Friday, October 12, 2007

Tome or not to tome, that is the question...

Poet Laureate of the United States, Charles Simic, has been writing regularly on poetry for The New York Review of Books lately, and in the issue dated October 25, 2007, he reviews the two-volume Collected Poems of Robert Creeley. Simic writes:

"What is the explanation for the large number of volumes of collected poems appearing in the last few years? Publishers are bringing out books of breathtaking ambition, each one containing hundreds of poems by a single poet, as if there was a huge, untapped market for every poem written by every dead and living American poet [American? -what about the big new Herbert and Vallejo books, not to mention recent volumes by Ted Hughes, Neruda, MacNeice, and many others?-- D.S.] In place of pocket-sized volumes or lean collections of selected poems one can comfortably read to oneself on a park bench or to a lover in bed, one is confronted by a tome that requires for its perusal a sturdy table."

He goes on to say that for most people a book of 1,000 poems is nearly impossible to read, "since the concentration and enthusiasm such an undertaking requires can only infrequently be summoned." And that there are not many poets whose work deserves comprehensive publishing to the extent of "more than eighty pages." He makes exceptions for Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, and Stevens, though he finds even those to be debatable. A book of someone's collected poems "is bound to evoke both curiosity and dread."

I wonder about this. In an earlier blogpost here, I remarked that the biggest liability of these tomes is that they may drive into extinction the jewel-like individual (often quite slim) books that are gathered together in them. For me this is mostly a problem of design, marketing, economics, and logistics - ideally, we'd have both kinds of books, large and small. One size does not fit all. Yet think how hard it can be to agree on which of a poet's works will transform a given reader. The more poems given, the more to choose from, it goes without saying - one doesn't have to read the entire book, though I'd argue that this would be a superb educational experience, and have asked many a student to read ALL of Yeats, ALL of Auden, yes, even AS MUCH OF POUND AS HUMANLY POSSIBLE. Why? Because a selection, while convenient, is for the lazy. You don't have to think, weigh one poem against another, or use any critical skills; and many a good poem is relegated to limbo by virtue of exclusion. Is it too much to ask for readers to confront the trajectory of a poet's work? A poem isn't a baseball that occasionally gets knocked out of the ballpark, it's not somebody's greatest hit. How to judge those eight or nine miracles in a poet's work if not against the dozens and dozens that had to be composed in order for them to get written? And for writers of poems, nothing is more salutary than reading page after page of some ostensible giant's worst gleanings - assuming one doesn't aspire to badness oneself.

Bring on more books of poems - big and small, collected, selected, and individual titles, too. If we had the space of attention to attend to page after page of poetry, what harm would be done? And are general readers inhibited somehow by big books? Not all those millions who have lugged Harry Potter books around with them over the years, each of which is no lighter, literally or figuratively, than a Creeley or Lowell.


Don Share said...

More aversion to large books with lots of poems in them:

Who has the time to read poems, one hears over and over again...

the unreliable narrator said...

I liked all this very much. Especially yes even AS MUCH OF POUND AS HUMANLY POSSIBLE. And: "And for writers of poems, nothing is more salutary than reading page after page of some ostensible giant's worst gleanings."

Though I would argue that yer bog-standard Harry Potter novel is most definitely lighter, figuratively anyway, than a collected Creeley/Lowell. This from a bear of very little brain.