In a field notorious for slow sales, some of the books here – like those of Billy Collins, which have been topping poetry bestseller lists for more than a year now – have surpassed expectations. Here are the five bestselling poetry books in the US for the week of March 18, 2007, according to the Poetry Foundation.
The Trouble with Poetry, by Billy Collins, Random House, $13.95
It should come as no surprise that "The Trouble With Poetry" holds the No. 1 slot. Collins has long been the most popular contemporary poet in the United States. But readers who buy this collection may feel cheated, since the poems – which deal with poetry and aging, among other things – lack the wit and memorable phrasing that usually distinguishes Collins's work. The poems often feel flat and obvious because the imagery rarely rises above the mundane and the humor is at times self-conscious. The strongest poem is "Flock," about sheep in a pen, unaware that their skin will soon be used in a Gutenburg Bible. Readers will wish that the rest of the collection were as compelling.
Thirst, by Mary Oliver, Beacon Press, $22
In most of Mary Oliver's poems, the poet is a high priestess, helping readers appreciate the earth and its creatures. In "Thirst," her 16th book of poems, she is less priest than acolyte. For the first time, Oliver tells how she came to the Christian faith. She also gives voice to grief over the loss of her longtime partner, writing: "From the complications of loving you/ I think there is no end or return./ No answer, no coming out of it./ Which is the only way to love, isn't it?" Unlike confessional poets, though, Oliver doesn't wallow in emotion and she uses grief as a path to greater faith. Apart from a few flat spots, this work is remarkably consistent and shows a side of Oliver her readers have long waited to see.
Sailing Alone Around the Room, by Billy Collins, Random House, $13.95
Flip through "Sailing Around the Room" and you will easily understand why this book is a bestseller. At his best, Collins elevates the ordinary and makes it memorably resonant; he is a master at subtle humor and imagery that is both striking and familiar. In "Insomnia," he writes that despite his exhaustion "someone inside me will not/ get off his tricycle/ will not stop tracing the same tight circle/ on the same green threadbare carpet." The poem makes one lovely leap after another, ending with the speaker hoping: "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.
New and Selected Poems: Vol. Two, by Mary Oliver, Beacon Press, $16
Mary Oliver has long been known for her ability to move readers with poems about the natural world. At first glance, Volume 2 seems to be more of the same. Look deeper, however, and you'll see currents shifting. In these poems, 42 of which are new, Oliver seems to be opening up emotionally and spiritually. There is a lovely poem about her partner, to whom she feels so close "that I would not know/ where to drop the knife of/ separation." There are other delights as well, as in "Holding Benjamin," about her dog: "No use to tell him/ that he/ and the raccoon are brothers./ You have your soft ideas about nature,/ he has others."
Acolytes, by Nikki Giovanni, William Morrow, $16.95
A week ago, "Acolytes" was No. 19 on the bestseller list. But the book, which contains 80 poems and prose pieces, has connected with readers because of its blend of familiarity and new directions. The former comes from Giovanni's lifelong commitment to speak for African-Americans, whether she's addressing the injustice of slavery, the devastating effects of racism, or hurricane Katrina. The newness comes from the poet expanding her repertoire and celebrating love, memories, and everyday moments. Many readers will find that "Acolytes" pairs well with "The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni," currently ranked at No. 8. The poems in those pages contain her strongest work and are rooted in history, from the new racial pride blacks feel to the struggles and losses that never seem to leave them.