Last Week’s Poetry Best Selling Books

Top 10 from the Week of July 18. From The Poetry Foundation. To see the complete list click here.

1 Where I Live: New & Selected Poems 1990-2010 by Maxine W. Kumin (W. W. Norton & Company) 5
2 1 The Shadow of Sirius (paperback) by W. S. Merwin (Copper Canyon Press) 47
3 2 Nox by Anne Carson (New Directions) 18
4 4 Ballistics (paperback) by Billy Collins (Random House) 24
5 8 The Best of It by Kay Ryan (Grove Press) 21
6 The Trouble with Poetry and Other Poems (paperback) by Billy Collins (Random House) 170
7 6 Thirst (paperback) by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press) 150
8 17 Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty by Tony Hoagland (Graywolf Press) 25
9 11 Red Bird (paperback) by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press) 71
9 9 Versed (paperback) by Rae Armantrout (Wesleyan) 8
10 10 Evidence by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press) 71

Literature Undressed

Well, it’s probably not what you thought, or depending on what kind of person you are, maybe it is. Apparently Naked Girls Reading is the Suicide Girls of literature. As much as I can figure out, it’s a bunch of naked women who like to give readings in the nude. For money. It all started in 2009 in Chicago, and now there are events all over the country.

And they’re having a contest. Yes your original work can be presented by a real live Naked Girl. If that’s not prize enough, you win money, “at least $500.”  They’re looking for “gut level” writing of all kinds. Deadline is September 17. So if you think you’ve got something titillating enough to be read naked, go for it.

Here’s a selection of some of their reading list:

  • The Smoke Off – Shel Silverstein
  • Bad Acid or Bad Announcements – Abbie Hoffman
  • On The Road – Jack Kerouac
  • The Way You Wear Your Hat (Bio of Frank Sinatra) – Bill Zehme
  • Chicago Confidential – Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer
  • The Seven Addictions and Five Professions of Anita Berber – Mel Gordon
  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Chapter 10, The Lobster Quadrille – Lewis Carroll
  • Requiem for a Dream – Hubert Selby Jr.
  • “The Hangover” from On Drink by Kingsley Amis
  • “The Theatre of Seraphin” from On Wine and Hashish by Charles Baudelaire

Kinda reminds me of a party back in my grad school days in Bowling Green. I wasn’t a participant mind you, but, well, that was a long time ago. I won’t name names, but you know who you are.

BTW, some of these links are NSFW.

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Blind Poets and the Decline of Jack Gilbert

At a reading in a small bookstore (yes, they still exist) this weekend in Philadelphia, I heard a woman read a poem about a sunset. That alone is not particularly remarkable as sunsets are fairly commonplace in poems, especially at open readings. What was remarkable was that the reader was blind.

She arrived at the reading late, holding a purse and binder in one hand and a collapsible walking stick in the other, tentatively tapping chair legs and steps until she settled into a seat. She was known by several other people present. When her turn came to present a poem she pulled a few pages of brail script from her folder and read a piece about a sunset she shared with her father when she was a little girl.

Unfortunately I admit I don’t recall much about the juice of the poem, other than it included some very vivid visual descriptions including references to colors and shadows. Rather than listen attentively to the poem, my mind, as it tends to do, went off on its own thinking about the contrast of a blind poet writing about a sunset. I suppose I expected something else from the poem—other senses and other insights—and I admit those may be in other of this woman’s poems, but I don’t know her well enough to guess.

Homer is said to have been blind. Milton composed Paradise Lost after he lost his sight to glaucoma. There are others of course. But I was thinking at the time, what would my writing be like if I lost my sight? How would say, Richard Hugo or Seamus Heaney be different without eyes? Often I find myself looking out the window by my desk as I write. I use that window as a crowbar when I’m stuck—I’ll hunt for an image in the trees, some shade of the shadows to nudge into the poem on my screen. Would lack of sight affect that?

On His Blindness

by John Milton

WHEN I consider how my light is spent

Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,

And that one talent which is death to hide

Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent

To serve therewith my Maker, and present

My true account, lest He returning chide,—

Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?

I fondly ask:—But Patience, to prevent

That murmur, soon replies: God doth not need

Either man’s work, or His own gifts, who best

Bear His mild yoke, they serve Him best. His state

Is kingly; thousands at His bidding speed

And post o’er land and ocean without rest:—

They also serve who only stand and wait.

Is it wrong of me to have expected other senses, rather than visual ones, in the blind poet’s reading on Friday night or if not wrong then just a matter of surprise?  I know these questions come to me mostly because I rely on visual images more than most anything in my own work, and subsequently that’s what I’m frequently drawn to in others. But, of course, that’s not all there is and is probably a bit self-limiting on my part.

So here was this woman, recalling a memory of something she can no longer experience first hand. She was using the memory as a way to relate something about her father. I heard that, but I also heard something else, I just wish I had a good name for it.

This also brings me to another poet who has lost another significant sense. Jack Gilbert, author of The Great Fires and a Yale Younger Poet award winner in 1962 has lost his sense of time. Now in his 80s and residing in a nursing home, he is apparently suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Gilbert has lot his greatest sense, himself. An interviewer earlier this spring noted that speaking to Gilbert was like speaking to someone in a coma in that he seemed dislocated from the present. Learning that made me quite sad, as I’ve loved much of Gilbert’s poetry, in particular for its sense of attachment, its connection to places and personal rituals and passion for understanding.

Here are a few lines from his most recent, and I’m sure his last, book, Refusing Heaven (2005):

“If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,

we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.

We must admit there will be music despite everything.”

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What’s On Your Poetry Bucket List?

Over at The Guardian, literary critic Robert McCrum posed to his readers a challenge, admit your most glaring literary gaps—the books you should have, but haven’t read. In fact, he suggests that most bookish people have probably claimed to have read great books they’ve never even opened. I hope I haven’t done that, but I’m sure I’ve nodded and smiled knowingly to literary references to which I was actually clueless and maybe passed judgment on authors I haven’t spent proper time with. There are forests of books I know I should read, but for whatever reason, never got around too.

I’ve never read anything by Virginia Woolf. I put up a fight against Pound.  I’ve paid little attention to Plath or Olsen beyond a few Norton Anthology samples. I didn’t pick up Pearl S. Buck until I took my first business trip to China. And I’ve yet to make an appointment with Dr. Samuel Johnson. A few years ago at a discount bookstore I picked up a copy of Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon in the hope that it would help me fill in the gaps a bit or at least let me know what I’ve been missing. It sits on a bookshelf untouched too. My exposure to the Eastern canon wouldn’t have gone much past anime if it weren’t for a brilliant course on nonwestern literature I took as an undergrad (thanks Habib).

So I pose this challenge to the other poets reading here: what great poets or books of poems haven’t you read? Are you still short a few cantos? Never found Paradise Lost? I never read Geoffrey Hill until he was named Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford (even though he’s in my 1986 Norton Anthology of English Literature).

I ask this for two reasons (three actually, as I really needed an idea for a new post). First, I think knowing what we haven’t read (yet placing it in the category of Should Read) says something about where our aesthetic associations live. Second, I want to know what other readers think is really important to include in their poetry shelf bucket list. So please, share. I won’t make fun of you for admitting to never having read Edward Lear.

Really, please leave comments. I’ll work them together into a follow-up post. It’ll be good times and candy for all.

David Lehman’s New Poetry Form, The Letter Change

This is fun. David Lehman, series editor for The Best American Poetry (which has yet to include me–damnation!) posted a sort of poetry game on his blog. Take a line from an existing poem–it’s more fun if it’s a classic poem–and change one letter in one word. Assemble a bunch of those to make a new poem. It’s just a nerdy poet’s game, something to be done in a pub with other nerdy poet friends, but it’s fun nonetheless. It’s also a good way to pass the time at work when you’re supposed to be, um, working.  Out of necessity I altered the rules a bit to allow the addition of one letter if just the changing of one letter doesn’t work. I know, that makes me a cheater. I don’t do crossword puzzles for that reason.

Here’s a go at it (thanks to Milton, Blake, Homer, Pound, Arnold and Wright ):

Sing, oh Heavenly Mouse, that on the secret top,

dost thou know who bade thee

give me fare well, and stain the hound with wine?

There can be but one bordello.

A cry like thine in mine own heart I fear:

I have wasted my lice.