Top Reads 2009: Poetry

My poetry reading was varied and haphazard this year, but I would highlight the following five collections and poets for 2009:
  • While it seems like it must have been ages ago, my reading log notes that I devoured Ted Hughes' Birthday Letters on January 1-2, 2009 (a Faber edition I recall buying in York). They are haunted by the suicide of their addressee (Sylvia Plath), and now also by allegations of Hughes' abuse and callousness in the relationship. But I guess I'm still enough of a New Critic to not let that detract from the poetry, like the eerie earthiness of "Karlsbad Caverns."
  • Charles Wright's latest collection, Sestets, gathers his work that has been trickling out in magazines and literary quarterlies over the past few years, including one of my all-time favorites, "Cowboy Up." This is an almost 'metaphysical' collection about which I hope to write in more detail soon.
  • For something completely different, I was deeply marked by a week with Carl Sandburg, Selected Poems (in a LOA edition edited by Paul Berman). This was a treasured purchase from the celebrated Malaprop's bookstore in Asheville, NC and was a source of meditation while we stayed in a cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains. During our time there, we also visited Sandburg's home near Flat Rock, NC. His gritty homage to Chicago is still a paen to the underside of glitzy America, and his honesty about the "working class" still rings true. His was an America that still made stuff, before all that was solid melted into thin air.
  • 2009 will also be the year that I kept bumping into Albert Goldbarth in various places--like his poem, "Sentimental," which I recently noted. But it took me a while to connect this to a poem I highlighted back in 2008, a recent New Yorker poem, "The Way." He's now at the top of my "to-read" poetry list for 2010, along with Sherman Alexie and Anne Carson.
  • Honorable mention: Keith Taylor, If the World Becomes So Bright. A collection of "Michigan" poems by a Michigan poet; a regional treat. And I love how the last lines capture our inbuilt semiotic proclivities to "read" the world: "I would like to be cold and clearheaded about / these events, but it is hard not to take them as signs."


Top Reads 2009: Nonfiction & Memoir

Julia Child, My Life in France

I bought this for my wife a couple of years ago, and then decided to cram it before going to see Julie & Julia. What a delightful surprise! Part travelogue, part cookbook (in a way), the book is an homage to a "simple" way of life that also relishes and revels in "the good things" of life. And it is a beautiful memoir of a marriage well-lived, without idealization or idolization.

Madeleine L'Engle, Two-Part Invention: The Story of Marriage

This is an oldie Deanna picked up at a thrift shop. After she devoured it, it was put on my must-read list. (I find this to be a delightful part of the friendship that is marriage: reading books together.) In the same spirit at My Life in France, L'Engle sketches the story of a kind of bohemian marriage, but this one is constrained by Christian commitments, and also beset by suffering.

Wendell Berry, Bringing it to the Table: On Farming and Food, with an Introduction by Michael Pollan

An timely, accessible, and representative collection of Berry's writings on food production, farming, and husbandry, including some fiction selections that picture mealtimes and practices of eating. The selections span his entire writing career (and the early selections show how prescient he was/is). An excellent introduction to, and compendium of, Berry's thought.

David Foster Wallace, This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life

Not sure where to place this in terms of genre, but DFW's 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College appeared as a book last spring. Part of me was cynical about stretching this into a little hardcover--accomplished by publishing it with one sentence per page. On the other hand, this makes reading it a sort of meditative exercise--which is fitting. I see Wallace trying to redeem cliche in this piece (something he was already doing in Infinite Jest), and in doing so, he hits upon the centrality of worship. I assigned this as required reading in my Intro to Philosophy class (right after we finished Augustine's Confessions and watched American Beauty).

Terry Eagleton, How to Read a Poem

With Eagleton's typical verve, and post-theory rancor, this book is a philosophically-astute account of poetry, and specifically reading poetry, that isn't afraid to actually appreciate poetry.

Honorable Mention: Mark McGurl, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creating Writing. Playing on, and somewhat extending, Kenner's The Pound Era, McGurl considers the formative role of ever-expanding MFA programs on American post-war fiction up to the present. Having been sometimes tempted to enroll, this book birthed in me a principled resistance. (See also Louis Menand's review and discussion in the New Yorker.)