More than 3,000 books of poetry are sold each year, and both whimsical and serious versifiers gain success.
By DENISE LOW
Special to The Star
Best-seller charts for poetry books show dogs are a sure thing now, at least among online consumers. And why not? My Facebook page has repeated dog and cat images basset hounds in top hats and kittens draped with yarn. These get hundreds of likes.
No surprise then that the current Amazon best-selling poetry books include:
Dog Songs: Poems
By Mary Oliver (144 pages; Penguin Press; $26.95)
Oliver is a first-rate poet whose work includes spiritual undertones. She often writes about nature in original, highly textured meditations. She has won the Pulitzer Prize and other recognition for her poetry.
Olivers beautifully produced Dog Songs has attractive illustrations of dogs by John Burgoyne. It assembles dog poems from recent books as well as new pieces and an essay.
In one, I Will Consider My Dog Percy, Oliver writes about how she chose to imitate the masterpiece of 18th century poet Christopher Smart. The dramatic dog monologue in Lukes Junkyard Song begins, I was born in a junkyard/not even on a bundle of rags.
I Could Chew on This: And Other Poems by Dogs
By Francesco Marciuliano (112 pages; Chronicle Press; $12.95)
Marciuliano is a satirist who writes for the Onion. His previous book, also a best-seller, spoke to the other side of the aisle: I Could Pee on This: And Other Poems by Cats.
Who can resist a pets voice, such as in this poem titled DOORBELL: THAT WAS THE DOORBELL!/SOMEONE RANG THE DOORBELL! Parody of dog-speak is unpretentious good fun.
Poems like The Cone and Unleashed appeal to everyones inner child.
Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems
By Billy Collins (288 pages; Random House; $26)
A dog on an antique tricycle graces the cover of Collins Aimless Love. Such whimsy characterizes all of these selections from his four books and new poems. Cheerios, for example, begins with the poets discovery that he is the same age as the cereal.
A Dog on His Master is in the spirit of Olivers work. A nameless hound says, As young as I look/I am growing older faster than he,/seven to one. Dogs can do arithmetic, but not calculus.
Collins, whose verse resembles that of Carl Sandburg, maintains a personable presence even in an elegy like Horoscopes for the Dead. The narrator reads how the departed loved one, a Pisces, could have a dramatic rise in income or he could need to reflect carefully before acting. Finally, the narrator closes the newspaper and remembers the funeral, with the deceased in a beautiful blue suit. Collins ends most of his poems with a predictable click to shut the box. Here, he concludes with the Pisceans spirit flying to heavens zodiac.
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While poetry lovers cherish their pets, they also support more serious literary writers, two of whom must be read:.
By Ronald Johnson (336 pages; Flood Editions; $17.95)
Small Press Distributions best-sellers represent a different kind of poetry. This Berkeley-based business reports its top seller is ARK, a reprint of the experimental epic by Kansas poet Ronald Johnson now available to a larger audience for the first time.
Before his death in Topeka in 1998, Johnson was an early practitioner of concrete poems, lines in the shape of their content. An example is the two words wing and wind printed in an X shape. He created the erasure poem RADI OS from John Miltons Paradise Lost by subtracting letters, and so on.
ARK is an epic poem based on architectural forms, specifically the Watts Towers in Los Angeles designed by Simon Rodia. The title ARK is an abbreviation for architecture, as well as a suggestion of Noahs flood, words as containers and more. Three sections are The Foundations with 33 Beams; The Spires; and The Ramparts.
Gerard Manly Hopkins sonnets have a distant kinship to Johnsons mosaic-like constructions, like Beam 10, which reads in its entirety: daimon diamond Monad I/Adam Kadmon in the sky. This rhymes but also piques word histories.
Students of poetry will be reading Johnsons ARK to study its structures as well as to enjoy its originality.
What Ive Stolen, What Ive Earned
By Sherman Alexie (156 pages; Hanging Loose Press; $19)
Alexies book is second on the list of Small Press Distributions best-sellers. A member of the Coeur DAlene tribe and living in Spokane, Wash., he won the National Book Award for a novel, but his poetry, though less recognized, is sharp-edged, effortless and inventive.
With his craft, he creates social critique festooned with tragic humor, such as in Family Memoir: We carried the furniture out of the burning house-/it was a blistered finger chore/And then hurried all of the chairs, sofas, and beds/into the burning house next door.
Alexie has used the term reservation noir, and the feeling shows up in The Shaman of Ice Cream. His fathers funeral is a family gathering of music, food and visiting. Along the way the narrator notices how unreal the corpse has become: If I picked him up, I could shake him/like a gourd rattle.
Wallace Stevens The Emperor of Ice Cream is the starting point for this poem, but Alexie takes it into a dimension of extreme realism.
In this book, Alexie reinvents the sonnet form as a 14-line prose poem, with discursive lines that echo the storytellers art. He is one of the most inventive as well as prolific literary writers; this is his 24th book.
Denise Low, former Kansas poet laureate, is a freelance writer who lives in Lawrence. She is the author of Natural Theologies: Essays, from The Backwaters Press.