May 29, 2006

Best American Fiction of the Past 25 Years

Now, it's not poetry - but I suspect that most readers of this blog are also readers of fiction.

Early this year, The New York Times' Book Review's editor, Sam Tanenhaus, sent out a short letter to a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages, asking them to please identify "the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years.

The winner was Beloved by Toni Morrison. The runners-up were

  • Underworld/Don DeLillo
  • Blood Meridian/Cormac McCarthy
  • Rabbit Angstrom: The Four Novels/John Updike (Rabbit at Rest,Rabbit Is Rich,Rabbit Redux,Rabbit, Run)
  • American Pastoral/Philip Roth
And a group that also received multiple votes from the respondents:

  • A Confederacy of Dunces/John Kennedy Toole
  • Housekeeping/Marilynne Robinson
  • Winter's Tale/Mark Helprin
  • White Noise/Don DeLillo
  • The Counterlife/Philip Roth
  • Libra/Don DeLillo
  • Where I'm Calling From/Raymond Carver
  • The Things They Carried/Tim O'Brien
  • Mating/Norman Rush
  • Jesus' Son/Denis Johnson
  • Operation Shylock/Philip Roth
  • Independence Day/Richard Ford
  • Sabbath's Theater/Philip Roth
  • Border Trilogy/Cormac McCarthy (Cities of the Plain, The Crossing, All the Pretty Horses)
  • The Human Stain/Philip Roth
  • The Known World/Edward P. Jones
  • The Plot Against America/Philip Roth
I'm curious about you poets out there weighing in on the list - if you had to pick one on the list or of your own choosing, what would it be? Leave a comment below and feel free to add an explanation or not.

May 22, 2006

Poetry On Record CD set

I heard Billy Collins recently talking about Poetry On Record: 98 Poets Read Their Work (1888-2006). It's a collection of poems read by the people who wrote them, from early sound recording to the current day. I didn't even know there were recordings of Walt Whitman reading!

It contains four CDs and a book. They categorize the poems -Romanticism (Dylan Thomas) to Modernism (T.S. Eliot), Harlem Renaissance (Langston Hughes) to Black Arts (Amiri Baraka), from rhyme and meter (Alfred, Lord Tennyson) to free verse (Adrienne Rich) etc. - but that's so "textbook." I would hit the random button on the CD player.

It's interesting to hear how the poets intended their poems to be read aloud - but not all poets are good readers (no names from me), even of their own work.

It would be a good classroom/library purchase. It might be a bit pricey for individuals. You can listen to samples at

You can listen to Billy Collins talk about this set on NPR's absolutely great program, Fresh Air.

If you get the set or if you just listen to the Fresh Air program or even just the Amazon samples, I'd be curious to know your reactions to the readings. Post a comment below (don't be afraid - you can be totally anonymous)

I liked the readings by William Carlos Williams of "The Red Wheelbarrow" (not the voice I expected and so brief that it begs multiple listenings), "Those Winter Sundays" by Robert Hayden is a great poem well read, and "After Making Love We Hear Footsteps" by Galway Kinnell which I have heard him read and I like having it captured.

May 20, 2006

Goodbye Stanley

Poet Stanley Kunitz died this past weekend at age 100.

He was at his home in New York City. I'd like to think that part of him was in his garden in Provincetown.

Stanley said:

Poetry is ultimately mythology, the telling of stories of the soul. The old myths, the old gods, the old heroes have never died. They are only sleeping at the bottom of our minds, waiting for our call. We have need of them, for in their sum they epitomize the wisdom and experience of the race.

I'm curious. I'm active. I garden and I write and I drink martinis.

Immortality? It's not anything I'd lose sleep over. The deepest thing I know is that I am living and dying at once, and my conviction is to report that self-dialogue.

The best thing anyone can do now is to put breath into his poems.

Get started with one of my favorites by him - "The Portrait" - you can hear him read it there too.

Some places to visit Stanley
The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden

The Collected Poems

read some of his poems at:

Listen to a remembrance of Stanley
by Melissa Block from NPR

May 2, 2006

It's a sign of...

So this month we look at signs. It started with the poem "Slow Children at Play" by Cecilia Woloch which probably was inspired with a sign that looks like the one shown here.

Add to that a little misreading. Blame the lack of punctuation. (There wasn't enough space to make it "Slow. Children at play." and keep all the English teachers happy?)

Of course, that word "sign" is loaded with meaning. We are all looking for signs. We all love to interpret signs. The English teachers especially love that. Putting "sign and symbol" into a Google search only resulted in 67,000 hits. Here's a starting place for you: semiotics (the study of signs - here's a second site to try too)

For May's writing prompt on the site, we look for an actual sign to be the starting place (and also the title) for a poem.

Maybe it's a roadsign, or on a store, even an ad in a newspaper, magazine or on TV is acceptable.

There are plenty of humorous signs out there, so maybe it will lead you to a humorous poem.

How about this thought from "A Song at the End of the World" by Czeslaw Milosz about the signs we are looking for (and these days seem to be missing)

And those who expected lightning and thunder
Are disappointed.
And those who expected signs and archangels' trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
As long as rosy infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.

Check out Cecilia Woloch's website and blog at and her book for more about her and her poetry.