IN OUR ONGOING SERIES Second Acts: A Second Look at Second Books of Poetry, poet and essayist Lisa Russ Spaar takes a bimonthly look at second books of poems, which are — for an array of reasons and in various ways — often overlooked. Each column will pair a second book of poems that appeared 20 or more years ago with a recent second book, published within the past two years. In Spaar’s first column, pairing Lynda Hull’s Star Ledger and Kerri Webster’s Grand & Arsenal, she writes:
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 sitcom 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?
In an interview in the Winter II 1989 issue of The Paris Review, J. D. McClatchy asks Charles Wright: “When you read through your early books today, do you have the sense of encountering a distinctive ‘Charles Wright’ style in them?” To which Wright replies, “It depends on how far back you go. Before a poem called ‘Dog Creek Mainline’ in Hard Freight, no; after it, yes.”
Hard Freight is, of course, Wright’s second book of poems, appearing in 1973, just three years after the publication of his first collection, The Grave of the Right Hand, in 1970, and it occurs to me that one thing that happens in many second books of poems, and one reason it is so important to pay special attention to them, is that often the poet begins to come into a fuller sense of earlier inklings — linguistic textures, rhetorical gestures, thematic obsessions, syntactical motions, line length, pacing, and so forth — that will give his or her work the feel of him or her about it. “As far as I can see, there is no great art without great style,” Wright goes on to say in that Paris Review interview, “however sophisticated or unsophisticated it might be. All major writers are great stylists [...] Major style usually, if not always, signals real substance [...] When everything clicks, style is Style, everything inextricably bound up in language and its ambitions, everything palpable in the isness, the radiance that language offers. It’s a concentration of the particular, I suppose, despite the gravity of the general. Transcendence inside its own skin. In other words, it tends to be not just how you write, but what you write as well, and why you write it.”
One of the great stylists — ...read more