Friday, December 7, 2012

My Top Ten Poetry Books That Should Be On Your Holiday Wish List: Conversation Pieces (poems that talk to other poems)

I like pocket books. For years I worked in retail. Lunch hours (or 30-minute breaks, when working for non-family-businesses), were anticipated for being able to get outside, eat a savory home-made sandwich, drink a cup-o-joe, and pull out a pocket book of poems to wake up my mind, numbed by repetitive busy-work, and to bring life back my soul, deadened from overexposure to the greed of owners and the materialism of consumers. Conversation Pieces (poems that talk to other poems), edited by Kurt Brown, is a pocket book that I wish had been around for all of those years.

Billy Collins' Foreward begins with the following epigraph:

Poems should echo and re-echo against each other . . . They should create resonanes. They cannot live alone any more than we can.--Jack Spicer in a letter to Robin Blazer.

Collins then articulates the collection's raison d'etre:

At one time or another in the study of poetry, we are likely to run into then notion that poems are not really about love and death, separation and rapture and every other human experience--they are about other poems. At first, this may come as disappointing news. Poets, it would seem, are not speaking to us; instead they are speaking to their fellow poets, most of whom are beyond earshot, that is, in their graves. That poets prefer the audience of the dead to us living readers is not a flattering realization. But the broader truth of the matter is that the past always plays a vital role in the poetry of the present. As T.S. Eliot points out in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," the only way poetry can be successfully written is in response to its own history. The real reason why poets--or any writers--write is that they have read and been moved to emulation. Poetry carries in its arms the words of its predecessors. The writer's page is illuminated by the candles of his past.

And so Brown has selected some 130 poems that intentionally "talk back" to other poems. Side by side he places poets from Marlowe and Raleigh, to Catullus and Krysl, to William Carlos Williams and Kenneth Koch. Here is Koch's "Variations On A Theme By William Carlos Williams" set against "This Is Just To Say:"

This Is Just To Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Variations On A Theme By WCS

I chopped down the house that you had been saving to live in next summer.
I am sorry, but it was morning, and I had nothing to do
and its wooden beams were so inviting.

We laughed at the hollyhocks together
and then I sprayed them with lye.
Forgive me. I simply do not know what I am doing.

I gave away the money that you had been saving to live on for the next ten years.
The man who asked for it was shabby
and the firm March wind on the porch was so juicy and cold.

Last evening we went dancing and I broke your leg.
Forgive me. I was clumsy, and
I wanted you here in the wards, where I am the doctor!

The book is organized into the following categories; I've listed only a sampling of poets from each:


Christopher Marlowe/Sir Walter Raleigh
John Donne/C. Day Lewis/W.D. Snodgrass


Meng Hao-Jan/Marilyn Chin
Philip Larkin/Susan Wheeler
Ezra Pound/John Berryman
William Wordsworth/Marvin Bell/Denise Levertov


John Keats/Meg Kearney
Rudyard Kipling/Felicia Blake
William Butler Yeats/Maxine Kumin/Richard Frost
Edna St. Vincent Millay/Bruce Smith
Stephen Dunn/Andrea Hollander Budy


Rumi/Barry Mazur
A.E. Housman/Hugh MacDiarmid
Galway Kinnell/Margaret Gilvert
Wendy Cope/Allison Joseph


John Donne/Kimiko Hahn
Emily Dickinson/Muriel Nelson
Randall Jarrell/Patricia Corbus
James Wright/Mark Doty
A.R. Ammons/Miles A. Coon


Lord Byron/Ogden Nash
Elizabeth Barrett Browning/Star Black
Mathew Arnold/Anthony Hecht/Spencer Short
Ezra Pound/David Lehman
WCW/Kenneth Koch

Brown has done us a service by pairing poems that satirically attack, toy, piggy-back, reproof, amplify and undo. In closing, here is a favorite pairing of mine--one of the best reasons in the collection to put it on my "Top Ten Poetry Books That Should Be On Your Holiday Holiday Wish List."

William Wordsworth

The World Is Too Much With Us

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

Denise Levertov


The world is
not with us enough.
O taste and see

the subway Bible poster said,
meaning The Lord, meaning
if anything all that lives
to the imagination's tongue,

grief, mercy, language,
tangerine, weather, to
breathe them, bite,
savor, chew, swallow, transform

into our flesh our
deaths, crossing the street, plum, quince,
living in the orchard and being

hungry, and plucking
the fruit.

1 comment:

granddaddy said...

There is an echo here of something I read from Terry Eagleton once upon a time. No, maybe not Eagleton. (How pleasant it is to be posting comments on blog posts, not posting the posts themselves. Thus am I free from the expectations of documentation, accuracy, reliability, and (ahem) proofreading.)
The echo I hear is about all writing being a response to, a conversation with, all previous writing and written tradition. This, of course, in an even broader sense than Brown, Collins, or even - heaven forfend! - Eliot. Perhaps it is my impatience with lesser versions (far lesser - Koch's is the best I know) of This is just to say..., but, even considering the brilliant pairing of the Levertov and Wordsworth, the idea of this appealing little book seems a bit small to me. Desert Island? No. Gift for... 13 year old granddaughter with writing skills? Possible.