For National Poetry Month, Conundrum Press has asked our poets and writers to offer their thoughts on poetry. We will be publishing reflections throughout the month.
Lately I have been reading volumes of collected poems, in particular, those of Jack Gilbert, Louise Glück, and Muriel Rukeyser. For a poet to have a doorstopper of their work published, he or she is considered a major poet and has been writing poetry for a long time, which implies a certain degree of power and privilege. To read only collected works is to ignore marginalized or debut poets, which is, whatever you think of literary politics, a narrow way of looking at the world. There is joy and reward in discovering the work of poets who are just beginning to make their mark, but that is a different discussion.
It is a serious commitment to read most, if not all, of a poet’s work. Perhaps it is just me, but if I read too much of any poet’s work at once, I get overwhelmed. I need the space of doing other things – be it my own writing, working at my job, skiing in Colorado’s famed snow, or having a good meal with friends – to let my mind work through the poems and to let the poems become a part of my makeup. It took me six months to read Gilbert, a year and a half to read Glück, and after two years I am still muddling my way through Rukeyser’s oeuvre.
For me, the biggest reward in reading collected poems is studying the poet’s developing ideas and craft. Gilbert at his best is brilliant, such as in his poem “Failing and Flying,” on the end of a long marriage. “But anything / worth doing is worth doing badly,” he writes, and he ends with “I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell, / but just coming to the end of his triumph.” But his themes and styles hardly changed over fifty years and when I read his work as a whole, he started sounding repetitive. I have been toying with the idea of programming a Jack Gilbert Poem Generator.
Rukeyser, on the other hand, is expansive in her subjects and forms. The Book of the Dead, written when she was in her early twenties, is a modernist documentary poem on the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Disaster in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, in which workers died of silicosis after drilling a tunnel for a hydroelectric project. She collaged voices of the workers she interviewed with court transcripts and even Union Carbide stock quotes to create a testimony of this injustice. A decade later she wrote “Nine Poems for an Unborn Child,” a lyrical sequence of sonnets on her pregnancy and impending single motherhood, both taboo subjects in the 1940’s.
All this is fascinating to me as a reader and a critic. As a poet, I am coming to see that these collected poems also teach me what it means to write poetry and how to sustain it in the long run. I finished writing my first book two years ago and it is just coming out in print. In this time, as I explore new ideas and possibilities, I keep asking myself what I want as a writer and where I want to go in my work. And I have not written much in the last year; I needed a break from the intensity of the first book. Sometimes I worried that I did not have another book in me, but I kept reading.
To read ten, twenty, fifty years of a poet’s work is reassuring. Glück tries to do something new with each collection, especially beginning with her fifth book Ararat, when she figured out how to make book-length sequences. She does not always succeed, but her voice is recognizably hers. Rukeyser was prolific in her youth, but she had a dry spell in the 1950’s and 60’s, when she was raising her child alone. She came back in the 1960’s and 70’s, writing some of her best work in those late years, even when she was recovering from a stroke.
The life shapes the work. The work shapes the life. Poetry is a lifelong engagement with words, with stories, and with the world.
Teow Lim Goh is author of the poetry collection, Islanders, which will be published by Conundrum Press in May. It is now available for pre-order in our bookstore. Stop by our bookstore to see our many fine collections of poetry and other works from our authors.