Most of my poetry library ( a library I've been very proud of) is in storage, or has been traded, gifted or lost. I've dragged it around the world with me, in cardboard boxes, plastic bins, bags. It's grown. There was a period before I first left for study in Madrid where I thought about winnowing it to the essentials. I would after all not be able to read it all, even given the chance. I ended up adding to it: new books by some of my favorite poets, old books by poets I'd never heard of. It was and is a joy to find, remember and discover new works. Like stumbling upon a neighborhood I'd never once been to before. Delicious. Full of possibility. In this period I was adding young poets ( Ben Lerner, Matthea Harvey, Tracey K. Smith [whose Life on Mars just won the Pulitzer], Christine Hume ), classmates (Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Tom Healy and Ravi Shankar),
The Great Reduction
For a lot of reasons, having a large library, even of slim, tidy volumes, became impossible for me. Storage, display, space, time. I've reduced my library down to the ones I read. Seems a bit self-fulfilling, I know. But, I am often asked (and overwhelmed by the possibilities) for the books and poets I'd recommend people start with. This great filtering reduction of mine has made it abundantly clear.
So here are My 5 Portable Poetry Library
1 - Louise Glück
I haven't always been clear that I got much from her work. It was hard for me, with my life as my only computational material, to access her charged, urgent, masterful poetry. But their phrases and imagery, premises and tropes, have installed themselves as part of my psyche. I refer often to a line or image, find myself recommending. And have made sure that her books have continued to elude the great reduction.
If you haven't read her before I'd say that First Four Books of Poems is a good place to start. You'll find some of the more well-known poems ( Mock Orange, All Hallows).
Her Pulitzer Prize Winning Wild Iris and her A Village Life both offer a vast country of tight, smart, surprising poems.
2 - Donald Revell
Revell was a poet I first read while an undergraduate. I had had a very different expectation of what poetry could be before this period in my reading. When I was asked to respond to a poem for my grad school application, it was The Psalmist from The New Dark Ages that I wrote on. And now, 15 years later, I find poems of his I'd never met before and am relieved to find that the interest and power I'd felt then hasn't worn off. His books have also managed to find a place in my bags and suitcases as my library shrank.
3 - Rainer Maria Rilke
There are a few things (books, songs, paintings, places, tidbits of knowledge) that seem to contain immense and irreducible truth in something which fits into our human scale. Rilke's 3rd Elegy from his Duino Elegies has always been one of those mysteries. I've read it to people when I am ready to sound silly in my enthusiasms. I read it and its bookmates (all phenomenal poems) over and over again. On the very first meeting of grad school first-year workshop, I was asked to name a poet I cherished and explain why it was that one that I chose. I cheated. I chose two. Robert Hass (coming up) because he helped me be a better poet and Rilke because he helped me be a better person. I heard snickers at my nearly religious reverence for these two from my classmates. Rilke never has rewarded my admiration with quotables. In fact, I realize exactly how remarkable his work with the distance I feel it is from normal speech. It isn't the sort of thing you can even try to explain to people without sounding a little kookie. So, instead of explaining, I'll hope to be able to indulge in Rilke talk with more and more people soon.
4 - Robert Hass
I have been prepared with a clear, emphatic answer to the often asked question: Who's your favorite poet? Robert Hass.
His works have been a consistent companion throughout my entire adult life. He has been the author of the words that soothed some of the worst hurts I've ever had to endure; the mind that has inspired the wonder and curiosity of mine that I have become so proud of, helped me formulate so much of my own framework for approaching the world.
His poems are the poems I've read and shared, memorized and given. All 5 of his books have and will survive any poetry reduction. I have bought 5 copies of Field Guide because I keep giving it away and then needing my own copy again.
5 - Mary Oliver
Oliver's work and words are alive with wisdom, energy and balm. I have had to keep her books around because I have needed them. And there is such reassurance that she has such an enormously large body of work, an inexhaustible fountain of some of my very favorite poetry.
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