A SECOND BOOK OF POEMS isn’t exactly like the under-photographed second child, the salutatorian, the beauty pageant runner-up, the bridesmaid, the vice-president, the associate chair, the jumped-the-shark television sit-com or movie sequel, the silver medalist, or the second largest car rental company with corporate motto “We try Harder.” But accompanying the writing, publication, notice, and shelf-life of second books of poems are a flock of anxieties, expectations, and other social, cultural, economic, and circumstantial forces that can often lead to their being overlooked and under-reviewed. Given, as David Wojahn once wrote, that publishing a book of poetry in America at all is “akin to dropping a rose petal in the Grand Canyon,” what is it about authors’ second poetry books that warrants our special attention?
First books of poems tend to be repositories of material that has been written and circulated among readers in various forms and venues for a while, sometimes for decades, but more often, in the case of first books published by graduates of MFA and PhD programs, over several semesters’ and post-degree-years’ worth of workshops, writing, and revision. These debut collections are often flawed, but in interesting ways; in many cases, they owe rather clearly to their authors’ teachers and literary influences. Provisions exist for first books (many of them costly for the writer, both literally — reading and entry fees, printing costs, postage — and emotionally — all that rejection), which often appear under the auspices of one of the country’s proliferation of first-book contests. A collection that has garnered a first-book award or that is being published as the result of winning a judged competition is more likely than other poetry books to receive notice and reviews. Perhaps this owes, in part, to our cultural preoccupation with winning. We often betray an impatience with what may seem to have lost its hotness or luster, its sense of embodying the moment. Could this be an especially American phenomenon? Obsessed as we are with competition, no realm of experience would appear to be safe from the possibility of being voted off the island (think of all those cupcake wars, storage locker battles, top model catfights, and my favorite, The Biggest Loser, not to mention the atmosphere of top-down metrics of quantifiable merit and value infecting even the lofty halls of academia). Our society is addicted, with a velocity aided by quicksilver technologies, to rankings, to polls, to who wins, to what’s top shelf, to who makes and sells the most, to who comes in first, and with whatever is trending and embodying the latest thing.
Second books are precarious but crucial, both for the poet and for the reader interested in a poet’s oeuvre. They suggest, for one thing, that the poet won't be a one-hit wonder. They are often more intentional and gestate more quickly than first books. Second books are also often more difficult to get published than first books, a situation that comes as a dismaying surprise to first-book authors. Because prize-winning first books many times appear with presses which are under no obligation to commit to ongoing publication of these awardees, even recipients of the nation’s most prestigious first book awards, like the Yale Younger Poets Prize, find themselves scrambling around and even entering the contest rounds once again in attempt to kick the second book through the door.