Top Ten Tuesday: Best Books I Read in 2018

It’s been a while since I’ve done a list of any sort, but with the new year upon us, I think now’s the perfect time for another. This post is part of Top 10 Tuesday, a project currently hosted by Jana, known to the Internet as That Artsy Reader Girl. This week’s theme: the best books we read in 2018.

This year, I’ve noticed a distinct shift in my reading habits. In years past, the great majority of books I’ve read have been thin poetry collections, with a smattering of prose works to balance things out. This year, the ratio has more or less reversed, for reasons that I’ve previously detailed on this blog. So, in case you’re wondering why someone who writes about poetry so often doesn’t have more poetry on his best-of list, there’s your explanation.

Before we get to the list, two honorable mentions that I’ve chosen to exclude from the list for potential conflicts of interest: Alice McDermott’s 2017 novel The Ninth Hour (she was a professor at Johns Hopkins while I was a grad student there) and Nausheen Eusuf’s 2017 poetry collection Not Elegy, But Eros (I was paid to review her book for The Hopkins Review, and afterwards very briefly corresponded with the author). Both books come highly recommended, but there’s your disclaimer.

And with that out of the way, the list proper:

10) Plunge, by Alice Jones (2012)
When it comes to poetry collections, I often find formal experiments to be more memorable than the content of the poems themselves. Such is the case for Alice Jones’s Plunge. Jones is of course capable of crafting a striking image or allowing the language to carry the reader on its music. But what has stayed with me over the past year is the structural conceit. Each poem is an incremental series of smaller pieces, starting with a haiku and building toward a sestina (or vice versa), with certain key words repeated and recontextualized in every iteration. My favorite of the collection, “Valle d’Aosta,” perfectly summarizes Jones’s strategy: “Before we ever saw mountains / we imagined them, heaps of gravel and snow, islands / floating above all we knew.” It’s far from the best collection I’ve ever read, but it’s among the most I’m eager to imitate.

9) Men We Reaped, by Jesmyn Ward (2013)
Equal parts memoir and memorial, Jesmyn Ward’s account of the deaths of five young black men from her hometown takes a little while to find its footing. The narrative alternates between Ward’s own story and the five deaths that touched her life, with the memorial segments told in reverse chronological order, it’s a bit of a struggle to settle into the world of DeLisle, Mississippi. But once the reader gets accustomed to the narrative flow, Ward’s powers of description prove devastating, especially as the book begins to circle the first and final death, that of Ward’s younger brother Joshua. Yet through all the heartache and tragedy, Ward finds a way to press on. “We love each other fiercely,” she writes near the very end, “while we live and after we die. We survive; we are savages.” I’m looking forward to diving into Ward’s fiction in the coming months; I want to see her powers of lyricism and imagination really shine independent of the facts.

8) The Life Around Us: Selected Poems on Nature, by Denise Levertov (1997)
Conventional wisdom holds that love and death are the two most difficult subjects to write good poems about, but I’d personally add nature to that list. Handled poorly and a nature poem is just a pedestrian landscape rendered in language, or else a polemic without any craft. What makes Denise Levertov’s poetry so delightful is the variety of ways she has of approaching the natural world, whether it’s placing uranium mines in the context of colonialism in “What It Could Be” or turning “The Cabbage Field” into a painterly, almost surreal portrait of the sea. This collection would be much higher on the list if not for one baffling editorial decision: the last third of book is dedicated to nothing but descriptions of mountains, and it’s stunning how quickly the book becomes a slog in the home stretch. Had that proverbial mountain range been broken up and spread out, this would probably crack my top three.

7) My Life as a Foreign Country, by Brian Turner (2015)
Brian Turner first came to the attention of the literary world with Here, Bullet, a collection of poems inspired by his time as an American soldier in the Iraq War. It comes as no surprise, then, that his memoir of overseas service, My Life as a Foreign Country, functions as poetry in multiple senses: lyrical language, fragmentary progressions of ideas, and associative leaps between the different threads of the narrative. As with Men We Reaped, this book takes some getting used to, both with its structure and its content. Turner’s recollections are often stomach-churning and infuriating, as any response to war is bound to be, and what makes his account especially gripping is how far the effects of war spread. It colors Turner’s family, his life after returning home, and even his past: there’s a memorable sequence from his childhood where he and his friends make a war film, and the presentation of their backyard fun becomes unnervingly graphic. This is really the only book on this list that I “hyped” myself for, and in the end it surpassed (and circumvented) my expectations.

6) Wolf Moon, Blood Moon, by Edward Falco (2017)
When I write about poems, I usually find myself thinking about the poetic argument, the idea or narrative that the writer wishes to get across as the poem unfolds. This approach, granted, risks treating poetry as essay writing rather than on its own terms, but Ed Falco’s Wolf Moon, Blood Moon is bold enough to embrace this approach. The pieces in this collection present themselves as essays aaddressing large topics, from grief to quantum theory, but along the way their whirlwinds sweep up the intimate details which mark successful poems. “On Language,” for instance, begins with the prosaic notion that “[t]he words we use to instill a sense of the ineffable / Carry us on a journey that’s mysterious,” only to use that thesis to frame a boy’s evolving relationship with his aging father. There were moments reading Falco’s work that made me feel how I did when I first read the later poems of Larry Levis, which coming from me is high praise indeed. Falco is primarily a novelist, but I sincerely hope that he returns to poetry in the future.

5) Ms. Marvel, Vol. 4: Last Days, by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona (2015)
Kamala Khan’s position as a (diegetically) marginal figure within the Marvel universe comes to a head in Last Days, as the world appears to be on the cusp of ending and the fate of Jersey City looks like an afterthought next to that of New York. Yet it’s in that milieu of hopelessness that everyone’s humanity bursts through most clearly. Kamala’s inevitable team-up with her idol Carol Danvers naturally takes center stage, but it’s her conversations with her mother and brother that make this collection an aesthetically fulfilling experience. And while I’m in no way qualified to discuss visual art, Adrian Alphona’s artwork throughout sells the characters’ emotions and the mood of the world just as much as G. Willow Wilson’s dialogue. Had the world in fact ended for Kamala and company, I couldn’t have asked for a more satisfying conclusion to the story.

4) Proxies: Essays Near Knowing, by Brian Blanchfield (2016)
Here’s a book that I admired enough to write a 2400-word blog post about it while imitating its style. Brian Blanchfield effortlessly manages to blend the abstract and the erudite with the grounded and the intimate. A series of self-searching essays which rely solely on Blanchfield’s memory as a reference for all facts, Proxies is a book which imbue supreme power in words as words, for they are his only certain path to understanding. It is much easier, for instance, for the author to confront how he left (abandoned?) his teaching position at a Massachusetts boarding school if he first interrogates what it means “to withdraw”: “To withdraw—when it doesn’t take an object, like: an offer, or a question, or the troops—to withdraw, as an intransitive verb, is, as it happens, always reflexive. If I withdraw, I withdraw myself. From what?” Proxies is a book that teaches us through example that before we can even hope to sort out our lives’ decisions, we have to figure out what the questions even are.

3) The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon (2000)
This is the part of the list where I start praising books that don’t need anyone else’s endorsement, but to hell with it—I love these books. First up is Michael Chabon’s most beloved novel, the story of a Jewish-American duo in the golden age of superhero comics. Sam Clay and Joseph Kavalier’s friendship and art perseveres through business hardships, through anti-Semitic sentiments, through war, and it’s one of the most touching relationships that I’ve read about in a long time. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is also miraculous in its structure, a modern 600-page novel that feels epic but is never sprawling; by the time I closed the covers on it, I only wanted to cut about 50 pages from its length. (Normally, that number is closer to 300.) Even when he’s indulging himself with an extended digression on comic book history, Chabon never loses sight of the novel’s focus, its richly developed characters.

2) Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell (1938)
Earlier this year, when I wrote about the use of dark comedy in George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, I said that the author’s ability to “find humor in such dire circumstances feels like a testament to human freedom.” The more I think about the book, the more that sentiment rings true for me. Homage to Catalonia is a despairing book, make no mistake. To see how the Communists sold out the leftist cause in the Spanish Civil War to help put the Fascists in power is enough to put a permanent hole in the reader’s heart. Yet months after reading it, I find myself thinking back to Orwell’s time in the P.O.U.M. camp, and the sense of wholly equal comradeship that existed—nay, thrived —in the early days of the conflict, and that tells me that Orwell’s account is no mere exercise in hopelessness. Eighty years after its initial publication, Homage to Catalonia remains vital, and I really mean that in every sense of the word.

1) Middlemarch, by George Eliot (1871-1872)
Between this book and Silas Marner, I’ve come to the conclusion that George Eliot is the most precise observer of human behavior to ever set pen to paper. A depiction of life in a provincial English town circa 1830, Middlemarch has more memorable and fleshed out characters than I could ever hope to discuss coherently. From the emotionally distant and impossibly verbose Casaubon, who wouldn’t feel out of place in a Dickens novel; to the charming but underhanded Rosamond, who is so adept at justifying her secret schemes that one starts halfway siding with her; to Chettam, the Platonic ideal of an elitist jerk. And at the center of it all, we have Lydgate, as brilliant at medicine as he is inept at managing social connections, and Dorothea, a woman so moral and self-sacrificing yet internally conflicted that I’m tempted to call her my new favorite protagonist—except to do so would mean reducing the novel to Dorothea’s story. No, Middlemarch has far more to offer, far more it wishes to offer, than any summary could ever convey. I only finished this book about two weeks ago, but I’ve put it on top because more than anything thing else that I read this year, this is the book I want to shove into the people’s hands and say, “Read this immediately.” You’ll become a better person for the experience.


There’s my list for you. But what are your thoughts on all this? Have you read any of my favorites from this year? Any books you’ve read this year that you’re dying to share with others? Let me know in the comments! And if you’re looking for more book recommendations, you might want to check out my list of modern poetry classics.

Top Ten Tuesday: Books That Should Be Taught in High School

Today’s post is part of Top Ten Tuesday, a project currently organized by the book blogger Jana (aka That Artsy Reader Girl). This week’s prompt is an education-themed freebie, as it’s back-to-school season here in the United States.

I was trying to think of a good topic to fit that theme when I came across an article on the New York Times website that asked a number of authors, from John Green to Yaa Gyasi, which books they would like to see added to high school curricula. I found that a difficult question to answer for myself, not because I couldn’t think of any candidates, but because there are so many directions to take that prompt. What exactly do high school reading lists miss? What are the ultimate goals of education? Which books best address such concerns?

To try to capture the whole breadth of that discussion, I’ve come up with a list of ten books that I feel would add something of value to a high school education. The only criterion for possible consideration was that I couldn’t have read the book while I personally was in high school. So, if any of these books were already required reading for you, then…well, you clearly went to a cooler school district than I did.

And so, proceeding chronologically:

 

1. Edward II, by Christopher Marlowe (c. 1592)

EdwardiiquartoEnglish classes have an odd relationship with early-modern English drama. Shakespeare is all but mandatory as part of the curriculum, but his contemporaries hardly get mentioned, let alone read: none of Ben Jonson’s intricate city comedies, none of Thomas Middleton’s tragic bloodbaths. But I feel Shakespeare’s dominance is especially a shame when it comes to Christopher Marlowe, whose work not only influenced the Bard’s but also matches it in pure, visceral pleasure. Marlowe’s characters are larger than life, always scheming, and elicit viewer sympathy despite their many, many vices.

Edward II is my favorite of his works, and I would love to see it taught for two reasons. First, as a history play, it would slot well into a discussion of Shakespeare’s Richard III or Henry IV, Part 1, as the monarchs in each play respond quite differently to the dissenting nobles threatening to take the crown. Second, teaching the play would be an excuse to show students Derek Jarman’s striking 1991 film adaptation, which turns the homoerotic subtext of Edward and Gaveston’s relationship into text. It’s the perfect demonstration of how queer themes, rather than being a recent development, have been part of the Anglophone canon for centuries.

 

2. Washington Square, by Henry James (1880)

Washington SquareThere are some writers whose works, while critically lauded and oft-studied at the university level, rarely make their way onto high school reading lists because of their perceived difficulty. I’m thinking of authors such as William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, and the dean of this odd school, Henry James. Untangling James’s syntax is a true challenge that every student of literature must eventually face, but Washington Square is an exception in his bibliography. Indeed, it reads less like James and more like that mainstay of English classes, Jane Austen. (Apparently this was much to James’s chagrin, but what does he know?)

Of course, I don’t count Washington Square so highly because it’s merely approachable. Instead, I think the book, by the example of its characters, is uniquely instructive in how relationships work. Over the course of the novel, Dr. Sloper judges that his daughter Catherine’s suitor, Morris Townsend, is only interested in her inheritance. As it happens, he’s right on the money (so to speak), as Townsend leaves Catherine after Dr. Sloper disinherits her. Yet in proving himself right, in proving his concerns for his daughter’s well-being were justified, he permanently damages his relationship with Catherine. Students will learn a difficult lesson by the end, one that the educational system seems particularly ill-equipped to impart: sometimes, being correct just doesn’t matter.

 

3. Passing, by Nella Larsen (1929)

PassingOne of the best literature courses I took as an undergraduate was called Capital Fictions, which was an exploration of economic themes in late 19th- and early 20th-century American literature. I was tempted to try shoehorning half the syllabus onto this list—ooh, people should actually read The Jungle! ooh, McTeague is a masterpiece of literary naturalism! ooh, “The Tenth of January” is a fantastic short story!—but in the end, I exercised something resembling disciplined and settled on the one book that I found the most eye-opening.

I don’t think we ever used the term in Capital Fictions, but that course was basically my introduction to the concept of intersectionality, and no book on the syllabus better demonstrated the interweaving of societal oppressions quite like Nella Larsen’s Passing. The novel tells the story of two light-skinned black women, Irene and Clare, who must navigate the racial, gender, and class expectations of 1920s Chicago, forces which strain their friendship and ultimately lead to sudden tragedy. It’s also a work where the prose style, empathetic but startlingly blunt, is perfectly suited to the subject, making it worthy read for any aspiring writers.

 

4. White Noise, by Don DeLillo (1985)

White NoiseDon DeLillo writes the accessible sort of “weird” books that I’m certain would have totally blown my mind when I was in high school. White Noise isn’t “funny,” exactly, but there’s a lot in the book to quietly snort at, and unlike, for instance, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, one doesn’t need to be well versed in Jacobean revenge tragedies to get the joke. The fact that the protagonist, Jack Gladney, is a leading scholar of Hitler studies (snort) who doesn’t speak a lick of German (snort) is amusing no matter one’s stage of cultural awareness.

Hidden beneath the humor is a prescient depiction of media and advertising saturation (written before the Internet exacerbated those problems), chemical degradation of the environment, and medicinal fixes for anxiety, as well as a sympathetic meditation on the ever-present fear of death. White Noise is the sort of novel I expect (hope?) a fair number of students will want to throw back at the instructor, frustrated with the apparent pointlessness of its events. But even that reaction would be heartening—those people might just try to patch up this world before its own version of the Airborne Toxic Event.

 

5. Collected Sonnets, by Edna St. Vincent Millay (1941)

MillayPoetry tends to get short shrift in English classes, with maybe a few weeks dedicated to the entire tradition. A Brit lit class might touch on the Romantics, an American lit class on Whitman and Dickinson, but not much beyond that. Still, most students graduate with at least some understanding of what a sonnet is, or at least an understanding that they exist and that Shakespeare wrote a whole bunch of them. The sonnet has proven to be an enduring form, and if anyone’s work demonstrates the power of a well-turned sonnet, then it’s Edna St. Vincent Millay.

An often under-taught aspect of the sonnet is the volta, the turn in the poem’s argument, and Millay’s poems are perfect exemplars of such twists. The movement in poems such as “[Only until this cigarette is ended]” or “[If I should learn, in some quite casual way]” is both clear and surprising. Her poems prove that contemporary concerns and classical imagery are not mutually exclusive, and that rhyme and meter are capable of speaking modern thoughts. But most of all, her speakers are so cool and confident that I think high school students will latch onto their personas. She’s the sort of poet who might convince you to become a poet.

 

6. Dien Cai Dau, by Yusef Komunyakaa (1988)

Dien Cai DauOf course, what high school English classes really need is more contemporary poetry, and by “contemporary,” I mean “anyone after Robert Frost.” Students come away from their secondary education with the notion that poetry is a dead art that only deals with archaic subject matter and must sound like the mad ravings of a pantalooned troubadour. And, to be sure, a lot of contemporary poetry is unintelligible to the uninitiated reader. But just as much is plain-spoken, personal, and relevant to the world outside academia, like the work of Yusef Komunyakaa.

Released in 1988, Komunyakaa’s collection Dien Cai Dau is a major work in the literature of the Vietnam War, one which details the day-to-day realities for an American soldier in the conflict. Komunyakaa rarely engages in syntactical or rhetorical fireworks, the sort that drive students batty; instead, his poems are so dense with sensory imagery that they become dreamlike (from “Starlight Scope Myopia”: “Smoke-colored // Viet Cong / move under our eyelids…”). The obvious standout is the final poem, “Facing It,” wherein the speaker reflects on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, but every poem is thought-provoking and worthy of classroom discussion.

 

7. Mother Love, by Rita Dove (1995)

Mother LoveTo round out this accidental trio of poetry collections, here’s a book that straddles the line between Millay’s formalist magic and Komunyakaa’s deeply detailed free verse. Rita Dove’s Mother Love is a long sequence of loose sonnets, and part of the fun of reading it is figuring out which aspects of the tradition (length, rhyme, meter, subject, volta) is Dove employing in a given poem and which she is ignoring. In purely practical terms, it’s a great way to gauge students’ understanding of the tradition’s formal requirements.

In less clinical terms, Mother Love is also great way to teach students how to take an old story and make its wholly their own. The collection is a rewriting of the myth of Persephone, with an emphasis on how she relates to her mother Demeter, played out in the present day. The mythological/fairy tale retelling is already a popular genre, but seeing how it plays out in verse could make for a fun in-class exercise. If nothing else, share the joys of the “The Bistro Styx” with everyone you meet. You could cut the mother-daughter tension in that poem with a steak knife.

 

8. Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, by Svetlana Alexievich (1997)

Voices from ChernobylWhen I was first composing this list, I thought about including some more works of history, such as Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer’s Bitter Fruit or John W. Dower’s Embracing Defeat. But while books like those cover topics which often go undiscussed in high school history classes (the CIA-backed coup in Guatemala, post-WWII Japan), as texts they tend to be dry and rather conventional. The material that these writers tackle is vital to understand, but their particular expression is not necessarily as compelling.

But a book like Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl is another matter entirely. Collecting the personal accounts of scores of people affected by the 1986 nuclear disaster in modern-day Ukraine, Alexievich’s book is a testament to the power of letting people tell their own stories in their own voices. In its arrangement of the individual testimonies, Voices from Chernobyl is also a reminder that just because journalist lets their subjects do the talking, that doesn’t mean they have no power over how the final project is presented.

 

9. Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, by Alice Munro (2001)

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, MarriageBefore, I said that poetry needed more presence in high school curricula, but short stories could probably make the same claim. At least in my experience, short stories were either used as supplementary material for a novel (like reading Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” alongside The Awakening), or as a means of chewing up class time after hitting all the syllabus material. And as for contemporary short stories, the sort that would fill out an issue of The New Yorker, well, those simply didn’t exist; I didn’t realize people still wrote short stories until undergrad. So why not at least give students some Alice Munro to chew over?

Munro is, I will concede, a challenging writer for students. Her stories are emotionally intense in a way high school might not immediately relate to, and her use of achronological storytelling and multiple points-of-view can take some getting used to. But at the same, the condensed short story form is a nice way of introducing students to such complications, as opposed to dropping a similarly difficult novel-length work on them. I’ve picked Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage because I’m especially fond of its contents (the title story and “Queenie” are wonderful pieces), but really, any Munro collection could fulfill this role. At any rate, she’s Canada’s first Nobel Laureate—why not put her on the syllabus?

 

10. So Much Synth, by Brenda Shaughnessy (2016)

So Much SynthI fear this list has become too academic, so let’s close things out with a book that’s a bit more fun. I’ve raved about Brenda Shaughnessy a couple of times on this blog before (e.g., my list of most read authors), and I’ve praised this book in particular. And of all the books on this list, I think Shaughnessy’s So Much Synth is the book that’s most relatable to a high school audience. The early poems in the collection concern people coming to terms with their sexuality, while the “mix tape” poems are wonderful examples of literature in conversation with pop culture.

But it’s the centerpiece of the collection, “Is There Something I Should Know?,” which would most intrigue me in a classroom setting. A sprawling, 27-page poem in which the speaker recounts the various mishaps of adolescence, “Is There Something I Should Know?” is a work which perfectly captures the way that one remembers what it was like to be a teenager, a time when we “just dumped rage and hurt, yearning / for finer feelings, not the indignities [we] suffered.” To read someone who’d survived high school express the sensation of doing so, and expressing it so well, would have been more than welcome when I was fourteen.

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Well, there’s my list, but what do you think? Which books would you like to see added to high school reading lists? Did you in fact read any of these books in high school? Let me know in the comments!

The A-Z Bookish Survey

Here’s a fun little survey of sorts that I discovered by way of Lauren Roland, the blogger behind Books are Only the Beginning, whose post you can read here. And you should read it: it’s fun, and I don’t think any of our answers overlap, so Lauren’s will be a different (and far less verbose) experience than mine.

Anyhow, that’s enough preamble. Onto the survey (which, for some reason, lacks prompts for the letters U and X. C’mon, mysterious originator of the meme…)!

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Author You’ve Read the Most Books From

A while back, I wrote up a list of my Top 5 most-read authors, so if you want the full details, you can go check that out. The late Ursula K. Le Guin remains in the top slot, with nine books. I’m hoping to start soon on The Complete Orsinia (ed. Brian Attebery, Library of America, 2017), a collection of lesser-known stories and songs set in a fictional Central European country, so she may perhaps hit double-digits in the near future.

I try to enforce a degree of variety into my reading habits, so I have a rule about returning to favorite authors: after finishing a book by Author X, I must read 15 books by other writers before reading another of Author X’s works. I think that helps prevent particular writers’ styles from getting stale for me. Maybe the whirlwind digressions in Larry Levis’s poetry, for instance, would get tiresome if I binged through his bibliography one collection after another. Since I space these readings out over months if not years, each revisit feels refreshing.

Best Sequel Ever

I’ll be returning to this below, but I’m not one for book series. For one thing, most of my readings in the past few years have been in contemporary poetry collections, so the notion of a book series may as well be a foreign concept to me. For another, I find that my patience for serialized storytelling is quite thin. I’ll take the small, self-contained story of one-and-done most any day.

Still, I have in fact read sequels. And in terms of improvement over the previous volumes, a good marker of a sequel’s quality, it’s hard to think of a better example than Richard III. The final installment of Shakespeare’s minor tetralogy, the play comes on the heels of the trio of Henry VI plays, and the jump in quality is vast. The Henry VI plays are among Shakespeare’s first, and boy, does it show. The plotting is aimless, the verse stiff, and the characters forgettable. As I write this I literally can’t remember a single event from 3 Henry VI, beyond what I know happened historically. That’s a horrible sign.

But then the cycle comes alive in its fourth and final production. Richard III may not be peak Shakespeare (it’s way too long, and Shakespeare hasn’t figured out the right way to use ghosts yet), but the title character is a solid variant on the Marlovian over-reacher, a scheming and rhetorically dextrous villain who completely owns the stage every second of the play. A forum poster once likened watching such a character to watching a Godzilla movie, because who doesn’t want to witness all the destruction they’re going to bring? I like that reading. A lot.

Currently Reading

I’m working my way through three books at the moment:

  • 1000 Years of Irish Poetry: The Gaelic and Anglo-Irish Poets from Pagan Times to the Present, ed. Kathleen Hoagland (Devin-Adair, 1947)
  • Agee on Film, Vol. 1: Reviews and Comments by James Agee (Beacon, 1958)
  • The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017)

I always have multiple books on my currently-reading shelf, just in case one of them starts to drag. Generally I try to pull from a variety of forms: a poetry collection, a work of fiction, a non-fiction book, etc. Given that poetry collections are often under 100 pages, I end up cycling books out of the poetry slot much quicker than I do for the prose slots.

Although, given the sheer length of 1000 Years of Irish Poetry, and my insistence on reading all poetry aloud, that one’s going to be on my currently-reading shelf for some time. Someone in my dad’s girlfriend’s family, who are all Irish, found the book at a yard sale and remembered that I liked poetry, so that was a thoughtful gift. I will say, reading the intro was a trip. The anthology is so old that 1) William Butler Yeats had only recently died, and 2) James Joyce was still considered a controversial writer in some academic circles.

The other two books I’ve obliquely mentioned on this blog before, so I won’t prattle on about them here. I quoted some of James Agee’s columns in The Nation for my discussion of voice-over in book-to-film adaptations, and I mentioned seeing Alice McDermott discuss The Ninth Hour at the National Book Festival in my write-up of the event.

Drink of Choice While Reading

I imagine the originator of this survey had something cozy and comforting in mind, some semi-obscure flavor of tea, say. Or if you would rather adopt a hipster level of self-conscious performance: absinthe. For me, though, a bottle of Coke will do just fine. It’s what I drink on most occasions regardless, over the well-founded advice of the dentist and my body’s sleep system.

E-reader or Physical Book

I remember this being a much more contentious discussion several years ago, when e-readers were first bursting onto the market. I really don’t have a preference between the two when it comes to works of prose. The portability and lower cost of e-books is about worth the subjective experience of holding a physical work in my hands, so the format matters very little.

Poetry is another discussion altogether: hard copy all the way. Back in 2011, I made the mistake of purchasing The Complete Works of W. B. Yeats as an e-book from Amazon, and the formatting was abysmal. Infuriating. A foul rag-and-bone shop. It was so difficult, if not at times impossible, to tell when a line broke because Yeats intended for a hard enjambment, and when it broke because the e-reader’s dimensions were too narrow to fit the line as written. Perhaps things have gotten better for poetry e-books since 2011, but I’d rather not get burned again. Give me the fixed arrangement of the page, thank you very much.

Fictional Character You Probably Would Have Actually Dated in High School

Me, dating in high school? Good one.

Glad You Gave This Book a Chance

This is a tough one for me to answer, because I take “giving a book a chance” to mean that I had negative expectations going in. Most books I read, especially poetry collections, I have no expectations when I start. I often just pull volumes semi-randomly from library shelves, just to overcome the weight of possibility overload. And when that’s not the case, I’m reading something that a friend or a critic has recommended, so there’s not much initial skepticism involved.

Looking over my “read” shelf on Goodreads (who needs a memory when we have social cataloging?), perhaps this one fits the spirit best: The War Is Over: Selected Poems by Evgeny Vinokurov (trans. Anthony Rudolf and Daniel Weissbort, International Writing Program, 1976). I found this volume secondhand, in a very coffee-stained quality, and had it not had the backing of the University of Iowa behind it, I’d have passed it over completely. (In fact, as of now I’m literally the only one on Goodreads to have rated the book.) It’s not a great volume, but I do admire Vinokurov’s poem “The Swans,” in which the speaker imagines birds emerging from his homework. “No one would ever guess they’d flown,” the final lines tell us, “From the pages of a mathematics textbook.” That sounds about true.

Hidden Gem Book

Again, a surprisingly difficult one to get a handle on. I suppose that, despite the reported growth in its readers of late, any contemporary poet not named Rupi Kaur would fit the bill. But most of my favorites, such as Brenda Shaughnessy and Andrew Hudgins, are somewhat sizeable names within the poetry community, so to call them “hidden gems” seems disingenuous.

If I have to stick my neck out on one hidden gem book, I’ll go with Labor by Jill Magi (Nightboat, 2014), a collection that blurs the lines between poetry, fiction, and archival employee handbook. It hooked me in a way that few works of that nature do, in part because its politics are simultaneously heartfelt and direct. I mean, the book is called Labor, after all. At the moment, it only has ten ratings on Goodreads, so I think that counts as obscure enough for present purposes.

Important Moment in Your Reading Life

After ninth-grade English, I’d convinced myself that I hated Shakespeare. We read Julius Caesar about halfway through the year, and the experience was beyond frustrating. Not because I couldn’t understand the text, but because I couldn’t see how anyone could enjoy the text. As it was taught, Julius Caesar was a series of literary devices stitched together: some anaphora there, a hamartia there, a few puns sprinkled in for flavor. Completely lost in all that: the intense personal and political drama of the story, and the aesthetic beauty of the language. You know, the parts that make Shakespeare transcendent instead of testable.

In tenth-grade, for reasons I can’t quite recall, I decided to give the Bard another go, and I picked up Hamlet. It was dense, certainly, but I powered through it, reading the text aloud just to get lost in the music of verse. (If you’re wondering where that insistence on reading poetry aloud that I mentioned above comes from, it’s here.) The tense atmosphere and Hamlet’s constant waffling drew me in, and the soliloquies were as gripping as I’d been promised. I don’t think a single work has changed my mind about an author so quickly as that first read-through of Hamlet did with the Bard.

Not long after I finished Act III or so, I had my wisdom teeth removed, and couldn’t speak clearly for about a week afterward. There were many problems with being in that state, of course, but the worst at the time? Having to postpone the play.

Seriously. If you haven’t read Hamlet, go read Hamlet. I made it unofficial homework in my sports literature class, for God’s sake.

Just Finished

The last book I polished off was Ms. Marvel Volume 3: Crushed (written primarily by G. Willow Wilson, Marvel, 2015). I liked it quite a bit, even if the trade’s last issue (S.H.I.E.L.D. #2) was a bit on the grossly absurd side: it involves monsters made of regurgitated pizza dough.

Ms. Marvel is a rarity for me: a comic book I’ve read outside of an academic context. I’m fairly certain that for more people, the exception and the rule would be reversed, but that’s me for you. My first semester of undergrad, my mandatory expository writing class was themed around whether comic books counted as art (answer: yes), so I’ve read an odd smattering of titles: some World War II propaganda, the last issue of Grant Morrison’s run on Animal Man, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, etc. And in another class, we were assigned a graphic novel adaptation of (no joke) the 9/11 Commission Report. But Ms. Marvel is the first comic series that I’ve read for fun. Knowing me I’ll never catch up, but that’s fine by me.

Kinds of Books You Won’t Read

Empirically, there are plenty of kinds of books that I don’t read. I haven’t read any romance novels, for example, or James Patterson-style thrillers. But I’m reluctant to categorically rule out a genre, both as a check on potential prejudices and as an admission that one’s tastes and identifications change over time.

That said: I’d probably rule out a book described as “New Age” or “spiritual.” At least at the moment, they about sound the opposite of my personality.

Longest Book You’ve Read

Having just said that: according to Goodreads, the longest book that I’ve read is the King James Bible, which comes in at around 1600 pages. I’m an atheist, but more importantly I love literature, and the Bible’s influence on Anglophone literature and the English language is, of course, enormous. Back in 2014 I made it a project to finish the KJV by the end of the year, which is manageable if you go 3-4 chapters per day.

I’d say the experience was worth it, although I’m not sure I’d recommend going to the Bible for an aesthetically complete experience. Books like Leviticus and Chronicles are famously dull, of course, but I’m also no fan of the Pauline epistles, which are also far too doctrine-heavy for my speed. But at the same, I still go back and read the parables, which remain masterworks of condensed, nuanced storytelling. How about a combined collection of Jesus’s parables and Aesop’s fables? That’d be subversively lovely.

Major Book Hangover Because of…

So, I had to look up what the phrase “book hangover” meant, and I can’t say I’ve experienced one. Perhaps I just have very fast book metabolism.

Number of Bookcases You Own

Me, owning furniture? Really, you ought to try stand-up.

One Book You Have Read Multiple Times

The last book that I reread was Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith (Graywolf, 2011). It’s just a solid collection, and it demonstrates Smith’s comfort with both free verse and received forms. “Solstice,” for example, is a perfectly natural villanelle about reading the morning news. Actually, this book almost counts, in a spiritual sense, as a “Best Sequel.” My last semester of undergrad, we read two of Smith’s collections. First was Duende (Graywolf, 2007), which left me completely cold. Second was Life on Mars, which I fell in love with. Writing poems about David Bowie will make that happen, I suppose.

Preferred Place to Read

I can’t be there with any regularity, obviously, but I’ve realized my most productive reading comes on long distance trains, which is to say, Amtrak. I’m pretty sure I knocked out the entirety of Silas Marner that way. Not much else to say about that, so I’ll just note that the Amtrak magazine, The National, is actually quite entertaining. They even get major poets like Yusef Komunyakaa to contribute pieces to it.

Quote that Inspires You/Gives You All the Feels from a Book You’ve Read

I first came across Philip Larkin’s “Aubade” in his Collected Poems (ed. Anthony Thwaite, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), and the poem has haunted me since. In Larkin’s last masterpiece, he takes the poetic tradition of lovers parting at dawn and twists into a reflection on encroaching mortality. I once showed it to my students as an example of elegiac poetry, and the third stanza in particular caught everyone’s attention. I shall now quote that stanza in full:

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

That last line hits me about as hard as Hamlet’s “The undiscover’d country from whose bourn / No traveller returns.”

Reading Regret

I desperately wish I had read more contemporary poetry—hell, even just post-WWII poetry—before I fancied that I could write any. I wish it hadn’t taken me until junior year of undergrad for Larry Levis to open my eyes to how poetry could be written. Not even how it should be written, just the possibility. Because where I came from at least, you’d think poetry ended with Robert Frost.

Series You Started and Need to Finish (All Books are Out in Series)

As mentioned above, I don’t generally go in for book series. But as with many things, Le Guin is someone I make exceptions for. Curiously, while I’ve read the entirety of her mid-2000s Annals of the Western Shore series, I’ve only read the first two books in her most famous world: Earthsea.

In my experience, at least, libraries are weird when it comes to the Earthsea books. Every one I’ve been to seems to have the later books in the series, but none of the original trilogy. You’d think it’d be the other way around. Hell, the reason I read Annals of the Western Shore in the first place was that my local library actually had all the books. Availability is  a limiting factor on what one can read, after all.

At a certain point, I’ll have to just buy The Farthest Shore and be done with it. I doubt it’ll fall into my lap, the way a cheapo paperback of The Tombs of Atuan did the one time I went to Caliban back in Pittsburgh.

Three of Your All-Time Favorite Books

This post is already short-story length, so I’m just going to list three without comment:

  • Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala by Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer (Harvard University Press, 1982)
  • M-80 by Jim Daniels (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1993)
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (Viking, 1962)

Very Excited for This Release More than All the Others

Honestly, I don’t really look forward to releases. I’ll get to a book when I get to it.

Worst Bookish Habit

I am really bad about taking notes when reading, whether that means underlining passages, scribbling out marginalia, even just making note of page numbers. That’s come back to haunt when, say, writing posts for this blog. “Wait, when did Agee complain about voice-over again? Which one of these scores of columns was that? Was he talking about literary adaptations or war propaganda? Or was it both? Why didn’t you mark it down, past me?”

Your Latest Book Purchase

The last time I was back in the New Jersey hinterlands, after losing to my younger brother in a bowling series for the first time ever, I consoled myself by finally picking up a copy of John Hersey’s Hiroshima (Knopf, 1946). I’d been meaning to read this book ever since my first semester of undergrad. Remember that class where I had to read the 9/11 Commission Report rendered as a comic book? Well, we also covered By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age by Paul Boyer (University of North Carolina Press, 1985), which had a significant section on Hersey’s book. It’s less something I expect to be good, and more something I expect to be historically interesting.

Zzz-Snatcher Book (Last Book That Kept You Up Late)

Me, sleeping at a reasonable hour? You must understand the rule of three.

*      *      *

So there you have it! Hopefully some of that was interesting to you. Certainly much more interesting for me than the Great Alphabet Poem Fiasco. But that’s a story for another time. I’m practically at 3200 words here.

If you liked this, you may also like this similarly reflective, similarly scattershot post: Four Fragments on Nothing.

Recommended Readings in Sports Literature

I’ve recently finished teaching an intersession course here at Johns Hopkins—that is, a three-week course, held during the period between winter break and the start of the spring semester, on a topic of my choosing. As such, I’ve spent most of January thinking about the literature of sports, and how various writers manage to make the subject compelling to a general audience.

Speaking as someone who loves sports, someone who organizes dinner plans and reading schedules around “the game tonight,” I often find written descriptions of sporting events rather dull. I’ll read newspaper recaps or student stories about some athletic contest, and my eyes will start glazing over the text immediately. As a reader, I want more than a litany of individual events. I want an actual narrative, or an argument, or something musical.

As such, most of the pieces I selected for the syllabus take an indirect approach to sports. Rather than focusing on the outcome of the game—the thing we care about when watching sports—they tend to emphasize the beauty inherent in athletic excellence, or the personal significance that the sport holds for the characters, or what the sport tells us about society. Such approaches are not just more creative than the play-by-play method, but are also more appealing to a reader who doesn’t care about sports but still appreciates good writing.

What follows are a series of pieces from my syllabus that my students seemed to respond to the most. They all either provoked interesting discussions during class, or had a clear influence on their own creative efforts. Each of these works, I believe, tells us something about how successful sports writing functions.

“Analysis of Baseball” by May Swenson (link here)

May Swenson’s poem “Analysis of Baseball” breaks the title game down to its constituent parts, down to the people and equipment necessary for it to occur. That sounds like the driest poem in history, but it’s a blast to read because Swenson privileges sound above all else. The poem’s paratactic phrasing, insistent repetition and constant rhyming results in a work that is quite playful coming off the tongue. Consider the following excerpt:

Bat waits
for ball
to mate.
Ball hates
to take bat’s
bait. Ball
flirts, bat’s
late, don’t
keep the date. (lines 17-25)

Obviously we can see the heavy alliteration and rhyme, which would make for a sonically dense poem to begin with. But also consider how the enjambment creates tiny pauses right as we learn the pitch has fooled the batter. Just as the pitcher has played his foe like a fiddle, Swenson has the reader right where she wants them.

On the first day of class, I had my students write imitations of the various baseball poems we discussed, and “Analysis of Baseball” was the most popular model. Conceptually it lends itself to that exercise well, and it was quite fun to hear what happened when students allowed themselves to chase the sound while describing the sport of their choosing.

“Body and Soul” by B. H. Fairchild (link here)

One of my colleagues—a tip of the ol’ hat to J. P. Allen—sent me a link to this poem when I was first designing the course, and I’m forever grateful for that. Whereas Swenson’s poem homes in on how the game of baseball is played, B. H. Fairchild’s “Body and Soul” concerns itself with why people bother playing it.

An extended narrative about working class men playing sandlot baseball in Oklahoma, “Body and Soul” is at once a humorous yarn and a meditation on the nature of masculinity. These grown men, short a player for a full team, allow a fifteen-year-old to join them. The kid, to their shock, proceeds to hit a whopping five home runs against them—turns out the kid was a young Mickey Mantle. It’s the exact sort of plausible-enough tall tale you’d expect to hear from your grandfather at barbecue.

But it’s the sections where Fairchild explores the psyches of his characters where the poem really comes to life. Why, the poem asks, did the men keep on pitching to Mantle when he kept taking them yard? It all comes down to foolish, self-destructive male pride:

…they had gone through a depression and a war that had left
them with the idea that being a man in the eyes of their fathers
and everyone else had cost them just too goddamn much to lay it
at the feet of a fifteen-year-old boy. And so they did not walk him,
and lost, but at least had some ragged remnant of themselves
to take back home. (lines 97-102)

As a portrait of the everyday athlete, at once sympathetic and critical, “Body and Soul” is a difficult one to top.

“Pafko at the Wall” by Don DeLillo (link to excerpt here)

In this story—originally published as a novella, later made into the prologue to his 1997 novel Underworld—Don DeLillo chronicles one of the most celebrated days in baseball history: October 3, 1951, the day Bobby Thompson hit the Shot Heard ‘Round the World and the New York Giants won the pennant over their arch-rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Every baseball fan knows about this game, but DeLillo’s story makes it fresh by mostly ignoring the game itself. Instead, his narrative focuses on the spectators at the Polo Grounds, and the personal struggles they’ve brought to the ballpark. We follow the likes of Cotter Martin, a boy from Harlem who’s snuck past the turnstiles to watch his beloved Giants; Russ Hodges, the Giants radio announcer getting a sore throat at the worst possible time; and J. Edgar Hoover, the infamous FBI director who’s just learned about a Soviet atom bomb test.

My students found this emphasis on the spectators fascinating. Most sports literature—for an obvious example, think “Casey at the Bat”—treats the crowd as a single character, a chorus of approval or disapproval. Not “Pafko at the Wall”: each member of the crowd has their own inner life, their own motivations and fears. It’s a difficult task, and it requires a lot of space (the story runs about 50 pages in my anthology of baseball writing), but it’s a challenge worth accepting.

Me, I’m always struck by how DeLillo, on the few occasions he actually talks about the game, chooses to emphasize moments of comic failure: Bobby Thompson getting thrown out a second, Don Mueller hurting himself sliding into third, etc. DeLillo saves the beautiful descriptions for the fans, especially Cotter. The passage in which the kid sneaks into the Polo Grounds is just exquisite:

Cotter thinks he sees a path to the turnstile on the right. He drains himself of everything he does not need to make the jump. Some are still jumping, some are thinking about it, some need a haircut, some have girlfriends in woolly sweaters and the rest have landed in the ruck and are trying to get up and scatter. A couple of stadium cops are rumbling down the ramp. Cotter sheds these elements as they appear, sheds a thousand waves of information hitting on his skin. His gaze is trained on the iron bar projected from the post. He picks up speed and seems to lose his gangliness, the slouchy funk of hormones and unbelonging and all the stammering things that seal his adolescence. He is just a running boy, a half-seen figure from the streets, but the way running reveals some clue to being, the way a runner bares himself to consciousness, this is how the dark-skinned kid seems to open to the world, how the bloodrush of a thousand strides brings him into eloquence. (p. 658, in Baseball: A Literary Anthology, ed. Nicholas Dawidoff, Library of America, 2002)

Even in the bleachers, “Pafko at the Wall” tells us, athletics is transformative in more ways that one.

“Roger Federer as Religious Experience” by David Foster Wallace (link here)

A celebration of perhaps the greatest player in the history of tennis, David Foster Wallace’s essay does to Federer what Don DeLillo does to Cotter Martin: use language to convey a moment of kinesthetic brilliance. “Federer Moments,” Wallace calls them, and they require almost as much virtuosity to describe as they do to perform.

Wallace’s technique of choice here is the long sentence, and I do mean long: a single-sentence rally between Federer and Andre Agassi, for instance, lasts for over 250 words before finally reaching a period. But this is no show of self-indulgence. Rather, Wallace uses the long sentence to illustrate all the complexities of tennis that a player must understand simultaneously and intuitively, and also to suggest the sheer stamina needed in top-flight tennis. If you get tired just reading about Federer’s exploits, just imagine actually doing them.

But the part of the essay that most interested my students, and ended up framing a lot the discussion in subsequent classes, was an almost-digressive paragraph on the language we use to describe sports. Sports are often thought of as simulations of war, and the pageantry surrounding them, especially men’s sports, bears that out:

[I]n men’s sports no one ever talks about beauty or grace or the body. Men may profess their love of sports, but that love must always be cast and enacted in the symbology of war: elimination vs. advance, hierarchy of rank and standing, obsessive statistics, technical analysis, tribal and/or nationalist fervor, uniforms, mass noise, banners, chest-thumping, face-painting, etc. For reasons that are not well understood, war’s codes are safer for most of us than love’s.

In part, “Roger Federer as Religious Experience” is a corrective to this tendency in sports writing. It leads by example in praising the aesthetic qualities of a world-class athlete, asking us to see the emergent artwork in a point well-played. The world could certainly use more lyricism and less brute force, no?

Part II of Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine (link to slighlty edited version here)

I’ve briefly talked Claudia Rankine’s Citizen before, as part of my list of modern classics in poetry. In particular, I noted how much I admired Rankine’s decision to use John McEnroe as a Greek chorus to discuss the various injustices Serena Williams has faced on and off the court. So I won’t dwell on that specific craft choice here.

Instead, I’ll highlight the section’s use images, as the mere presence of photographs and video stills made Rankine’s piece unique within the class. Sometimes, Rankine’s chosen images provide visual evidence of the incidents she cites, most notably the photo which closes the section: Caroline Wozniacki “imitating” Williams by stuffing towels into her shirt and skirt. But other times, they illustrate a point that’s rather difficult to express verbally.

In my most unfortunate omission this intersession, I neglected to include the image credits in my scan of the piece. As such, my students weren’t sure what to make of the image of one of Nick Cave’s Soundsuits: gaudily decorated performance art outfits that make a lot noise when worn. They are designed to call attention to the wearer’s body in a public space. Including the image of a Soundsuit provides a parallel to Williams’ position within the world of tennis: a black woman from Compton, standing in an historically white and wealthy space. Her body’s mere presence, Rankine suggests, calls attention to itself.

Someone whose image is notably absent from this section: Serena Williams. If that’s not a significant and deliberate choice, I don’t know what is.

Note: the version of this piece linked above lacks the embedded images that I’ve just been praising. Quite a shame, that. By all means, consider getting your hands on a physical copy.

“The Cruelest Sport” by Joyce Carol Oates (link here)

I’ll close with what is perhaps the most straightforward piece on this list. Taken from her collection of essays on boxing (titled, appropriately, On Boxing),“The Cruelest Sport” sees Joyce Carol Oates confronting the brutal realities of a sport she greatly enjoys. Boxing is not merely violent, like football—violence is part of boxing’s very essence, the intention of every fighter who enters the ring. Who can ethically justify watching a sport where the goal is not simply to win, but to cause one’s opponent to lose consciousness?

On top of the sport’s physical dangers, Oates doesn’t shy away from the socioeconomic conditions which underpin boxing. After all, what would drive someone to enter the world of prizefighting, if not economic necessity?

Boxing is only possible if there is an endless supply of young men hungry to leave their impoverished ghetto neighborhoods, more than willing to substitute the putative dangers of the ring for the evident, possibly daily, dangers of the street; yet it is rarely advanced as means of eradicating boxing, that poverty itself be abolished, that it is the social conditions feeding boxing that are obscene.

This article resonated with a lot of my students, because the harmful effects of sports institutions extend far beyond the boxing establishment. The head trauma crisis in the NFL and the appalling response to sexual abuse in US women’s gymnastics are just two recent examples. Sports are useful to a writer not simply because they’re exciting, but because they offer us a lens through which to view society. How does a business treat its workers? How do institutions treat their most marginalized members?

That’s enough from me. How about you? Are there any pieces of sports literature that you think exemplify a compelling approach to the subject? Let me know in the comments.

A Top 5 List: Most Read Authors

Here’s another post inspired by a prompt from Shanah “The Bionic Bookworm” McCready: Top 5 Most Read Authors. This seems like a simple, objective list to compile: just check Goodreads and read off the results, right? Well, that will produce a list, and it is the list I went with. But there might be some wrinkles to it.

For example, I’ve a read number of omnibus collections of an author’s work, such as the complete poems of Rita Dove, Marianne Moore, and James Wright. Goodreads will count those as one book, even if they are really several individual books printed together. In absolute terms I’ve probably read more of Rita Dove than I have of some authors on this list. Yet there is something to be said about picking up a whole other volume from an author, reading more of their work with intent and not just because it happens to continue on the next page.

Moreover, my Goodreads stats only include books I’ve read since joining the site. That’s not a revelation, true, but it means that this list is skewed towards recent years. I know I read a whole bunch of Lemony Snicket and Donald J. Sobol books as a kid, but they’re not making it onto this list. Nor will this list account for re-readings. I’ve read 1984 five or six times by now, but that only gets George Orwell one point.

My point is: this list is not necessarily an accurate picture of my most read authors. But looking at it, it’s a damn fine roster, and if this list turns you on to just one of my favorite writers, then I’ll call it a victory.

 

Brenda Shaughnessy5) Brenda Shaughnessy
Technically, the No. 5 spot on this list should be a six-way tie, but that would be rather much to condense into one paragraph. So I made an editorial decision and went with my favorite writer of the bunch. I first encountered Shaughnessy’s verse in Our Andromeda (Copper Canyon, 2012), which draws from Tarot cards and cosmic space for its sprawling depictions of motherhood. Her first collection, Interior with Sudden Joy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999), on the other hand, leans heavily on a choppy but still musical prose rhythm for its pieces. But it was her most recent collection, So Much Synth (Copper Canyon, 2016) that made her a contemporary giant in my heart. Two poems in particular stand out: “A Mix Tape: ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’,” which painstakingly details the process of making a mix tape for a crush, and “Is There Something I Should Know?” an epic and absolutely piercing reflection on early adolescence.

 

Andrew Hudgins4) Andrew Hudgins
At its worst, formal poetry can read as stiff and needlessly antiquated. At its best, well, you get someone like Andrew Hudgins. I first encountered Hudgins’ poetry through his verse autobiography The Glass Hammer: A Southern Childhood (Mariner, 1994), which to this day is still my favorite high-concept collection of poems. Its make great use of received forms to convey a child’s moment-to-moment moods, for example, the boredom-inducing “Gospel Villanelle.” But Hudgins also knows that the creaking rhythms of formal poetry have the power to unsettle. His first collection, Saints and Strangers (Houghton Mifflin, 1985) contains the blank verse piece “Air View of an Industrial Scene,” which ends with the dire line, “We’re watchers. But if we had bombs we’d drop them.” Meanwhile Ecstatic in the Poison (Overlook, 2003) begins with “In,” a common-measure ballad about kids playing in the clouds of pesticide trucks. No matter the form or the subject, Hudgins’ work is sure to prick at your nerves.

 

Shakespeare3) William Shakespeare
If this list were based on my lifetime reading habits, the Bard would take first place, and it wouldn’t be all that close. Both for classes and for pleasure, I always find myself going back to Shakespeare, and—no surprise here—he keeps getting better and better. I recently re-read Richard II, for example, and found the title character’s eloquence even more pointed and haunting than I’d remembered it. (Seriously, the “hollow crown” speech is my favorite bit from Shakespeare’s whole oeuvre.) The past few years, I’ve aimed to fill in my personal gaps in the Shakespeare canon, so I’ve read a couple of clunkers like Two Gentleman of Verona and Henry VIII. But I’ve also read such hidden gems as Troilus and Cressida, which is so cynical and war-weary you’d think it was the product of the World War I poets. You obviously don’t need me to tell you to read your Shakespeare, but for real: read your Shakespeare.

 

Larry Levis2) Larry Levis
When I first started taking creative writing classes in undergrad, I quickly realized something: my knowledge of poetry ended at around 1900. In a panic, I dove into the library stacks to fix that, and one poet in particular captivated me: Larry Levis. From the tightly controlled similes found in Wrecking Crew (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1972), to the sweeping, digressive reflections that make up The Widening Spell of the Leaves (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991), to the stark confrontations with mortality that mark his posthumous collections: Levis’s work is always compelling. While, if I’m honest, my own writing most resembles that of Hudgins’, Levis is the writer here I most wish I could emulate, but simply lack the skill to do so. Who else could take the phrase, “Death blows his little fucking trumpet,” and make it work in not one but two completely different poems?

 

Ursula K. Le Guin1) Ursula K. Le Guin
Where do I even begin / with Ursula K. Le Guin? Perhaps with the masterful world-building found in her science fiction novels. Perhaps with the introspective tone that characterizes the Earthsea Cycle books. Perhaps with the fact that her mid-2000s Annals of the Western Shore series is literally the only series of books I have ever read in its entirety. Perhaps with her poetry, or her advice on the craft of writing. Not only do I keep going back to Le Guin, I keep going back to her in different genres and contexts. I’ve never read Shakespeare’s narrative poetry, or Levis’s short fiction, but Le Guin? Hell, I’d read a history of sandwich toothpicks if she were the one writing it. For some representative books, I’d check out The Left Hand of Darkness (Ace, 1969), The Tombs of Atuan (Atheneum, 1971, second Earthsea Cycle book), and Voices (Harcourt, 2007, second Annals of the Western Shore book). But start wherever you’d like. You’re in for a treat.

So there’s my Top 5. Does your list have any overlap with mine? Are there any authors here you’ve not read before but would like to check out? Let me know in the comments.

A Top 5 List: Modern Poetry Classics

Shanah McCready, known to the Internet as the Bionic Book Worm, organizes a series of book-related Top 5 lists every Tuesday. This week’s theme is “modern classics,” which is quite a broad topic, and an inherently speculative one. After all, who knows what future generations of writers and readers will latch onto? I doubt anyone thought Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, for example, would cast such a long shadow on American literature.

The doubt involved in making a list of “modern classics” is doubly present when it comes to poetry. Given how vanishingly rare it is for a contemporary poet to achieve broad recognition in the literary community, let alone the general reading public, picking any collection as a potential staple of future reading lists seems, shall we say, hopeful.

But I shall remain hopeful. As such, I’ve decided to put poetry front and center on this list. Here are five poetry collections released since 2000, listed in order of release, which at the very least ought to be considered modern classics.

Sleeping with the Dictionary

1) Harryette Mullen, Sleeping with the Dictionary
University of California Press, 2002
Links: publisher | Amazon

I’ve lost track of how often I’ve pressed this book under the weight of the photocopier, curious to see how students will react to Mullen’s plays on form. This is a collection that turns “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” into a police blotter (“European Folk Tale Variant”), a courting ritual into a litany of tongue-twisters (“Any Lit”), and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 into a paranoid rant about the Walt Disney Company (“Variation on a Theme Park”). Mullen takes the diction and rhetoric we take for granted everyday and puts it through the grinder, showing how meaningless (or meaningful!) it is at base. It’s a collection I’m not sure I will ever full-heartedly love, but it’s one I will always deeply respect.

 

Sea of Faith2) John Brehm, Sea of Faith
University of Wisconsin Press, 2004
Links: publisher | Amazon

Whereas Sleeping with the Dictionary is a book that always inspires me to think about writing, John Brehm’s Sea of Faith in one that inspires me to actually write. Nearly every poem in the collection is one I wish I could have written, because Brehm’s an expert at converting raw sensory inputs into polished works. Take “Coney Island,” which piles one overwhelming detail on top of another, to the point where I believe that “we’ll actually / get on a rollercoaster / just to calm ourselves down.” For another: “Sound Check, Lower Manhattan,” which finds the profundity beneath what sounds like  “[j]ust a jumble of songs and jackhammers and / roaring garbage trucks.” Sea of Faith is probably my most obscure pick, which is a great shame. It deserves a wider audience.

 

Blood Dazzler

3) Patricia Smith, Blood Dazzler
Coffee House, 2008
Links: publisher | Amazon

An unfortunately timely choice, Patricia Smith’s collection of poems about Hurricane Katrina is a poignant and inventive account of that storm’s particular devastation. Smith both employs a wide variety of forms (free verse, sestinas, abecedarians, etc) and inhabits a number of personas (politicians, residents, even the storm itself) to get the full scope of the tragedy across to the reader. If nothing else, you should listen to some of Smith’s readings on the Poetry Foundation website, which brutally highlight the sound-play at work, especially with regards to the poem “Katrina”: “I was bitch-monikered, hipped, I hefted / a whip rain, a swirling sheet of grit.”

 

Dear Corporation,4) Adam Fell, Dear Corporation,
H_NGM_N, 2014
Links: publisher | Amazon

Inspired by the United States Supreme Court ruling Citizens United v. FEC, Adam Fell’s prose poems addressed to the person Corporation burn with confused rage and raging confusion; as one of the letters begins, “I don’t know how to say how I feel politely, or poetically.” Despite, or perhaps because of, the collection’s political origins, each letter is also a deeply personal statement; the mere thought of the speaker reaching out to Corporation, of all persons, for solace is heart-rending. And as with Smith, Fell is an excellent reader of his own work. If you can find a recording or see him read in person, do so.

 

Citizen5) Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric
Graywolf, 2014
Links: publisher | Amazon

If you follow poetry, then you knew this one was coming. A multimedia meditation on race in modern America, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric proved relevant to the broader literary conversation in a way that so few poetry collections are able to today. That alone would almost guarantee it a spot on any list of classics; that these reflections are so sharp only puts it over the top. Seriously, the decision to cast John McEnroe as a Greek chorus in the essay on Serena Williams is absolutely brilliant (and given recent happenings, strangely prescient). To quote the book’s final line: “It was a lesson.” Indeed, indeed.

So there’s my list. What do you think? Are there any poetry collections released this century that you would have included? Let me know in the comments.

13 Fragments on the 2017 National Book Festival

i.
The first sign we were in for a crowd: the entire subway car I’d just boarded at Gallery Place emptied out, one stop later, at Mount Vernon Square. Everyone started murmuring the same thought: “A lot of people going to the book festival.”

ii.
I was working off virtually no sleep. I almost decided to just stay in bed and listen to the rain falling down on Baltimore. Instead, I dragged myself to Penn Station and bought a ticket on the southbound MARC train. As we passed through station after all-but-vacant station on the way to D.C., I found myself rehearsing the transfer routes over and over again. I’m nervy when it comes to transit: being stranded due to a missed connection is one of my overriding fears. So is not knowing where to go next.

iii.
The mass of people I followed up the escalators and into the festival was a bit younger than I’d anticipated. I tend to assume that most people who enjoy reading are at least my grandmother’s age, forgetting that for children reading is still novel, still exciting in and of itself. Also, younger people probably have more stamina to walk back and forth through the cavernous labyrinth that is the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.

iv.
Occasionally the event staff would ask if we were looking for a particular author. As ten a.m. rapidly approached, literally everyone I heard gave the same answer: “David McCullough.” “I’m certainly not alone, then,” I thought as we all snaked our way from one set of escalators to the next. I’m ashamed to admit he’s the only author on the schedule I’ve read. (A used paperback copy of Truman, which has since fallen apart, is the best twenty-five cents I’ve ever spent.)

v.
The organizers placed the main stage of the festival in the most out-of-the-way spot possible, in a ballroom on the third floor. Later on, I would guess that this was to better manage foot traffic. Some of my colleagues would attempt to see J. D. Vance of Hillbilly Elegy fame, only to immediately give up upon seeing the line. Best to keep that crowd isolated. (That there were sizable lines at a book festival is about 1 part frustrating to 3 parts heartening.) I lucked out with McCullough: I was able to waltz in and find a seat right as the Librarian of Congress started playing master of ceremonies. Perhaps 10 a.m. is still early on a Saturday. Perhaps the rain kept people away. Or perhaps we just live in a world where Thomas Friedman is more popular than David McCullough.

vi.
I had about an hour to kill before Alice McDermott’s talk. (Full disclosure, if ramblings require one: McDermott is a professor at my institution.) I went down and around and then down again and around again to the book sales, grabbing a copy of McCullough’s new book. I thought about getting it signed, only to discover while in line to check out that the book was already, in fact, signed. Really, I should have noticed the sticker on the front cover a lot sooner than that.

vii.
McDermott’s forthcoming book sounds exactly like the sort of thing I would recommend to my grandmother, and I mean that in the best way possible. She raised an interesting point about street scenes in films nowadays: you don’t see nuns in them all that often anymore. I suppose if I imagine nuns walking down the street, it’s in the context of the bomb scene from the Adam West Batman movie.

viii.
As someone who writes poetry, I was of course disappointed and not in the least bit surprised to see the poetry room was only half-filled at best for Marie Howe and Adrian Matejka. At least those empty seats got to see something interesting. Sure, the poetry was pretty solid; I ended getting Matejka’s new collection. But I’m more talking about Howe’s stage presence, which was…I think I settled on the term “space cadet.” She was not aware that there were screens behind her (to help the people in the back, y’know, actually see what’s happening.) She was rather confused when she noticed people staring up and to the side, and startled to see her own face projected twice over.

ix.
I have to wonder if the Library of Congress will edit that part out of the recording. I really hope they don’t.

x.
Of everyone at the festival, Jesmyn Ward was the one author I’d been most meaning to read. Knowing me, I shall now resolve to read her and then not get to it for another 12-18 months. I really ought to, though, for her new book sounded pretty interesting. (Alas, by this point, my energy was starting to flag, so the specifics have faded from my memory. At least all of this should be on Internet at some point in the near future.)

xi.
Question from a child at John Scalzi’s presentation: “When you were writing your books, did you feel good about yourself?” That sounds both like an accusation and a prodding to a potentially harrowing thought. Well done, kid.

xii.
Thing on the program I missed but which sounded enticing: “Walden, a game.” I have to believe it was like the terrible idea I had to make a video game adaptation of Silas Marner, in which the player-character just works at weaving for years and years, then has all their gold stolen seemingly at random.

xiii.
While walking past one of the children’s stages, we overheard the presenter explaining why District of Columbia license plates read “Taxation Without Representation.” Never to early to get started on the path to revolution. If a book festival is to be good for anything, it might as well be good for that.