Commonplace and Essential: More Poems for People Who Don’t Like Poetry

This is the next installment in our “Janus Series,” in which we are glancing back at a few of our favorite things from 2011 in order to get you excited about what may lie ahead. As always, there’s no rhyme or reason to the order of things; it’s just a jumble of ideas and items, provided to distract you from whatever it is you need to be distracted from. Ah, Scribbleskiff.

The highest form of booklust.

Just as 2011 proved to be a loverly year for music-lovers, it was no less so inclined for book-lovers, especially those who have an incurable predilection for poetry — to us at Scribbleskiff, the highest form of booklust. A delicious number of poetry books rained down on us last year.

The first fell like Cupid’s arrows. Last February, while most of the country — the well-red majority, at least — was celebrating the 100th birthday of Ronald Reagan, a well-read portion was quietly observing another centennial: Elizabeth Bishop, who exerted more influence on modern poetry’s middle years than is often acknowledged, turned 100 on the 8th. Or would’ve, that is, since, like Ronnie, she’s long gone.

Several books by and about Bishop were published last year in honor of this makeshift milestone (this one and this one, for example). And though most covered the same stretch of highway — Bishop was a late-bloomer and painfully under-prolific; her collected prose and poems fill only two modest volumes — it’s worth having as many collections of her moving and intelligent observations on hand as possible. Her poems, at times both whimsically odd and deeply affecting, especially so.

Consider “One Art” as prime example. Read it only once — or, better yet, listen to it read by blithe Blythe Danner (here and below) — and you will forever recall the refrain each time you misplace something, precious or not.

Another indispensable reissue last year was the facsimile of the original 1923 Contact Press edition of Spring and All, by William Carlos Williams. Considered one of the 20th century’s most influential American poems, this “manifesto of the imagination,” which alternates between bursts of free verse and prose, explores how language creates and recreates the world — and vice-versa. Spring and All contains some of Williams’s best-known poems, such as “By the road to the contagious hospital” (also known as “Spring and All”) and “The Red Wheelbarrow”:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Beautiful and enigmatic, commonplace and essential, like a secret garden, it’s what we return to every spring. Although never really out of print — Spring and All has been included in full in several collections, such as Imaginations — it’s somehow more titillating for us bibliophiles to hold a stand-alone version, lovingly reproduced by New Directions to appear the way it was first published (by a vanity press!) almost 90 years ago.

We courted and caressed several new books last year, by very much alive authors, including Wait: Poems, by C.K. Williams, Your Father on the Train of Ghosts, the collaboration by John Gallaher and G.C. Waldrep, and In The Back Chamber, the twentieth book of poetry by former U.S. Poet Laureate Donald Hall. All uniquely fulfilling in their own ways.

But if you only read one book of poems a year (and, for that, we are truly sorry) make it Happy Life, by David Budbill. In fact, Happy Life, published last August by Copper Canyon Press (our favorite poetry book-makers), makes for essential poetry reading for people who say they don’t like to read poetry. Why? Look no further than the opening poem in which the speaker rants, “I’ve spent most of my life / pissing and moaning about / never having any money, / never being known …” etc. Then reconsiders, after realizing that “for more than forty years / my days have been my own.” Only to admit, “It takes a long time for some people / to realize how lucky they are.” T.S. Eliot this ain’t.

Here’s another, “This Morning,” compact and profound in its simplicity:

Oh, this life,
the now;
this morning,

which I
can turn
into forever

by simply
what is here,

is gone
by noon.

There are three reasons why we continue to buy and read David Budbill’s books, and why you should, too: Like Bishop and Williams, Budbill turns out undecorated but skillfully crafted poems that are immediately approachable, yet resonate long after you’ve turned the page; his subject matter touches on both universal and personal themes, often in the same lyrical passage; and his penchant for quietude should be a lesson to us all in this noisy, nosy culture. He’s also wonderfully cranky, witty, tender, honest, melancholic, joyful, insightful, caustic, wrong-headed, etc. In other words, these are poems you can read, relate to, and derive benefit from, on a daily basis.

Don’t believe us? Take Garrison Keillor’s word, then. He has included Budbill’s poems in his Good Poems anthologies, and regularly reads them on his “Writer’s Almanac” radio series. (Here’s “Winter Is the Best Time,” from a previous collection.) So much depends on that, too, for sure.

As always, tell us what you think. Do you have a favorite book or poem from 2011? Is there a new poet you’ve discovered and want to tell others about? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

And be sure to visit (and join) the Scribbleskiff page on Facebook (find it here), where you can partake in wall-to-wall conversations, find additional information and suggestions from readers, and more.

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