So many times I buy a new book of poetry only to find I don’t relate to or understand the poems. The collection may be award-winning and acclaimed by critics but, for me, reading the verses feels like chewing wood. Case in point is Chronic by D. A. Powell.
It’s a finalist for the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry. Also, a few weeks ago, it won the prestigious $100,000 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. That got my attention. Then I read the following about Powell from a 2001 poetry award, and I eagerly drove to The Book Loft to buy Chronic, Powell’s newest and fourth collection of poems.
“His seems a vision born less of suffering than of an understanding of suffering’s place within the natural order, and the result is a voice that can say, believably, ‘the way to haven seems interminable,’ that can knowingly ask ‘am I not dust?’—without seeming to seek pity.”
You probably know where this is going. Ten poems into Chronic I put it aside unmoved. One more book on the poetry shelf that’s not read, sitting beside many of my favorites, ranging from the keenly observant Mary Oliver and Liesel Mueller to the raw offerings of Charles Bukowski and Diane Wakoski.
When I called The Book Loft to find out if they had Chronic in stock, the clerk casually commented — I assumed he was reading his computer screen of inventory — they had one copy that was received in May. That would’ve been 2009 because Chronic was published in February 2009. This told me the book sat on the shelf for ten months until I came along. (The mega-bookstores in town didn’t have Chronic in stock.) And here’s what this all adds up to: People don’t buy poetry like they buy novels or memoirs and because of that bookstores don’t keep a wide selection of new poetry by up-and-coming poets or mid-career poets or established-but-not-popular poets in stock and because of that we don’t have the opportunity to browse for new poetry or discover new poets and make more successful purchases.
I usually read about poetry books and then order them online with my fingers crossed because I assume, from experience, they’re not available at a local store. Chronic was an exception. In hindsight, I should’ve snuck away to a corner and read some of the poems before I opened my wallet.
Maybe it’s a good thing the poets I don’t understand hold space in my library. Tastes change over a lifetime. Someday I may reach for and enjoy them, and then the money won’t have been spent in vain. That’s how I’m choosing to think about Chronic and similar poetry disconnects on my bookshelf. And as I continue to take my chances, I’ll sigh: Oh for bookstores in our cities like The Grolier Poetry Bookshop. Oh for a time when such bookshops could and would thrive everywhere.
Note: This post was updated later in the day, after publication. It was updated again, 3/7/10, correcting 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry to 2009.