Reading through the Oakland Public Library’s poetry collection.
Let’s journey back to 1968 today with George Huitt Atwood’s Thunder in the Room.
Normally I start off these posts with a short introduction on the poet, but the only biographical information I could find on Atwood was on the inside jacket. He was born in 1919, served during WWII, and ended up living in San Francisco and working for the department of the interior. I’m pretty sure he’s the George Hewitt Atwood buried in Colma in 2010, since their birth dates/place are the same. But I could find no other information about the poet and no one really seems to have read this book as it has no Goodreads ratings and I couldn’t even import it on Story Graph.
That might seem strange except…. the book isn’t all that good.
Although the jacket flap makes great pains to link Atwood to Frost and Dickinson, I think those comparisons are largely…how do I say this nicely? Inflated. Although Atwood makes use of Dickinson’s short poem/line format, personification, and rhyme schemes he doesn’t have….any real spark or irony or insight. Dickinson’s gift lies in giving you something to chew on but not revealing the whole. These poems are obvious and quite pious. Not exactly my cup of tea.
I embarked with Doubt one day Upon a troubled sea, But that companion quickly proved Unworthy company
Atwood, from “Life” section, No. 24
Atwood, to his credit, definitely can make a line scan but you’d hope by 1968 he’d be looking around at the more interesting things fellow poets were doing and maybe not scan quite so nicely. Dickinson certainly doesn’t, and that adds emphasis and brightness to her poems.
I just got tired very quickly of these odes to virtue, filled with platitudes, pithy endings and succinct morals.
Also, he uses the word “comprehendeth.” In 1968??! What is this book?
Someone in the Oakland Public Library obviously took a lot of care in choosing local authors to add to the collection, but I’m not really sure what this one is adding. The best thing about this book is undoubtedly the cover.
Reading through the Oakland Public Library’s poetry collection.
We’re talking about another new volume of poetry today, published in 2021: You Better Be Lightning by Andrea Gibson..
Andrea Gibson (August 13, 1975-) is a queer poet, whose work focuses on LGBTQ+, health, and social justice themes. They are a well known spoken word performer as well. Luckily, if you enjoy this book as I did, there are many more to read.
There is joy and pain in this book. Gibson is so good at articulating how love and hurt feel and at reminding us that we are humans. As the title implies, there are sparks, jolts and fire in this collection. What I felt most reading this book was profound insight coming through twisting popular phrases or juxtaposing them. This is a really accessible collection–it’s easy to read. I ended up devouring it in a single sitting but thinking about it for days and weeks afterwards. The best kind of poetry.
Watch Gibson perform one of their poems (as a heads up, there is discussion of chronic illness, some profanity, and loving sexual content):
Reading through the Oakland Public Library’s Poetry collection.
Taking a break from the 20th century, let’s spring ahead to something published this year.
Rae Armantrout (1947-) is a Pulitzer winning poet (2010 for Versed). She has published something like 10+ collections, which seems amazingly prolific to me. She was born and did her undergrad and graduate degrees in California. She’s associated with the Language poets, a movement that emerged in the 70s as a response to modernism. The goal is to really include the reader in the meaning of the poem, often by playing with the meaning/sounds of words (think Gertrude Stein) and trying to encourage more active reading. This movement is ongoing and has featured a large proportion of women writers. Armantrout in particular is known for her short lines and more lyrical approach.
Her newest book is hefty–it feels weighty and at 174 pages is fairly long for a poetry collection, but the lines are short and the book moves fairly quickly because of that, despite or maybe because of the line spacing. Most of her stanzas feel only hazily connected–you as the reader have to do a lot of the association work yourself. But this is really rewarding because everything you read becomes profound–you bring the deeper meaning.
In physics, every moment lasts forever,
if seen from increasing distance.
In none does my mother meet her grandchildren.
Rae Armantrout from “Meeting” (p. 170)
What I love about this collection is you can open to any page and find something that just connects–hits home. The book feels deftly woven. It circles, meanders, overlaps, and you are able to unpick the threads yourself. This is a collection that’ll be finding its place in my own library, and I can’t wait to read more of Armantrout’s work. There is something that reminds me of Emily Dickinson in Armantrout’s work–in the spare, deceptively simple lines there is so much richness.
Reading through the Oakland Public Library main branch’s poetry collection, book by book.
The way poetry is organized in a library is quite different from fiction. Fiction is often just organized by author’s last name. Some libraries separate (either physically with shelving or using a sticker or some other indicator) different genres, but most of the time you can find the book you’re looking for by looking up the author’s last name (unless it’s considered literature or is a new book….).
Poetry is different. It’s classified under literature and therefore falls under the purview of the Dewey Decimal system.
808.1 reading/writing poetry (also known as poetics) I’m reading books out of this section, but not writing about them individually. I can do a round up or best of at some point
808.81 poetry anthologies
811 American poetry
811.6 American poetry in the 21st century
821 British poetry
831 German poetry
841 French poetry
851 Italian poetry
861 Spanish poetry
871 Latin poetry
881 Classical Greek poetry
890 – Every other world literature is stuffed into these ten numbers so…. browse carefully for poetry
Some of the Dewey Decimal Classification systems problems are easy to see from this list–by giving American and European literature so much space, the western and colonial viewpoint is pretty clear. There is not so much more poetry in these languages than any other–this is about giving space to the literature that was considered literature and was being actively collected and prioritized in the 1800s by white people.
The problem for me is pretty clear–poetry is everywhere! I started with 811, and I’m quickly working through towards the much larger 811.6 category. But this is clearly going to take a lot longer to comb through than I initially thought. And it’s going to get a lot less contemporary at some point. I’m tempted to stick to 20th and 21st century collections for the sake of this blog even though I’m interested in older poetry and have read quite a bit of it. Let me know what you think in the comments if you have an opinion.
But the next book I’m talking about doesn’t use any of these classifications (well it does, technically it’s 811.6). We’re talking about the books in the “NEW” section. This is one of my favorite places to browse.
Poetry doesn’t normally have the same waiting list/hold problem as new books. So you can often keep new books for more than one checkout period. And this is a great place to find contemporary poetry that’s been recently chosen to add to the collection, which means more diverse authors in more diverse styles. If you’re new to reading poetry, it’s a much smaller and easier section to browse and do some sample reading than going up against 811.6 to find something you like.
But I encourage browsing all around the nonfiction stacks. You never know what’ll jump out at you!
Do you have opinions on DDC? Have a favorite call number? How do you think libraries should be organized? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.
Reading through the Oakland Public Library main branch’s poetry collection, book by book.
What is there to say about Man-Fate by William Everson?
Honestly, the less said about it the better. But I read it–I want it to go back to the library. I’m sick of looking at it on my desk waiting to be inspired to discuss it. So we’ll try to make this one brief.
William Everson (1912-1994) was a former monk, a poet, and a printer. He mostly lived in California, which is probably why his book was acquired (and kept) by the Oakland Public Library. That and he was pretty well known, publishing several books of poetry. He’s cataloged under his Dominican monk name, Brother Antoninus, although he’s no longer a monk by the time this book was published in 1973.
Essentially Man-Fate is about one man’s struggle to come to terms with his choices regarding the woman he leaves the monastery for and the implications of his faith. But this guy….thinks a lot of himself and not much of women and it was hard for me to get through.
There is a lot of language about women’s bodies, which mostly turns on how sexual (read: deviant) and for men’s use and enjoyment they are:
“The fate of man/ Turns on the body of a woman”
Everson, p. 23
Women (mostly one woman, his partner) in these poems lose agency. Everson even presumes to speak on behalf of his partner, which just infuriated me to no end. There is a lot of very graphic depictions of sex, which doesn’t normally bother me, but I didn’t like the violence and possessiveness of the language.
Everson is obviously struggling with his decision, trying to reconcile his decision to marry this woman he’s passionately in lust with with his religious beliefs. And I just….don’t care? I don’t think he’s saying anything particularly interesting or new in this book. Most of it reads as pretty narcissistic to me. There’s a lot of self-justification and contemplation without a lot of revelation, introspection, connection, or humility. The rhymes are okay, the metaphors are nothing special. It scans well at least, and that’s the most I can say for it.
Join me as I read my way through the poetry section at the main branch of the Oakland Public Library!
First of all, I can’t talk about this book without mentioning how fun this 70s sunset is on the cover–bold, interesting, and really quite simple. I think this library copy is probably a first edition.
By the time Maya Angelou (April 4, 1928 – May 28, 2014) published her first book of poetry, she’d already published her first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). Angelou is known as a memoirist first and foremost (which is fair since she wrote seven of them), but I’ve always associated her with poetry. My first exposure to Maya Angelou was in middle school–the other 8th grade English class read her memoir–but I discovered her when my dad brought home Beauty Shop (2005), with its memorable oration of ‘I Rise.’
Angelou was an activist and a storyteller in diverse mediums from dance and stage to autobiography. Her poetry is less central to her career, even though she published a lot of it and it was widely read particularly because of its subject matter. She used her experience to bring a voice to the experiences of Black women in the United States through almost every piece of writing and work she created.
Angelou was also a prolific and widely-read poet, and her poetry has often been lauded more for its depictions of Black beauty, the strength of women, and the human spirit; criticizing the Vietnam War; demanding social justice for all—than for its poetic virtue. Yet Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie, which was published in 1971, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1972.
Her poetry is really approachable since it has a musical quality with a steady beat. She uses repetition to great effect. She plays with expectations constantly, changing the rhythm of a line or to bring home her message and she often uses common phrases or simple rhymes to tease out darker subjects, such as in the lines below.
“When I think about myself,
I almost laugh myself to death,
My life has been one great big joke,
A dance that’s walked
A song that’s spoke,
I laugh so hard I almost choke
When I think about myself”
from “When I Think About Myself”
This was such a welcome book coming after the boring boring boring Shakespeare essay. It was emotional and immediate, and I really enjoyed it. I’ll be looking for a collected works of Maya Angelou to add to my poetry collection.
This series is being born out of a dangerous whim, which I can only attribute to the temporary giddiness of a new library card.
Upon seeing the (truthfully rather average sized) poetry collection at the main branch, I was seized by an impulse to read from one end of the poetry section to the other. From A to Z (if, in fact, it ends in Z).
I don’t think I’ll like everything. In fact, I know I won’t. I started with 3 books, and I only enjoyed one. But I do have some (snarky?) things to say about them, and I thought if I’m taking myself on this (admittedly arbitrary) journey, you might enjoy coming along for the ride.
Along the way I hope we will discover some fantastic poetry from throughout the ages. Most of it will probably be bad. But that’s where the thrill of the hunt comes in!
Why read bad poetry? You may ask. My answer to this is that as a relative new comer to this genre I want to read as much and as widely as I can to really get a feel for what’s out there, who came before, who’s writing now, and what I actually like. And since I don’t have to shell out for volumes I don’t like, I’m hoping to build my library with only poetry volumes I can’t wait to reread.
Even if you don’t like poetry, I hope this series inspires you to delve into something you’re interested with new eyes. Maybe you’ll find a book here that intrigues you, or maybe you’ll start your own challenge for yourself!
Or maybe you’ll just have fun reading while I complain about terrible books. There’s something for everyone on this journey.
So we might as well get to it.
Book 1: By Avon Riverby H.D. Hilda Doolittle Aldington (1949)
H.D. (September 10, 1886 – September 27, 1961) was a modernist poet known for free verse and imagist style associated with poets like Ezra Pound. She married a poet named Aldington, which is why she was cataloged at the beginning of this alphabetical journey. There’s a clarification of that written in pencil on the title page. It seems off to me that she’s cataloged under her married name instead of her pen name, especially since her career was already well underway by the time she was married.
Published for Shakespeare day 1945, this book has a short section of verse inspired by Shakespeare. Like 25 pages. Most of it is centered on The Tempest and even more squarely focused on one offstage character, Claribel, who sets the plot in motion but never gets a real voice in the play. Her poetry delves into the relationship between the poet and Claribel and her relationship to the rest of the play and its characters. She becomes kind of a haunting, distant presence, but one who has a lasting impact even though the mention of her is fleeting. I really enjoyed the second poem, “Rosemary” the best, which alternates form, points of view, and theme in the different sections.
Read through again, Dramatis Personae;
She is not there at all, but Claribel,
Claribel, the birds shrill, Claribel,
Claribel echoes from this rainbow-shell,
I stooped just now to gather from the sand
“The Tempest” by H.D., from section IV
While the verse gives voice to Claribel, the remainder of the book (about 70 pages) is an essay discussing Shakespeare’s contemporaries and their writing. It’s a lot of names and dates and quotes, which I (mostly) skimmed, but some of the discussion of themes especially mortality were interesting. Mostly it was a total snooze, especially since H.D. really never bothers to make an argument or get into why it’s important to look at Shakespeare in this context. It reads more as an associative catalog with some interesting quotes.
She never had a word to say,
An emblem, a mere marriage token,
Nor even trod a rondelay
Or watched a play within a play
With other ladies–and yet–
I wonder when the time was short,
And he had said farewell to court,
And pondered, fingering the script
Can this then, really be the last?
If he remembered Claribel.
“Rosemary” by H.D., from section IX
Ultimately, not the most promising start even with the rather interesting verses about Clairbel, but the next book will make up for it. Stay tuned.
Have a favorite Shakespeare play/line/character? Have you read H.D. before? Let me know in the comments!
You think you’ve read a lot of poetry for your degree and from whenever you’ve picked up a random collection…. and then you start reading established poets talk about poetry and you realize that the scratch you thought you’d made has in fact left no visible mark at all. Some of these poets I’ve known about for a long time, some I’ve recently discovered, but they’re all poets I’m hoping to spend more time with in the near future!
I bought her book on writing metrical poetry, but except for the odd poem here or there, I’ve never read her poetry! Born in 1935, she recently passed in 2019. Her work mostly deals with nature (which may explain why I’ve never gravitated towards it before).
Host of the Slowdown Podcast I talked about last week, I first heard about Limón when I was reading Natalie Diaz’s work, Postcolonial Love Poem (which is fantastic, by the way) because they are friends and write letters to each other. Limón’s poems are more personal and often written in free verse–she might be a good poet to start with because I bet your public library has one of her collections!
Won the 1950 Pulitzer Prize, the first Black author to do so, and all around she was an extremely technically accomplished poet who wrote about things that were important to her and the Black community at large. Her poetry is firmly rooted in the world. I bought her collection on a trip into the City, so I really have no excuse not to jump into her work.
I haven’t read nearly as much Borges as I would like to in any genre, but I definitely haven’t delved into his poetry. I found a copy of his selected poems in a used bookstore with the original Spanish and the translations. My Spanish is not nearly good enough to understand them fully in the original, but having them there to just read aloud and listen to the music is going to be really helpful. Many of the same themes he deals with in his fictions and essays (the nature of time for example) are in his poetry as well.
Easily the earliest poet on this list–Basho was a master of haiku in 17th century Japan. I learned about him while reading up on Japan, and I want to explore more of his work. The wonderful thing about haiku is that it’s short but it gives you plenty to think about. You can read a few with your morning coffee and let the images swirl around all day.
Harlem Renaissance poet extraordinaire, I’ve only read of few of his poems from Poem a Day and in anthology–I’ve got some major time to spend with this poet. Although he wasn’t always well received in his own time by critics, he sought to portray the working class community really honestly with all its joys and sorrows.
I’ve recently been devoting more (read most) of my time to reading and writing poetry. While I’ve been reading for years, I consider myself a novice in the poetry world. There’s. Just. So. Much. Out. There.
I know a lot of readers don’t really know where to start with poetry. Let’s face it, poetry no longer tops most bestseller lists. Before I devoted a lot of time to poetry I might read a handful of collections a year, but there are some ways to get into the wide ocean of material a little more quickly that I’ve found helpful and you might too!
Start with Poem a Day – If you’re not sure how much time you can devote to this huge field of work, poem a day is a great place to start. You get one poem emailed to you a day, week day poems are generally chosen by a guest editor and feature a huge variety of poets from all different backgrounds in different styles. They have an audio clip for you to hear the poem spoken, a little background, and a link to the author’s book. This is a nice little daily dose. Weekends feature classic poets.
Try a poetry podcast – in the same vein, I really like the poetry podcast called The Slowdown. It’s about 5-10 minutes and is a similar daily dose of poetry.
Decide when/where to start – Poetry has been going strong for….millennia. In pretty much every country. You might think about finding poets who correspond with times and places you’re interested in or ones that you inhabit. You can learn more about a particular place and time or discover new ways of seeing your own. If you’re interested in American poetry, I think it’s helpful to start out with Dickinson and Whitman so you get the sort of baseline, but this isn’t a class and there’s no right or wrong way to get started. Start with a poet from where you live or where you want to live. Personally I like to jump around quite a bit.
Start with what you know and like – Everyone has genres that are most appealing to them and that can be comforting. There’s poetry on every subject in so many different styles. If you like an author and they also write poetry, that might be a good fit. Or maybe you love music and want to see how that’s explored in poetry. There are horror poems and western poems and romance poems. Knowing your favorite authors in prose can make it easier to find new poets.
Find an anthology – There are a lot of them out there. Some are published yearly, others cover different periods or styles. Your library is sure to have a few. Find what you like by reading a lot of different things. I find that these make great in between reading for a waiting room, a bathroom, or anytime you have a few minutes. If you buy your own copy you can underline lines you like and make notes.
Use your library – Find contemporary poets in the New Books section or take a walk through the poetry section and see what catches your eye. You can sample from different books without having to commit to anything.
Don’t worry too much about what it “means” – When you’re in school poetry is supposed to have meanings and answers. Don’t worry about not knowing what something means. Let it wash over you, and by that I mean listen to the way the words sound, the feelings they provoke. A good poem is a lot like looking at a painting, there’s a lot you can know, but you can also just experience it. Poems are often ambiguous and you bring meaning to them.
Find a journal – A lot of journals publish poetry and prose and art–all kinds of things. I’ll go through journal suggestions in a different post, but these are great publications to support and you get to read lots of different things, often very affordably. There’s a journal out there for everyone.
Go back to the last poem you loved – Maybe you haven’t read poetry since you were a child or a teenager. What was the last poem that moved you? Go back to it and think about what it was that you liked about it. It’ll probably lead you in fun directions.
Don’t be afraid to sample and not finish – You don’t have to read poetry collections from start to finish. Read something here or there and let it buzz around in your head for a while. It’s not like DNFing a novel (which you should also not feel bad about in my opinion), the stakes are low.
BONUS – I’m happy to make custom recommendations as well! Let me know what kinds of things you like reading in the comments and I’ll give poetry suggestions!
Do you enjoy poetry? Do you have a favorite poet? Let me know in the comments!