A roundup of bestselling poetry books
Retailers and newspapers have long kept track of the fiction and nonfiction bestsellers. The same has not been true of poetry. Booksense.com does offer a poetry Top 10 list, but only during the month of April. However, with the launch of its website (see page 14), the Poetry Foundation has introduced a weekly list of the bestselling books of verse. Rankings are based on data received from more than 4,500 retail booksellers.The five books below were listed as the top sellers in the week of March 26.
"The Trouble With Poetry" has been on the bestseller list for weeks, but that doesn't mean it's the poet's best work. (For classic Collins, see "Sailing Around the Room," No. 3.) The trouble with this book is that it's rather flat; it lacks the wit and memorable phrasing that readers have come to expect from Collins, the most popular contemporary poet in the United States. The poems - which deal with poetry and aging, among other things - are too accessible, too obvious. At times they even sound self-conscious, as with the second poem, "Monday," in which Collins explains that what the oven is to the baker, so the window is to the poet: "Just think -/ before the invention of the window,/ the poets would have had to put on a jacket/ and a winter hat to go outside/ or remain indoors with only a wall to stare at." The one stellar poem is "Flock," about sheep in a pen, unaware that their skin will soon be used in a Gutenburg Bible. This poem is compelling in ways that the rest of the book is not.
Where some poetry makes a dramatic entrance, Kooser's words fall softly. There are no hard landings in "Delights & Shadows," no edgy language. Kooser's 10th collection, which won the Pulitzer last year, is the literary equivalent of a gentle rain. As in all of his poems, Kooser begins with a simple image - a girl ice skating, a woman walking down a hospital corridor, a man fishing in an aluminum boat - and then he reveals the hidden complexities that other poets might miss. A sense of wonder and compassion runs throughout "Delights & Shadows." Yet what gives the poems their power, though, is the realization that nothing in this world can last. That underlying tension shapes the work, which is remarkably consistent in tone and quality. "Sure Signs," published in 1980, may still be Kooser's best work. But "Delights & Shadows" is an excellent introduction for readers who haven't yet discovered the work of the current US poet laureate.
When "Sailing Around the Room" appeared in 2001, its initial print run was 30,000 - almost 20 times the average for a poetry book. But sales were so brisk, the publisher printed 55,000 more copies. Dip into "Sailing" and it's easy to see why. At his best, the poet elevates the mundane to the infinite by using subtle humor and images that are both striking and familiar. In "Insomnia," for example, he writes: "Even though the body is a sack of exhaustion/ inert on the bed,/ someone inside me will not/ get off his tricycle...." From there it's one wonderful leap after another. The last stanza reads: "Does anything exist at this hour/ in this nest of dark rooms/ but the spectacle of him/ and the hope that before dawn/ I can lift out some curious detail/ that will carry me off to sleep -/ the watch that encircles his pale wrist,/ the expandable band,/ the tiny hands that keep pointing this way and that." This is vintage Billy Collins.
Elizabeth Bishop never intended "Edgar Allen Poe & the Jukebox" to be published. Alice Quinn, poetry editor of the New Yorker, compiled this collection after reading through Bishop's papers at Vassar College. But only avid fans will find much value in these early drafts and fragments. Most of the poems in "Jukebox" - written from the mid- 1930s to 1978 - aren't worth a second read. The book does contain two treasures, however. The first is the erotic poems, wonderful both for what they reveal about this very private poet, and because of the writing itself, which feels freer, jazzier than normal. In the title poem Bishop writes: "Poe said that poetry was exact./ But pleasures are mechanical/ and know beforehand what they want." The second gem is the series of drafts of "One Art," one of Bishop's best poems, which allow readers to follow Bishop's creative process from inspiration to completion. This alone might be worth the cost of the book.
The ancient Romans believed that Averno, a small crater lake in southern Italy, was the entrance to the underworld. These poems serve as a portal too, allowing Gluck to reimagine the Persephone myth and in some ways to embody it. Along the way, she also explores the topics of loss and mother-daughter relationships. In "Persephone the Wanderer," she hints at both of these: "She does know the earth/ is run by mothers, this much/ is certain. She also knows/ she is not what is called/ a girl any longer. Regarding/ incarceration, she believes/ she has been a prisoner since she has been a daughter." The writing in "Averno" is sharp and sure, Gluck's best since her Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Wild Iris." As with most of Gluck's work, there are no easy answers here, no real consolation. These poems are a lamentation, strong and moving with a dark, sometimes savage, beauty.