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From My Bookshelf: Woodson, Oliver, Auden

In celebration of National Poetry Month, this edition of From My Bookshelf features three poetry collections I own, love, and have read from cover to cover.

What I’ve chosen to spotlight for each collection is slightly different, which I want to explain. The first two collections, Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson and Felicity by Mary Oliver, were compiled by the writers themselves (and editors, publishers, etc.). I briefly mention what each collection is about, and highlight a handful of the poems that stood out to me.

The third is a selection of poetry by W.H. Auden compiled by Edward Mendelson, who is the literary executor of Auden’s estate. Below I feature pieces of Mendelson’s preface, including the reasoning behind his choice to publish many of Auden’s early works (which were later edited or rejected by Auden). I have far fewer favorite poems from this collection, but what makes me hold onto it is Edward Mendelson’s commentary on Auden’s work, and how his and Auden’s ideas about poetry can be extended beyond this poet. So this section of my blog post is longer than the two that come before it, but for good reason.

I hope I was clear enough in that explanation, and I hope you enjoy this poetry spotlight. Without further ado…

Brown Girl Dreaming Jacqueline Woodson

From Jacqueline Woodson’s website:

Brown Girl Dreaming tells the story of my childhood, in verse. Raised in South Carolina and New York, I always felt halfway home in each place. In these poems, I share what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and my growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement.
It also reflects the joy of finding my voice through writing stories, despite the fact that I struggled with reading as a child. My love of stories inspired and stayed with me, creating the first sparks of the writer I was to become.

Each poem in this collection – as the back of the book says – is “accessible and emotionally charged.” While they all stand strong on their own, it really is a different (extraordinary?) experience reading them one after another; it’s almost akin to reading a novel in verse, if the chapters in that novel written in verse could stand creatively and affectingly alone. This is the first body of work I’ve read by Jacqueline Woodson, and it certainly won’t be the last.

As with any poetry collection, I do have many favorite poems; here are some of them (written as they are – punctuation, lowercase letters – in the book):

  • second daughter’s second day on earth
  • home
  • lullaby
  • harvest time
  • two gods. two worlds
  • sometimes, no words are needed
  • on paper
  • how to listen #7

Felicity Mary Oliver

From the back of the book:

In this stunning collection of new poems, Mary Oliver, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, turns her eye from the grace of the natural world to the even more mysterious landscape of the human heart

I share this paragraph from the back of the book because it makes me smirk just slightly. It goes on to say “Oliver has described her work as loving the world. With Felicity she examines what it means to love another person,” as if these two things are mutually exclusive (also, spoiler alert, this collection is full of imagery, allusion, and direct reference to the natural world). Should I let a back cover summary irk me so much? I know the answer is no but it does all the same.

So lovers of Mary Oliver’s work need not be afraid; if you have enjoyed her poetry and/or essays thus far, you will certainly enjoy these poems. The human-focused love poems are different than Mary Oliver’s poems about nature, in that their levels of intimacy have a slightly different facade. Because her work is so in tune with relaying meaning through the use of tangible things [in the natural world], it is a slightly different experience to read her poems about such an intangible concept such as love for another person. A different experience, but a touching and fulfilling one.

Some specific favorites from Felicity:

  • The World I Live In
  • Leaves and Blossoms Along the Way
  • Humility
  • I Did Think, Let’s Go About This Slowly
  • What This Is Not
  • Except for the Body
  • Not Anyone Who Says
  • I Don’t Want to Lose
  • I Have Just Said

W.H. Auden: Selected Poems Edward Mendelson

From the back:

This edition of W.H. Auden’s SELECTED POEMS presents the original versions of many poems which Auden revised to conform to his evolving political and literary attitudes later in his career. In this volume, Edward Mendelson has restored the early versions of some thirty poems generally considered to be superior to the later versions, allowing the reader to see the entire range of Auden’s work.

In the preface, Edward Mendelson says “when Auden looked back into history, it was to seek the causes of his present condition, that he might act better and more effectively in the future.” He continues to describe how Auden denounced much of the technique and subject matter his modernist predecessors indulged in. “[Auden’s] continuing subject was the task of the present moment: erotic and political tasks in his early poems, ethical and religious ones later.” In addressing why he chose to highlight earlier/first versions of Auden’s poetry, Mendelson makes interesting points about Auden’s decision to make his poems more fluid, make them living objects instead of words carved in stone. Including, but not limited, to this point:

In making his revisions, and in justifying them as he did, Auden was systematically rejecting a whole range of modernist assumptions about poetic form, the nature of poetic language, and the effects of poetry on its audience. Critics who find the changes deplorable generally argue, in effect, that a poet loses his right to revise or reject his work after he publishes it – as if the skill with which he brought his poems from their early drafts to the point of publication somehow left him at the moment they appeared, making him a trespasser on his own work thereafter. This argument presupposes the romantic notion that poetic form is, or ought to be, “organic,” that an authentic poem is shaped by its own internal forces rather than by the external effects of craft…In revising his poems, Auden opened his workshop to the public, and the spectacle proved unsettling, especially as his revisions, unlike Yeats’, moved against the current of literary fashion…Critics mistook this attitude as a “rejection” of poetry, when in fact it was a recognition of its potential effects.

Many of the poems in this collection are lengthy (longer than a page, sometimes multiple pages long, or more than 75-100 words), which is not usually my taste. I enjoy short poems because I find it fascinating and exemplary when a writer can say so much using fewer words, especially when confined to a specific poetry form or technique. To be more harsh: if I wanted to read a short story, I would read a short story.

However, exceptions can always be found, and while I do find some of the longer poems in this collection to be dull, there are a couple I love. I say this because if you were to find and/or pick up a copy of this selection of poems and find that the first dozen don’t particularly speak to you, I do think it’s worth it to continue on and read them all.

Or, just read the ones I like the most (Edward Mendelson numbered each of them, so any numbered poem I listed below were done so by him, not Auden):

  • #8, part III (untitled poem)
  • Casino
  • Spain
  • Miss Gee
  • September 1, 1939
  • #48 (untitled poem)
  • The Quest
    • all 20 parts
  • Bucolics
    • all 7 parts

Are you familiar with these poets? Do you have any poetry recommendations to share? Let’s chat in the comments!

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