Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Collection or Book?

I recently, but belatedly ran across this review by Ellen Wehle.

Wehle reviews Joanne Fuhrman's Moraine which Publishers Weekly called, "well positioned somewhere in the nifty triangle formed by Frank O'Hara, Ted Berrigan and the Shins," a nifty triangle I had previously been unaware of.

It's not Fuhrman's book or "nifty triangle[s]" that I feel warrant comment after three years, but Ellen Wehle's main argument independent of the review. Wehle says,

"The very fact that we publish our poems not just individually but in books implies relatedness, a more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts quality that demands the poems be read together. Why, then, will one volume read as a distinct entity, confident and sure, while another reads like a grab bag of bits and pieces? What makes a book a book?"

Clearly Wehle holds some contempt for "grab bag" and it's this sort of attitude that has lead to the death of the first true collection by poets.

Anyone who visits the University of Iowa library has the opportunity to peruse the MFA thesises (even mine) going back to the beginning of the Writers' Workshop. Some of these were then published as collections and these collections provide an interesting window into the creative development of many poets now studied by literary scholars.

However, as the writing industry, and particularly the public interest in poetry has contracted first "collections" and even the initial MFA thesis have become less like a first collection and more akin to the polish level of a contemporary writer's second and third books. They are more likely to include sets of poems similar in form and/or content with the weaker or sometimes simply more difficult to categorize poems strained out. Suitable for individual publication, but not compatible with an over-arching form.

Most books of poetry I've read in the last few years have a discernible theme, even if like in the case of Moraine this a somewhat contrived or obvious post-modern idea like "the chaos of culture." A Collection may be a less polished form of art, but if we seek to demean the collection as a form comprised of mere "bits and pieces" we will miss out on the relative pleasures a first collection offers. Particularly we will be missing a step the writer's early work and trajectory as an artist. The collection won't die, but somehow the publishing community has decided that collections are the domain of more established writers who perhaps have earned the right to write roughly or randomly, whereas new poets must prove their discipline in some way before they're entitled.

By all means a first collection should be selective. I don't want to read a poet's high school journals (unless they're really fantastic), but at the same time I appreciate the possibility of something a little rougher, a debut that indicates exciting potential for future avenues in the poet's work, a collection with several different types of gems.

I suppose what I like best about reading the first collections of contemporary poets is the relative lack of Artifice. Artifice is an idea central to the work of most artists, but at the same time it can result in tunnel vision. It's exciting to read a poet's early work, when they're just discovering their ability to use words to communicate something fresh and interesting about the human experience, but haven't quite figured out the exact categories and strategies that will give form to the words.

Perhaps this is mostly semantic, with "collection" and "book" indicating two vague and overlapping forms. I think the highest volume of poetry readers are probably students taking literature classes in high school or college and I wonder if students with shorter attention spans, taught from anthologies packed with variety would crave the steadfast unity of a "book," or be excited by the possibility of a collection.

Certainly each has merits. What do you think?

1 comment:

gregory lawless said...

Great piece.

I argue all the time for variety in first, second, third, etc, books of poetry. I don't see the problem with responding to diverse occasions with diverse methods, trying on different masks, and/or writing in different modes or forms all within the same "book." Why should a poet confine him or herself to one style? or one type of poem? Why not feature divergent ecstasies and a mastery of different forms? Why all the praise for redundancy? Pardon the rhetorical question pile-up but, yes, this "bits and pieces" dismissal (ever more pervasive) drives me crazy. Everyone's scouring for a shtick.

I mean, I love Dream Songs too. But does this kind of poetic iteration have to be the blueprint for everyone?