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Ask a Book Question: The 65th in a Series (Poetry in the Waning Days of Summer)

By posted at 4:52 am on August 26, 2008 4

Michael wrote in with this question:

For some reason (an end of summer shortening of attention span, perhaps) I’m in the mood for poetry, so I was wondering if, in the interest of discussing that other form of literature, the crew at The Millions could suggest some favorite poems, poets or poetry collections (the latter would be especially helpful, its the easiest way to carry around a dozen great mind in your pocket). Anyway, thanks for any suggestions.

A trio of Millions contibutors chimed in on this one:

Andrew: Full disclosure: my experience with poetry has been minimal, and for the most part it is my obsession with song and music that has led me to certain poets. In this context, then, I have been stirred most by the poetic voice of Leonard Cohen. The very fact that I know his voice intimately from his songs means that I hear his poems, too, spoken in my ear in that same voice. And while he’s often labeled as a darkly intense romantic, in fact some of his finest poems have a light, playful quality. The one that first caught my attention is a little thing called “I Wonder How Many People In This City”, from The Spice-Box of Earth, his second collection of poems from 1961. Here it is in its entirety:

I wonder how many people in this city
live in furnished rooms.
Late at night when I look out at the buildings
I swear I see a face in every window
looking back at me
and when I turn away
I wonder how many go back to their desks
and write this down.

All his collections are great, and his first one Let Us Compare Mythologies, from 1956, has recently been reissued. Additionally, many of his poems (including the one cited) and song lyrics can be found within the pages of the massive Stranger Music.

coverGarth: Inspired by Craig Finn of the Hold Steady, I’ve been working my way through John Berryman’s Dream Songs this year. Even for someone like me, who enjoys the fragmentary and fractal poetry of, say, John Ashbery, the Dream Songs were an adjustment, in that point-of-view and syntax are ever-shifting. For the first ten poems, I found myself searching for a way in. But this seems to be one of those great books that teaches you how to read it; I latched on to the rhythm, started reading the poems aloud to myself, and was off and running. One of the pleasures of reading this book is that so many of my friends turn out to have read it, and everyone has different favorites. Dream Songs Week at The Millions, anyone?

coverEmily: If you don’t have a preexisting taste for a particular kind of poetry and you like browsing, there’s really nothing like The Norton Anthology of Poetry – then you’ve got everything from Beowulf to Billy Collins (our former poet laureate, whom I loathe, but many people seem to like) in chronological order, along with brief bios of all the poets, and a bit of a reader’s guide on versification (rhyme, meter, forms) and poetic syntax. But it’s not cheap and with 1828 poems by 334 poets, it’s not a pocket book either.

For price and selection – oh, most beloved of American publishers! – you cannot beat Dover paperbacks for poetry collections (where, right now, you can also get Obama and McCain paperdolls). All of their books are between a dollar and $10 and they have both single author collections (Yeats, Rochester – one of my favorites – a dirty, disillusioned Restoration poet, Browning, most wonderful Keats, Blake, Christina Rosetti, Tennyson, Sandburg), and multi-author collections. Favorite American Poems and 101 Best Loved Poems both looked good, but they have historical collections as well, like English Romantic Poetry, if you want to be more methodical in your reading.

I also highly recommend the Academy of American Poets. They have an extensive online collection of poetry by American and English poets – more poets than the Norton – and they also have recordings of many of the poets reading their work. I highly recommend listening to Gwendolyn Brooks reading “We Real Cool” or Langston Hughes reading “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” It’s a very user-friendly site and in addition to better biographical sketches than the Norton, they have an index of occasional poems for those so inclined (wedding, funeral, etc).

As for individual favorite poems: I love Christopher Smart’s crazy “Jubilate Agno” – it’s a long poem, but a small portion of it gets anthologized and excerpted a lot as “For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry” or just “My Cat Jeoffry.” I also love Ogden Nash’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Prematurely Old Man” (also, if you can find the recording of this, it’s delightful). Robert Herrick’s short poems: “The Night Piece, to Julia,” “Upon Julia’s Clothes,” “Upon Prue, His Maid,” “Delight in Disorder,” and also his pastoral poems like “The Hock Cart” and “Corinna’s Going A-Maying.” Milton is great but he’s a workout – his syntax can be a bit like taking part in WWF Smackdown for some readers. And Marvell’s “The Garden,” his “Mower” poems, and “Bermudas.” Others to try: Gerrard Manly Hopkins, Christina Rosetti’s “Goblin Market,” Dorothy Parker’s “Resume,” Robert Graves, W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, Ted Hughes’ “The Thought Fox” …There are so many more, but I think I’ve probably already said too much.

As a final note: I recommend you begin by reading William Carlos Williams’This is just to say” and then read Kenneth Koch’sVariations on a theme by William Carlos Williams.”





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4 Responses to “Ask a Book Question: The 65th in a Series (Poetry in the Waning Days of Summer)”

  1. billy redd
    at 11:21 am on August 26, 2008

    Excellent call on the Koch poem. I still remember first day of my modern poetry class freshman year getting strange looks because while the prof was going over the syllabus, I was browsing and happened to find "Variations" and started laughing out loud. Whoops.

  2. Emily Colette Wilkinson
    at 12:15 pm on August 26, 2008

    But they'll do that to you! Such a treat, those poems. And so true to the spirit of the wonderful Kenneth Koch, who was an inspired teacher of poetry.

    Also of note, in the buying poetry anthologies dept: The Library of America is having a sale/special offer right now. Their editions are materially superior to pretty much any other and carefully edited, for those looking to make serious purchases. Of course you're limited to American authors in that case.
    (PS They have an edition of Kenneth Koch.)

  3. Anonymous
    at 8:09 am on September 3, 2008

    My brother once sent me a copy of Mark Strand's "What to Think Of" out of the blue and it has stuck with me ever since. Worth seeking out. Steve

  4. Michael Fenelon
    at 10:31 pm on March 6, 2012

    “If” by Rudyard Kipling is by far the most popular poem in the UK; but it is not included in this anthology, nor in several others, eg Harmon’s 100 favorites nor even his 500.
    Do Americans have an aversion to this poem? They like “Desiderata” well enough. Strange omission indeed.

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