Day 34: Lisa Russ Spaar’s Five Favorite Poetry Books

May 6, 2011

I am always falling in love with poetry. Right now my favorite poems are those by my MFA thesis students, the undergraduates in my two advanced poetry writing workshops and capstone class, the three books in manuscript sent to me by former students, and several newly written or published books by former students and colleagues. Being invited to name five favorite books of poems reminds me of the question my three children would ask me, sometimes alone, sometimes in each other’s company: whom do you love the most? All of you, I’d respond, and truly mean it. I love you all the best.

But here are five books I turn to if not daily, then nearly every day, touchstones, texts that provide sustenance, inspiration, consolation. To this list I would add The Bible, King James Version, a collection of Tang Dynasty verses, and the unabridged edition of the Random House Dictionary of the English Language.

William Shakespeare, The Complete Plays. For me, Shakespeare’s most breath-taking poetry is in the plays: Caliban, Ariel, Mad Tom (“Poor Tom, that eats the swimming frog, the toad, the tadpole, the wall-newt and the water; that in the fury of his heart, when the foul fiend rages, eats cow-dung for sallets, swallows the old rat and the ditch-dog, drinks the green mantle of the standing pool”), Ophelia, Hamlet, Macbeth, Juliet, Othello – all offering those incomparable lyric speeches, forging self and truth through language.

Emily Dickinson. The Selected Letters, the Master Letters, the Poems. Who writes like Dickinson? That psychological intensity, word jones, the float of eroticism, despair, God-hunger, meta-poetic awareness, and salvific trust in language? She is infinitely challenging, infinitely illuminating, infinitely daunting: “The soul has moments of escape – / When bursting all the doors – / She dances like a Bomb, abroad, / And swings upon the Hours . . . .”

Gerard Manley Hopkins. Poems and Prose. I love the spiritual and linguistic difficulty of Hopkins’s inimitable music. And the soul in crisis, the courage in the poems, especially the “dark sonnets,” helps me to live: “Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee; / Not untwist – slack they may be – these last strands of man / In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can; / Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.”

Charles Wright. The World of the Ten Thousand Things. I can’t pick a favorite Charles Wright book (his brand-new Bye-and-Bye: Selected Late Poems is a stunner), but The World of the Ten Thousand Things contains work from four books Wright published from 1981 – 1990, and it includes his masterful series of “self-portrait” poems, the iconic homage (to Cezanne, Lorrain, Pavese), and those gorgeous journal poems, their cyclic engagements with skepticism and belief. “Lust of the tongue, lust of the eye, out of our own mouths we are sentenced. . . . .” Such metaphysical mojo.

John Keats. The Complete Poems & Letters. Could I live without Keats? The Odes burn with the romance of oblivion and ecstasy’s vision, that conspiracy of mutability and the beauty of artifice, the “viewless wings of Poesy”: “Ay, in the very temple of Delight / Veiled melancholy has her Sovran shrine, / Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue / Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine; / His soul shall taste the sadness of her might, / And be among her cloudy trophies hung.”

BIO: LISA RUSS SPAAR is the author of Satin Cash: Poems (Persea Books, 2008), Blue Venus: Poems (Persea Books, 2004) and Glass Town: Poems (Red Hen Press, 1999), for which she received a Rona Jaffe Award for Emerging Women Writers in 2000. A new collection, Vanitas, Rough, is forthcoming from Persea Books in 2012. Her poems appear in numerous anthologies, most recently in Best American Poetry 2008 (Scribner, 2008). She is the author of two chapbooks of poems, Blind Boy on Skates (University of North Texas Press/Trilobite, 1988) and Cellar (Alderman Press, 1983), and is editor of Acquainted With the Night: Insomnia Poems (Columbia UP, 1999) and All That Mighty Heart: London Poems (University of Virginia Press, 2008). Her work has appeared in many literary quarterlies and journals, including Image, The Kenyon Review, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Poetry, and Slate. Her reviews and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and elsewhere. The recipient of awards from the Academy of American Poets and the Virginia Commission for the Arts, Spaar directs the Area Program in Poetry Writing at the University of Virginia, where she is Professor of English, an Advising Fellow, and the winner of an All-University Teaching Award (2009), a Harrison Award for Undergraduate Advising, and a Mead Honored Faculty Award. She was awarded a 2010 Outstanding Faculty Award from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia and a Guggenheim Fellowship for 2009-2010. She serves as poetry editor for the Arts & Academe feature of The Chronicle of Higher Education Review.

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