This is the age of the Shuffle, the Snippet, the Selection, the Single Movement, and the Mashup. I’m not talking about dance styles — which might be exciting! — but about how we nibble at art in tidbits and soundbites. On our iPods, on the radio, and in our in-boxes, works of art are presented in shortened, abridged forms suitable for a bite-sized attention span. Today, iTunes Shuffle has served me single songs and movements from Bach, Byrd, U2, Enya, The Lord of the Rings, Chopin, Mozart, Verdi, “anonymous,” and others in random succession. On NPR last week, I heard a medley of favorite violin concerto tunes mashed together. An e-mail subscription to Davey’s excellent poem-a-day service has sent me, this week alone, short poems by C. S. Lewis, John Donne, Robert Frost, D. H. Lawrence, and Dannie Abse. A gallimaufry indeed!
This selectivity into snippets, while it does allow sampling of many works and introduction to new artists, does not offer the spiritual and intellectual nourishment that comes with slow digestion of a work in its original entirety. Therefore, today I want to recommend The Whole Poetry Book. While the conventionally published Paper Poetry Book is a dying art, it is not dead yet. Primarily through book competitions rather than the traditional routes, poets still compile well-crafted volumes in which the arrangement is as much a work of art as each individual poem.
Reading a poetry book cover-to-cover is a vastly different experience from reading individual poems. It can be exhausting, as watching an entire opera can be exhausting. Yet like watching an entire opera or listening to an entire album of, say, mystical minimalism straight through, reading an entire volume of poetry provides nourishment to the heart, mind, and spirit. You get to know the poet intimately. You understand each individual poem better when you use the title, epigraph, and organization as commentaries. And you accompany the poet on a long, cathartic journey.
I have gotten to know several poets through their books of verse. While, of course, “the narrator is not the poet,” the composition of poetry is an act of personal exposure and the publication of poetry is an act of public intimacy. Through Line Dance, I learned what Barbara Crooker loves: impressionist paintings, the French language, homely birds and flowers, music, dance, cooking, and every person in her family. Clutched close, then let free. In Abacus and What the Living Do, Mary Karr and Marie Howe (respectively) howl out their family agony in primal pain. My heart howls along. A wolf under the moon. A child hiding from abusive parents. A grown-up hiding from love. In Tantalus in Love, Alan Shapiro records the inside and outside of a dying marriage with exquisite skill and filigreed detail: his wife’s beautiful body, poised in yoga each morning, just out of touch; his children, watching their parents dancing and laughing together for the last time. Autobiographical or not, volumes of poetry feather open the writer’s human heart and lay it, pinned and spread, on butterfly pages. Your tears will splash on the dusty wings.
I have come to understand individual poems better through their placement in the meta-poem of The Whole Poetry Book, especially by using the title, epigraph, or eponymous poem as commentary. The chapbook Something Must Happen by Ned Balbo opens with two quotations: one by W.H. Auden that begins “For poetry makes nothing happen,” and one by Kay Ryan, “But sometimes / something happens.” Each piece within the chapbook, then, argues that “something must happen” as a result of the making of verse. “Snow in Baghdad,” the opener, subtly claims that naming can define, disguise, or create realities. The penultimate poem, “Holy Wars for Us,” abruptly offers the opposite view: real violence can blow apart anything made by words.
Books often hinge on the title poem; The Great Fires by Jack Gilbert and Rising Venus by Kelly Cherry are two examples. On page 12, Jack Gilbert says, “Love is one of many great fires.” This bursts into manifold meanings throughout the book; marriage, grief, memory, loneliness, beauty, desire, the light on leaves and buildings in cities all over the world are some of the “great fires” that consume poet and reader. And Kelly Cherry takes the reader through three quarters of her book before the third section, a series of ekphrastic poems, reveals the core “where love, / a woman, by Jove, // survives, strong and free, / engendering her own destiny.” This works its way forwards and backwards through all the engagements with art, work, and men of Rising Venus.
Sometimes the title carries what C. S. Lewis called “The Kappa Element” — the unspoken, ubiquitous atmosphere or overall “feeling” of a book, which we usually remember in adjectives. Averno by Louise Glück begins with an explanation; Averno, or Avernus, was a little town near a small crater lake that the ancient Romans thought was the entrance to the underworld. Hades casts his gloomy fog — the gray, thoughtful, regretful atmosphere of a pre-Christian underworld — over every poem. A series of perspectives on Persephone, scattered throughout the book, reinforces this aged sadness, and takes the reader on a quieter journey than Dante’s, through a bleaker, monochrome vision of death and of life in the light of death.
This experience of an emotional or intellectual journey is probably the most valuable, and the most difficult, reward of reading entire volumes of verse. The binding threads are more likely to be ideas or perspectives than characters or conflicts. They are only one small degree removed from the science, logic, or philosophy book. Natural Theology by Kelly Cherry, for instance, took me long and deep. It ushered me into silence, music, empty space, crowded space, æons of time past and future, and a kind of mental concentration that was pleasantly refreshing. Two lines into Natural Theology, I was witnessing the instant of birth; one line later, gestation or conception; twenty-four lines in, I swam into the primordial soup; by the end of the poem, I was all the way back at the very start of life, the universe, and the possibility of love. Compelled by a restless inner seeking, the book went on to probe in all directions until it reached ultimate beginnings and endings.
Three other poets are also taking me on pensive journeys: Seamus Heaney in The Spirit Level, Heather Thomas in Blue Ruby (I’m still reading these two), and W. S. Merwin in The Shadow of Sirius. The content of each is profound (these three poets being people of expansive mind), but the road is actually an exploration of technique. If I were to read one poem by Heaney, the story would strike me first, or his insight into memory, or his accuracy at rendering a psychological moment, or his wide comprehension of history in particulars. But when I read page after page, what impresses me most is his method. He begins with keen observation and carefully-crafted description, then, using an ordinary object as a fulcrum, twists and leaps off into universals. Poem after poem after poem, book after book after book.
Heather Thomas pushes language. She stretches it to bear her spirit. Sometimes she pulls it into long lines, sometimes pours it through a narrow form, sometimes draws it out beyond punctuation. She makes the end of the line perform at the extremity of its ability; now making it take on a concluding role, now making it serve as a connection. Nothing is arbitrary. Nothing is for granted. In the clarity of her mind, language simultaneously serves her purpose and is the master whom she serves.
W. S. Merwin’s latest book is even more mentally exhausting, for one simple and surprising reason: it uses no punctuation whatsoever. Line after line, page after page, without one period, semicolon, or even comma! I was frustrated after about a dozen poems. How are they to be read? The ambiguity was driving me mad. But then I chanced to read one almost aloud, under my breath (on a train), and it sprang into life. It became a glorious piece of music, a lyric, a love song, riding on rhythms as pleasing as those of the train. I think the poem was “Far Along in the Story,” and it begins:
The boy walked on with a flock of cranes
following him calling as they came
from the horizon behind him
sometimes he thought he could recognize
a voice in all that calling but he
could not hear what they were calling
Try reading it silently first, without even the mental articulation of “reading aloud to yourself.” The frustration — and the joy — comes from phrases that can belong to either those before or those after them. For instance, line three could be punctuated thus, “a flock of cranes following him, calling as they came from the horizon behind him” or thus, “a flock of cranes following him, calling as they came. From the horizon behind him, sometimes he thought he could recognize a voice.” And so on. But then read the poem out loud, and it all springs into meaning(s) and into music. And then try reading the entire book this way!
Reading poetry like this — slowly, out loud, experimenting with inflection — is an act of dedication, even an act of devotion or meditation, because you must read each poem three, four, five, or more times so that you can try each line in relation to every other, tasting the ambiguities, reveling in the metrical pleasures. Reading poetry this way, through the length and breadth of an entire book, is exhausting. But it is far more rewarding than exhausting, and well worth the mental effort. So next time you read poetry, dedicate the time to reading an entire book.