Birthdays & Poetry

My birthday is in a couple of weeks – and as birthdays tend to do, it has me thinking. In 4 years, I will be 40. It is pretty unbelievable.

I have been working on a forty before 40 list for this blog. (A list of forty things I want to have done with my life before I turn 40.) This started out as kind of a fun project that gets more serious as I ponder it more and more. Things keep evolving with this list. The latest thing that has evolved, is that I want to create a list of 40 books that I should read or reread by the time my 40th birthday rolls around. I have questioned many friends who are big readers about their suggestions. I am very fortunate to run with some literary types. Some of these folks went to graduate school at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa. I have been leaning on them most of all.

Some of those writers are poets. I love poetry in theory, but must admit that I have never really given it much more of a shot then the requisite under-graduate required reading material. So – when I asked a poet friend to suggest some ideas, he went above and beyond with a very thoughtful list. He gave me permission to share it on this blog, as it really must be shared. I hope it inspires you as it has me. (Note, if you haven’t already figured it out, this friend of mine is a smarty-pants. I am sort of smart – but am not ashamed to admit that there are MANY things I don’t know. In an effort to learn, I double check words I am unclear about the definitions of.  You probably won’t have a problem, but just in case, I have linked to some definitions to some words I had to check.)

This list is a little idiosyncratic and impossibly difficult to nail down. I think of it more as great poetry books that are both worth reading and that I think you’d like. I’m not going to recommend Emily Dickinson’s Collected poems or 5K lines of William Blake. So it’s not canonical, but I do believe my life would be worse without the books below. I’ve changed it a few times, but now I have to look away.  It will plague me. Picks 6 & 7 I cannot justify leaving off. Do with them what you will.

Elizabeth Bishop – Collected poems

As Bishop would take sometimes 10 yrs to finish a poem, her collected is compact. In page count. Otherwise it yields and yields and yields. Hers a calm and careful intelligence that is punctuated throughout with the violence of experience.
·       In the Waiting Room
·       One Art
·       Visits to St. Elizabeths

James Wright - The Branch Will Not Break

The first book of poems that made me want to be something other than a narrative poet. These are magical, deeply imagined, and confounding in their realizations. From Martins’s Ferry Ohio, which is near WV. He is a Midwestern poet who left and got astonished. If you come to like him, late in his life, he wrote lots of gorgeous poems about Italy.
·       A Blessing
·       The Branch Will Not Break
·       Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota
·       Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio

Donald Justice – Collected poems

Taught at Iowa for years, grew up in Miami. Like Bishop, his collected is slim. He is exact. A master of form. The great poet of nostalgia, he’s nevertheless never sentimental. I suspect this is why he has so few poems here. He can tell the difference between feeling and trying to feel, a rare barometer.
·       Pantoum of the Great Depression
·       Villanelle at Sundown
·       Thinking about the Past
·        October: A Song

New Addresses – Kenneth Koch

New York School Poet, which means he’s full of joy and dedicated to making poetry out of life. This is a book from late in his life, but he retains the bloom of youth, as he did his entire career. Koch is your favorite uncle. This is his most approachable full book. [note: recommended by multiple people. a must read]
·       To My Twenties
·       To Orgasms
·       To Breath  – This poem has maybe my favorite lines ever, he’s talking to his “breath”:
I want to understand certain things and tell them to others.
To do it, I have to get them right, so they are hard to resist.
Stay with me until I can do this.
·       To the Ohio
·       To Friendship

Human Wishes – Robert Hass

When he read at Iowa, Dean [Young] ended his intro by saying “I’d burn all of my poems to save 5 of Bob’s.” I think this is his best book, but my mind changes. It has history, biography, pastoralism, inquisitiveness, and, well, wishes. If what you want in poetry is to feel the mind of the poet moving in the language, there’s no one’s mind I take more pleasure in following than Hass’.
·       Russia in 1931
·       Spring Drawing 2
·       Berkeley Eclogue – In this poem, think of the italics as the speaker talking/thinking to himself. It’s the voice in the mind that is keeping you honest when you’re wondering about things.
·       The Privilege of Being

Ariel -- Sylvia Plath

Took me years to be able to read this book. It’s truly one of the monuments of the last century.

What Work Is -- Philip Levine

When I lived in Columbus, I once got on a plane and flew to Chicago to see him read. It was the first time I’d ever come here. He’s a much loved poet, if out of style these days. His vision is of a pretty heartless world, which he confronts with about half rage and half wonder.


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