Well, the end of the month comes and it appears that being home agrees with me because I have finished a few more books.
Whenever I read a poem by A.R. Ammons, I wonder to myself why I haven't read any books of his all the way through. Well, I just finished Ammons' The Selected Poems: Expanded Edition (1986), and I don't know if I have an answer to the question. As has been noted much better by a number of literary critics, Ammons was a nature poet; some have even gone so far as to see him as a transcendentalist. I can see that. Some have compared him to Frost, noting that he has a more positive vision of the natural world. I can see that too. Ammons sees into the minutest detail and finds that there is order and wonder amidst what the rest of us see as chaos. I admire that vision, even as I don't always understand the expression.
Many of these poems are quite powerful and engaging. I particularly like the tight, short poems. I also was taken by poems like the much anthologized "Corsons Inlet" and the new (to this book) "Easter Morning." However, there were a few poems that no amount of re-reading would enlighten for me. These were either syntactically difficult or had such attention to biology that I felt I needed to be an insider to "get it."
Overall, this is a fine collection, probably a good introduction to this major poet. I think I will try to read Garbage before the summer is out.
Over the past couple months, I have been making my way through The Best American Essays 2005, edited by Susan Orlean, and yesterday, I finally finished. As with all the book in the Best American series (and there a volumes covering many different kinds of writing -- click here to see a few), I found the collection daunting and interesting, and sometimes baffling. Certainly there is a representative variety of essays. As with any collection, one wonders why some pieces, even enjoyable or well written pieces, made the cut. But for the most part, this is a satisfying selection of writing.
Pieces that stood out for me are Jonathan Franzen's "The Comfort Zone, " "Dog Trouble" by Cathleen Schine, and David Sedaris' "Old Faithful." There were essays that surprised me because at first I didn't see why they were included, like "Skill Display in Birding Groups" by Bert O. States and Holly Welker's "Satin Worship." But these offered insights not only into the specific subjects they covered, but also into human psychology. I might not have seen these any other place but in a book like this.
Mary Oliver's A Poetry Handbook (1994) is an interesting and useful book for anyone who is genuinely devoted to being a good poet (and a good writer in general for that matter). There are too many who say they are poets or wish to write poetry,but who really just wish to place words on paper, depositing their emotions and really saying nothing. That person doesn't really want this book, but that person needs it.
There are a few chapters that could use some updating not because they are dated, but because the author needs specific examples. I suspect that Oliver does wish to get herself in trouble by by giving examples of poor diction. However, since I think the chapter on Revision is very important (since this is a step most beginning poets wish to skip), I think this section could be improved with attention to how a poem or two changed over time.
I say this not only because it is true, I think, but because one of the significant strengths of this book is how it uses examples of good poems, both classic and contemporary, to illustrate its points. I believe the beginning chapters "Getting Ready" and "Reading Poems" are particularly important. In the first, Oliver writes, "Writing a poem...is a kind of possible love affair between something like the heart (that courageous but also shy factory of emotion) and the learned skills of the conscious mind" (7). In the second chapter, she reminds us "Good poems are the best teachers. Perhaps they are the only teachers. I would go so far as to say that, if one must make a choice between reading or taking part in a workshop, one should read" (10). I am glad that she begins so well, and I don't think she contradicts herself when she speaks of workshops later in the book because she demonstrates when they can be valuable to a poet's development and also notes the importance of solitude.
Oliver's A Poetry Handbook is a book that could help writers of all kinds, but anyone who wants to write poetry (and even those who choose only to read it) should make this part of her/his collection.