#5 – The Complete Poems 1927–1979 by Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop sometimes gets hated on as a poet’s poet. What the heck does that even mean? Nothing. Nothing.

Baby I don’t care.

Before I actually got this edition of her Complete Poems (which isn’t actually complete, but whatevs) for my very own self, all I knew was “One Art” and that one Sestina. Okay, “One Art” is fine and all that, but it’s so much taught in classes that whenever I read it I hear this unpleasantly teachery voice in my head saying “analyze the language! what do you notice about the repetition! blah blah blah.”*

There was like a whole month when I didn’t want to read any poem other than “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance.”

My current favorite passage by Bishop is the following, from “At the Fishhouses.”

Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,
element bearable to no mortal,
to fish and to seals . . . One seal particularly
I have seen here evening after evening.
He was curious about me. He was interested in music;
like me a believer in total immersion,
so I used to sing him Baptist hymns.
I also sang “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
He stood up in the water and regarded me
steadily, moving his head a little.

But I’m sure it will change. Her poems just keep giving.

By the way my one criticism of this book is that the cover is horrendously hideous. It’s the color of old lady bathroom, and the only decoration is a sort of mediocre drawing of Bishop’s.


However I am delighted to discover that FSG has released a new edition of Bishop’s work. It’s about time. I might just have to get my hands on that.

Much, much bettah.

*It’s not a good English teacher voice, though I’ve had lots of good English teachers. It’s more like my voice when I used to be a sort-of-okay-but-not-great English teacher.


#9 – Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, translated by Chana Bloch

This book, Yehuda Amichai’s Selected Poetry, wins the award for “poetry book I take off the shelf and read most often and try to carry around with me at times.”

Yehuda Amichai is an Israeli poet. He died in 2000.

Please enjoy this poem (with audio): “A Letter of Recommendation.”

“Oh touch me, touch me, good woman!
That’s not a scar you feel under my shirt, that’s
a letter of recommendation, folded up tight,
from my father:
‘All the same, he’s a good boy, and full of love.'”

Why do I love his poems so much? I have no idea. I just do.*

Hat tip: I was first introduced to Amichai’s poems in my 20th Century Literature class in college, with the wondrous Marilyn Chandler McEntyre.


*This is a terrible answer in a creative writing class, but this is my blog, and I have no explanation — which frustrates me — but there you go.

#16 – View With a Grain of Sand by Wislawa Szymborska

When Wislawa Szymborska won the Nobel Prize for poetry, there was a bit of a kerfuffle about the fact that many of the prize committee did not read Polish. How can you truly know if the poetry is Nobel Prize-worthy if you can’t read the original?

I wonder about this, too. I don’t read Polish. But I find Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak’s translations wonderful.

Here’s a fine poem about Darwin, “Consolation.”

She’s also a long-time newspaper columnist. And her advice to would-be writers is as witty and blunt as her poems:

To Grazyna from Starachowice: “Let’s take the wings off and try writing on foot, shall we?”

To Mr. G. Kr. of Warsaw: “You need a new pen. The one you’re using makes a lot of mistakes. It must be foreign.”

To Pegasus [sic] from Niepolomice: “You ask in rhyme if life makes cents [sic]. My dictionary answers in the negative.”

View with a Grain of Sand is a fine introduction to her work.

#20 – Wild Iris by Louise Gluck

Poetry time!

Attending an MFA program in creative writing was a little like going to poetry camp for three years. It was amazing. I loved it. And sometimes it seems like poetryland a completely different world divorced from the one I live in now.

For instance, in poetryland, I felt a bit self-conscious about liking Wild Iris so much. I don’t love all of Louise Gluck’s poems. And she has a reputation among some of the poetry people I know for not being friendly or something…I don’t know. Actually now I can’t remember why I felt embarrassed about liking this book. I have no idea. It’s good.

Wild Iris is an amazing wild and weird book. Among the different poems emerges a sort of conversation between the soul, assorted plant life, and the divine. Here’s a link to one of the plant poems, “Trillium.”

And if that doesn’t convince you to give it a try, maybe the shiny Pulitzer prize sticker on the cover will?

#28 – Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara

Does the design of this book cover look familiar to you at all?

Perhaps it reminds you a little bit of this:

But this is a list of books to read before you’re 30. Howl is for teenagers and college kids,* but Lunch Poems is for grown-ups.

Not that Howl doesn’t have a certain appeal. It totally does. Who doesn’t want to spend their days hanging out with “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night”?**

But Lunch Poems exists in the world where a lot of us live. Offices. Buildings. Exciting things maybe happen to movie stars (oh Lana Turner) but not to us. We work in offices, and if we’re lucky, that’s a really good thing. Our 9-to-5 gigs might even contribute something good to the world (O’Hara worked at the Museum of Modern Art). And in between times, we have lunch breaks.

O’Hara used his lunch breaks to wander around the city and write poems. He was a flaneur! Yet he held down a regular job while writing poems. Good ones! Poems that we can now carry around and read on our lunch breaks.

Sidenote: In 1966, Frank O’Hara was hit by a dune buggy and died. A dune buggy! Sadness.

*Also if you were actually a hippie during the ’60s, you get a pass. You can read/quote/love Ginsberg as much as you want.

**Especially if James Franco plays them in a movie.