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.

Originally Published: October 18th, 2007

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...

  1. October 19, 2007
     Henry Gould

    I'm on my fifth bottle of wine for the day (taking PR's advice), and find myself agreeing with you on all counts : there ARE indeed far too few books of poetry published every week, and one should consume them in equal parts (first odd-numbered pages, then even) with coffee, beer or pretzels, preferably at a Twins game (go, Twins! they OWN the pennant this year!). As you point out, poems should be savored slowly, but not too slowly, so that the verbs coincide in tense and number in your mind as well as on the page in front of you, and the lips read along with the lines generally in a vertical zig-zag steady-state sort of motion, being careful to pour the imagery directly from the bottle into the glass without effort or extreme spillage; and beefing up the sensitivity and interpretive quotient (ie. do we not note an allusion fo Keats there, in Maxwell Temperature's verse chronicle, DELICATE PULLET (p. 43, line 16) : "the glow of the bulbous red orb of the grape"?) through a careful process of simultaneous imbibulation (book + booze) stimulating the noetic (poetic) nerve in the cranial septum, located on my lefthand bookshelf (7th floor)? Thanks so much for confirming my own reading and drinking habits,
    Steve! Words to the wise for an perspiring reader of poesie or glug.

  2. October 19, 2007
     Don Share

    Well, here it is Friday, and I'm eagerly awaiting word of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Steve!
    The first test in Harvard's poetry audio digitization project was the restoration of a recording of a poetry reading by Millay. We had to play it over and over again in the preservation studio, and the engineers were not, in the end, among those who fell into a swoon on hearing her voice.
    I've always sworn by her sonnets, most of them, anyway, but find few takers.
    Until we hear more from Steve, folks might like to go here, and the bravest among you here.

  3. October 19, 2007
     Steve

    I didn't mean to send Millay fans back to this very site you are reading right now, but rather to get Millay fans to see what happens if you click here. You'll be glad you did.
    I like her sonnets too-- the most famous ones aren't necessarily the best.

  4. October 20, 2007
     Alicia (AE)

    Thanks, Steve, for pointing out that terrific piece by Paisley. I'm curious--when you are reading all these books, is that for pleasure, or for review, or some combination? Because it seems that reading books for review is rather a different exercise, especially for a piece that includes several books. Certainly it seems that most omnibus reviewers do just flip through the books at hand and sample--and who can blame them. (And of course poets are grateful to be reviewed at all.) Certainly, I tend to read books of poetry that way --just grazing through them, not in any order, and returning to poems that nourish me in some way or just irritate my curiousity. I am more interested in poems than books of poems.
    This is sort of a side issue, but if the question is keeping up with contemporary poetry, which Paisley suggests is among her concerns, I do think it isn't terribly "good" for a poet to have a diet too heavy in contemporaries. And I do think there probably are too many books being published--in one sense I am of the more-the-merrier school, but it seems that at least a hefty minority of these books are being submitted (and maybe even written) because people need a book publication to get a job offer, and I don't think that is a healthy state of affairs.

  5. October 21, 2007
     Don Share

    A little out of context, but here's Samuel Johnson, answering Soame Jenyns:
    "Many of the books which now crowd the world may be justly suspected to be written for the sake of some invisible order of beings, for surely they are of no use to any of the corporeal inhabitants of the world. Of the productions of the last bounteous year, how many can be said to serve any purpose of use or pleasure? The only end of such writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, of better to endure it; and how will either of those be put more in our power by him who tells us that we are puppets, of which some creature not much wiser than ourselves manages the wires?"

  6. October 21, 2007
     Steve

    Alicia, I write enough reviews these days (and have a free enough hand in choosing the books for some of those reviews) that there's no sharp line between books read for review and books read for pleasure. (Most of the books I review give me some pleasure!)
    I too am more interested-- much more interested, right now-- in poems than in books of poems, though some books are book-length projects that don't let you separate them out neatly into individual poems. (By contract: Silliman, among others, has said he's more interested in poetry than in poems: if what you want are ideas that move a project called "poetry" forward, or that expand it, maybe you need whole books, not one-page poems, in order to see the ideas. Jack Spicer though so, and while he's not my favorite poet by any means, he's not someone we shd dismiss.)
    Poets should read the poetry of the past, yes! And most American poets under, say, 50 probably do feel the pressure to publish too fast, because they need first or second books in order to qualify for academic jobs: it's a Red Queen's Race, and the readers lose. OTOH poets long ago published too fast for the same reason novelists now publish too fast: the books sell, and the publishers want the money. Which state of affairs would you prefer? What is to be done?

  7. October 22, 2007
     Don Share

    It's interesting, if I may generalize a tad unfairly, that we have threads going on that seem to advocate, respectively, reading less and writing more!

  8. October 23, 2007
     Robin Ekiss

    We haven't yet seen a shout-out for the Goldilocks Principle, though: reading -- and/or writing -- JUST enough. Should reading poetry instead be roughly equivalent to dieting: sufficient exercise and everything in moderation? And if so, do we need to organize a chapter of OverReader's Anonymous?
    Where does the proliferation of "book sharing" sites like Shelfari and Good Reads fit into this equation? Do they make anyone else feel like reading is a competitive, contact sport?