Tuesday, April 26, 2011

444 Pages Deep into American Poetry

Book Reviewed: Good Poems, American Places, selected by Garrison Keillor

Once or twice a week, I'm lucky enough to be the person who unloads the new books at my library branch.  Library employees are not allowed to be the first people to check out new DVDs, but CDs and books are free game.  Sometimes, I find a book I have to have, and I just sit around nervously until my break when I can finally check it out (I should also add that I am a holds-placing fanatic; nothing is better to me than when I get to be the first person to have something at the branch).  That happened a couple weeks ago when we received a copy of the latest Garrison Keillor-edited collection from his Good Poems series.  I am avid follower of Keillor's online Writer's Almanac, and even though Keillor's tastes are a little dull, it's a great place to find new poems.  Good Poems, American Places is a long and fun anthology that introduced me to a lot of new stuff.

I read this collection in a week, which is no small task for a book of poetry of this size.  It's not always easy to read a poetry collection straight through; I often just read a little bit here and there so as not to get overloaded.  I read this one from cover to cover in long stretches of time.  It has a good momentum as it goes on, which makes it an easy book to digest.  Not everything in here is particularly exciting, and the same poets tend to get showcased over and over.  Occasionally, though, you get something new and interesting.  For example, there's a poem in this anthology by the poet son of my beloved college advisor.  What a pleasant surprise!

The book is separated into categories based on theme or place.  There's sections titled "City Life" and "On the Road."  As I mentioned earlier, Keillor's tastes can run a little bland at times.  He hand-picks a lot of new poets but only ones with a certain kind of traditional style (not that I should complain, being a traditionalist writer myself).  You won't find anyone like Richard Siken or Jay Hopler here, unfortunately.  I also found a lot of glaring omissions.  There's a whole section on the West, but not a single poem by Richard Hugo, who writes some of the best place poems out there, particularly about the West.  There's a lot of Midwestern poets, but no James Wright (from Ohio) or Maurice Manning (from Kentucky).  Now, obviously, some of this is due to rights attainment and whatnot.  But I couldn't help but miss what wasn't here. 

Those complaints being registered, I can't say I didn't enjoy this anthology.  I spent years only reading American literature, followed by years where I read everything but.  Good Poems, American Places brings back to mind my former love for American lit.  This book is a nice introduction to the world of American poetry, to its breadth and obsessions.  If you are a fan of place poems (which, I should add, is my personal favorite kind of poetry), then this book should be on your must-read list.  It also works as a great starter book for anyone who is tackling poetry for the first time.  All the poems are easy to read and in plain language, making it a great book for beginning poetry readers.

To finish, here's a few of my favorites from this collection: Reid Bush's "Campbellsburg" (see Sunday's Poem of the Week), Wesley McNair's "Small Towns Are Passing," Davis Wagoner's "Bums at Breakfast," Stephen Dunn's "Midwest," Marie Howe's "The Game," Faith Shearin's "Fields," Linda Pastan's "25th High School Reunion," and William Carlos Williams's "Dedication for a Plot of Ground."  I'm too lazy to post links to all these poems, but you can easily find them by using the search tool on the Writer's Almanac link posted above.  Enjoy!

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