A genotype; 30 books of poems

A heatwave in Adelaide (four consecutive days over 40°C) has encouraged a return to my blog, after the diversions of work, study (until mid-year) and prepping a manuscript. It’s coincided with some thoughts about a “reading plan” for the new year, an idea that was suggested to me as a simple way to get more reading done. An end-to-end reading of JM Coetzee’s novels is a high priority, as is the Pisa of recent poetry collections and selections that’s accumulating in my study.

Thinking about a reading plan gave me reason to look back on a journal of past reading – and prompted the idea of compiling a list of books that, in hindsight, made an important difference to my writing, at the time I read them or later. They’re books that suggested new thematic or stylistic directions, or introduced me to new poets or poetries.

So it’s not a compilation of favourite books, or current influences – those would be quite different lists. Clearly, there are very many more omissions than inclusions – and, with two exceptions, it only includes collections, selections and anthologies of poetry. So novels, plays, films, song lyrics and books of theory and philosophy, etcetera, are absent.

The list is chronological, and covers a period from the late 1990s to about 2013:

  • TS Eliot: Collected Poems 1909–62
  • Ezra Pound: Selected Poems 1908–69
  • A Alvarez (ed.): The New Poetry
  • Virginia Woolf: The Waves
  • Les Murray: Collected Poems 1961–2002
  • John Kinsella (ed.): Landbridge: Contemporary Australian Poetry
  • Ted Hughes: Moortown Diary
  • Fernando Pessoa: The Book of Disquiet
  • Robert Gray: New Selected Poems
  • Michael Brennan & Peter Minter (eds.): Calyx: 30 Contemporary Australian Poets
  • Robert Adamson: The Clean Dark
  • John Kinsella: The Silo: A Pastoral Symphony
  • John Burnside: The Asylum Dance
  • John Kinsella: Doppler Effect
  • AR Ammons: Collected Poems 1951–1971
  • AR Ammons: Sphere: The Form of a Motion
  • Paul Hoover (ed.): Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology
  • Raymond Queneau: Exercises in Style
  • Aidan Coleman: Avenues and Runways
  • JD McClatchy (ed.): The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry
  • Jorie Graham: The Errancy
  • Sarah Holland-Batt: Aria
  • Ted Berrigan: The Sonnets
  • Jacob Polley: The Brink
  • David Walker (ed.): American Alphabets: 25 Contemporary Poets
  • Franz Wright: Walking to Martha’s Vineyard
  • Cole Swenson & David St. John (eds.): American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry
  • Robert Hass: Human Wishes
  • David Lehman: The Evening Sun: A Journal in Poetry
  • Corey Wakeling & Jeremy Balius: Outcrop: Radical Australian Poetry of Land

Eliot’s “Prufrock” was an epiphany in my final year of high school and almost single-handedly rerouted my choice of degrees at uni. Eliot led naturally enough to Pound (Lustra and Cathay, in particular). From there, my early interest was in poets who wrote about place: Murray on Bunyah, Hughes on Devon, Adamson on the Hawksbury and Kinsella on Western Australia’s wheatbelt.

Many of the anthologies made the list as conduits to new poets and poetries, and contemporary poetry in translation – as Eliot wrote, anthologies “are useful … because no one has time to read everything”. Of the poets in the latter part of the list, most have contributed something to stylistic changes or particular projects or experiments.

Conversations about writing practices and influences are instructive and offer particular insights. I’ve found in conversation with a number of poets that Eliot, and ‘Prufrock’, were important features of their introduction to poetry or their formation as writers, even where their work is wholeheartedly at odds with his. I’ve also come to conclude that the poetry of Ammons and Wright is largely unknown in Australia. Compiling the list has been a worthwhile exercise in itself, but it would be interesting to know whether there are poets who find common ancestry here.

Ref.

  • Eliot, TS, 1957, ‘What is minor poetry?’ in On Poetry and Poets, Faber & Faber, London.
  • Eliot, TS, 1974, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ in Collected Poems 1909-1962, Faber & Faber, London.
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