kindred surprise.
Another one of those frustratingly lovely poets who makes it look easy. Until you try to emulate her facility. Still, well worth rereading. As a dipper this time. With an old friend who left unexpectedly and almost cruelly, given she expected her husband to die and had to deal with it before learning that he would miraculously survive while she would be diagnosed–with leukemia– which killed her at age 47.
For Jane Kenyon, Evening Came much too soon, and it’s all our losses….
- James Wright: Collected Poems
Usually, as you read a book, you learn more and more about it. But sometimes, as you read a book, you learn more and more about yourself.
Such was the case with James Wright’s Collected Poems. Containing poems, as it does, from early in Wright’s career to late, you watch his progression from formal poet accomplished in rhyme, to freelance poet extraordinaire, to experimental poet as he listens for fate’s footsteps.
What did I learn? I’m not a fan of form poetry or of rhyming poetry. Subtle rhymes, yes, but rhyme schemes sound sing-songy to my philistine ears. And long poems? Lord, I lack patience. Once it travels to a third page, I’m dogging it like Mile 24 on the marathon. Just throw me across the line! Just give me a tall, cold drink of 12-line poetry.
You get the point. The true poetry readers may now shake their heads at me.
OK, that out of the way, I can tell you that this collection, while good, was beyond good in the case of poems from The Branch Will Not Break, issued in 1963. Wright was in his free verse phase, and I was right at home. And my, how lovely these were. The nature and horses, the trees and water, the light and the dark playing off of each other.
True, Wright is obsessed by death, but who isn’t? All literature is obsessed by it. Thematically, it is the unstoppable frontrunner. Two of Wright’s most famous poems are in The Branch. I love them both, even though loving popular poems is unpopular. Eh. Who am I to deem cool poetry uncool strictly by dint of its popularity? If I like it, I like it–whether the cheese stands alone or in a crowd.
Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota
Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.
It’s pretty, but the last line is shockingly pretty. If regret rides like remoras on all of our spirits, then this line resonates. And what about this beauty?
Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
And hey, the poem hiding the title isn’t bad, either. It speaks to why Wright left sooner than he’d wish: alcoholism.
I slouch in bed.
Beyond the streaked trees of my window,
All groves are bare.
Locusts and poplars change to unmarried women
Sorting slate from anthracite
Between railroad ties:
The yellow-bearded winter of the depression
Is still alive somewhere, an old man
Counting his collection of bottle caps
In a tarpaper shack under the cold trees
Of my grave.
I still feel half drunk,
And all those old women beyond my window
Are hunching toward the graveyard.
Drunk, mumbling Hungarian,
The sun staggers in,
And his big stupid face pitches
Into the stove.
For two hours I have been dreaming
Of green butterflies searching for diamonds
In coal seams;
And children chasing each other for a game
Through the hills of fresh graves.
But the sun has come home drunk from the sea,
And a sparrow outside
Sings of the Hanna Coal Co. and the dead moon.
The filaments of cold light bulbs tremble
In music like delicate birds.
Ah, turn it off.
Number Two: I Try to Waken and Greet the World Once Again
In a pine tree,
A few yards away from my window sill,
A brilliant blue jay is springing up and down, up and
On a branch.
I laugh, as I see him abandon himself
To entire delight, for he knows as well as I do
That the branch will not break.
Here you see a remnant from Wright’s formal past–capitalization at the beginning of every line. Now that’s old school!
Sad, lovely, full of nature and sensitivity, Wright’s a poet I’m glad I met.
- Map: Collected and Last Poems by Wislawa Szymborska
Wislawa is a kindred soul in that she views the world askance and deeply understands its ironies. Where she veers from other poets is her gentle amusement with it all. Maybe she feels bitter, sarcastic, angry, etc., but she keeps it under wraps and instead couples irony with charm, an appealingly odd couple indeed. She has a knack for comparisons, too. What’s metaphor? Quite a bit, in Wislawa’s view.
The collection gets stronger over time, with very few works chosen from early collections. This is cheering news for new poets, for it shows that even poets good enough to get published are works in progress, getting stronger with each collection.
Two of my favorites are fairly well known works, “A Contribution to Statistics” and “The Joy of Writing”:
A Contribution of Statistics
Out of a hundred people
those who always know better
doubting every step
-nearly all the rest,
glad to lend a hand
if it doesn’t take too long
-as high as forty-nine,
because they can’t be otherwise
-four, well maybe five,
able to admire without envy
induced by fleeting youth
-sixty, give or take a few,
not to be taken lightly
-forty and four,
living in constant fear
of someone or something
capable of happiness
harmless singly, savage in crowds
-half at least,
when forced by circumstances
-better not to know
even ballpark figures,
wise after the fact
-just a couple more
than wise before it,
taking only things from life
(I wish I were wrong),
hunched in pain,
no flashlight in the dark
sooner or later,
-thirty-five, which is a lot,
worthy of compassion
-a hundred out of a hundred.
thus far this figure still remains unchanged.
The Joy of Writing
Why does this written doe bound through these written woods?
For a drink of written water from a spring
whose surface will xerox her soft muzzle?
Why does she lift her head; does she hear something?
Perched on four slim legs borrowed from the truth,
she pricks up her ears beneath my fingertips.
Silence – this word also rustles across the page
and parts the boughs
that have sprouted from the word ‘woods.’
Lying in wait, set to pounce on the blank page,
are letters up to no good,
clutches of clauses so subordinate
they’ll never let her get away.
Each drop of ink contains a fair supply
of hunters, equipped with squinting eyes behind their sights,
prepared to swarm the sloping pen at any moment,
surround the doe, and slowly aim their guns.
They forget that what’s here isn’t life.
Other laws, black on white, obtain.
The twinkling of an eye will take as long as I say,
and will, if I wish, divide into tiny eternities,
full of bullets stopped in mid-flight.
Not a thing will ever happen unless I say so.
Without my blessing, not a leaf will fall,
not a blade of grass will bend beneath that little hoof’s full stop.
Is there then a world
where I rule absolutely on fate?
A time I bind with chains of signs?
An existence become endless at my bidding?
The joy of writing.
The power of preserving.
Revenge of a mortal hand.
Nice, no? Very nice. Among other favorite titles I wrote down:
“Some People Like Poetry”
“May 16, 1973”
“Among the Multitudes”
“The Three Oddest Words”
“A Little Girl Tugs at the Tablecloth”
“Photograph from September 11”
“To My Own Poem”
- Delights and Shadows by Ted Kooser
Like rime, Kooser’s a little like Frost and a little unlike him. He is a poet of the prosaic, lifting the ordinary to extraordinary heights before our very eyes. A bucket of dishwater, his grandmother’s radio, a spider on a gravestone, a jar of buttons. Delights in the minutiae of the Midwest, yes, but they resonate and know no borders. Even two-liners are a wonder:
All night, this soft rain from the distant past.
No wonder I sometimes waken as a child.
A master of metaphor, he sees one ordinary object inside another, presents it the way you’d pop the head off a matroshka doll, elicits an “Of course!” from his readers. He is a writer of wooden rooms with slants of sun ray, lilies by the well-used steps, weed-weary cemeteries, kitchens filled with “the warm wet breath of apples” during applesauce-making time.
If you feel the black dogs of depression creeping up, read Kooser. It’s the little things — and I don’t mean pills — that must buoy us, make us smile and say, “Yes, that’s it. Right there. Taken for granted, yet a wonder….”