When flipping back through my book journal recently, I noted that there isn’t a single poetry title in my list of books read so far in 2005. This is not because I don’t read poetry. I can tell you, just off the top of my head, that this year I’ve read poems by Sandra Alland, W.H. Auden, Ken Babstock, Jonathan Bennett, Roo Borson, Raymond Carver, Kevin Connolly, e.e. cummings, Emily Dickinson, H.D., August Kleinzahler, Dennis Lee, Philip Levine, Tim Lilburn, Jennifer LoveGrove, Frank O’Hara, Theodore Roethke, Stuart Ross, Stevie Smith, Paul Vermeersch, and William Carlos Williams.
But I only list books that I’ve read cover to cover in my book journal. And, for me, with a book of poetry there’s no identifiable beginning or end point. I dip into a collection wherever I like. With a brand new book, I’ll look at the table of contents and flip first to the poems with titles that intrigue me. If I’ve heard the author read from the book, I’ll start with poems that I recognize, to see if I experience them differently on the page. With old favourites, I gravitate towards old favourites. I treat my shelves of poetry books like one big anthology. I read most of the poetry books that I buy in their entirety eventually, but it could take years. And with the ones I borrow from the library, I may never make my way all the way through.
This has always seemed a reasonable approach to me, particularly with “selected” and “collected” works. But it has occurred to me that with many poetry books I’m likely missing something by not paying attention to the overall structure. After all, I pay close attention to the structure of novels and short story collections, not just to their component parts. And I have an idea from conversations with poet friends of how much time and thought they and their editors put into decisions about what goes in and what is left out, what order the poems appear in, whether the book will be divided into sections and what sections, and so on. It’s a shame to think of all that effort being wasted on me. So, before the year is out, I resolve to give a few poetry collections the cover to cover treatment, and see what difference it makes to my understanding and appreciation of the poems.
Fellow readers, how do you approach a book of poems?
And poets, how would you like your books to be read?