It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
~William Carlos Williams, from “Asphodel, that Greeny Flower.”
I remember the first time I went looking for a book of poems. My English teacher ended class early on Fridays for ‘Poetry Friday’ and it was my turn to share a poem I liked. Since I was a page and shelved a lot of nonfiction, I knew just where to look: the 811s.
But what I found when I got there was A.R. Ammons—a perfectly respectable poet I would grow to appreciate years later–and not much else. There were three volumes of his work, all relatively recent, plus some old, heavy anthologies full of vocabulary I didn’t know and poems that smacked of schoolwork. My English teacher always had beautiful books with expertly designed covers and evocative titles. I was hoping for more.
Since then, I’ve been to a lot of libraries, and searched a lot of library catalogs in search of my favorite poetry titles. I’m often disappointed, and there’s a good reason: Poetry is hard to collect.
New title reviews are published in “little magazines” only once or twice a year; it’s ridiculously expensive to subscribe to these journals individually, and you’d have to subscribe to a lot of them to piece together a complete review landscape. Small presses publish most collections, and poetry titles are expensive; a paperback copy of my book, Allegheny, Monongahela retails for $16.95.
Since I’ve been working professionally in libraries, I’ve come to understand the challenges librarians face, and why so many poetry collections leave me disappointed. If you’re a public librarian, chances are you’re trying to collect for many subjects, some of which you know a lot about, and some of which you don’t (poetry usually falls into this category, alas). Like any trained information professional, you rely on review outlets to guide you to quality materials that your patrons will want…except that the standard review outlets don’t review much poetry. And you probably have to place orders through an ordering service that only carries commercial publishers’ material…not small presses.
The result? 811s sporting Dickinson, Whitman, a smattering of more contemporary titles from big publishers like Norton and Knopf….and little else.
Unless you have a bona fide poet on staff, it is really hard to build a robust poetry collection; a shame, since there are certainly poets lurking among your patrons. It’s hard to tell—we look just like everyone else—but we’re there, and we’re sad that we can’t find what we want on the shelves. We’re even sadder when we see school age patrons wandering into the 811s and looking bored when they could be excited.
Librarians, if you have the resources, I encourage you to build your poetry collection! I created this kit to help you get started. It includes some benchmark poetry collections and awards you can use in lieu of reviews, and a list of core titles and magazines that poets will want to have access too.
And don’t forget about our poetry-themed Pinterest boards! They’re a great way to visualize a collection, and include links to www.worldcat.org so you can find out if you already own a title, and quickly access ISBNs and other information for ordering.
Many thanks to Jesse Lee Kercheval, a wonderful friend and mentor from my MFA at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Creative Writing Program, who is an obsessive list maker. She shared her “Poetry Life List” with my class of poets during our first workshop, and it stands as the inspiration for this kit.