Monday, January 10, 2011

The Twenty-Sixth Poem

Man reading poetry while waiting for his wife to get ready for a night out

Novelist Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) has an excellent article in the January issue of Poetry. Entitled Happy, Snappy, Sappy, the article details Handler's poetry-reading practices. Like many of us, Handler values poetry because it can be tucked into odd moments. He reads poetry while sitting in a large, comfortable chair in his living room as he waits for his slower-dressing wife to get ready for their evening out. Excellent.

A long-time lover of poetry, Handler likes his poets and poems in small doses. He says, "But even with a standard volume—you know, about eight years of work for some poets, or a week and a half for Charles Simic—there are only so many poems by a single poet one can read in a sitting. I read two or three poems by Campbell McGrath in a row, and I’m infused with joy at the enthusiasm of his breadth. I read seven or eight, and it is truly admirable that he can maintain a consistency of tone and yet always be surprising. Ten or twelve and that just might be enough Campbell McGrath for a little bit, no offense. Eighteen poems without a break and, seriously, Campbell, shut the fuck up."

Oh dear.

It seems, then, that Handler prefers to dip in and out of a single collection rather than take it in all at once. I think that's too bad. I think he's missing something.

While he appreciates the number of years it takes to accumulate enough poems for a book, Handler seemingly fails to appreciate the intensive labor that goes into assembling those 40-50 poems into a coherent, aesthetically-pleasing whole. He should know that the artistic arrangement of those poems takes many hours, many attempts, and lots of brain and heart work before getting it just right.

Most of the poets I know find this one of the most difficult aspects of their work as poets. Most of them ask at least one other poet pal to read the manuscript in progress and see if it coheres. Workshops are offered on this part of book development. Some poets with editorial expertise have made a cottage industry out of manuscript assembly and critiques. But why should we bother if readers are reading just for individual poems?

Because they should not be reading just for individual poems. The book is not a bunch of poems; it is a collection of poems. That distinction is often the very one that gets a manuscript accepted or rejected by a knowledgeable publisher.

I doubt that Mr. Handler would think it was okay if readers of his novels chose only to read a few chapters and then called it quits. Enough already, Daniel! But he might rightfully argue that a novel has plot and character development. Most poetry collections do not. Nevertheless, I want to argue that something is missed by the reader who reads only for the poems. And I want to suggest how a collection might more profitably be read.

First, I want Mr. Handler to read an entire collection, whatever book he now has at hand. He should read as he usually does, concentrating on the individual poems, but he should read them all in the order in which they appear in the book. Then the next day or next week he should move onto a more careful reading and consider the following:

The overall organizational plan of the collection
Does the book's title give a hint as to the overriding plan or theme? Why might the poet have chosen not to use sections? Is there some kind of parade going on, some movement or progression? If there are sections, why 3 instead of 4? What seems to be the mission of each section? Are there section titles, and if so, do those give some clue as to what's in each section? How are the sections related to each other? Is there any connecting link between the first poem and the last poem in each section? Between the first poem and the last poem in the book?

There must be some reason why the poet ordered the poems as he did. Is there chronology or shifting time? Alphabetical order? Seasonal arrangement? Is geography in any way involved? A pattern of images? Maybe from darkness into light or back and forth? What's going on with mood or tone? Is there a shift from despair into hope? Is there a foolish inconsistency or a sensible one?

The careful reader will find some continuity, some pattern at work. Yet the pattern must be subtle or it becomes predictable. Too much sameness and the reader becomes bored.

The connections from one poem to the next
Does the end of one poem somehow lead into the beginning of the next? Is there continuity of tone or perhaps some intriguing shift? Is there a repeating image or perhaps a contrasting one? Remember that cardinal from the first poem—does he resurface ten poems later? Then maybe again and again? Is his female partner introduced? Or perhaps some new kind of bird? Do images recur? Is there a constellation of related images?

These connections should ideally be subtle. That's why some readers miss them. That's one reason why a poetry book invites us back for multiple readings. Yet these connections, even if missed, if we read the collection as a whole book, work some kind of magic upon us. A later repeated reading, done more carefully, will very likely reveal some of these connections. When that happens, there is a frisson of pleasure. An oh yes kind of moment. When made throughout the collection, these discoveries are as delightful as when they are made within a single poem.

So I'd like to suggest that Mr. Handler continue to read poetry books for the poems and continue to be part of the audience for poetry. Blessings on his good head. But I'd also like to suggest that he consider each poem as part of the whole. That he move beyond a bunch of poems and discover the collection. That he tell his wife to take her time getting dressed.

Robert Frost said something to the effect that if a book has twenty-five poems in it, the collection itself must be the twenty-sixth. Please, Mr. Handler, find the twenty-sixth poem. You'll be glad you did. So will Campbell McGrath.


  1. Wonderful post, Diane. You've addressed with many thoughtful considerations a topic especially important to those of us with a debut book forthcoming.

  2. Good. When is your book expected to make its appearance?

  3. Wonderful post that also serves to help those of us trying to wrangle a book into coherence. Your questions of the reader helped me think about why I made/am making some of my own decisions.

    When I was an undergrad, one of my favorite instructors assigned us a book of poetry. The specific assignment was to read the entire book from beginning to end and to read it aloud. Spectacular way to read a book of poems.

    I don't always get to do this because of schedules and whatnot, but I do tend to read the poems in order and in large chunks.

  4. I'm happy to hear that, Sandy. It's a hard hard struggle getting those poems into the right order. So many possibilities, but which one is the best one?
    I love the oral reading assignment. When I was teaching, one of my favorite activities was to give out a batch of poems and ask each kid to choose one for an oral reading. Most of the poems had multiple readers, but that was part of the fun and the learning experience.

  5. I first encountered poems in small doses, as a child, read aloud to me by my mom, and then singly or in small groups, in schoolbooks and anthologies, so that's a pretty common poetry reading habit for people. Plus, poems are often very intense and subtle, causing me to re-read, look stuff up, pause for breathers.

    But I, too, learned later to read a whole book as an experience, or to read titled sections all at once. Sometimes I read a book too fast, and then go back and savor it poem by poem. Sometimes the schedule of my life causes the savoring one-by-one method to occur first, and later I go back and read them all in a row.

    I had read all of Millay in her Collected Poems, and then went back to read her books as they appeared in her time (usually via library copies). Quite an experience to hold the book in my hands as she would have held it...

    So I hope he tries this, too, Diane!!

  6. Great comments, Kathleen! I very much value the reading of and close attention paid to the individual poem, but also value the reading of the whole collection. Your comment re Millay is so to the point here. Thanks.


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