The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Isn’t it funny

Posted on: December 1, 2006

I have these odd moments of serendipity in my readings. Two different books I may be reading, randomly chosen, will have similar ideas and themes. Or what is a detail in one book is the subject of another. I may be led down a happy path where the author of the book being read mentions the work of another; I read it and gain deeper insight into what the first author was developing; and in randomly choosing another book will see the same idea fleshed out in a completely different manner. When this happens I experience a deep flush of pleasure.

My recent poetic discoveries do not quite fit the bill but they are providing the same deep, deep flush. The poetry meme revealed the usual way I met poetry post-high school but now I have the TLS. This has surprised me because the impression I had was that poetry is short-changed in every media avenue; and this is probably very true for contemporary poetry. For a novice such as myself the view is different with my TLS readings. The Donne issue convinced me to give him a try as well as a new figure, *Wallace Stevens. In another I read a great article on Carl Sandburg. In the last, with the articles on a new love poetry anthology and Ted Hughes I have hit something like the motherload.

My typical attitude to “theme” anthologies–love, war, faith, hope–is one of disdain. I imagine it is filled with the predictable selections, no doubt sharing space with a lot of twee crap. And to read poem upon poem about one thing, regardless of the different styles and perspectives, could not be recommended. (It is even worse if releases are timed around Valentine’s Day or Christmas or some such. The air of calculation is a barrier to my goodwill.)

It was with grudging reluctance that I succumbed to Greenlaw’s critique of The New Faber Book of Love Poems. (She started out with rhythm–I could not resist.) Her arguments on the focus of the collection, her presentation of the selection, and the choices themselves, while not sending me hastily off to Amazon UK, did have me scribbling down poems and notes for further research.

I did not love every poem I read. Whitman is good enough that I will read his poems to the end but they never get me fired up. My imagination is not captured, there is no rush. They’re just…nice, I guess. Elizabeth Bishop was mentioned a lot this year, with the release of her uncollected works, so her name rang bells but no poems, until now with The Shampoo and “It is marvellous”. The first gives pleasure but is still something of an enigma to me. The second starts out a bit humdrum–oh, like I haven’t read about lovers canoodling while the rain falls before, yawn–then startles with the image of the lightning bird-cage. And it’s considered “dreamily”! I was well and truly caught. I want to spend more time with these poems and maybe even buy her collected.

Auden is another poet to whom I am generally indifferent but his O Tell Me the Truth About Love did not fit the impression I had of him at all. A very good thing. Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold was excellent. I loved the change from the sensual to the conceptual, all leading to something very close to despair. He gently leads from the enthused beginning to a grim kind of hope and determination which hits me. Love poems should have some misery.

From that batch I came away with new favourites and at least one poet whose works I am interested in exploring.

I was not unfamiliar with Ted Hughes’s name but, again, no poems came to mind. Craig Raine’s commentary was a mixed bag because I felt too much of him was in the article. I was only slightly annoyed but I grew a bit weary of hearing what Hughes thought of his poems, and how he did Double Exposure too and woo woo and blah blah. Thankfully it was not enough to prevent from falling completely in love with Hughes’s words. I cannot fathom how I lived for so long without meeting Football at Slack or Hawk Roosting.

“Football” reads and feels…so huge, so redoubtable and makes one feel so happy. The first time Raine mentioned it I rolled my eyes and thought, football? This is why I don’t read contemporary poetry. Yet Hughes’s description of the game felt as profound if not more than a hundred other poems about the human experience, or life and death and the rest. Which is only right. It is a part of finding art in the every day.

When I finished the TLS I immediately went over to check out his Collected Works. Man. That sucker is huge. I would never buy it because I would never read it. Not at home and certainly not outside; it is heavier than my laptop. I can imagine my wrists aching after 15 minutes in the sofa manfully trying to turn the page and drink hot cocoa simultaneously. This lead me to consider reading his poems in their proper collection, as they were released. I would be reading them in their proper context. Collected works do group poems under the titles under which they were originally released, but I find that, once it’s all in one book, the distinction is lost for me, and they all flow into each other. My school library has a fantastic edition of Elmet where Hughes poems are paired with the photography of Fay Godwin. They look good.

Acquiring his books in such a fashion will be more expensive but I am excited. And that huge sucker of a book leaves me with no choice, really. There are editions where his poems are in smaller volumes, grouped by years, but I am too enchanted with my idea to change it now.

*It is funny that I do not remember ever having come across Stevens before yet, after that article, his name popped up constantly.


Here are links to the other poems (that I could find) mentioned in the articles:

Tune Thy Music to Thy Heart – Thomas Campion

The Defiance – Aphra Behn

Down in the Valley – Traditional (so musical!)

The Bull Moses – Ted Hughes


2 Responses to "Isn’t it funny"

I know what you mean about poetry anthologies and yet my best finds of recent years have come from them. Can I also recommend another book? It’s called ‘Against Oblivion: Some lives of the Twentieth Century Poets’ by Ian Hamilton and it is an absolutely brilliant mix of biography and critique. I got so much insight from it, and read far more widely in poetry.

Oh, I do like anthologies but I prefer the focus to be more general. Like say, “Good Canadian Poems” or “The Metaphysical Poets”, something like that. It’s the twee themes that get to me.

That books sounds great, thanks. I don’t know much about 20th century poets (obviously) so it would help out with that.

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