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My Summer Reading Experience


Here's the list of recent poetry and poetry related books I've read:

  • Ted Hughes: Poems selected by Simon Armitage
  • Seamus Heaney: New Selected Poems 1966 - 1987
  • The Best American Poetry 2001 edited by Robert Hass and David Lehman
  • The Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology: A selection of the 2002 shortlist
  • Just in Time: Poems 1984 - 1994 by Robert Creeley
  • Making Your Own Days by Kenneth Koch
  • Auden by Richard Davenport-Hines

Now that I've completed my summer reading, I'll share with you what turned me on and what didn't. For me, the poetry of Ted Hughes stood apart from the rest. That I keep returning to his poems, finding new delight in them, is a test of their greatest. His poems about the animal world and the elemental forces of nature have an exciting, visceral quality; the vivid images tug at your emotions, pulling you into the very marrow of life. In addition to his wonderful poems about the natural world, the book includes a sampling of poems from the Birthday Letters, these revealing a complexity of emotions in his much publicized relationship with the American poet, Sylvia Plath.

Seamus Heaney, I confess, I often found difficult to understand, and will need to give a second read. As for Creeley's poems, I could appreciate his fascination with time and space, and his creative stretch of language to explore sensory experience in new ways and discover freshness in the familiar, but toward the end of the book, I felt a little bloated, like I had eaten too many hors d'oeuvres.

The Best American Poetry includes the works of a number of well known poets as well as lessor known writers. Picking the "best" of the 2001 crop was the challenge faced by Robert Hass, guest editor, who in the introduction confessed that while shuffling through boxes of poems, "some days I liked nothing." I had a similar experience reading the 2001 collection of 75 poems. While there were a dozen or so poems I enjoyed, including those by Kinnell, McClatchy and Peck, for the most part, I found the collection a disappointment. I wanted a deeper emotional experience, I yearned for something more esthetically uplifting, more memorable. I wanted something more than just language flaunting itself.

I had mixed reactions to the Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist, but quite enjoyed the sampling of poems from Karen Solie's first book of poems, Short Haul Engine. There is a quiet toughness and fresh raw energy in her poems.

I found the biography of W. H. Auden to be an interesting gaze into the development of a poet, but what struck me most was the disparity between the verse of this great poet and his rather ordinary, uninspiring life. Although Auden devoted himself to what he loved most, namely writing, as I read the biography, I was reminded that success in writing about life has little correlation with success in living it.

Koch's book deals with the pleasure of reading and writing poetry. It delves into the ingredients that make poetry distinctive from other expressions of language, and offers some insights into how the poet goes about the mysterious creative process of using a language inside language to make music out of words. I found the book to be a worthwhile read, but take issue with Koch's view that an arrangement of words that evoke "an event," is worthy of being called a poem and can give pleasure to the reader, even though consisting of only snippets of identifiable images and disjointed phrases whose meaning is obscure or incomprehensible. In other words, if a scramble of words has an effect, that is, sets off some synaptic activity, it merits the distinction of being called a poem--a poem that emanates "pure significance," even though the meaning is undecipherable! This is his apologia for the language poets, with whom he has close creative ties.

While good or great poetry has certain qualities not found in mediocre or bad poetry, keep in mind that what delights the senses in one person is not always what delights the senses in another, and so it should be, for reading a poem is a very personal experience. Even distinguished poets quibble about the merits of each other's work. Robert Browning, after reading Tennyson's "Idylls of the King", commented, "It is all out of my head already." Browning thought that Tennyson was too concerned with describing the outer world rather than the conflict of the soul. On Rossetti, Browning remarked that his verse was "scented with poetry ... like trifles of various sorts you take out of a cedar or sandal-wood box." Philip Larkin -- one of my favorite poets -- did not care for the poetry of Eliot or Pound, and although he initially was much influenced by Yeats, he later emancipated himself from Yeat's poetry. His dislike of Eliot's and Pound's poetry was that it was too intellectual, too distant from the immediate experience of living, too preoccupied with "culture in the abstract." Although Larkin had enjoyed the early writings of Auden, he lost his taste for Auden's later poetry, which he regarded as having become too intellectual and eclectic. And Czeslaw Milosz pulled no punches, when he assaulted the poetry of Larkin: "I simply cannot bear his poetry, to me it is loathsome and sickening, it is a poetry of disgust with the world."

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