naive advice for paisley rekdal
Paisley Rekdal, who has written some neat poems herself, says it's a bad idea to drink five bottles of wine a week, and certainly I wouldn't try it. (I prefer n pints of coffee and m pints of beer per week, where 2n>3m. Values of both n and m vary from week to week and are not for public disclosure.)
More seriously, Paisley Rekdal also says it's too hard to read five books of poetry in a week. Which surprised me a bit, since that's something I do, or thought I did, almost every week. Advice-- for her and for you, maybe-- below the fold.
I say I read at least five books of poems a week, but I don't-- as she tried to do-- read every poem in every one of those five (or more) books, and I don't recommend that you try it either, unless they're books by poets you already know you like. There are people who tell me they feel they have to finish every book they start, and while that's barely imaginable (for me) as a way to read novels (though I have no problem putting novels down halfway through), it's simply the wrong way to read a new book of poems.
Start at the beginning, since it's where poets usually put the poems they want to use as introductions for new readers. Then keep reading all the way through if you're compelled by what you've already read; if not, skip around. Look for section divisions, for poems of varying sizes (twelve lines vs. 100) or kinds (a block of prose vs. Creeleyan stanzas, say), in case this poet writes three or five sorts of poems and you're going to like one. Get a sense of what it sounds liike to be this poet, and of whether the sounds interest you. And if they don't, stop: repeat the process with something else on the shelf.
Conversely, when you find a poem, or a set of poems, or a book you like, reread: nothing really good yields up all its depth the first time through-- not even exceptional ice cream. Certainly good poems require more than one scoop.
There are, as Paisley Rekdal all but says outright, far too many books of poems published in the U.S. alone each year for any one person to read them all (which doesn't mean that there are too many books, period); trying to read each volume you pick up from start to end is a good way to minimize your chances of finding new sounds and forms that speak well to you. The more you sample, the more you skip around, and the more you are willing to give up and start again with a new poet, the more likely you are to find a poet you're likely to reread. And looking at new books of poetry this way may seem disrespectful-- after all, each book of poems includes someone's effort, somebody's heart's blood-- but if you believe that poems want readers, then sampling and sampling and sampling until you find poems that speak to you is really the best way to give the poets what they want.
Or, as Maggie Nelson-- whose new book says something to me, but, with its populist streak (and its interest in sex as a subject) might say more to you-- says herself, in a suite of poems written at, around, and about the Gowanus Canal:
In the library I pick up book after book of poetry
All of the voices are up late, sticky
in their pajamas, all of them are listening
to imaginary foxes, sounding out their cells
and writing the distance down.
UPDATE: Honestly, I hadn't seen this before I wrote that. I suppose I'll have to come back soon with another quote from another book not otherwise in the news.
Speaking of coming back: have you been watching the Sox and the Indians? Do you admire anything by Mary Oliver, or by Edna St. Vincent Millay? If you answered yes to at least one of those three questions, you should probably come back to this site Friday October 18 (tomorrow, as I type), or any time after that.
Stephanie (also Steph; formerly Stephen) Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of [her] generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published four collections of poems: Advice...