It's National Poetry Month, and here at BookPage, we're celebrating by highlighting some of the best new collections. In her second collection of poetry, Fanny Says, Nickole Brown offers a probing lyrical biography of her maternal grandmother while also considering the power of memory and Southern society. In this guest blog post, she lists the reasons you should be reading poetry—during poetry month and every other month in between.
Top Five Reasons You Should Be Reading Poetry:
5. Because it’s unnecessary.
Yes, unnecessary, absolutely so, but only in the way that beauty and truth are unnecessary. Like an elegant armful of cut tulips brought home dripping from the store among all your pragmatic sundries, like my grandmother’s false lashes glued on every morning to her come-sit-your-handsome-ass-down-here wink, like that baked-bread smell of a newborn’s crown. Poetry may bear witness, but it is rarely the hardy mule carrying news or facts. No, its burden is unquantifiable, and similar to a penny tossed into a fountain, its worth is in the wishing. As William Carlos William wrote, “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” Put another way, C.S. Lewis said, “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art. . . . It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”
4. Because it’s a throat full of word music.
For the poet Patricia Smith, the word was anemone. She was nine years old when her fourth-grade teacher asked her to pronounce it. She writes that she “took a stab and caught it, and / and that one word was uncanny butter on my new tongue.” For the poet Laure-Anne Bosselaar, she loves it when plethora, indolence, damask, or lasciviousness work, in her words, “to stain my tongue, / thicken my saliva.” For me, some days, it’s the word fricative. Other days, it’s ardor, aubade, hydrangea; I’ve held each of those words like a private little bubble of air popping around inside my mouth. Donald Hall calls this “milktongue” and names it as the “deep and primitive pleasure of vowels in the mouth, of assonance and of holds on adjacent long vowels; of consonance, mmmm, and alliteration.”
3. Because it fosters community.
Robert Pinsky knew this when he started the Favorite Poem Project when he was U.S. Poet Laureate—people love to share poems that speak to them. And not just poets, either, but postal workers and dental technicians and racecar enthusiasts, too. Almost everyone carries a poem with them, even if only a scratch of a line or two deep in memory, and reading poetry can place you squarely in the chorus of people hungry to share those lines. Consider, for example, a casual late-night post I made on Facebook last February, making a request of the Internet for poems of joy and happiness. Within hours, over sixty comments magically arrived in my feed, recommending poem after poem. . . poems by Naomi Shihab Nye and William Loran Smith and Robert Hass, among many others. I read them all, and suddenly, I was much less alone; my dreary winter was flooded bright.
2. Because it welcomes what’s inexpressible.
I’ll confess: it was fiction I studied in graduate school. But when I finished my program, I found the cohesiveness required of a novel to be false and hardly conducive to the fragmented, often discontinuous memories I carried. When I wrote my first book, Sister, I needed the white space between poems to hold the silence between the remaining shards of my childhood. With Fanny Says, I needed a form that would allow me to mosaic together a portrait of my grandmother with only the miscellaneous bits of truth I had without having to fudge the connective tissue between them. You see, poetry doesn’t demand explanations. In fact, most poems avoid them, often reaching for questions over answers. Now, this doesn’t mean poetry is necessarily difficult to understand, no. It means that it simply makes room for things that are difficult to understand. John Keats called this negative capability, as poetry is “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” To me, this acceptance of what cannot be explained is one of the best reasons to read poetry.
1. Because it calls for a life of awareness.
People often assume poetry exists in the realm of thought, lost in philosophical inquiry and romantic meanderings. And most early attempts at writing poetry fail because of this, or worse, because beginning writers travel those easy, hard-wired paths in the brain geared towards survival, which are inundated with years of advertisements, televised plots, and habitual speech. But poetry demands awareness, a raw, muscular devotion to paying attention. You have to live in your body, you have to listen hard to the quiet ticking of both your life and those around you. Like an anthropologist, you have to take down good notes. Poems require a writer to write from all the senses. As Eudora Welty said, “Children, like animals, use all their senses to discover the world. Then artists come along and discover it the same way, all over again.” To me, poetry can make even the most quotidian of things—a tomato on the counter, a housefly batting against the window, your bent reflection in a steel mixing bowl—something extraordinary. Poetry notices things. It scrubs your life free of clichés and easy answers, and the best poems make everyday life strange and new. Poetry requires you to be awake to write it, and reading effective poetry is a second kind of awakening.
Thank you, Nickole! Readers, Fanny Says is now available from BOA Editions.
Award-winning poet Mary Jo Bang explores perceptions of time, tragedy and the human experience in her latest collection, The Last Two Seconds. Our reviewer writes that this collection "demonstrates Bang’s rare gift as a writer: her uncommon capacity to shake and awaken us." (Read the full review here.)
We asked Bang to tell us about three books she's enjoyed reading lately.
This is the third part of a six-part autobiographical novel by the Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard in which a character named Karl Ove recounts in mesmerizing detail how he navigated the vicissitudes of growing up, leaving home, marrying twice, having children and becoming a writer. I read Volume II because I loved Volume I and read Volume III because I liked Volume II. Volume III is, unfortunately, limited to Karl Ove’s early childhood. It’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to make years one to 14 of a life interesting to a reader—especially if an author insists on including the names of every playmate and the locations of their houses. Whatever drama is in Volume III comes from the narrator’s experience of having a mercurially abusive father. The boy’s horror of the father is just enough to keep the story moving, especially if you have read I and II and know there’s karmic justice in store. Volume IV will be published soon, and it will be interesting to see how that volume measures up against the pleasure of the first two volumes. Volume I is nothing short of amazing. Read that and then you may feel, as I have felt, compelled to read the others.
Suspended Sentences consists of three novellas written between 1988 and 1993. This book was my—and many other American’s—first introduction to Modiano following his 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature. Like Knausgaard, Modiano uses a steady stream of minor but precise quotidian detail, including place names and secondary characters, to create both the narrating character’s interiority and an atmospheric sense of place. In the work of both, there’s a muted undercurrent of suspense. The suspense in Modiano’s novellas rests not on what happens in the narrator’s life as much as what happened to others who lived and died before the narrator became an adult, namely those who suffered through the Vichy years in France. The menace is far greater in Modiano and also less easy to identify. The Occupation years are long gone in the Paris of these stories, and yet, what can’t be reclaimed can't be vanquished. While the engine that drives Knausgaard’s books forward is personal memory, in Modiano, it is memory inhabited by history. Or history inhabited by memory. The two constructs, once they marry, are impossible to tease apart and haunt every aspect of the present.
Dora Bruder, also by Modiano, was first published in France in 1997. The Occupation of Paris under the Nazis (a geographical placeholder for the massive destruction of the Holocaust) is again the theme. The subject is a 15-year-old girl, the eponymous Dora, whose disappearance comes to the narrator’s attention in 1981 when he happens upon a “missing” notice in the personal ads of a December 31, 1941, Paris Soir. Using archives, and eventually interviews with a few remaining family members, he documents the facts of Dora’s short life, obsessively tracing her lifeline back to before she was born—documenting her parents’ lives: where they lived, met and may have worked—and forward to that moment in September 1942, when both Dora and her father are placed on a train bound for Auschwitz. The thread at that point is lost, which only confirms the tragic outcome. The narrator’s own father, who abandoned him and his mother and brother when the narrator was quite young, just missed, possibly because of Gestapo connections related to extra-legal activities, being sent on a similar transport. The narrator’s early losses become entangled with the loss of this girl who goes missing not just once, but twice: first when she runs away from a strict Catholic boarding school (which gives rise to the newspaper advert) and again once she boards the train headed for the death camp. The narrator, who lives with an ineradicable sense of bereavement, finds in Dora an object for his grief. For readers, the story of an unremarkable, and only slightly rebellious, teenager brings home the crude randomness of the destruction suffered by many and refreshes our sense of bewilderment.
Thank you, Mary Jo! See anything you'd like to pick up, readers?
(Author photo by Kellie Spano)
This fall, Jesmyn Ward followed up her 2011 National Book Award-winning novel Salvage the Bones with Men We Reaped, a poignant memoir in which she reflects upon the untimely deaths of five men in her life over the course of five years. Our reviewer calls the book—which came in at #4 in our list of the Best Books of 2013—"searingly honest and brutal." (Read our full review here.) We were curious about the books Ward has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three recent favorites. She graciously agreed, sharing four recommendations, in fact:
SON OF A GUN By Justin St. Germain
Justin St. Germain’s memoir Son of a Gun has stuck with me like few other books this year. He and I have both written about our losses, to understand them better, and so others will, too. Although the circumstances are quite different, we bonded over these shared experiences. Justin tragically lost his mother to murder, in 2001, just after the World Trade Centers came down. She was shot by Justin’s step-father, his mother’s fifth husband. I remember that time clearly: a whole nation suffering from grief. I had recently lost my brother, so spent those days doubly reeling, as did Justin. We both began our books as Stegner Fellows and spent time talking about how to approach these challenging topics. Son of a Gun is not a who-done-it, and it’s more than simply a memoir of loss, although that would be enough. Justin looks at the wider context of guns and violence in the United States, particularly in the West, where he’s from. And he examines the terrible plight of women who are victims of domestic violence. In his careful telling, Justin helps us all understand not only his mother but the culture of violence that leads to stories like these.
THRALL: POEMS By Natasha Trethewey
I am a new mother and I teach, so poetry, which I’ve always loved, has real appeal for pleasure reading. Natasha Trethewey’s Thrall is among my recent favorites. Natasha was born in Gulfport, Mississippi, not far from where I grew up, and she and I have tread some similar terrain in our work, too, about race and history, complicated family, the South, but she does it with so much elegance! Her use of imagery, the precision and grace of her language, the overall craft of her work. She is rightly our Poet Laureate.
Beloved and best-selling author Alexander McCall Smith is back with a new book that is sure to enchant readers everywhere. In Trains and Lovers (published June 11), four strangers traveling by rail from Edinburgh to London pass the time by sharing stories illustrating how trains have featured at critical points in their lives. The four tales intertwine to create a truly romantic ode to love—and to the romance of train travel.
We asked McCall Smith to share three books that he's enjoyed reading recently, and here are his recommendations:
World War Two: A Short History
By Norman Stone
I read this book in two sittings. The author's style is lively, and his views on the history of those years are very thought-provoking. If only more historians would write like this! One of the conclusions that one reaches at the end of this book is this: this was a narrow escape. Another conclusion is this: what an egregious example of human folly.
James Salzman is a professor at Duke and an expert in many aspects of environmental change. This is a marvelous book that will be of great interest to anybody who has ever paused to think about how that glass of water he or she is holding came to be potable. Salzman tells an extraordinary tale, and tells it exceptionally well. One interesting development he explores is that of how water is being commercialized. It used to be free—will that change? Have you noticed fewer water fountains around? A fascinating read.
I must confess that until recently I was unfamiliar with this poet's work. I am glad that I have now addressed that. This is a beautiful, searingly honest account of how a marriage ends. You will be very moved if you read this book. It will linger in your mind—which is exactly what poetry should do.
When Beth Hoffman's agent submitted Saving CeeCee Honeycutt, five publishers came back with offers and a deal was made—all within the span of 18 hours! Hoffman's charming debut novel about a 12-year-old southern girl with a neglectful father and mentally ill mother won rave reviews and became a bestseller. Our reviewer called it "a gem of a story, lovingly told." (Click here to read a Q&A with Hoffman about the book.)
Hoffman's much-anticipated follow-up, Looking for Me, comes out on May 28 and introduces another unforgettable narrator in Teddi Overman, who returns to the rural Kentucky home she left 18 years ago as new clues emerge regarding the mysterious disappearance of her brother.
We asked Hoffman to recommend three books that she's enjoyed reading recently. Here they are, in her own words:
By William Kent Krueger
The cover stopped me in my tracks. I was drawn in by the atmospheric quality and the structure of the bridge, so I put the title on my reading list. Shortly thereafter, I read what several book bloggers had to say about the story, and I was immediately hooked. Besides being a terrific story that examines a powerful range of human experiences and emotions, it was the authentic voice of the teenage narrator, Frank Drum, that kept me reading late into the night. Though the tone is quiet, Krueger artfully layered the story with suspenseful examinations of family life, death, fury, spiritual fiber and redemption. In some ways it reminded me of one of my favorite movies—Stand by Me.
I love poetry and try to read several pages each night before bed, not only because I enjoy it, but because poets have a lot to teach novel writers: for an ill-chosen word in a lengthy novel is forgivable, in poetry it would be disastrous. Sometimes delicate and reflective, other times smoldering with hurt and disappointment, Laux’s work exposes human frailties with a keen eye. I particularly enjoy her sensitivity to the wonders of nature, and she’s gifted in illuminating the essence of an otherwise unremarkable moment.
By Reynolds Price
What prompted me to read it: pure reading pleasure. I’ve read this fine novel before, and have no doubt that I’ll read it again. The prose is sublime. Price crafted a story of an ordinary, unassuming woman into an extraordinary piece of literature. Just as people remember where they were when they heard the news that the Challenger space shuttle had exploded, I will always remember where I was on the day Reynolds Price died. The news came over the radio on January 20, 2011, while I was being driven to an author event in South Carolina. The world had lost an important literary voice, and I had lost a personal favorite author.