I just finished Introspections: American Poets on One of Their Own Poems, edited by Robert Pack and Jay Parini. (Believe it or not, I read this book from cover to cover over the space of three years. I ordered it when Charles highly recommended it in a comment on this blog.) In it some 55 poets -- some eminent, others established, still others "up-and-coming" -- select a poem and then write a brief article on some aspect of writing it. How illuminating! How insightful about the creative process! It also introduced me to a number of excellent poets and poems.
The contents highlights contain a number of famous names, but as in many an anthology or literary revue, some of the stellar contributions are by relative unknowns. My personal highlights (poems and essays that quite set my mind on fire) include -- following the alphabetical order format of the book -- David Baker, "Still-Hildreth Sanatorium, 1936"; Stephen Dunn, "The Guardian Angel"; David Huddle, "Basket", Erica Jong, "The Buddha in the Womb"; J.D. McClatchy, "My Mammogram"; Wyatt Prunty, "The Ferris Wheel", Sue Ellen Thompson, "What Happened After"; Eric Trethewey, "Scar"; Nancy Willard, "Questions My Son Asked Me, Answers I Never Gave Him"; Miller Williams, "Adjusting to the Light", and Clara Yu, "Little Purple".
Still others wrote excellent expository pieces about poems that made them much more accessible and memorable -- i.e. , Thomas Swiss on "On a Stanza by Rilke", Richard Wilber on "Bone Key", Robert Pinsky on "Desecration of the Gravestone of Rose P.", Catherine Soniat on "The Captain's Advice to Those Heading for the Trees". Some poets shed light on pieces so private in nature that they would otherwise been quite hermetic: Ellen Bryan Voight's "Kyrie", W.D. Snodgrass's "Lifelong", Lynne McMahon's "For Gabriel, Falling Through Glass and Ice". Peter Balakian's "The Oriental Rug" is in many ways a marvelous poem, but rendered all the more so by "Falling into a Rug", an essay I actually liked better, which filled us in on the biographical and historical importance of that rug. In a number of cases I liked the essays far better than the poems they were written for. I should add too that there were a number of duds (and as luck would have it, most of these are in the first half of the volume, one reason it took me so long to go through it) -- prosy poems and stuffy expositions which one might expect of professor poets. A.R. Ammons and Mark Strand, poets I admire, disappointed with rather perfunctory contributions.
The glory and woe of poetry is its implicitness of context, or even lack thereof: poems make great demands on the reader to bring cultural and even personal context to them. All too often the intensity of that demand, even for me, can be too much. Prose makes sure it fills us in on what's going on. That's why I often like prose to be included in a book of poems: it gives a breather. A volume like this one gives the lie to the notion, popularized by the New Critics, that only the poem counts, and that the poet's experience is of little relevance to a critical appreciation of the poem. The blog format offers the opportunity for poets to provide valuable commentary on their own work -- and this book, as far as I'm concerned, serves as a model.