We asked our Chancellors what books they’d recommend reading. Seven Chancellors each chose two books of poems—a volume often revisited for continuous inspiration and another beloved book more readers should know about.
Essential Book: I go back to Pictures from Brueghel by William Carlos Williams. I am always mystified by how lines with only one word in them—lines like “and” and “it”—can have such authority and momentum. I come away awake and refreshed.
Beloved Book: I hope Giovanni Singleton’s book, Ascension, continues to increase its circle of fans. She describes the first section of the book as “A daybook composed during musician and spiritual leader Alice Coltrane’s (Swamini Turiyasangitananda) 49-day transition through the bardo (the intermediate states between death and rebirth).” I like its size. It’s a pocket book that compresses a lifetime of humor, wisdom, and skill.
Essential Book: Hayden Carruth’s Collected Longer Poems includes work published between 1957 and 1983. The poet’s formal inventiveness, catholicity of concerns, and wide register of discourse are evident everywhere. There is a jazzy six-page Chicago night-song halfway between haiku and terza rima, a humorous rumination on Vermont in thirteen pages of loose blank verse, and a shorter evocation of a northern winter that prefigures Carruth’s interest in classical Chinese poetry. There are three sequences in Carruth’s invented form, the “paragraph,” a fifteen-line poem or stanza with intricate rhyme and stress scheme, including the entirety of “The Sleeping Beauty,” written between 1970 and 1980. This 125-part poem sequence uses the fairy/folk-tale figure as a focal point for a meditation on history with several fugal, contrapuntal themes: the narrator’s dialogue with Amos, an old Vermont farmer—or his ghost; and a series of monologues in female voices—Lilith; a foot-bound Chinese lady of sixteen; a Puritan poet whose husband burns her writings; Bessie Smith. “The Sleeping Beauty” is also a profound consideration of gender and its permutations, its wounds, in every human being, and our response to the “opposite” within each of us, whatever our gender or sexuality.
Beloved Book: Suzanne Gardinier is at once one of the most politically astute and engaged contemporary poets, and one of the most thoughtfully lyrical. Iridium is a new and selected volume, including poems from the fugal The New World, radiating from the geographical center of mid-Manhattan, and from Today, her book of ghazals. The new work shows an even more innovative and personalized formal approach, in elegiac poem sequences—employing a long line with a strong caesura, reminiscent of Walt Whitman and Muriel Rukeyser with an echo of classical Arabic prosody—in which Gardinier continues the examination of the interstices of individual/social/historical themes: love in wartime; a white woman witnessing with and mourning for a black woman; the power of music, an elegy for Mahmoud Darwish; against the backdrop of a chaotic society, juxtaposed, even in sorrow, with the possibilities of art and joy. There is humor; there is allegory; there is the human voice, adult and child; there are harrowing episodes of contemporary history brought into an intensely humane foreground.
Essential Book: The book I return to is Li-Young Lee’s The City in Which I Love You. The unfamiliar leaps, the dream-soaked realities of a “wanderer’s heart,” the revisions of memory, the illuminations on the demolished crossings of nation and self to the upper trigrams of sensual becoming and the knife-sharp divinities of being; all this, all the whispered line-work—takes me back to Lee’s pages.
Beloved Book: The underrated book: Drive by Lorna Dee Cervantes. Here is a Chicana poet writing since the early 1970s—with elegant power and a devouring mind. She “drives” with woman family, Sarajevo, San José, California, homegirl turf and most poignantly stops and touches the work on display in the Varian Fry exhibit at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Vast knowledge, a hungry heart, a fearless voice.
Essential Book: The anthology Another Republic was a gateway for me to a group of international poets who have companioned me ever since. In their brief introduction the editors, Charles Simic and Mark Strand, distinguish between the mythologically oriented poets (Henri Michaux, Francis Ponge, Vasko Popa, and Octavio Paz) and the historically oriented ones (Yehuda Amichai, Johannes Bobrowski, Paul Celan, Zbigniew Herbert, Miroslav Holub, Czesław Miłosz, and Yannis Ritsos). I would soon add Ingeborg Bachmann and Wisława Szymborska to my pantheon. The mythic mode has its origins in Surrealism, and the Surrealist poets (André Breton, Paul Éluard, Louis Aragon, Robert Desnos) also wrote powerfully erotic poems. Constantine P. Cavafy was the precursor of the historically minded mode, and he also wrote erotic poems with a startling religious force. Certainly there is a lesson in that. I adore the mythologists, but I was changed by the late-modern consciences, sometimes tragic, sometimes comic, who deeply humanized poetry.
Beloved Book: Stephen Berg had a special gift for fusing his voice with other voices, and his book The Steel Cricket: Versions 1958–1997 brings together a dizzying array of poets from different times and places—from Bankei to Giacomo Leopardi, from Octavio Paz to Innokenty Annensky. I love his reinventions of Aztec, Tlingit, and Eskimo songs, his haiku perceptions, his versions of the Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti, which are necessary twentieth-century poems. The Steel Cricket belongs on the shelf next to Ezra Pound’s collected Translations, Robert Lowell’s Imitations, and W. S. Merwin’s Selected Translations. Berg took great license with his sources, and his adaptations operate in an ambiguous literary space. The ambiguity is even greater in his marvelous book of dependency With Akhmatova at the Black Gates. Berg’s driving need, his quirky poetic intelligence, his relentless self-scrutiny, and his great freedom of expression enabled him to create poems of startling beauty and deep spiritual quest.
Essential Book: I’ve been reading around in Song of the Simple Truth by Julia de Burgos, translated Jack Agüeros, since 1997. The subject area of my PhD is American ethnic literature yet I’m ashamed of the fact that every one of the poems I’ve read by de Burgos via Agüeros (as a translator myself, I know how much a translated poem depends on its translator) comes as a surprise and blows my socks off. I’m ashamed of that surprise: that I’m not familiar with more of the poems; that I don’t recognize the poems by a poet who is considered by many to be one of the greatest Puerto Rican/New York poets.
Beloved Book: In the spring of 2012 I had the privilege of spending a day with Joe Gouveia, who was my host for a reading at the Cape Cod Cultural Center. What a gift that day was, what a reinforcement of my wavering sense that poetry matters. Born and raised on the Cape, the son of working-class Portuguese immigrants, Gouveia had a bottomless commitment to poetry. Robert Pinsky describes him as a poet with “ever widening gaze.” Martín Espada applauds his “clarity and courage.” He rode a motorcycle. He loved his wife. He wrote fearless, wise poems. He died in May 2014. Everyone who reads his poems will regret his early death. I recommend his book Saudades.
Essential Book: I recommend The Way It Is: New & Selected Poems by William Stafford. It is a generous gathering of Stafford’s poems from a rich life of writing, opening with a handwritten facsimile of his last poem, which was written on the last day of his life. Although we are lucky to have other necessary Stafford books available—Every War Has Two Losers, for example, and Ask Me—this thicker volume is worth keeping alongside them as a general reference for every day, mood, need, and concern.
Beloved Book: I also recommend Braided Creek: A Conversation in Poetry by Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser because the poems are so tiny and so succulent, each one a transporting hinge for the mind’s happiest refreshing movements. I think every person needs to own this book. It easily brings you back to writing when you have felt far away or confused. It clarifies your spirit. Take a quick dip into the mixed back-and-forth voices of these two masters and delight. I have given more copies of this book away as gifts than any other book. And I know for certain that many people have appreciated it greatly. So, why not everyone?
Essential Book: I continue to return to the collected poems of William Butler Yeats as a writer, reader, and thinker. I love poems from many different stages of his writing life, and I like to consider his transformations and growth. His late poems are a remarkable accomplishment, but I find the entire journey of his writing an inspiration.
Beloved Book: I am surprised at how often I mention Inger Christensen’s work to writers and readers of poetry and they draw a blank. I recommend alphabet (translated by Susanna Nied). Its structure is based on the Fibonacci sequence, and from the opening line—apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist—the poem sways and unfolds with singular rhythmic and incantatory power. I find this poem breathtaking.