About 6 months ago or so, I changed my poetry reading habits. I used to read anything and everything, a wide range of styles, without any real discrimination. I enjoyed the reading, of course, and I’m sure it did benefit me as a writer too. I started my poetry education later in life than many writers and it’s important to get a sense of the range that’s possible. However, I’ve narrowed my focus considerably in more recent times. I have three sections of poetry books in my office – two piles and a bookcase.
The first pile is a small one. It contains the core texts. In it are collections by poets I read almost every day. Even when I finish these books, they remain in the pile and I re-read them, browse them, study them, get to know them carefully, and I don’t get tired of them. They also inform my own writing in an integral way. They are very different from each other, but I learn from all of them. They are (in no particular order):
James Schuyler, and the two Carcanet ‘New York School’ anthologies.
The second pile is more fluid. These are other collections I’m reading at the time. I may read them more than once, or I may just be browsing, reading occasional poems. I may have already read them but feel like taking another look. Usually, I’ll concentrate on one or two of them at a time – I’m currently reading the Muldoon and recently finished the Bonnefoy. These books will often be swapped for books currently on the bookcase, something that doesn’t happen with the first pile (well, it could happen with the first pile, and probably will, but it hasn’t happened yet). At the moment, these books are:
Paul Muldoon – The End of the Poem
Tom Jones (translator) - Akhmatova
Tom Pow – Dear Alice
Paul Celan – Selected Poems
Cheryl Follon – All Your Talk
Norman MacCaig – Selected Poems
Yves Bonnefoy – Yesterday’s Wilderness Kingdom
Robert Lowell – Selected Poems
Richard Price – Greenfields
AB Jackson – Poems 1985-1995
Alison Brackenbury - 1829
Salvatore Quasimodo – Giorno dopo Giorno
Sylvia Plath – Ariel
Charles Baudelaire – The Flowers of Evil
Homage to Hat and Uncle Guido and Eliot – Tomaz Saluman
The third section is the bookcase, which contains all my poetry books. I occasionally will take a notion to read one of the books on the bookcase, but usually they first have to find their way to pile 2. Again, this is about attaining focus.
Reading everything is all very well and it served me well for several years, but I feel my current system is paying dividends, both for reading pleasure and for my own writing. I am writing less than I was a year ago, but (I think) I’m writing better.