What I want from a poem is one thing. (Insert whatever that may be for you here.) What I want from a poet is another: I want to sense a moral in your life that is unrelenting, in your most frantic or most controlled, in your most throwing and thrown, in the full spectrum of your moods and wills and wishes, etc“. Collected books.
These are the poets whose collected books have been cracked the most at my desk in say the past year (and a perhaps ridiculous shot at an excerpted life-moral from each; oh man, this is where I always am troubling to myself):
John Ashbery, from “The Shower”
Miles away in the country the performance included glue.
Kenneth Koch, from “To You”
I love you as a sheriff searches for a walnut
That will solve a murder case unsolved for years
Because the murderer left it in the snow beside a window
Through which he saw her head, connecting with
Her shoulders by a neck, and laid a red
Roof in her heart.
Wallace Stevens, from “A Quiet Normal Life”
It was here. This was the setting and the time
Of year. Here in his house and in his room,
In his chair, the most tranquil thought grew peaked
New feet within my garden go,
New fingers stir the sod;
A troubadour upon the elm
Betrays the solitude.
Sappho, from Anne Carson’s “If Not, Winter”
Jack Spicer, from “Sheep Trails Are Fateful to Strangers”
There is a universal here that is dimly recognized. I mean everybody says some kinds of love are horseshit. Or invents a Beatrice to prove that they are.
What Beatrice did did not become her own business. Dante saw to that. Sawed away the last plank anyone he loved could stand on.
George Oppen, from “Five Poems About Poetry”
Sing like a bird at the open
Sky, but no bird
Is a man–
But really, the best part of a book is always the dedication page. And as far as I can tell, they all say the same thing: For Love. The inescapable life moral.