I’ve been without a bedside book of poetry for the past few months, for some reason. My normal habit is to read poetry at night, and take several months to finish an anthology or a book by a single author. This summer, however, I’ve been reading such engaging novels and memoirs that I haven’t wanted to put them down, and that’s cut into my bedside reading as well. But I received 100 Essential Modern Poems by Women, edited by Joseph Parisi and Kathleen Welton, for my birthday, so I decided to get back into my usual, beloved habit. This book made the habit easy, but it left me wanting more.
The approach that Parisi and Welton take here is to collect “essential” poems from forty-eight women, beginning with Emily Dickinson in the 1860s, and continuing to Louise Erdrich, who was born in 1954. Each poet’s work (usually only two poems at most) is preceded by a two- to three-page biography. For me, the biographies were the best part of the anthology, because while I’ve read long biographies of a couple of these women (Savage Beauty, about Edna St. Vincent Millay, for instance, is absolutely brilliant work), for the most part I knew only bare sketches of their lives if I knew anything at all. It was fascinating to see how many of them (far more than average) essentially had a room of their own: came from wealthy backgrounds, remained single and childless, devoted themselves to their work. Many (again, far more than average) were lesbians, receiving the support of other women in a way that some women poets found themselves isolated from.
It was also interesting to consider how time has affected our understanding of these women. Some, like Edith Sitwell, were hugely popular and influential in their day, but are not much read now. Others, like Ruth Stone, didn’t receive much recognition when they were writing, but are more and more appreciated now. It was a good argument for good poetry criticism: I thought of Randall Jarrell’s assessments of some of these poets in Kipling, Auden, & Co., and how on-the-money he always was.
The problem with this book, actually, for me, was the poems. When Parisi and Welton say “essential” poems, they really mean essential. These are the same poems everyone anthologizes everywhere. From Emily Dickinson (who, oddly, has ten poems included of the 100), you have “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” and “Because I could not stop for Death–” and “I heard a Fly buzz–when I died–” and all the others you read in high school English. From Dorothy Parker, “One Perfect Rose.” From Sylvia Plath, “Daddy.” From Elizabeth Bishop… nothing at all, because of complications with authorial permission, if you can believe that.
Of course, there were poems here I hadn’t read, and authors who were new to me. I’d never read anything by Lucille Clifton, for instance (“the lost baby poem,” which made me cry), or Eavan Boland (“The Pomegranate,” which I loved.) But I wanted more. Perhaps that was the intention: to make this a first dip into the waters. If so, this book mostly serves as a set of notes: look further into these women, into their words. Find more.
There were several poems that were new to me that I adored, but most of them are too long to quote here. I’ll leave you with a short one that made me say yes, yes that’s right, in the way good poetry should. This is “Legacies,” by Nikki Giovanni.
her grandmother called her from the playground
“yes, ma’am,” said the little girl
“i want chu to learn how to make rolls” said the old woman proudly
but the little girl didn’t want
to learn how because she knew
even if she couldn’t say it that
that would mean when the old one died she would be less
dependent on her spirit so
the little girl said
“i don’t want to know how to make no rolls”
with her lips poked out
and the old woman wiped her hands on
her apron saying “lord
and neither of them ever
said what they meant
and i guess nobody ever does