Saturday, June 14, 2008

Gemellen's Celebrate Reading Pick: THE VINTAGE BOOOK OF CONTEMPORARY POETRY

Today, we welcome Gemellen as our Celebrate Reading Guest Blogger.

About the Guest Blogger: Gemellen is a struggling (with her self-esteem) writer type who lives in Chicago & works in arts administration. She enjoys long walks on the beach, but only in winter.


I loathe the “what’s your favorite book?” question. Even with (& probably because of) the ‘ole dusty MFA, I feel like such a dumb reader. I don’t believe I can speak intelligently about literature. Much like, even though I’ve been playing the piano since I was four, I could never, ever teach anyone how to do it.

I’ve got friends who catalog favorite books in various ways – special bookshelves, excel spreadsheets, journals written in only the finest inks. And then there’s me, perpetually trying to figure out my “process.” Which is to say: I always want to read with a highlighter & journal beside me, so as to capture that which steals my breath. But then I start reading several books at once – different topics & genres. And so, do I combine my thoughts into the one journal or do I make two? Or ten? And if I write in this particularly gorgeous leather bound book I found at Barnes & Noble, will I utterly destroy it with my fine point Sharpie? Grr. Give up. Focus on shiny objects. Distractions, you know, life. Oh, how I want to read deeper & wider.

Hobbies: pacing & lamenting.

So I’m searching around the apartment for some literary thing that changed my life. But here’s the deal: things change my life all the time. Oh my god, that psychological biography of Vincent van Gogh (Stranger on the Earth) totally changed my life. And back when I was sleeping on a friend’s futon during Boston’s blizzard of 1994, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast utterly altered my dreams. Once I read the entirety of Jane Eyre out loud & in a British accent (I’m from Arkansas, by the way). And several years after college, when it was my turn to choose in book club, it was Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham. (People dropped out of the club after this.)

Seems to me that where you are in life dictates how a book makes you feel, & even more so, helps you live. But what’s that one book? So as I was perusing the shelves in our third floor Chicago apartment, all dusty & crammed & a little out of order, I kept going back to something I’m a little embarrassed by: The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry, edited by J.D. McClatchy, c. 1990.

Oh how I wanted to pick Auden’s Letters from Iceland. James Baldwin’s Another Country. Kevin Brockmeier’s Things That Fall From The Sky. I would seem cool! Right? Wholly hip & well-read. But then I wanted to focus on a certain book that truly, madly, deeply changed my life. And, Dear Reader, it’s this yellow contemporary anthology of poetry. Forget that in grad school we were told to read much deeper than anthologies – full manuscripts by poets were the true overture to their work. Anthologies are just the Hondas of literature, right? But Hondas hug the road well. They’re reliable. Get good gas mileage.

The story goes that I was wandering around an Arkansas mall, biding my time before a movie started, when I stepped into a Brentano’s Bookstore. It was 1991 & I had taken a leave of absence from college – all confused about life & its direction. I was bored with the magazine section, & didn’t have the patience for fiction on that day. So poetry, maybe. Back then, chain bookstores were known for having really limited poetry sections with only the most known names: Robert Frost or T.S. Eliot or Maya Angelou. (Unfortunately, this is still kind of true – I mean ten copies of Billy Collins’ and/or Mary Oliver’s latest works? Wait. Sorry. Soapbox.) Anyway, there was this anthology that caught my eye so I flipped through & stopped. I flipped again & stopped. I stopped & started. Which is to say: to give a sudden, involuntary jerk, jump, or twitch, as from a shock of surprise.

Who was this Theodore Roethke?

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

(“The Waking”)

This Elizabeth Bishop?

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

(“One Art”)

This Sylvia Plath?


Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.

(“Lady Lazarus”)

And there began my trajectory away from music school & toward creative writing school. This is the book that went with me everywhere. The book that made me cry on the afternoon it was lost (& later found). The book from which I quoted in long letters to friends (pre-internet, you know). “Dear So-&-So who has no interest in poetry, can you even believe this Mark Strand?”

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

(“Eating Poetry”)

5 comments:

Creative A said...

Hey :)

This post struck a chord with me because I often feel the same way - I don't care whether something is literary or not, as long as it effects me in some way. And certain books had a deep impact on me simply because of the place I was in.

The anthology sounds beautiful. This is really ironic, because I don't care for anthologies or poetry so much. But now I find myself compelled to order it. Cool post.

Bernita said...

Yes.
I heart you.

pacatrue said...

Great essay.

JES said...

I'm not a poet -- academically or by practice -- so take this with a grain of salt... But my sense is that anthologies, especially of "classics," are unfairly maligned.

This article is a terrific illustration of why. I'd probably never ever pick up an anthology of Mark Strand's work; although I know *of* him, from the single poems that I've seen in journals, The NYer, and so on, I don't think I could quote a single line. But that "Eating Poetry" excerpt is going to stay with me a long time.

Thanks!

Linda said...

Ah... thank you for some poetry! This is a fabulous book, I have it on my own shelf and peruse it from time to time for inspiration when I'm writing poems. Or trying to; I think my strength lies in prose.

I loved your post, loved that you focused on what moves you. And great excerpts... Peace, Linda