On one level, this activity sounds petty and unimportant; but as a writer who also works as an editor, I can't tell you how frustrating it is to get a manuscript from an author who ignores these matters. A copyeditor is essentially a hired close reader. In most cases she is also a nonspecialist, which gives her detached view of the situation. Such detachment is necessary, although I've worked with authors who've been horrified because I didn't find their sloppy incoherence "inspirational." Frankly, an author who turns in a book filled with bloated, lurching paragraphs, confusing chapter titles, no clear idea of the needs of her audience, and a bibliography that seems to bear no relationship to the text is hardly inspirational.
It's true that many people (academic scholars and researchers, for example) must use writing as a medium for transmitting information but are not themselves facile writers. The editor helps them, and the editor is glad to do so. The editor is not glad to deal with the detritus that results from magical thinking ("My grammatical lurches are heavenly and this book will change the world!") and plain old indifference ("Who cares if the page references are missing, the note citations don't seem to match the text, and a name is spelled three different ways on three different pages? Not my problem!").
Still, there's no question that checking citations and formats is a tedious task that requires hours of close attention. I've devoted a number of recent work days to teeny-tiny cleanups of The Conversation, and I'd rather be doing something else. But one interesting side task was the work I did to create a list of recommended resources, which I've set up as an annotated bibliography of books that I find particularly useful. I'm going to reprint that list here, and if you, too, happen to love any of these resources, leave a comment or send me a note. I'd love to add your remarks to the published list.
There are thousands of useful and eloquent craft manuals, biographies, letter collections, and anthologies. Here I simply list a few of my own favorite resources—books I return to again and again for advice, explanation, inspiration, and support.
Aldington, Richard, ed. The Viking Book of Poetry of the English-Speaking World. 2 vols. New York: Viking, 1958.
Don’t give away old anthologies just because they’re old. As survey anthologies go, Richard Aldington’s is completely out of date, but they I’ve always liked it because he offers an unusually rich assortment of Elizabethan and Victorian poetry. Recently I discovered that Aldington was a spokesman for the Imagist movement in poetry (a group that included Ezra Pound, H.D., and Amy Lowell). From the contents of these volumes, I never would have guessed.
Atwood, Margaret, ed. The Oxford Book of Canadian Verse in English. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1982.
This anthology chronicles, as the back cover explains, “the emergence of poetic expression in a developing country.” Beginning with sixteenth-century poets and ending with poets born in the 1950s, Margaret Atwood’s anthology coheres into a complex portrait of a population coming to grips with itself and its landscape. It’s one of my favorite poetry books.
Bate, Walter Jackson. John Keats. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 1964.
This is the best poet’s biography I have ever read. As he traces John Keats’s growth as a poet, Walter Jackson Bate manages to make me feel as if he is simultaneously tracing the expansion of my own mind. It is not only a wondrous achievement but a tremendous source of encouragement for any apprentice poet.
Borges, Jorge Luis. This Craft of Verse. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000.
I always like to find out what other people read and listened to before they began to think of themselves as writers, and that’s much of what Jorge Luis Borges does in this collection of lectures. He entwines these memories with beautifully articulated explanations of the way in which craft intersects passion.
Byatt, A. S. Passions of the Mind. New York: Vintage International, 1993.
A. S. Byatt is primarily known as a novelist, but she is also a literary scholar and a skilled and complex personal essayist. This collection focuses on a number of her favorite writers, including poets such as Robert Browning, Sylvia Plath, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It is an excellent model for anyone who is striving to write prose about literature.
Carruth, Hayden. Letters to Jane. Keene, N.Y: Ausable, 2004.
In 1994, Hayden Carruth learned that fellow poet and friend Jane Kenyon had been diagnosed with leukemia. His first instinct was to write her a letter, though he told her, “Don’t think about answering this.” She never was able to answer him, but he continued to write to her regularly until she died in 1995. This book collects that one-sided correspondence, a moving example of the way in which a conversation endures despite silence.
Frost, Robert. The Notebooks of Robert Frost, edited by Robert Faggen. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2006.
Robert Frost’s notebooks are a mishmash of drafts, cranky polemic, opinions about poetry, and his teaching philosophy. Spanning nearly seventy years, they are an unparalleled window into the thought process of a poet who was also a committed teacher of poetry. This is one of our touchstone texts at The Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching.
Lopate, Philip, ed. The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present. New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1994.
If you’re interested in writing personal essays about what you’ve been reading, Philip Lopate’s anthology is one of the best resources available. Not only does the book offer numerous models, but his detailed introduction illuminates many facets of the genre, which, “unlike the formal essay, . . . depends less on airtight reasoning than on style and personality, what Elizabeth Hardwick called ‘the soloist’s personal signature flowing through the text.’”
Miłosz, Czesław. The Witness of Poetry. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983.
Polish poetry occupies a unique niche in the history of European literature. Since at least the Middle Ages, Polish poets have aligned themselves with the traditions of classical Greek and Roman literature. Yet the nation itself has been in almost constant political turmoil—a pawn in every invasion, its borders altered, its government usurped, its people murdered. Miłosz was one of several twentieth-century Polish poets who brought their art to an extraordinarily high level in this atmosphere. His lectures consider how external events and aesthetic history influence the art of both an individual and a generation.
Nims, John Frederick. Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry. New York: Random House, 1983.
I bought this poetry guide when I was a college student, and I have never found a better one. Not only will it teach you everything you need to know about form, meter, figurative language, and other technicalities, but it also includes poems, writing exercises, philosophical talk, and even physics demonstrations.
Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman’s America. New York: Knopf, 1995.
This biography of Whitman is also a biography of his times. Reynolds explores the busy, shifting world of nineteenth-century American politics, culture, and society as it influenced Whitman’s transformation from hack journalist to poet-sage. It’s a wonderful portrait, overflowing with details and color.
Rilke, Rainer Maria, Letters to a Young Poet , translated by M. D. Herter Norton. New York: Norton, 1954.
These are among the sweetest, most patient, most sensible letters every written. Whether you are a mentor or an apprentice (or both), Rilke’s words will be sustenance.
Sternburg, Janet, ed. The Writer on Her Work. Vol. 2, New Essays in New Territory. New York: Norton, 1991.
In this volume Janet Sternburg collects twenty personal essays by women writers who talk about how they found their way into their art. Covering a broad range of genres, the book includes pieces by several women poets, including Rita Dove, Linda Hogan, Maxine Kumin, and Carolyn Forché.
Woolf, Virginia. The Common Reader. 1st and 2nd series. New York: 1948.
Virginia Woolf is, without a doubt, my primary influence as an essayist. Although she was a voracious and wide-ranging reader, she had no formal schooling. As a result, her essays are extraordinarily personal, revealing their author’s obsessions, excitements, snobberies, shyness, anxieties, and brilliance. I love them dearly.
Wormser, Baron, and David Cappella. A Surge of Language: Teaching Poetry Day by Day. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 2004.
______. Teaching the Art of Poetry: The Moves. Mahwah, N.J.: Erlbaum, 2000.
Baron Wormser founded The Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching. In these two books, he and his colleague David Cappella lay out a blueprint for a poetry-centered classroom. A Surge of Language is the diary of a fictional teacher, whereas Teaching the Art of Poetry is a guide to teaching specific poetic elements. Both, however, offer innumerable ideas for making poetry a regular part of the school day. The books are invaluable for teachers working at all levels, kindergarten through university.