Sexy Poets #3: “Required” Reading
Like everyone else who reads, I like to open conversations with things like, “dude, you have GOT to read this book!” I get excited about them, even material that most people might regard as “crap,” ie. genre fiction. For example, I just read my first mystery novel, ever, A.A. Milne’s The Red House Mystery. It was Milne’s only mystery novel. It’s not bad. Predictable, but the accidental detective is pleasurable enough a character that I enjoyed the book. Then there were the first three books in a series called The Chronicles of The Black Company, by Glen Cook. I read much dark fantasy, back when I used to take the time to read such things and, since my wife thought I was about to suffer a stroke after three (joyous) readings of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, she demanded “light” reading. I complied, then went right back to my Stacks-of-Thousand-Pound-Books reading. I’ll delve into “dessert” readings more often. She had a point.
And that brings me to mine. Earlier in the summer, I went back in time–so to speak–and read a few of those “must read” books for poets. Namely, Johnathan Holden’s The Fate of American Poetry, and Robert Pinsky’s The Situation of Poetry. Both are on a dozen Ph. D. reading lists, and for good reasons, but neither are books that I might take to the cliche’ deserted island. I would choose others and, I believe, anyone with a mind toward writing poetry would do well to include them, along with a first-aid kit, Swiss Army knife, and something with which to build a fire. Here are three to begin.
1. On Poetry and Craft, by Theodore Roethke.
This is a compilation (edited by Carolyn Kizer) from his two prose notebooks, On the Poet and His Craft, and Straw for the Fire. His insights into poetry, teaching, and the mind are wonderful. Roethke is remembered, not only as a great poet, but as the first “teacher-poet,” from whose classrooms poets Richard Hugo, Carolyn Kizer, James Wright (outstanding poets, all) and others emerged. By the way, Roethke’s family home in Saginaw, MI is a landmark worth visiting. He was born and is buried there, and it has long been my intention to gather a group of Ypsi folk together and caravan north for a visit. It is something to stand on a place where someone of Roethke’s talent stood, to look around and see what he saw.
2. The Triggering Town, by Richard Hugo.
Hugo’s book contains one of my favorite writing exercises. It contains lines that I have repeated in classes fifty times, myself, and have said to many readers of the SexPo blog, in person. Hugo was one of Roethke’s students, and some of that comes through in this book, but it is Hugo, through and through.
3. Pot Shots at Poetry, by Robert Francis
Francis is not widely known by younger poets. I’d heard his name batted around once or twice, but hadn’t read anything by him. For my birthday, this year, I received a gift certificate for one of my favorite used bookstores (West Side Books in Ann Arbor), and discovered him there. “Pot Shots” is exactly what it sounds like, mostly. Francis fancies himself “the Satirical Rogue,” mostly outside academia and, indeed, outside much of modern, mainstream society, while living much of his life in Amherst, MA. The book was published by the Poets on Poetry series out of the University of Michigan, which has produced numerous books that are damn well worth the effort, written by a veritable who’s who of poets of the last 50 years. Here is a link to their catalog.
These three books are certainly not the only books worth reading on the subject. There are many, many books. Donald Hall’s Claims for Poetry is a collection of essays on the subject written by dozens of good poets. There is T.S. Eliot’s and Ezra Pound’s prose on the subject, and the ancients wrote at length on it as well, not to mention “defenses” of poetry by Shelley and Sidney and numerous others (which has always bothered me; I just don’t understand why poetry needs defending, I guess, but that’s me).
The larger point in bringing the subject up, of course, is not to just give everyone something to read. I bring it up because all of these readings, and the hundreds I have not mentioned, here, is a collective expression of poets considering their craft, and the poet, whether “established” or “would-be,” must consider craft. Poetry is an art, no doubt, but it requires work (and play) to write it well. That work is the craft of it, the serious part, where deep reading and deep thought about it happen. To not engage in the crafting of poems, we risk much, none of which is helpful to the poet, the poems, or to their audiences. In fact, craft is so important that I want to scream and flail about and throw things to encourage others to notice. But that is a subject for another time. I'll try not to break any windows, but I make no guarantees, once I get going.