The postings here have been sporadic lately because I was finally moving into a lovely apartment in Seattle. I hope this will be my last move, but you never know. It was exhausting and overwhelming, but one of the rare bright spots was unpacking my poetry books. I keep them in alphabetical order so I can find things easily Despite all the shuffling back and forth, it was full of pleasure. Some poets take up half a shelf or more, with their books and books about them: Ashbery, Berryman, Bishop, Carson, Dante, Dickinson, Eliot, Frost, Ginsberg, Gluck, Goldbarth, Heaney, Homer, Levine, Merrill, Merwin. Plath, Pound, Rilke. Simic, Stevens, Strand, James Tate, WC Williams. From Jonathan Aaron to Martha Zweig. From some of the earliest I read when I was starting to write–Margaret Atwood, Diane Wakowski, Transtromer, Bly, Kinnell, Plath, Stanley Plumly, to recent discoveries–Alice Oswald, Karen Solie, Tim Siebles. From well known to maybe less so: a collaboration between James Tate and Bill Knott titled Are You Ready, Mary Baker Eddy? A beautifully made book, Paul Hannigan’s The Carnation, published by Barn Dream Press in Massachusetts. I remember where I bought many of the books, or who gave them to me: Jonathan Galassi gave me The Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barret Browning when he had recently started work at Houghton Mifflin and I interviewed him for an article on poetry publishing in Boston. Or my first reaction: reading Wind in a Box–Terrance Hayes can do anything! Milosz’s Anthology of Polish Poets where I read Szymborska for the first time. And I notice what’s missing: the little paperback of Stevens’ poems, Palm at the end of the Mind, that fell apart after I carried it everywhere with me for years. And I don’t see the first anthology of contemporary poetry I ever owned, Poems of our Moment, edited by John Hollander. As I remember, three of the thirty-seven poets included were women: May Swenson, Adrienne Rich, and Sylvia Plath. It’s possible I finally threw it out. Working my way through my shelves is working my way through my life–but in alphabetical rather than chronological order, so there’s a wonderful weaving back and forth between pieces. There’s a murmur of conversation, whispers and shouts. More than one mover said to me, “You should get rid of a lot of these books.” Over my dead body. I’d love to hear the stories of your poetry bookshelves.
The first time I heard Ashbery read, he had just published a book titled Three Poems–much of it set as prose. The Viking paperback edition I just took down from my shelf cost $2.25, and some passages that spoke to me at the time are underlined: “the ugliness of waiting”; “For starting out, even just a very few steps, completely changes the nature of the journey as it was when it lay intact and folded”; “But the light continues to grow, the eternal disarray of sunrise….” I loved the lulling voice, the sprawling sentences, the way the mind moved, the sounds–just as I had when I picked up his first book, Some Trees, at the Corner Bookstore (in the middle of the block) in Ithaca, New York, and was mesmerized by the title poem. When Ashbery read at Cornell, he sat down at a bare table, read with minimal inflection and without looking up, and left without commenting. He refused to be a go-between or explicator. I once heard James Tate respond to a student who said he found Ashbery difficult: “I don’t understand why people say that. All you have to do is listen.” I don’t find it as simple as Tate did–I’m often utterly baffled, and read Ashbery most happily when I’m totally immersed in his poems, the music of his mind. But the music is where it all starts. Just listen:
These are amazing: each
Joining a neighbor, as though speech
Were a still performance.
Arranging by chance
To meet as far this morning
From the world as agreeing
With it, you and I
Are suddenly what the trees try
To tell us we are:
That their merely being there
Means something; that soon
We may touch, love, explain.
And glad not to have invented
Such comeliness, we are surrounded:
A silence already filled with noises,
A canvas on which emerges
A chorus of smiles, a winter morning.
Placed in a puzzling light, and moving,
Our days put on such reticence
These accents seem their own defense.