Thursday, July 8, 2010

Envoy at the Crossroads

Three years ago I was asked to give a speech and a one-day workshop for the Edmonton branch of the Canadian Authors Association which I felt obliged to do as a teacher and because I took a number of creative writing workshops in university that helped me along my path to becoming a poet. I don’t advertise myself as a workshop instructor because my life is such that I do no have a lot of time to conduct them, but when I am called upon I feel a duty to lead them.

I think such workshops do not necessarily help people to write better, but they do teach people how to read poetry and they can provide resources and knowledge which may inspire people to undertake the long apprenticeship to becoming a serious poet.

I suppose what I find most striking about meeting people who have taken my workshops or else showed up at one of my readings because they read one of my books is how some of them look upon me with that eager lighted look which suggests they think I might have some special knowledge to confer upon them, or perhaps it is more they think they can use me as a key to unlock something within themselves. I don’t know. All I know is that after 24 years of trying to write poetry, I find myself at a crossroads asking what have I learned about the writing of poetry? The truth is I am not sure.

Certainly, I have learned something of craft, the economy of language, the musicality of words, etc. I have absorbed a great deal of poetry and poetic influences from many countries. I know what I like and what I do not, and I can articulate reasons for these preferences.

But writing a poem is still an exhausting task for me. Where will poetry take me and in what direction in the coming years? The path, as they say, is uncertain. However, I am still hopeful, or perhaps naïve, enough to believe that wherever poetry might lead me, people will understand the language I speak.

Here is a comprehensive list of 25 books in no particular order that have helped me to learn the difficult lingua franca of poetry:

1. Reluctantly by Hayden Carruth
2. The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo
3. Ordinary Genius by Kim Addonizio
4. On Poetry and Craft by Theodore Roethke
5. Best Words, Best Order by Stephen Dobyns
6. The Other Voice by Octavio Paz
7. Vis a Vis by Don McKay
8. The Friendship by Adam Sisman
9. A Poet’s Guide to Poetry by Mary Kinzie
10. Argument and Song by Stanley Plumly
11. Claims For Poetry edited by Donald Hall
12. Keats by Andrew Motion
13. Selected Poems and Letters by John Keats
14. The Weather of Words by Mark Strand
15. The Verse Book of Interviews edited by Brian Henry and Andrew Zawacki
16. Imagination in Place by Wendell Berry
17. Off to the Side by Jim Harrison
18. The Poetry Home Repair Manual by Ted Kooser
19. The Secret of Poetry by Mark Jarman
20. So Ask by Philip Levine
21. The Gazer Within by Larry Levis
22. Poets Teaching Poets edited Gregory Orr and Ellen Bryan Voight
23. Hunting Men by Dave Smith
24. The Necessary Angel by Wallace Stevens
25. Poetry and Consciousness by C.K. Williams


  1. Chris,
    Thanks for the wonderful list--I will dip into it once some other summer reading is done.

    If I were to do the same, a couple of titles which have been influential for me include A.R. Ammons' Set in Motion: Essays, Interviews, & Dialogues (Univ. of Michigan Press: 1996) and William Stafford's You Must Revise Your Life (Univ. of Michigan Press: 1986).

    I greatly appreciate your humble uncertainty as to what you have learned about writing poetry in 24 years of the practice. Perhaps it's not so much a matter of learning (which seems to be a form of taking) as a matter of giving (and giving in to what you love). I think your post answers your question--you have certainly cultivated an attentiveness that you share (be it in your writing and/or in your workshops).

    I would like to read your work--what should I start on?

  2. Hi Lary,

    I love the title of Stafford's collection "You Must Revise Your Life". I will have to check it out and the Ammons too. The University of Michigan Press is such a terrific resource for anyone interested in poetry criticism. They have such a terrific back catalogue. We have nothing like it here in Canada. As for my work, I have published two books, Bonfires and The Cold Panes of Surfaces, with Nightwood Editions who is a great Canadian publisher of both fiction and poetry.

  3. A great list, Chris. I would add:

    "The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide" by Robert Pinsky and "Real Sofistikashun" by Tony Hoagland and a few others, but I need to dig into some of the books on your list that I've missed.

  4. I admit I had not heard of the Pinsky book but I've been putting off buying the Hoagland books of essays for far too long. Two other books which are great are Robert Hass's Twentieth Century Pleasures - a book I have read a half dozen times - and Lucia Perillo's I've Heard The Vultures Singing.

    Thanks Paul!