The Perfect Book of Poems

May 8, 2018

The Perfect Book of Poems
Flower Conroy
Key West Poet Laureate

On April 6, 2018, at 10:26 am on Facebook, Sam Sax posited the question “what book do you think of when you think of a ‘perfect book’ of poems?” Poets responded in a flurry. Of course some commented that ‘there’s no such thing as a perfect book of poems,’ which provoked me to think how I would define a “‘perfect book’ of poems.” Should every poem in the collection take the Dickinsonian top off my head, or should I refuse some of the poems? They should vary in form, tone, imagery, sentiment, and language, should they not? Tracy K. Smith once said, “Often it is a moment rather than an event that makes the poem,” and I am thinking, in light of Sam’s question, how this statement applies to poetry collections—specifically, how, in addition to the individual poems, the overall organization of a manuscript possesses the ability to facilitate this approximation toward the sublime (which is a more palatable word than ‘perfect,’ I think).
Let us assume we’ve two fistfuls of wonderfully varied, interesting, compelling poems—I’d like to take a moment and bask in that fantasy, hold on…ok, let us proceed—so we’ve a staggering smattering of poems; how do we arrange them so that they may speak to and over each other, and behind each other’s backs? How does the arrangement of poems reveal subtext? Does it? Shouldn’t it? Should there be sections? Perhaps. (The answer is Yes. The consensus seems to be that there should be some clustering, some division whether arbitrary or not in the collection so that it feels more digestible. That said, I just finished reading the brilliant—dare I say sublime!? poetry collection, House of McQueen by Valerie Wallace which does not utilize sections. And while I was devouring the work in one sitting, when I arrived at “Whisper the Water,” I felt I needed to take a break from the lush and cold and internal and imbued language before continuing on. Would a section break have provided that mental reprieve? Possibly. But the writing is so striking, so to the bone, I quickly picked it back up and devoured the remaining pages. So, no; you don’t need sections. Or maybe.)
I’ve taken several manuscript organization classes; one of which was led by Tom Sleigh. In his esteemed wisdom, Tom advised not putting all the “red poems” together, all the “blue poems” together, all the “yellow poems” together; but rather, to mix them up. This of course counters monotony; it creates drama and tension by allowing unlike poems to rub up against one another. He observed some poets have alphabetized their poems, some have cataloged them chronologically, and some have carefully strove for the holy grail of “arc.” He drew pictures on the chalk board. He waved his arms around as he spoke. His silver hair seemed a living thing on his head. Then he said—as only Tom Sleigh could—that “it [didn’t] fucking matter what order the poems [were] in.” I suspect if you are Tom Sleigh, you can get away with not worrying yourself over the order of you manuscript’s poems—but for the vast majority of us, it is crucial. Just as a flight tasting uses juxtaposition to enhance flavors to create an experience, the ordering of a manuscript, too, should create an experience by manipulating how the reader is served the poems.
Here are some responses I was able to record and alphabetize (it is impossible to curate a complete list as the thread continues to develop); numbers in parenthesis indicate additional times book was nominated. Looks like my summer reading list just got longer—I mean yummier.

A. R. Ammons: Garbage (ii)
Aase Berg: Dark Matter
Ada Limón: Bright
Ada Limón: Lucky Wreck
Adrienne Rich: The dream of a Common Language (iii)
Adrienne Rich: Diving into the Wreck
Agha Shahid Ali: Call Me Ishmael Tonight (ii)
Allen Ginsburg: Howl (ii)
Anne Carson: The Beauty of the Husband (iii)
Anne Sexton: The Awful Rowing Towards God
Bill Moran: Oh God Get Out Get Out
Bill Watterson: The Complete Calvin and Hobbes
Ben Lerner: Angel of Yaw
Bob Hicok: Elegy Owed
Brigit Pegeen Kelly: Song (iiii)
Carl Philips: The Rest of Love
Carl Philips: From the Devotions
Catherine Barnett: Into Perfect spheres Such Holes are Pierced
C. D. Wright: Deepstep Come Shining
Charles Clifford Brook: The Draw of Broken Eyes and Whirling Metaphysics
Chelsey Minnis: Poemland (ii)
Claudia Emerson: Late Wife (ii)
Claudia Rankine: Citizen (ii)
Claudia Rankine: Don’t Let Me Be Lonely
Corey Zeller: Man Vs. Sky
Cornelius Eady: You Don’t Miss Your Water
Derek Walcott: Midsummer
Dien Cai Dau
Dorianne Laux: What We Carry
Eduardo C. Corral: Slow Lightening (ii)
Elizabeth Bishop: (complete poems)
Ellen Reilly: Styrofoam
Eve Alexandra: The Drowned Girl
Everette Maddox: I Hope It’s Not Over, and Good-By
Frank O’Hara: Lunch Poems
Frank Stanford: The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You
Geoff Brock: Weighing Light
Gertrude Stein: Tender Buttons
Gjertrud Schnackenberg: Heavenly Questions
Gwendolyn Brooks: Annie Allen (ii)
HD: Helen in Egypt
Hayden Carruth: Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey
Henri Cole: Middle Earth
Ilya Kaminsky: Dancing in Odessa (ii)
Inger Christensen: Alphabet (ii)
Jack Gilbert: Great Fires
Jeanann Verlee: Racing Hummingbirds (ii)
Jeffery McDaniel: Alibi School
Jimi Savannah: Shoulda Been
John Wieners: The Hotel Wently Poems
Jorie Graham: The End of Beauty
Josh Bell: No Planets Strike
Julia de Burgos: Yo Misma Fui Mi Ruta (ii)
Julie Carr: 100 Notes on Vilence
Kaveh Akbar: Calling a Wolf a Wolf (iii)
Kenneth Koch: A Possible World
Khalil Gibran: The Prophet
Kevin Young: Jelly Roll
Kyle Dacuyan: (those conversation poems)
Larry Levis: Winter Stars
Lauryn Hill: Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
Lisa Ciccarello: At Night
Lucille Clifton: The Terrible Stories
Linda McCarriston: EVA-MARY
Lorine Niedecker: The Granite Pail
Louise Glück: Wild Iris (iii)
Louise Glück: Meadowland (ii)
Louise Glück: The Seven Ages
Lynn Melnick: If I Should Say I have Hope (ii)
Mahmoud Darwish: Sand and Other Poems
Marie Howe: What the Living Do (iiii)
Marilyn Hacker: Love, Death and the Changing of the Seasons
Mark Strand: The Story of Our Lives
Mary Ruefle: Indeed I was Pleased with the World
Matt Rasmussen: Black Aperture (ii)
Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge: (anything)
Michelle T. Clinton: Good Sense and the Faithless
Mina Loy: The Lost Lunar Baedeker
Mindy Nettifee: Rise of the Trust Fall (ii)
Muggs Fogarty: Nerve
Naomi Shihab Nye: Words Under the Words
Natasha Trethewey: Native Guard
Nick Flynn: Some Ether
Ocean Vuong: Night Sky with Exit Wounds
Octavio Paz: Collected poems
Pablo Neruda: 20 Poems of Love and One Song of Despair
Patricia Smith: Blood Dazzler (iii)
Rae Armantrout: Versed
Rachel McKibbens: pink elephants
Richard Silken: Crush (iii)
Rebecca Lindenberg: Love, an Index
Richard Brautigan: The Pill Vs. the Springhill Mine Disaster
Rita Dove: Museum
Rita Dove: Thomas and Beulah (ii)
Robert Hass: Human Wishes
Robin Coste Lewis: Voyage of the Sable Venus
Ron Koertge: Geography of the Forehead
Ross Gay: Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude
Russell Edson: The Tunnel
Ryler Dustin: Heavy Lead Birdsong
Safia Elhillo: The January Children
Seamus Heaney: Field Work
Sharon Olds: The Dead and the Living
Sharon Olds: Stag’s Leap
Sharon Olds: Odes
Solmaz Sharif: Look
Sonia Sanchez: Does You House Have Lions?
Suji Kwock Kim: Notes from a Divided Country (ii)
Susan Woods: Bazaar
Sylvia Plath: Ariel (iii)
Ted Hughes: Birthday Letters
Terrance Hayes: American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin
Theodore Roethke: The Far Field
Thom Gunn: The Man with Night Sweats
Traci Brimhall: Rookery
Tracy K. Smith: Life on Mars
Wallace Stevens: Harmonium
Wislawa Szymborska: View with a Grain of Sand (ii)
Yusef Komunyakaa: Magic City
Zack Schomburg: Fjords
Zack Schomburg: Scary, No Scary