Poetry News

What's Interesting About the Second Book of Poems?

By Harriet Staff

Lisa Russ Spaar at the Los Angeles Review of Books looks at the mysteriousness that surrounds a second book of poems. "Given, as David Wojahn once wrote, that publishing a book of poetry in America at all is 'akin to dropping a rose petal in the Grand Canyon,' what is it about authors’ second poetry books that warrants our special attention?" First, she writes about the first book: "[D]ebut collections are often flawed, but in interesting ways; in many cases, they owe rather clearly to their authors’ teachers and literary influences." And why the significance of book no. 2? "They suggest, for one thing, that the poet won't be a one-hit wonder. They are often more intentional and gestate more quickly than first books. Second books are also often more difficult to get published than first books, a situation that comes as a dismaying surprise to first-book authors." More:

Second collections may be less raw than first collections: more polished, assured, self-possessed, and, at times, more careful. Alternately (I’m thinking of Adrienne Rich and Sylvia Plath, for instance, whose second books, Diving into the Wreck and Ariel, respectively, were "break-out" texts), they may be more daring, fierce, and full of brilliant risk. In second collections, we see poets more consciously acknowledging and wielding their obsessions, experimenting with their style, extending their range. Instead of being about "where have I come from," these books often concern themselves with "where are my texts taking me? will I / can I keep writing? do I have the capacity to evolve and continue to refresh my practice?” In the second book, the poet may be getting his or her land legs. Sometimes the second book is a poet’s high water mark. For others it is a bellwether. And for still others, since a pair of books is not assurance of a sequence, of a “career,” the second book can signal or constitute, for an array of reasons, the end of the road. Sometimes a poet’s career is truncated by death or illness. In other cases, the second books themselves falter. A first book, as I have suggested — often long in the making, with the benefit of having passed through many hands and under many eyes — may set up expectations for success that a poet attempts to sustain in the second book by trying to suss out what will be rewarded or accepted, or by following a perceived formula. The result can be repetitious and, worse, stalled and self-parodic.

These are generalizations, of course, with exceptions at every turn. . . .

Sppar goes on to look at specific second collections, including those by Lynda Hull and Kerri Webster, the latter of whom she writes:

Subtle, intertextual, smart, Webster’s second collection takes up the fears of the first book — vulnerability, extinction, the fragility of the animal self, the fiction of the soul, of books, of language — with a “force field” of renewed and stalwart oracular watching (“I rest between breath and sky. I sky / a lot, someone says why / are you always out here, under the branches. / Seeing carves the storm in wax. / Here is the weather around my neck, silver thing / half flame half seed”). It is a rare gift to be able to “sky the sky” on so many emotional, linguistic, textual, and spiritual levels, and although Grand & Arsenal may, literally, be a city street corner, it also evokes “grand larceny” and a “grand arsenal”: Dickinson’s “Loaded Gun, ” a crux of deep and essential questioning. . . .

Originally Published: November 13th, 2012