Day 24: Dan O’Brien’s Favorite Poetry Books

April 24, 2011

I always find it interesting to meet a writer who crosses genres. Dan is one such writer. Today, he shares his favorite poetry books.

Keith Waldrop:The Silhouette of the Bridge. Waldrop’s Transcendental Studies won the 2009 National Book Award for poetry, but I have a special place in my heart for this earlier volume. When I was studying playwriting at Brown in the late ’90s, I lived in his house while he and his wife, the remarkable poet Rosemarie Waldrop, were on sabbatical in Paris. Their printing presses (two!) were in the basement (still are?), and every bit of wall space was and still is, I’m sure, populated with a stupefying array of rare and wonderful books. My bedroom was Keith’s study, which is where he keeps his books on religion, mysticism, the occult. The Silhouette of the Bridge in particular evokes Providence for me, with a certain haunted, humorous, keen intelligence that is both Providence and Keith Waldrop to me. (Maybe Waldrop is Providence?)

Anne Sexton: To Bedlam and Part Way Back. Like many people I read this book as a revelation. And also like many young people Sexton was the reason I began to write poetry at all. I stumbled upon it on a low shelf in my school library. I was shocked that someone was courageous enough – perhaps crazy enough — to write so honestly of secrets I recognized from my own young life, my own family, and I knew immediately what poetry was for.

Seamus Heaney: The Spirit Level. Death of a Naturalist, a model “first book” in my opinion, could easily be my pick instead. The final poem in The Spirit Level, entitled “Postscript,” is almost shockingly beautiful every time I read it: “And some time make the time to drive out west…” I’m heading to the west of Ireland in a few weeks, as a matter of fact, in pursuit of that poem in many ways.

Jorge Luis Borges: Selected Poems. World famous for his short fiction, Borges’s poetry has always been quietly, deeply moving to me — humorous, meditative, forgiving and sad. He helps me make peace with myself when I can’t seem to get out of my own head.

WB Yeats: Collected Poems. I don’t know if my poetic style, such as it is, will every recover from reading too much Yeats as a young man. My love for my wife, and my love of Ireland, both sustaining romances, are forever bound up in his work. He’s the reason I went to live in Ireland in the ’90s. I remember climbing Thoor Ballylee (or “Ballyphallus,” as Pound preferred it), Yeats’ tower in Gort, and striking my forehead on the low stone lintel before spinning out dazed onto the roof and feeling quite lucky to be alive, humbled and in awe of the beauty around me — all emotions I have when I read these poems.

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Dan O’Brien’s play The Cherry Sisters Revisited has just been published by Playscripts. He is currently a fellow at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center in Bellagio, Italy, and will serve on the playwriting faculty this summer at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. His poetry has appeared recently in 32 Poems, Linebreak, storySouth, and elsewhere.

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