Reviewer and critic Scott Esposito asked me awhile ago for a list of books he should read to become more conversant with contemporary poetry. As we were on a plane at the time I didn’t give it an incredible amount of thought, just shot off ten contemporary books and ten more “classic” books. He asked me the other day if he could post the list on his blog Conversational Reading and I was at first a little hesitant to let him.
This was a list I made for a specific individual. One who is a serious reader, and who likes challenging works of fiction, but hasn’t spent much time in the poetry realm. I assumed that he would get comments on the blog about how I had missed this or that thing, or my choices were biased in some way or wrong in another. There are already a few comments of that sort, all of which have been measured and reasonable, and many of which are totally rightful additions to the list.
In looking over the list, I have some thoughts of my own. Like, for example, Emily Dickinson’s Master Letters are obviously not as “necessary” as her collected poems. But her collected poems are daunting, and I’m sorry, but I think there are a lot of misses in her catalogue. I’m still waiting for a really good selected Dickinson that catches the range of her tone (the ones I’ve dipped into strike for the dirge or the whimsy exclusively). Rather than suggest someone take the next three months to read thousands of poems I think an hour with the master letters is a good option as a starting place.
Similarly, there are many great poets who aren’t on these lists (obviously.) The contemporary list is more indicative of what I was reading at the time, and a few, attempting to be rangy, favorites. I excluded lots of things from the “classics” list not because I don’t find them worthy, but because I think they would be less instructive of what contemporary poets are working through now. Is Elizabeth Bishop a better poet than Stein? I think so, but I think Stein is more informative about the trajectory of contemporary poetics. Was Eliot more of an influence than Herbert? Yes, but I like Herbert, and I think he’s fun, and I think the Cogito poems would speak to someone who has read more fiction than poetry.
The very fact that I had pause when he asked me if he could make this list public worries me, somehow. A fear of reaction (which, I would posit, in this post-foetry poetry world, is quite common) is not a healthy arena for discourse. I think it would be hard to argue against any of these books as worth reading for their own appeal (although I’m sure many might argue just that.) Do I think them fully representative? Absolutely not. Do I think of them as books I would like to pass on to every person who says that poetry is hermetic and stodgy? Surely. In the range from Plath to Rankine to Schomburg I think most readers will be able to find something that speaks to them.
So, with all of that said, the lists:
Wallace Stevens — Collected Works
Emily Dickinson — Master Letters
John Ashbery — Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror
Louis Zukofsky – A
John Berryman — The Dream Songs
Sylvia Plath — Ariel (esp. the “Bee Poems”)
Cesar Vallejo — Trilce (trans. by Eshleman)
Zbigniew Herbert — Mr. Cogito
Lyn Hejinian — My Life
Gertrude Stein — Tender Buttons
Mary Ruefle — Various
D.A. Powell — Chronic (or Cocktails)
Mary Jo Bang — Elegy
Zachary Schomburg — The Man Suit
Jenny Boully — The Body
Timothy Donnelly — The Cloud Corporation
Sam Amadon — Like a Sea
Inger Christensen — alphabet
Claudia Rankine — Don’t Let Me Be Lonely