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February 2015: Reading List
For years now, I recently realized, my poetry reading and my non-poetry reading have been looking for the same thing. The non-poetry includes natural science authors: Stephen J. Gould on evolution, Bernd Heinrich on the wildlife in his Maine woods, E.O. Wilson on his beloved ants, and the essays of Lewis Thomas, man of medicine. They all write well because they care about that, and their popular books are written directly out of the sciences in which they are expert. In my college days the scientist/novelist C.P. Snow famously lamented the gulf between scientists and “literary intellectuals.” These authors would have pleased him.
My poetry reading—since that was my day job at the Poetry Foundation—fits into no category; it has been as eclectic as that of other readers of this magazine. But I always pause with pleasure over the work of poets who write out of a systematic knowledge of something outside of poetry. One such poet is Sarah Lindsay, whose poems are rooted in archeological digs, lost or imagined civilizations, and life forms far removed from the human.
…if you stumble at dusk and put out your hands
it could be leaf mud petal or wing
pressed tender against your palm, it could be
a pouch of toadskin that feels like yours
without temperature, drawn taut over a pulse
and barely holding it in.
–Conclusion of “A Walk on St. Agnes Island”
In poems fueled by her fascination for history and the sciences, Lindsay is colonizing fresh experience for poetry as a whole. I admire that because it expands the footprint of the art form. And I love the poems.
My poetry and non-poetry reading, then, are drawn to the same thing: fine writing in the service of something more than self-knowledge, or only self-knowledge.
A lot of one’s reading, if one’s an academic, has to do with what one’s teaching. For a graduate seminar called Poetry in Translation I’m enjoying Matthew Arnold’s On Translating Homer all over again (as well as looking at many translations of Homer, Sappho, Baudelaire, Catullus, Cavafy…) and savoring David Bellos’s Is That a Fish in Your Ear? for the first time. Another course, Children’s Literature, has me testing the waters of Philip Pullman’s new version of Grimm’s Fairy Tales; I’m not convinced it renders all other versions obsolete, but it’s fun.
I don’t read much contemporary fiction, but a recent trip to Haiti, where we visited the legendary Olofsson Hotel, has me eager to at least begin Graham Greene’s “The Comedians.”
The dynamic duo of Steven Pinker and Rebecca Goldstein always increase my knowledge while exercising my old brain a little. I loved both their recent new books: his The Sense of Style and her Plato at the Googleplex, which is laugh-out-loud funny at times, as when one of Plato’s interlocutors on the Google campus thinks he is referring to a tyrant in Syracuse, New York (“they have tyrants there?”).
Finally, an upcoming panel on the occasion of John Berryman’s centennial has sent me back to Eileen Simpson’s Poets in Their Youth, which I read a bit differently now from the way I did when I was in my thirties.
So much of reading, let’s admit, is serendipitous, contingent, premature, belated—sometimes a catching-up-with long after the fact, and sometimes what Alan Ansen sweetly inscribed in John Fuller’s Reader’s Guide to W.H. Auden when he gave me (almost totally ignorant of Auden’s work then) the Fuller book in 1971: “a cart before a heavenly horse.”
My current fun reading includes two glittery translations-fests: first, the final issue of E. Tracy Grinnell’s long-running Aufgabe, second, three issues of the revived Tripwire. Founded by David Buuck and Yedda Morrison in the 1990s and now back after a 12 year hiatus, the new Tripwire also features a portfolio of on-the-ground documents and eyewitness reports from East Bay activists, among others. This winter I kept returning to the new edition of Lorine Niedecker’s Lake Superior from Wave Books. I’m drawn to it as an encounter of a U.S. poet with Canada that doesn’t fit the chronicled exchanges with Toronto and Vancouver. Niedecker’s sense of geological history somehow aligns with the long-view of the anthropocene in ways that I imagine readers will find challenging in the years ahead. Another Wave Book on my desk, Hoa Nguyen’s Red Juice: Poems 1998-2008, draws from several out-of-print editions of her work. Recommended for readers (like me!) who want to reconnect with her debut book Your Ancient See Through, published in 2002 by the Subpress collective.
After Alice Notley let drop that Edwin Denby’s ballet criticism is a good model for poetry criticism, I went straight out to buy his collected Dance Writings. Most of his references are honestly opaque, but I’ve come to appreciate his snapshot lessons on technique and interpretation, not to mention his sardonic 1940s style, e.g., “To be sure, Disney has set an extremely high standard for dancing animal impersonations.” Recent scholarship by Brian Reed and Margaret Ronda stoked my curiosity to read full collections by Paul Laurence Dunbar and Carl Sandburg—partly just to see what classroom anthologies always kick to the curb. One morning last month at a coffee shop/used bookstore in Cincinnati I also picked up Edith Sitwell’s Collected Poems and promptly lost a few days with her caricatures of the upper crust. Check out especially the proto-flarfy “Ass-Face” (repressed in early editions) or the hyperfast jingles from Façade in 1929 (h/t Benjamin Friedlander). Finally last week the mail delivered Jennifer Scappettone’s new Killing the Moonlight: Modernism in Venice. At a moment when university press budgets have forced shorter page-lengths on manuscripts, Killing the Moonlight is a long, welcome exception. Scappettone’s scope is multilingual and multigenerational, and she amply covers the art, literature, and infrastructure of a city that is unjustly neglected in modernist studies. The introduction is partly a treatise on the act of critical writing itself, executed with the gusto of a poet-scholar: “Criticism committed to fascination will always have a labyrinthine relationship to explanation, multiplying alignments as it pursues revised outlooks and revisited grounds.”
I’m past the age of reading, and well into the age of re-reading. I know, because I hated my father for it when he did it. And I don’t re-read either. About eight months ago, I started buying reading glasses. I have three pairs, which I variously use and don’t use. I’ve never had glasses before. I was the boy who saw the buffalo a mile away. A piece I wrote last summer about Brecht was my first with glasses. I avoid putting them on as much as possible, because they make the rest of the room disappear. Now I have another piece about Brecht to write. Half-remembered scraps of things come out of my head: “no Lyndon Johnson copper rubbing through.” Or if you want Brecht: “Kohlen für Mike!” An inefficient volcano. I don’t know what book I last read, except for purposes of reviewing or translating. “Do you have that in a large type edition?” Admission: I read Leon Wieseltier’s piece in the New York Times about our virtualized post-human scientistic predicament. The Internet seems to have killed off pictures, writing and music at one fell swoop, which isn’t bad going for one lousy money-spinning invention. I thought that was probably the best synoptic article I’ve read for ten years, or whenever the Guardian had a piece about a nasty practice called “astroturfing.” The world is so full of false accounting and conniving. All vampires and zombies, if you ask me. It gives one conniptions. I put on John Cale’s Paris 1919 this morning, and sat there in floods of tears. That mixture of prettiness and geography and bottleneck guitar does me in. And Lowell George and Ritchie Hayward are dead. Nothing post-human there. And when I last saw John Cale he had pink hair and a goatee. I wonder what he was reading.
On the bedside table for the past twelve months: Linda Norton’s The Public Gardens: poems and history (Pressed Wafer, 2011). A concoction of lyric poetry, memoir, social history, and bibliophilia—she balances it all so deftly, with humanity and tenderness. Norton records a time of living in Brooklyn, then Oakland in the 1980s/early 90s, working as an editor, living among artists, becoming a mother. She writes like a dream. She gobbles books. What she’s reading is threaded through everything. And she’s funny: “Imagine someone pointing to a spot in the iris of a face by Rembrandt and saying, ‘the wall in my room should be this color.’”
Today I went back to where I left off in Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Color when my mother called yesterday. The laundry basket was close at hand and I had marked my place with a pair of rumpled underpants.
Currently reading Eliot Weinberger: Oranges and Peanuts for Sale, which came on the heels (in my order of reading) of An Elemental Thing (both New Directions). Everything, selected and verified by Eliot Weinberger’s lucid prose:
The flavor of winter is salty; its smell is putrid. The Emperor lives on the Dark Side of the Hall of Light. He wears black robes and black jade ornaments, rides in a black chariot pulled by black horses with black manes, trailing black streamers.
–From “Winter” in An Elemental Thing)
Online: Tender: a quarterly journal made by women. Poems, prose and visual art edited by Sophie Collins and Rachel Allen. www.tenderonline.co.uk.
Sally Wen Mao
In winter, we all hibernate or wander. I’ve dropped more than my fair share of books in bathtubs and spas this winter…including Distant Star by Roberto Bolaño, which I devoured like a scant but spicy meal, Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Lizard by Banana Yoshimoto, and Create Dangerously: An Immigrant Artist At Work by Edwidge Danticat. In December I found a picture book called Your Illustrated Guide to Becoming One with the Universe by Yumi Sakugawa and it is everything divine and more: just the antidote to the brutal ticking of the days.
I’m currently reading Another Country by James Baldwin. So far it’s stark, baleful, and sublimely gritty—try to read the opening pages without catching your breath—your teeth might chatter. In general, I’m always catching up on Baldwin with Notes of a Native Son, Giovanni’s Room, and If Beale Street Could Talk.
The poetry books I’m reading are: The Wilderness by Sandra Lim – a manuscript I’ve read before, that feels even more exciting in my hands, and in my first reading it wrenched me with a rare form of recognition. The voice speaks with an ecstatic despair, as if narrating from inside the skin of winter: “This year’s snowdrops: is it that they are spare, and have a slightly fraught lucidity, or are they proof that pain, too, can be ornate?” Books of poetry I’ve been discovering, obsessively, over and over: the poems of Nazim Hikmet, Citizen by Claudia Rankine (of course yes!), Humanimal and Ban en Banlieue by Bhanu Kapil, Discipline and Life in a Box is a Pretty Life by Dawn Lundy Martin, Translating Mo’um and Engine Empire by Cathy Park Hong. This is language that moves me out the door and into the winter air where I can breathe more fully, more deeply.
No fewer than three times a year, I read W.D. Snodgrass’s lecture “Tact and the Poet’s Force,” which was included in the collection In Radical Pursuit: Critical Essays and Lectures in 1975 and is now out of print. I received it in a handout when I was an undergraduate, and kept it with me wherever I moved throughout my twenties. Even when I no longer understood how it was possible to even begin to write a poem, it guided my songwriting and probably much else. I later found a used copy of the book for one dollar.
Amy Leach’s Things That Are, well, I have to think Snodgrass would approve of it. Leach’s writing is so delightful to read, and its cuteness and verbal curlicues always part just long enough in each essay to reveal a powerful, philosophical soul, and yes, great tact. Also powerful is Amaud Jamaul Johnson’s recent Darktown Follies, whose poems largely examine the painful complexity of minstrelsy and its legacy, but that’s too simple of a description.
I also can’t stay away from Miriam Bird Greenberg’s chapbook All night in the new country. Its poems are all set in some grim future, in the wake of a never-fully-explained environmental apocalypse where the earth’s orbit might even be off-kilter but no one’s certain, just that “suddenly / though we’d brushed snow / from our walkways / so recently, the sun began to rise two hours earlier.” And I’m making my way through A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life, by Allyson Hobbs, which is giving me context for poems of mine that deal with my family’s history.
Lastly, I just bought the collected lyrics of songwriter Bill Callahan, I Drive a Valence. He’s great, and this includes almost every song I’d hoped it would. You should listen to him.
Penelope Fitzgerald: “Politics and business can be settled by influence, cooks and doctors can only be promoted on their skill.” I wonder which category poets fall under? Some ratio of both, I suppose: but no doubt politics and business claim skill for themselves as well. What haven’t we allowed them to claim?
So I’d like to know: Is there a Penelope Fitzgerald bandwagon yet? If there is, count me in, though it must be a roomy one—occupied by aficionados of skill, not influence. She’s not what you would call a content provider. The above quote comes from Innocence, which is currently on the night table. Before that, it was The Gate of Angels, which left me hanging as to whether it was going to be a comedy or a tragedy until the final sentence. (I walked around in a daze after.) The Beginning of Spring, likewise, keeps bone china plates spinning high up in the air until the final sentence. The Blue Flower takes the German Romantic poet Novalis as its protagonist, who says to the cousin of his dying fiancee: “I could not lie to her, any more than I could lie to myself.” The cousin replies, “I don’t know to what extent a poet lies to himself.” (Yes!!) Fitzgerald’s biography of Charlotte Mew, and Hermione Lee’s new biography of Fitzgerald, are also standing by; it takes a lot to get around my embargo on literary biography.
Michael Hofmann’s new collection of criticism, Where Have You Been? Advocacy is hard: in our degraded climate, all praise is suspect (well, one can praise the dead; the living receive only publicity). Still, I’m advocating: his skill sublimes into glamour, beyond all “politics and business,” or the verbs “settled” and “promoted.” It would only be logical that the rest of this reading list be comprised of the poets in its table of contents.
My daughter is starting to recognize that there’s a predictable link between sounds and letters (Google says this is called “the alphabetic principle”). So reading with her before she goes to sleep—the most consistent reading I’m doing—is a ton of fun right now.
We’re checking all the usual books off the list: Animal Snackers; Where the Wild Things Are; Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You? (Sometimes I like to imagine conversations between Dr. Seuss and Anthony Hecht)… books that remind me of the “simple” musical and imaginative pleasures of poetry:
—From Where the Sidewalk Ends, by Shel Silverstein
A great lesson in the link between rhythm and suspense.
And maybe it’s because I just spent my night shoveling almost three feet of snow out of my driveway and I’m ready for summer to hurry the hell up, but I’ve had these sticky lines bouncing around in my head for the last few hours:
Raspberry, Jazzberry, Razzamatazzberry!
Berryband, Merryband, Jamming in Berryland…
Raspberry Rabbits and Brassberry Band,
Elephants skating on Raspberry Jam!
—From Jamberry, by Bruce Degen
My daughter’s favorite book is an illustrated version of “What Does the Fox Say?” by Ylvis. She basically sings her way through it by memory and I play page-turner.
As for my own reading, I’m usually making slow progress on six or seven books at once. Here’s what’s currently on my bedside table:
- Velocities: New & Selected Poems: 1966-1992, by Stephen Dobyns.
- Citizen, by Claudia Rankine.
- Lunch Poems, by Frank O’Hara (expanded fiftieth anniversary edition).
- Tape Op: The Creative Music Recording Magazine. The Jan/Feb 2015 issue has interviews with Mark Ronson, Bob Ludwig, and Caribou’s Dan Snaith. You can subscribe for free, by the way.
- Selected Poems, by Mary Ruefle. (I think she might have more than one Selected Poems; I’m rereading the one Wave Books put out in 2010).
- DC Universe, by Alan Moore—a kind of greatest hits from his work on Swamp Thing, Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, etc.
- Poetry Magazine (of course!)—the December 2014 issue, because I’m always a couple months behind.
Craig Morgan Teicher
I’ve been reading many books from the past, and many from the future. As I have for the last several years, I wrote a piece for NPR looking ahead at books coming in 2015, so all of these and more—such as The Last Two Seconds by Mary Jo Bang, Testament by G.C. Waldrep, and Nothing to Declare by Henri Cole—have been open in front of me lately. Also, Citizen by Claudia Rankine, which, it must be obvious by now, ought to be required reading for anyone who breathes.
I’m editing an edition of the selected writings of Delmore Schwartz, much of whose best work has long been unavailable, a problem I hope to remedy, to some extent. So I’ve been reading a lot of Delmore Schwartz. I’m particularly excited for people to see his verse plays again. He went particularly far out in that form, to great effect.
And I’m also working on a book of essays about how poets develop, so lots of my reading has been focused on that: lately, I’ve been going back over all the books by D.A. Powell, watching his masterful art unfold.
And I’ve been on a biography kick and have been paging through new and old books about James Merrill, Elizabeth Bishop, T.S. Eliot, James Laughlin, and, hopefully soon, John Cheever. Though, of course, with two little kids, I never get to read more than a few pages of anything in a row, hence all the flitting between books.
Parallel reading is a bad habit according to many people. Unfortunately I cannot do otherwise, cannot deny the fun and the amazing adventures of entering different genres and different languages. This is the reason, why Roland Barthes’s Mythen des Alltags, Philip Larkin’s poems, and Batman are the closest neighbors in my bag. Roland Barthes I have in German, his raw and incredible humor is absolutely present even in the harshest critiques. Such sentences, like: “Und malerisch ist alles, was uneben ist” (“And picturesque is everything, that is unequal”) can afford only an aesthetic, but his point of view opens a wider field of analysis. Why Philip Larkin? A couple of years ago I heard a wonderful Hungarian translation of “The Mower” from the poet and translator Szili József and after that I began to reread Larkin. The precision and somehow the cruelty of the simplicity, the adequate usage of the language. Because I am not a native English speaker, understanding another language, another literary language, finding the “right” word is always the hardest work. And with Larkin I have the feeling that everything is just at the exact right place. Like in a Batman story. The newest issue shows the operation of Joker, how he receives a new face and how he gives birth to a new character of himself. The description of the phase of transformation reminds me Kafka, even the illustrations have references to Samsa’s movements. And it is February, the season of the “Fasching,” the balls, the masquerade, let’s wear our alter egos on our faces!
Tags: Alice Lyons, Ange Mlinko, Christopher Robley, Craig Morgan Teicher, John Barr, Kaplan Harris, Kinga Toth, Michael Hofmann, Michael Metivier, Rachel Hadas, Reading List, Sally Wen Mao
Posted in From Poetry Magazine on Tuesday, February 10th, 2015 by Lindsay Garbutt.