12 Books: A Poetry Nerd’s Poetics Reading List

I recently finished up leading a poetry workshop at a writers’ retreat at Rosemont College near Philadelphia. During one of the classes, populated mostly by MFA graduate students, I brought in a pile of craft/theory/poetics/rant books. I’m a nerd for books about poetry and interviews with poets (I always turn to the interview section first when a new issue of Rattle arrives). Aside from reading lots and lots of poetry, one of the best ways for me to learn more about poetry is through reading poets talk about their own processes and ideas. Here’s a partial list of books I think should be on every poet’s shelf. I’m offering this list here for the retreat students who didn’t get to write down the names of all the titles they were interested in.

Please add more books in the comments section if you think I’ve left out something important or interesting. There’s no particular order of importance in the way I’ve assembled this list, and I may add more as I find things on my shelves.

Writing Poems by Robert Wallace. Harper Collins.
I came to this, as I do with a lot of craft books, first as a fan of Wallace’s own poetry. This book is an excellent hardcore treatise in the basic principles and how they work within poems. Lots of samples and some writing prompts.

Proofs & Theories: Essays on Poetry by Louise Gluck. Ecco.
Here’s a book I love to argue with, which makes the process of reading it fun (and why my copy is so full of scribbled notations). Gluck’s book mixes essays on composition theory with comments of specific poets (Eliot, Oppen, Kunitz). The essay I marked up most is “Against Sincerity.”

Poetry in Person, Twenty-five Years of Conversation with American Poets Edited by Alexander Neubauer. Knopf.
This book is mesmerizing. In it you find 23 transcripts of poets talking with teacher Pearl London and her creative writing classes. These aren’t just any poets though—we get to eavesdrop on Maxine Kumin, Robert Hass, Philip Levine, Galway Kinnell, Lucille Clifton, Li-Young Lee, Charles Simic…

The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux. Norton.
This is a very practical and easy to love book on craft. It’s designed more for people who are new to writing poetry, but it also has plenty of insights for established writers. It would make a great textbook for a creative writing class. Lots of prompts and examples are provided. Engagingly written.

Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry Essays by Jane Hirshfield. Harper Perennial.
I first came to this book, 1) as a fan of Jane Hirshfield’s poems and 2) because I was looking for new ways to think about nature poetry, and Hirshfield suggest I read her essay Two Secrets which is collected here. This book is a mix of theory, craft and philosophy—particularly zen.

The Sound of Poetry by Robert Pinsky. FSG.
Here’s a book that really tries to bring back respect for sound and texture in poetry. Good information, but ironically it’s a bit of a flat read.

Best Words, Best Order by Stephen Dobyns. St. Martins Press.
This should be required on every new MFA student’s shelf. I particularly like chapter 5: Pacing: The Way a Poem Moves.

The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo. Norton.
Any fan of Richard Hugo’s poems probably already knows about this book. On one level it’s a guide on how to write like Richard Hugo, but it’s much more than that. For the beginning poet, he makes poetry less intimidating and more personal, but for the mature writer, there will also be a lot of shared “ah ha” moments. Get this book.

Lofty Dogmas: Poets of Poetics. edited by Deborah Brown, Annie Finch and Maxine Kumin.
This is one of my favorites, and I’d love to teach a class with this as the text book. It compiles essays from ancient times (Horace) to contemporary poets, discussing issues of inspiration, craft and poetry culture. Many of the most important essays on poetry are all wedged in here.

Close Calls with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry Essays by Stephanie Burt. Graywolf.
This collection, all republished from literary journals, attempts to explain and support the work of what Burt calls the elliptical poets—poets like Rae Armantrout, CD Wright, John Ashbery, Lorine Niedecker and others. Often, for me, the support Burt uses doesn’t hold up, but I appreciate it nonetheless. If you’re a fan on this kind of poetry, you’ll find a lot to like here. If you’re not a fan, this book will at least help you understand what they’re trying to do.

The Art of Syntax: Rhythm of Thought, Rhythm of Song by Ellen Bryant Voight. Graywolf.
There are (I think) seven volumes in The Art of series. Of the five I have, this one is my favorite. It offers clear explanations of how sound and texture affect poetry. My other favorite in the series it Dean Young’s The Art of Recklessness.


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Today’s Poetry Rules

When writing, I keep to a handful of rules, something to guide my work, like a handrail on a woods trail. I also have a tendency to change my rules when they no longer suite me. Here are today’s, which may be different from tomorrow’s:

  1. Don’t be boring. This is a big deal for me, but I assume I don’t live up to it on many occasions. I attend a fair amount of poetry readings and read a couple hours worth of poetry almost every day, so I know something about boring poems. Subject matter can be boring, language can be boring, titles can be boring. Today I’ll try use a lot of “t”s in my poems, because I think “t” is an unboring letter. We had a big storm earlier this week, you may have heard of it. Storms are not boring. The opposite of boring isn’t interesting, it’s just unboring. Mysterious, engaging, sympathetic, sentimental, dangerous, threatening, disturbing… are all unboring.
  1. Be trustworthy. A poem is an invitation to the reader—you want the reader to enter your world, point-of-view, sick mind or private delirium. If you don’t create a sense of trust, the reader won’t be engaged.
  1. Have a reader in mind. My first reader is my imaginary friend, and he’s a lot like me (but thinner and with more money and friends). Keeping a reader in mind leads to writing that is more trustworthy and has a clearer voice. Voice is purpose, and purpose implies audience. If you shout “piss off” into the air, it just floats away without purpose. If you shout “piss off” at your boss, it has purpose and voice. It also gets you fired, so have a backup plan for that.
  1. Always be nice to dogs.
  1. Don’t fear sentimentality. I’m a sap. I watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” every December and will until my eyes are donated to science. People love that movie because they’re spineless and easily moved (me too). Work with it.
  1. Don’t try to teach something. You’ll be annoying, and people will think you think you’re smarter than them. Try to learn something instead. I believe poems, the good ones, are not for expressing something; they’re for sorting something(s) out.
  1. Shoot for clarity, but figure you’ll miss a good part of the time. When I’m fly fishing, I always have a spot on the water I try to hit with my casts. I usually miss, but often still catch fish. I also get snagged in a lot of trees. That’s the difference between almost clarity and complete abandonment.
  1. Sleep experts tell us that even complex dreams only last seconds—so poems shouldn’t be long.
  1. Don’t write dream poems. They’re boring, unless Richard Hugo is writing them, and since he isn’t writing them anymore, neither should you. Fiction writer Tana French agrees with me.
  1. If all else fails, throw it away and write another. Poems are cheap.

The Trouble with Poetry Readings

Donald Hall recently wrote some observations on the ubiquitous poetry reading for The New Yorker. I won’t summarize it for you—read it for yourself here. It’s long, but worth your time.

It also got me thinking about all the readings I’ve done and attended.

I’ve been doing a lot of readings the past two years. Some sprung from an award I won. The award apparently got my name out to a few people I didn’t know previously (which is easy, because I know hardly anyone). Then early this year my first book came out, so I actively courted readings in the hope of selling books (sometimes it worked, sometimes not). When I’m not doing readings (which is most of the time) I try to attend as many as my schedule allows. Here I attempt my random observations on poetry readings.


My first “real” poetry reading was (I think) D. Nurkse at Bucknell University in the mid-80s. I was a student at nearby Bloomsburg University, and one of my literature professors, who I occasionally drank with, took me to the reading. Around the same time I also heard Harry Humes there. It may even have been the same reading. Not sure. Either way, I got some books signed.


 Since I go to a lot of readings I have a lot of signed books. Most poets try to write something nice (“thanks for the support…”). At that first reading, Nurkse just wrote his name at the top of the page like he was signing a math exam. After a reading at Bucks County Community College in the early 90s, where I was teaching at the time, Jack Gilbert not only signed, but also drew a little picture in my copy of The Great Fires. I try to write something funny, but often just scribble so people assume it says something funny.


 As Hall notes in his post, many poets butcher or drown their poems at public readings. That’s why I have trouble remembering so many of the readings I’ve attended. Jack Gilbert was quiet, but he had a seriousness to his reading as if he was re-experiencing the poem in front of us. Thomas Lux punches his poems out like a nail gun. Robet Hass–I know I saw him in Philadelphia, but have no memory of what it was like.


 Robert Bly often repeats himself at readings (not in the same way my grandmother used to repeat herself). He seems to truly enjoy the process of reading aloud, and when he comes to a line he likes (or thinks you should like) he says it again. Sometimes that means he reads the whole poem again just because he enjoys doing it. I like that, though I wouldn’t try it myself. You’d just call me insufferable.


 I don’t know if I’m a good reader. I read my poems out loud all the time—as I’m writing, revising or just reading my poems over again. I walk around the house at night doing that. I’m not sure what my poems should sound like or what I should sound like. I recently had one audience member complement me on my reading style, and at the same reading another person asked me why I read my poems “like that.” I’m not sure what “that” meant. My wife says I hunch over when I’m reading.


I envy people who have a strong reading voice–like a radio voice. Southern poets have a clear advantage. A southern accent makes any line sound cooler. I don’t think a southerner ever said that about a Yankee accent.


 I have a personal rule: At every poetry reading I must buy at least one book (if books are for sale). If no books are for sale, then I at least buy something from the host venue (coffee, beer, muffin, whatever…). I’m always shocked when I see a crowd of 30 people show up for a free reading, and the poet only sells 3 books. That’s shameful. Books are cheap, and we need to support each other. I’ve been that poet. I once drove more than two hours for a venue where I was invited to be the featured reader. Only about 10 people showed up. One bought a book. The venue complained that I brought in my own bottle of water (I’d just come in from a pizza place), made me throw it out and buy another bottle of water there. Remember, most poets are unpaid for readings. Selling a few book copies is all we’ve got to pay for the gas and pizza.


At that reading I traded a copy of my book with another poet for his book. Trading books with other poets is cool. I do that whenever I can. Also, if you like the reading, offer to buy the poet a beer, especially if it’s me.


Should poets be paid for readings? If you’re Donald Hall, then of course you get paid. I’ve been paid about four times in my life for readings. One was a public library. Once was at a university, and it paid nicely (and included dinner). If you work at a University, please invite me to read. I’ll be gracious.


At most readings, the host or venue treats the visiting poet very nicely, but there have been times… At a reading I did in Skippack (at a coffee shop that no longer exists), I got the impression that my presence was an inconvenience to the manager even though I was invited. The shop didn’t want to move any seats to accommodate a reading, didn’t want me to read too long because a guitar player was coming later that evening, and I was expected to pay for my one cup of coffee. Luckily, only about three people came.


Sometimes you can tell when half the audience is only there for the open reading after the featured poet. They spend the whole time heads down, shuffling through their own papers, tapping on a phone… then jump up for the open period. Those people suck.


When a host says you get 15 minutes or 30 minutes or whatever, does that mean you automatically get an extra 10-20 percent extension? I seem to see that a lot. Sometimes I mind. Sometimes I don’t. Usually the times I mind are when I’m last in line out of a series of readers and find out that now I’ve only got 4 minutes because we’re out of time.


Applause. People should know by now that they don’t need to clap after every poem. Maybe an occasional spontaneous burst, but not EVERY poem. Save the applause to the end.


I admit that my mind wanders during poetry readings. Unless the presentation is especially engaging (or it’s Donald Hall), I sometimes have trouble focusing, especially on long poems. Maybe that’s why I don’t write long poems. If any of you out there see that look in my eye while you’re reading, I’m sorry.


At a reading at an art gallery I was impressed with how closely the audience was paying attention. Their eyes never seemed to waver from me at the front of the room. After the reading I realized that behind me were two life-size nude portraits , one of a lovely women and one of a very interested man.


Sometimes I wonder why no one wants to sit in the first row when I’m reading. I don’t think I spray when I speak. Lately I’ve been trying to sit up front so I get a better view for taking videos with my phone.


It’s late, and I’ve run out of ideas. Please add your own thoughts to this. If you want to hear me read, I’ll be at the Good Karma Cafe on Dec 2 with J.C. Todd.

Grant Clauser’s newest Book, Necessary Myths, can be found at The Broadkill River Press


Poetry Book Titles that Could Be Super PACs

Happy Life by David Budbill (Copper Canyon Press)

The Cloud Corporation by Timothy Donnelly (Wave Books)

Ballistics  by Billy Collins (Random House)

A Cold Wind From Idaho by Lawrence Matsuda (Black Lawrence Press)

Heavenly Questions by Gjertrud Schnackenberg (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Protection by Gregg Shapiro (Gival Press)

Delights and Shadows by Ted Kooser (Copper Canyon Press)

Unincorporated Territory by Craig Santos Perez (Tinfish Press)

187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border by Juan Felipe Herrera (City Lights Books)

you are a little bit happier than i am by Tao Lin (Action Books)

Another Attempt At Rescue by M.L. Smoker (Hanging Loose Press)

News of the World (paperback) by Philip Levine (Knopf)

One With Others by C. D. Wright (Copper Canyon Press)

Where I Live  by Maxine W. Kumin (W. W. Norton & Company)

The Continual Conditional  by Charles Bukowski (Ecco)

Native Guard  by Natasha Trethewey (Houghton Mifflin)

In the Kingdom of the Sea Monkeys by Campbell McGrath (Ecco)

Newspaper Blackout by Austin Kleon (Harper Perennial)

Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith (Graywolf Press )

Hard Times Require Furious Dancing by Alice Walker (New World Library)

Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls by Erika Meitner (Anhinga Press)

Either Way I’m Celebrating by Sommer Browning (Birds, LLC)

Determination by Kit Robinson (Cuneiform Press)

A Village Life by Louise Glück (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)


List inspired by this.

Which is your favorite Poetry Super PAC. Know of any other good ones? Post them in the comments section.

10 Favorite Poetry Books from 2011 Plus Something Else

This is the time of year in which people make lists. I’ve already done a few of these  Best of … etc. stories for my day job, but here’s my poetry list for 2011. You’ll notice that many of these books are not new, but they were new to me this year, which is good enough for my list. You may also notice some themes here. Pennsylvania poets are over-represented because I like supporting people from my own state. We grow damn fine writers here. In addition, you may notice that I have some kind of connection to several of the authors here for a similar reason to the above trend—I like to support the writers I know or have met in person. Poetry is a hand-to-hand business, so getting to meet or know many writers personally is a wonderful benefit.

The Devastation by Jill Alexander Essbaum (Cooper Dillon Books)

“I have sawed through my sorrows

Like a jeweler would facet quartz.”

I came across this book by accident. After reading one of Essbaum’s poems in Poetry and hearing her on a JP Dancing Bear podcast, I noticed this chapbook on a list of titles available at Cooper Dillon (I was preparing to send them my manuscript). Rather than charge a reading fee, Cooper Dillon asks submitting authors to purchase a book. The editors rejected my manuscript, but the wonderful little book was worth it anyway This was a bit of an odd book, and it took me a while to get into the motions of the poems, but once the flow set in and the sort-of narrative began to unfold for me, I found myself liking this volume very much.

The Beds by Martha Rhodes (Autumn House Press)

“           This is a dare-not-

venture-into place

and so persists, tannic and idle”

I heard her at a Bucks County Community College reading. Like Essbaum’s book, The Beds is an entire story, or multiple related stories, strung together in a sequence of poems. They’re mostly short lyrics with sharp edges and piercing language. You haven’t read anything like this before.

Show and Tell by Jim Daniels (University of Wisconsin Press)

“Let’s taste the moon’s

clean white meat.”

Here’s another Pennsylvania poet (from Pittsburgh) and also a fellow Bowling Green MFA alum. This collection brings together many of Daniels’ Digger poems plus lots of other great works, many based on a working-class mythology plus poems about family and modern domesticity, all with a subdued and lovely word craft.

Spit Back a Boy by Iain Haley Pollock (University of Georgia Press)

“And all our sadness will be old Arkansas,

rural and misspoken, its roads smudged

by the fog’s blue prints,”

Here’s another writer I met at a Bucks County Community College reading, and he’s also local to the Philadelphia area.  The voice and style varies a lot in this collection showing broad influence, but overall there’s a richly dynamic use of language in here. This collection contains one of the most moving poems I’d read all year: Blue Note 53428. If you only buy one book on this list, buy this one.

The History of Permanence by Gary Fincke (Stephen F. Austin University Press)

“           There’s always an excess that wants let loose.

For example, what are your bedrooms downhill from?

Each and every one of you live below something,

Even if it’s simply a cloudless, benign sky.”

This Pennsylvania poet, from Selinsgrove (Susquehanna University) works in a mostly narrative mode, but I like the more lyric poems in this collection best. I’ve met Fincke a few times (he was one my sister’s teachers 20 years ago), once or twice at readings, and then just a few years ago when I sat in on a session he taught at a writers’ conference.

Gravedigger’s Birthday by BJ Ward (North Atlantic Books)

“As children we learned our shadow

is a darkness we never totally shake”

I picked up this book at a writers’ conference in November after taking two sessions conducted by the author. There are fantastic poems in this collection, mostly focused on family and the speaker looking back at a sometimes troubled childhood. There are marvelously insightful poems here, but more than that, there’s the writer’s masterful use of the poet’s tools. This collection is from 2002, and I certainly hope there’s a new one soon.

The Half-Finished Heaven by Tomas Transtromer/translater by Robert Bly (Graywolf Press)

“It’s like the child who falls asleep in terror

listening to the heavy thump of his heart.”

I don’t know why it took a Nobel prize for me to pay attention to Transtromer. I wish I’d started reading him years ago—but better late than never. It’s no wonder Robert Bly was attracted to translate these—they share a lot of his love for personal mythologies. What interests me most are the rich images and dynamic use of contrasts and tone shifts. As a person with some Swedish heritage, I should be doing a better job of supporting poets form the motherland.

Holding Company by Major Jackson (Norton)

“Whichever way our shoulders move, there’s joy.

Make a soft hollow noise. We’ve our own hourglass

and no one else to blame.”

This collection actually took me a while to warm up to. I’d read many of his poems in journals over the years, but Holding Company offers a completely different kind of poem than what I was expecting. I later learned in an interview that the shift was intentional. Anyway, these poems, somewhat based on the sonnet form, can be surrealist, and lyric, and sometimes difficult to approach, but most exhibit a wonderful inner logic and gorgeous revelations.

Now That My Father Lies Down Beside Me by Stanley Plumly (Ecco)

“           The last thing you want to hear is

the sound of your own worn heart. It has a signature,

a silence, like a voice or fingerprint, the heart

line of a the graph the abstract of a mountain range”

I bought Plumly’s collection Boy on a Step years ago when it first came out and loved it then. I came across this 2000 selected book in a used bookstore in Doylestown PA a few months ago and had to snatch it up. Plumly’s richness of language is up there with James Wright, Richard Hugo and Robert Lowell.

When You Become Snow by Doris Ferleger (Finishing Line Press)

“What will I do with all this Splendor you left me?”

I loved Ferleger’s first book, Big Silences In a Year of Rain (reviewed here), but this collection is even better. Much of it follows the path of loss and grieving, but the poems are not given up to that. Ferleger’s poems completely own their subject matter and their worlds and exhibit a power and directness that’s really stunning. When you read this, turn immediately to page 14 for For Example.

Poetry In Person by Edited Alexander Neubaur (Knopf)

This is not a book of poetry, but rather the transcripts of classes conducted by Pearl London at the New School in which her guests were some of the most important poets of the 20th century. London died in 2003, but her recordings of the classes were discovered and turned into this amazing book. Each class begins with the guest poet talking about one of his or her recent poems, and then a Q&A discussion follows about how the poem evolved. Sometimes we even get to see multiple drafts of the poem. Included guests are Maxine Kumin, Stanley Plumly, June Jordan, Galway Kinnell, C.K. Williams … it just goes on like that.

 Also, I hope you add my book, The Trouble with Rivers, to your favorites of 2012. You can get it here or directly from me at upcoming readings or workshops which I’ll announce on this blog.