Monday, February 18, 2008

Piles of Books

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):

Tomas Transtromer
James Schuyler, and the two Carcanet ‘New York School’ anthologies.
W.S. Graham
Edwin Morgan
Denis Johnson
Wallace Stevens

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.


Tommaso Gervasutti said...

Don't you feel a bit down and out if you can't write poems regularly?
When too much time passes between the accomplishing of one poem and another? With the fear if too much time passes that poetry writing has deserted you? It's my biggest concern, to keep writing seems much more important than being published...My blog is
what we have in common is that we are both Arlene Ang's blog friends.
Best wishes, Davide Trame

Rob said...

I feel that after every poem I write, but I'm so used to the feeling now that I don't think about it.

Sometimes I simply have nothing to say. I still try to write in the hope that I will discover what I want to say in the process of writing (that's usually how it happens anyway, and even when I think have something to say from the outset, I discover what I really want to say from the poem as it goes along). But if poetry doesn't happen, I conclude that I have nothing to say and go and do something else.

trish said...

How do I know what I think until I see what I say?
I think you need to have patience. Don Paterson says you only write 75really good poems in a lifetime - so what's the rush?
Everything else is fallow periods, gestation...

Frances said...

I admire anyone who is this organised. When I recently complimented a poetry tutor - who must have about 10,000 books piled up somewhere in his house - for being able to immediately put his hand on a particular volume by Auden he replied, 'It was under 'A' of course.'
To me it never seems quite that simple.

Colin Will said...

I'm trying to think what my 'Pile No 1' would contain, if I worked in piles. Norman MacCaig's Collected, my dog-eared copy of The Rattle Bag, W S Graham, Donald Allen's even more dog-eared New American Poetry 1945-1960, Charles Olson's Maximus Poems, everything by Kathleen Jamie, Eliot, Denise Levertov...

scavella said...

Ohhh, I'm so out of date. I'm almost ashamed to list the poetry I return to again and again, but here goes anyway. It's dead, almost completely, and white, almost completely, and male, completely. So sue me.

My pile no. 1 would contain the following staples:

Eliot (the whole shebang)

Keats (the odes, mostly)
Yeats (the later period, mostly)
Donne (all of Donne, but specially the Holy Sonnets)


Kamau Brathwaite

There's a whole lot more I dip into now and then, from Walcott to Plath to Senior to Spenser, but if I were entirely honest, my whole poetic influence is listed above.