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Monday, June 16, 2008

Sourcebooks, Inc no longer qualifies as a “small publisher,” but it has kept its independent spirit and produces quality books for markets, such as poetry, that the really big publishers seem either to ignore or to treat almost as academic vanity presses — where the vanity in question is the publisher’s, not the authors’. Its poetry catalog is weighted toward hip-hop and spoken word and usually includes a CD sampling the texts. The anthology The Poem I Turn To, edited by Jason Schinder, has a CD as well, though the content is very different, and the structure is, as far as I know, unique. Let me say right up front that I like the book and thoroughly approve of its editorial strategy — and I don’t think I'd have ever bought it. I am emphatically not part of its target audience, as you’ll see below.

The book’s subtitle is “Actors & Directors Present Poetry That Inspires Them.” Now, I approve of nearly anything that has a chance of expanding poetry’s audience, but after I got over the giddiness of being asked to review a book I began to dread what I expected to be celebrity egos lathered over a collection of more-or-less worthy chestnuts interspersed with new age crap from the 20th and 21st centuries. I was an arrogant idiot.

There is a strong emphasis on the 20th century and only Blake survives from the 18th, but new age crap and the less worthy chestnuts are a tiny minority in this fine collection. I should have known that actors and directors would have at least as good a taste as toolmakers and teachers, and that people in the entertainment industry would find “inspiration” in tougher stuff than pablum. Producer Kathleen Glynn chose Dorianne Laux’s “The Shipfitter’s Wife” (one of the sexiest poems I know, without a hint of lewdness) and Donald Hall’s “My Son, My Executioner” while Carrie Fisher chose E. E. Cummings’ “anyone lived in a little how town” and Larkin’s “This be the Verse”(!); there’s more Rilke (including two chosen by Jane Fonda) and Shakespeare than anyone else, and there's Yeats and Jon Silkin, James Wright and Kenneth Koch, Gwendolyn Brooks and Andrew Marvell, Ted Roethke and Seamus Heaney, Meghan O’Rourke and Mark Strand, Frost and Cavafy, Neruda and Pound, Plath and Eliot, Kunitz and Lorca …

So why would I not have bought the book? Well, I already own at least one copy of virtually every valuable (to me) poem in the book, and I don't have the slightest curiosity about what the “stars” read — though having found out, I am very gratified and probably will buy copies to give as gifts. Without a hint of condescension, The Poem I Turn To is an excellent introduction to poetry for people who don’t read the stuff. The accompanying CD is particularly valuable because actors can read: its 30 poems are presented beautifully and naturally.


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