Friday, May 12, 2006

A Question About Poetry Readers Advisory

I am rereading 180 More: Extraordinary Poems for Every Day in preparation for this month's book club. We always discuss poetry in May and really enjoyed Poetry 180 last year, so we chose the sequel, again with poems selected by Billy Collins. Both of the books introduce readers to many living poets. In his introduction he says something aimed at educators, but the statement interests me as a librarian who advises readers.

"I had hoped that curious readers (with or without the help of a teacher) would be guided by these poems to others outside the collection. I envision a reader who happened to be struck by a Mary Oliver poem advancing from there to the nature poems of, say, Robinson Jeffers or Pablo Neruda, then to Hopkins and Wordsworth. This type of "branching," as it has been called, invited readers to find their own way in poetry by discovering patterns of influence and association by which poets are connected to other poets, one leaf leading to another. So, instead of the once traditional method of approaching poetry chronologically, which in my school days meant beginning with the daunting Middle English of Chaucer, readers would use as a starting place some of the more palatable types of contemporary poetry (you hold 180 of them in your hands) and work backward along lines or branches of influence and commonality. Perhaps a reader who appreciates the humor of David Kirby or James Tate would follow this branch back to Philip Larkin, then to Swift, and maybe - years later - to Chaucer himself."

Upon reading this, I sat up and thought of read-a-likes. Do we have any tools to help us with poetry readers' advisory that would recommend similar poets? Collins mentions readers doing it on their own. He suggests starting with 180 More, but I do not see that he says in the book where to find the branches. How are readers supposed to know to try Jeffers and Neruda after enjoying Oliver? Where are the lists?

Being at home when I thought of this, not near library reference books, I turned to the web to see what I could find. I tried a variety of searches (readalike, read-a-like, read-alike, "if you like") through Google and found only a list of readalikes for the poet Shel Silverstein, which I have lost and been unable to refind. I scanned several poetry portals without luck. I also tried searching using Collins' term "branching" without finding any poetry readalike reading advice.

I discussed this question with Heather Booth in the Literature Department at the Downers Grove Public Library. We agreed that many poets are rather independent and might not like the read-a-like concept being applied to their work, but the idea of poetry study implies comparing and contrasting works of poets that are in some way associated. Many anthologies will collect poets by period, movement, or nationality. Of those, movement is the most promising for read-a-like associations. Heather found some links to movement information through the website, which links to Wikipedia articles. Through this website, you can find Cowboy Poets, Performance Poets, and the poets in The Movement. The best link takes you to Lists of Schools of Poetry.

Looking around under poetry Dewey numbers in the Downers Grove literature reference collection, I discovered Facts on File Companion to 20th Century American Literature by Burt Kimmelman. I started to skim the entries for American poets and found paydirt. For example, the entry for Tess Gallagher says:

"... writing reflects the influence of the Confessional Poetry of her immediate predecessors, including Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath; like contemporaries Louise Gluck, Jorie Graham, and Sharon Olds ..."

Should you ever get a read-a-likes question in poetry, this reference book gives you something solid to offer to the reader - names of other poets.

Do you or will you ever get such a question? Reading poetry is not so common as reading novels, for which there are many read-a-like lists, and neither Heather nor I could remember such a request, but Collins (without realizing it I am sure) in his introduction is encouraging poetry readers' advisory. We may not be seeing the questions because we have never looked or prepared for them. What should we do?

I suggest we create poetry read-a-like lists and distribute them through our libraries and blogs and submit them to the Recommending Books page at the Library Success wiki.

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