By Leslie L. Nielsen
Oh boy! A new book of poetry!
Oh boy. How can I ever keep up?
For anyone interested in finding books of poetry to read, there’s a steady and generous stream of information about potentially wonderful words on the way. To find out about new releases, check—
- Email newsletters from writers and small presses (google poet names and publishers of books you love)
- Facebook notifications from writers and small presses (search and “Like”)
- Daily news and Weekly news round ups from Poets & Writers
- Harriet from the Poetry Foundation
- All the great Reviews in Poets’ Quarterly (hint, hint)
- New Releases featured at any good bookstore
- Friends’ bookshelves and coffee tables
Tap into those and you’ll never be without poetry to read. With so many new volumes coming out daily, not to mention my wish list stretching back centuries, I always feel behind. I’m a fast and thorough reader, but there are limits.
So, too, are there strategies—not for reading everything in print, but for making progress that feels real.
In honor of Spring, I’ll align and illustrate several ways of approaching the teeming poetisphere with organizational schemes from the world of garden design.
Try plotting out your next reading list based on one or more of these choices. Some of the systems are based on aesthetics or whimsy, but reading with a plan can also create a sense of continuity and help you trace patterns of development among the many individual texts:
These are gardens of a single color, like the white garden or purple border at Sissinghurst Castle, or of a single species, like former US Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin’s palm forest. To create a monoculture reading list, you can read all the works of a single poet or from a single press.
The specimen garden is related to a monoculture garden, but with an emphasis on achievement, it’s one in which the host will gently guide guests toward one outstanding featured specimen of a tree (“Observe the intricate spine of this weeping birch”) or flower (“You know, you’re lucky. She only blooms once very ten years”). This reading list would be comprised, for instance, of all the winners of a single prize—the Nobel, the Pulitzer, or the T.S. Eliot, for example. There are way more of these than you realize.
A few examples are Mediterranean (think every sun-loving herb you like) or rock (think New Mexico) or East Asian (think Zen sand and rocks or perfectly coiffed asymmetrical shrubs and arched bridges). For books, identify a particular region or culture you’re attracted to or curious about and read books by poets with associations there. There are more and more ways to access poetry identified by people group. Some journals and presses such as Alexander Street Press, Cave Canem, and The Publishing Triangle cultivate poets and poetry from single, specified groups.
Like the cover? Buy the book. This is also a common strategy for choosing plants and wines. Your reading experience may be a mixed bag, but your shelves will look great.
Many famous ancient and just really old gardens are formal ones, orderly and predictable. The parterre, on a spectacular scale such as at the Palace of Versailles, is based on symmetry and by imposing geometric order on nature. Perhaps formal gardens (and poems) endure because their forms, once defined, can be maintained by others in ways freeform nature can’t. In poetry there are, of course, sonnets and sestinas, triolets and tankas, ballads, limericks, villanelles, odes, and dozens of other forms. Each is available according to its historic tradition as well as modern variations and mash-ups. A good place to start exploring is with the Poetry Foundation where you can search by keyword (enter “ghazal” for example) and bring up a list of poems in a given form by diverse poets who abide by the rules or who vamp on the form successfully.
Right outside the kitchen door, the chef puts plants that are useful to have at hand—parsley, chives, tomato, and onion. Encircled by a hedge,medieval herbalists and other practitioners raised plants used for medicine, ritual, and conjuring—artemisia, rue, mallow, and wolfsbane. Useful or medicinal poetry might be themed to connect to your life’s practical needs—grief, love, nature, the beyond, or high tech cyber woes. Titles are suggestive, but reading reviews can truly help you find out who’s writing what, when you need company. You might need a book about dogs. Not that any single poem, let alone a whole collection, can or should be pigeon-holed into a topic, but unless a book is a Selected or Collected works, it’s likely to have some sort of a center or thematic refrain.
Late Summer Nursery Discount
At the end of August, those fifty dollar flowering shrubs you eyed in May’s home and garden magazine, the few remaining non-photogenic ones that is, get marked down to about $5.99. There’s something satisfying and less consumer-y about finding books at resale shops, yard sales, or clearance bins. Spend a season reading only the dog-eared or previously highlighted. You may find brilliant annotations or hand-me-downs from readers of note.
On a tour of my last garden, interested visitors were treated to a story about every other plant—who it came from (“These pale pink mums were from my high school best friend”), how it got there (“Yes, smuggled. In hand luggage.”), or where it used to sit (“And that whole bed of grasses came from one mother out back.”). Books that are loaners or pass-ons from friends, colleagues, or freebie boxes outside faculty offices, if you frequent academia, have everything inside the purchased ones have, but float in an aura of history and the pleasure of meaningful human connections.
Here’s my strategy—plant or read a hodgepodge of whatever comes to my attention through external channels or via landslides among my extant piles of books. A proper English cottage garden, I’ve read, requires enormous knowledge and attention to detail to ensure a vibrant and healthy rotation of colors, textures, and statures throughout the growing season. It’s not quite as random as it appears. And I suppose there actually is a pattern to my reading, though it might not be apparent in an aerial shot. It reflects the poets I’ve met, the conferences I’ve attended, and the writing headlines of my time.
So back to catching up. I may take some of my own advice and make a new reading list based on one of these strategies. You can too. Just add it to the bottom of the old list and dig in.
Leslie L. Nielsen lives in Ohio and Denmark. Her work appears in journals such as r.kv.r.y. and Literary Mama. She holds an MA in English Literature from Ohio State and an MFA in Poetry and Nonfiction from Ashland University. She teaches writing, leads workshops in creativity, and occasionally blogs.