Poetry Book Group
I started a Poetry Readers’ Group in February 2004. There were 8 of us at then; 3 of the originals remain and three others sit at the table now.
Each month, a member selects a book which we will all read and discuss over a long afternoon lunch. We’ve read everything from selected poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins to this month’s selection, Parts of Speech by Kyle Schlesinger. Needless to say, there have been some very intense dialogues and there is rarely a book of poetry that is either universally liked or disliked.
Thinking about the discussion we will have on Schlesinger’s book this month prompted me to consider which books of poetry I personally have found to be the most memorable over the years. Most of these books were not necessarily Readers’ Group selections though one is, Late Psalm by Betsy Sholl. This happened to be universally liked by the group members at the time.
As I pondered other books, I decided to compile my list based on certain factors: these books aren’t in the academic “canon.” Reading them forever changed how I approach as well as write poetry. They come to mind immediately when someone asks what my favorite book of poetry is.
In no particular order, here they are:
Late Psalm by Betsy Sholl
Morning in the Burned House by Margaret Atwood
Song by Brigit Pegeen Kelly
Late Wife by Claudia Emerson
The Selected Poems of Max Jacob (in translation)
From these come some of my favorite poems: “Half-Hanged Mary” by Atwood, “Song” by Kelly and “Hell Has Gradations” by Jacobs.
“Half-Hanged Mary” takes 10 minutes to read. I know because I did a dramatic reading of it at Rochester Institute of Technology several years ago.
“Song” is a poem I can no longer hear read nor read myself. To do so metaphorically scrapes the walls of the chambers of my heart.
“Hell Has Gradations” is prescient, an allegorical prose poem that saw the Holocaust coming. Jacobs, who converted to Catholicism from Judaism, died in a Nazi prison camp.
If you’ve not read these poems or the books in which they are found, I encourage you to seek them out and know that they may overwhelm you.
This month’s poetry book for discussion is Haywire, the 2006 May Swenson Award-winning manuscript, by George Bilgere. Group member Ann C. Putnam selected this book based on a recommendation by poet Michael Meyerhofer. Garrison Keillor has read work from this collection on his show “The Writer’s Almanac.” For more info on Bilgere visit http://www.georgebilgere.com/.
If you’ve read Haywire and would like to add your thoughts on the book, please post a comment.
On Saturday, my monthly poetry readers group discussed James Allen Hall’s Now You’re the Enemy (University of Arkansas Press, 2008). It proved to be one of the most lively discussions we’ve had in a long time as we analyzed Hall’s craft and subject matter. All agreed that Hall’s poetry is accomplished (and I don’t say this simply because he is a fellow alumnus of Bennington College) though, for various reasons, some of us thought the subject matter to be more than a little uncomfortable.
Among the discussion topics resurrected was the fictional “I” vs. the autobiographical “I.” For me, this brought to mind a panel at AWP a few years back where Liam Rector and Timothy Liu debated whether or not there even could be a fictional “I.”
I have opened my own poetry readings by stating, “This work is fictionalized truth. I’ll let you decide what is fiction and what is truth.”
Ultimately, we did not settle firmly on which elements of Hall’s narratives were completely true and we mostly agreed that it did not matter; the poems worked without having a black and white timeline in front of us.
To read more about Now You’re the Enemy, check out the following site: http://howapoemhappens.blogspot.com/2010/05/james-allen-hall.html.
Today, my monthly poetry book group will be discussing Steve Huff’s More Daring Escapes (Red Hen Press, 2008). His poems on the subject of the working life are reminiscent of Jim Daniels’ work though Huff’s poetry, while equally as gritty, has more poetic fluidity than Daniels’ jabs and punches. One can argue the efficacy of “How the Poem Means” vis a vis each of these poets’ styles though I am inclined to consider each equally compelling. Huff’s work comes more as a reflection of a middle-aged man than Daniels’ fresh-out-of-the-factory youthful perspective.
To read a review of Huff’s book (not mine, however) visit: http://whatistheverd.wordpress.com/2011/12/09/book-review-more-daring-escapes-by-steven-huff/.