Here's part two of the five-part series in which poets share their five favorite poetry collections--with reasons for their selections included. Hopefully, it'll help shine light on collections that absolutely need to be read. This week, please welcome Tom C. Hunley.
A few years ago in a lecture at a writing conference, Robert Hass said something to the effect that all poems are either laments, songs about ways to escape a power that can kill us, or litanies, prayers to a power that can make us feel more alive.
I’m a little uncomfortable with binary statements like that; our political system pretty much proves that either/or thinking leads to big messes. However, it would be impossible for me to come up with a definitive list of five favorite collections without some sort of limiting framework, so I’m going to focus on books containing elegies and odes.
Elegy, by Larry Levis
This posthumous collection contains some of the best poems by Levis, a master of the expansive, discursive style. In sprawling, devestating poems such as “Elegy with a Thimbleful of Water in the Cage” and “Elegy Ending in the Sound of a Skipping Rope,” Levis never flinches, even when it appears “As if we’re put on the earth to forget the ending, & wander. / And walk alone. And walk in the midst of great crowds, / / and never come back” (“Elegy for Whatever Had a Pattern in It”).
In my favorite ars poetica, “What He Thought,” Heather McHugh suggests that poetry should resemble the thoughts that might run through one’s head while one is wearing an iron mask and about to be burned at the stake for heresy. If I’m ever in that situation, I will just try to conjure some of Levis’s poems from memory.
New Addresses, by Kenneth Koch
In these poems, Koch follows the lead of the English Romantics, as well as the Psalmist, relying on apostrophe (direct address) as the driving trope. In Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry, Koch explains that “being able to converse with Death, with Time…gives a feeling of power and control, at least of being beyond one’s ordinary range.” Unlike Shelley, Keats, and King David, Koch wrote in a post-Whitman, post-America world, and so his odes are democratic, celebrating quotidian subjects such as piano lessons, stammering, driving, and testosterone.
In one of my favorite poems in the book, “To Carelessness,” he recalls his own carelessness, stepping on a booby trap during the Korean war, but concludes by telling Carelessness the following: “You / Had been there too. / Thank you. It didn’t explode.”
Blowout, by Denise Duhamel
Just as Koch’s poems expand the range of subject matter for odes, Duhamel stretches the definition of elegy, mourning the fact that “my husband and I won’t grow old together as I once thought we would, in our favorite booth of our favorite Miami Denny’s, eating the senior specials, eggs and bacon” (“Mack”) as a result of their divorce.
She goes back further and elegizes her relationships with past boyfriends (including the ones from kindergarten and fourth grade) and thinks of her own old love poems, how even though the loves may be long gone, one can “read the poem / again, grateful, holding the words in your hands like a bunch of flowers” (“Old Love Poems”).
All-Night Lingo Tango, by Barbara L. Hamby
Hamby takes Koch’s idea of writing quotidian odes a step further, addressing the letter m, dictionaries, airheads, pennies, and other nontraditional subjects. Hamby gives the lie to those who equate formalism with uptightness or staid traditionalism. A true American troubadour, she delights in taking already complex forms such as the sonnet or the abecedarian and adding more restrictions in order to make them even more difficult to write.
How many times would it take Caliban to pass his driving test? What might Olive Oyl’s thoughts about quantum theory be? Read the book to find out.
Elegy Owed, by Bob Hicok
Hicok brings Hass’s two categories together. Songs about ways to escape a power that can kill us? Try “Coming to life,” a prose poem beginning “He was made to touch a corpse as a child. His aunt’s.” Prayers to a power that can make us feel more alive? Check out the title poem, which contains the lines “I wish the bottom of the ocean / were sitting in that chair playing cards / and noticing how famous you are / on my cell phone” or the other title poem, in which the speaker wonders “how many dust notes do I come across and feel / I’m being rude to by not adoring / more personally, more like the last chance / every chance is”.
I once heard David Kirby say that he wanted to read and write poems that are "more full," funny poems that are full of tragedy and tragic poems that manage to be hilarious. In this collection and in all of his collections, Bob Hicok meets that criteria. The poems will make you crack up (bursting into laughter) even as they make you feel like cracking up (breaking down under emotional pressure).
Tom C. Hunley is an associate professor of English at Western Kentucky University, the director of Steel Toe Books, and the bassist for the litcore rock band Manley Pointer. He is the author of three full-length poetry collections, two textbooks, and six chapbooks. He is the co-editor, with Alexandria Peary, of Creative Writing Studies: A Guide to Its Pedagogies, forthcoming from Southern Illinois University Press. He divides his time between Kansas and Oz. http://www.steeltoebooks.com/books/70.html
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