I have to start this post off with a confession: I used to write poetry. When I was 16 or 17, I wrote about things like “oh, I have these deep soulful blue eyes that speak of my pain in this world,” but by the time I got to college (at least the later parts of it, during which I wrote a poetry manuscript that’s bound in one of the university libraries and for part of which I actually somehow won a literary prize with a cash reward for which the value was equivalent to like 8 weeks of selling my plasma, which I think is probably pretty close to a Pulitzer or a Nobel), I was a little more serious and let’s say literary about it. By this, I mean that I read a lot of conventional poetry and adopted an attitude of “fuck that shit” and tried to buck tradition in mostly ultimately pretty silly ways, but in ways that seemed to either spark the admiration of my peers or cause them to lie to me. I did also write a big long formal and mostly traditional cycle of poems that included a couple sonnets and a villanelle and if I’m not misremembering a few forms of my own devising in it, so I wasn’t all “fuck that shit” but was also a little bit “but there’s sometimes something kind of nice about that shit.”
This all brings us to good old Richard Wilbur, whom I do not like. Some of his poems are nice. His children’s poems are downright delightful. I met him while I was studying poetry writing in college and indeed had an opportunity to have him critique one of my poems, which from my perspective (not so far removed, I’ll grant, from the “deep soulful blue eyes” perspective, but also a fair bit more mature) was a like elegy to the loss of religious feeling in spite of deep family ties to that feeling. When Wilbur visited my school and spoke in his sort of elevated tone about poetry, it was sort of wonderful, but when he read and critiqued my poem, one of many (almost certainly more artful ones by my peers) that he could have selected, in front of a big bunch of people, and when his critique consisted of basically the statement that the author probably needed to get right with God, I was pretty unimpressed. Still, if he is still living, he is considered one of our best living poets, and in spite of my kind of terrible experience with his semi-publicly dismissing whatever like literary or prosodic value one of my poems may have gestured toward, it was neat to meet him. He gave a reading while he visited my school (during which he really did endearingly read some of the children’s poems), and afterward I had a chance to sit around and drink whiskey with him and some classmates and teachers, and it was very neat (he told stories from the war, among others).
All of which in the end is to say that this nearly 20-year-old collection of Wilbur’s poems is autographed but thankfully and somewhat surprisingly not autographed “may you find Jesus, you troglodyte.” I don’t love his poems for grown-ups, but I do admire something about his formalism. When my class of poets had a chance to spend some time with him, and somebody asked whether he labored over his poems, he said that they just kind of came to him (in I suppose rhyming iambic meter), to which I mostly call bullshit. So that’s Wilbur.
The Dog Stars is lovely and sad. I certainly recommend it, and I’ll also recommend Heller’s The Painter, which I must surely have kept (though upon a quick scan, I don’t see it on my shelves, so maybe I gave it to someone).
Now we come to the sweet little darlings of my collection. Back in college, I harbored dreams of one day owning a bookstore, not understanding that that was no way to make a real living. This was before the kindle was a thing, even, so it wasn’t as dire a prospect as it is now. Every once in a while, I’d pick up an old-timey book or two. I used to have a set of three volumes of Ben Jonson from I believe the 1700s, but they were in bad shape, and I eventually gave them the old heave-ho. I have an oldish Byron (shelf #9) that we’ll get to a few shelves hence. But these two little books are so nice. Longfellow is so nice. I read Hiawatha many years ago in a different edition, and I forget whether I read Evangeline in these books or in another, but this little set from 1872 really pleases me, and there is much to admire within Longfellow’s work. I suppose he too, had my heathenish sentiments been put before him, may have proposed that I find my way to Jesus, but he didn’t say it to my face in front of my peers, so I can hardly fault him for it.
More Saunders, another set of essays on Wallace, and more Barth. Blah blah blah, the usual. Let me pause here, though. There’s also a reader’s guide to Gravity’s Rainbow that is indispensable if you’re a serious reader of the book. A few years ago, I submitted some ideas (pertaining, oddly enough, to lemmings and NYC independent theater of the ’60s) to its author that he seemed intrigued by and said he’d follow up on, but I’ve never heard back, so maybe my ideas didn’t hold water. I keep meaning to check out the since-revised edition to see if I (or my weird reference) make a cameo.
And then we come to Girl with Curious Hair by Wallace. I love “Lyndon” and “John Billy” from this collection, though “My Appearance” is probably more well known given legal shenanigans pertaining to it. The novella that wraps up the collection was reportedly stolen from the trunk of Wallace’s car and thus rewritten from scratch, but I’ve never known whether or not to believe that story, since “John Billy” seems to be influenced heavily by Gass’s “Omensetter’s Luck” (see shelf #4), whose preface also goes at length to say that the original manuscript was stolen (which seems kind of too coincidental).
You can’t really see it in the photo, but there’s another graphic novel of Moby-Dick tucked in there. My ten-year-old son recently took a look at this and liked it, so I’m optimistic that I may get him looped into Melville-mania, though my wife and daughter continue to resist. I quoted a bit at the dinner table a couple of nights ago, and nobody swooned at how good it was, so count me a pessimist for the moment (maybe I should’ve chosen a quote other than “ego non baptizo te in nomine patris sed in nomine diaboli”?).
Often enough, while on a video conference for work, I’ll hear what sounds like an English usage error, or something will trigger me to think about usage, and I’ll turn around and pluck Garner’s Modern American Usage off the shelf to check on something. I had cause to do this just yesterday. We saw the smaller cousin of this book (also by Garner) on shelf #1. This is one of my favorite, most useful, books. I’m pretty decent at using words, but pretty much any time there’s ambiguity around usage, I can pick this book up and get clarity. Garner is very witty, and I really love his language change index, which offers different ways of thinking about usage issues, such as for example (my favorite among several) the etiquette analogy, which rates usage errors on a scale from “audible farting” to “audible belching” to “overloud talking” to “elbows on table” to “refined.” If you’re interested in American English usage, pick this one up. Since Wallace is a theme in my shelves, it’s worth noting that he and Garner seem to have been fans of one another, which is in fact why Garner’s books are on my radar at all.
Finally here we have Borges, who in this translation I do not love. A Wallace (of course) acquaintance and semi-biographer has suggested to me that another translation is much better, but my feeling from reading this collection, admittedly kind of tired, on an airplane a few years ago, was that Borges does this thing where he states something really obvious as if it’s something of consequence, and that it doesn’t work. It’s almost like the old Jon Lovitz thespian skit on SNL in which he does transparently poor acting and then pronounces with a flourish “Acting!” So, I’ll probably reread this collection one day, or some subset of the stories translated by someone else, but there is certainly no rush.
This is a pretty important shelf to me, even if I don’t love every author or every book on it. Next we’ll wrap up blue and head into purple, with, naturally a few of the usual suspects represented.