'Twas the last second before Christmas, and all through your life were people intelligent enough to appreciate poetry books as a last-second/belated Christmas/Hanukkah/New Years/Christmas-season birthday present. Man, you have a cool entourage!
Personally, I think poetry books are some of the best gifts at any time of the year. I am, of course, biased, because I majored in poetry at the College of Santa Fe and could read poetry every second for the rest of my life and be perfectly happy as a clam. But poetry is indeed the gift that keeps on giving; give someone a novel and they'll read it and perhaps like it, then (hopefully) pass it on to someone else to (hopefully) enjoy. But poetry is different in that you can pick up a poem on a Tuesday and it means one thing—pick it up Thursday it means another—or Sunday, yet another. It keeps being interesting.
So here are my picks for a few great poetry books to give (and receive!) this holiday season... Or any season, really.
Sailing Alone Around the Room
by Billy Collins
Random House, 192 pages, $14.95
I've gotten some crap in my day from my snooty poetry contemporaries about loving Billy Collins, former US Poet Laureate, so much. His poems aren't overly complicated, which is a draw for some and a turn-off to many; get past the simple (and honestly, often hilarious) facade, however, and each piece holds a gem of beauty waiting to be patiently discovered. Collins has often been called "the stand-up poet," because his readings are, well, like stand-up (check out his audio CD, The Best Cigarette, to get a listen to his reading style), and he uses that accessible humor as a way into the lives of his readers. He also writes—gasp!—in complete sentences (I once saw him in a discussion on craft at the Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey, and he quipped dryly: "I've found that sentences are the best form in which to express yourself; if you find a better way of getting a point across, let me know."), which sometimes gives his poems the form of being prose with a lot more line breaks than normal.
All in all, Collins is a great "poetry for dummies" to begin with, but does double duty as a collection worth unpacking for the seasoned poetry fan as well. Sailing Alone Around the Room is my personal choice amidst Collins' works; it offers the best of the best from each of Collins' books pre-2001 (when this collection was released).
by Dana Levin
Copper Canyon Press, 68 pages, $14
Santa Fe's own Dana Levin released this, her second collection of poetry, in 2005. Her first book, In The Surgical Theater, had been heaped with praise from all over the country (the Witter Bynner Prize and the 1999 American Poetry Review Honickman First Book Prize, to name only two), and this, her sophomore effort, doesn't disappoint, naturally. Levin's poetry takes a bit more of a poetry-seasoned reader to fully appreciate; full sentences are rare here, as it were, and the poems march forward confidently, if not decisively.
One of the charms (though "charms" connotes a sense of preciousness; perhaps a better noun would be "draws") of Levin's work here is its sense of wonder. Levin, in these pages, fully admits to being perhaps a little lost in the world, having very little inkling of who she is, who anyone else is, or why any of us are here—but what saves this collection from the realm of complainey adolescent confessionalism is Levin's steady hand. She may not know where she's going, but she sure as hell knows she's traveling forward and is on her way there. This book does not claim to hold any sure truths or conclusions about anything at all, but gosh it's a beautiful musing on that void.
I've given this book for Christmas to friends who I know appreciate poetry, but whose particular taste and style may be as of yet undefined; not only can it mold itself to many different tastes, but Dana Levin, a former professor of mine, is a pretty cool lady, so I like to spread her love around.
Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century
ed. Michael Dumanis and Cate Marvin
Sarabande, 500 pages, $26
You read that right—500 pages for $26. That's 5.2 cents a page, and perhaps the best 5.2 cents you'll ever spend. That isn't to say that Legitimate Dangers is, across the board, a great anthology; in fact, one of my classmates at the College of Santa Fe once said, "This book is a legitimate danger." But gosh does it give the reader some food for thought on the poetry front.
Something I encountered while at CSF was a phenomenon plaguing young (read: under 40) poets today. More and more colleges are developing undergraduate creative writing programs, and many of those graduates go on to immediately get their MFA in poetry, and then they are suddenly thrust into the world at age 24 or 28 and all they have ever done is study poetry, think about poetry and wrestle with poetry. It sounds like a fantastic life until they are asked to actually write poetry—at which point they realize they haven't got much to write about, and even if they do have something to write about, their expression is often muddied by considerations of form, craft, style, conventions and that age-old refrain of "Make It New."
If the genesis of this 2006 collection could be distilled to one moment or phrase, those three words from our friend Ezra Pound would be it. The poets in Legitimate Dangers, including Levin (see above), are always trying something new, trying to figure something out, trying to eke out a life in the world of poetry. Sometimes they succeed and sometimes they don't, but no matter what there's certainly enough poetry in these 500 pages that your giftee will like something inside.
The Blizzard Voices
by Ted Kooser
Bison Books, 64 pages, $9.95
This collection was originally released in 1986, but it remains a favorite among many circles of readers. It makes a particularly great holiday gift, in my opinion, because it has such a clear winter theme: the Nebraska Territory blizzard of Jan. 12, 1888. For the book, Kooser researched interviews, firsthand accounts and historical records to present a variety of stories from the blizzard, also known as The Schoolhouse Blizzard (indeed, many of the firsthand accounts are from children), because it struck just as children were headed home from school. The storm claimed 500 lives.
Despite the sometimes-macabre subject matter, the book is particularly attractive as a gift because it appeals to those interested in history (it really is historically fascinating), as well as those interested in poetry. While the accounts herein are not necessarily Kooser poems, the language with which they are spoken flows naturally, spoken by those who experienced the storm, and the word choice and sentence structure draw the reader into the situation. The prose is sparse, leaving a lot of white space on the page; the bleakness in the layout of the collection has a nice, if chilling, effect on the reader's connection to the words.
Kooser, himself a native Iowan and current Nebraskan who employs in his poetry the vernacular, sensibilities and attitude of the American Midwest, was the 2004-2006 US Poet Laureate and is as readable as he is adorable. (Seriously, Google image search the man; he's just cute as a button!)
Letters to a Young Poet
by Rainier Maria Rilke
Dover Publications, 80 pages, $5.95
Any aspiring writer—or accomplished writer, for that matter—who hopes to understand what it is to come into one's own as a poet should own this thin volume. In 1903, Rilke took a liking to a writing student and exchanged letters with him discussing the craft of writing, the act of creating, and what it means to be an artistic human in the world; though the words were penned more than 100 years ago, each one still rings true to the essence of poetry. The prose is thick and takes a while to unpack at times, but it's worth it. Really.
"You ask whether your verses are an y good. You ask me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work. Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you - no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple "I must," then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your while life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse."
—Rainier Maria Rilke, Feb. 17, 1903