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Sample Essay from Brooker Prize Winner




Where Poetry Comes to Live

Ian Desai

General Information


Previous Prize Recipients


Poetry is different from other genres of literature not only in its style and form, but also in the circumstances of its composition and presentation to its audience. Where as fiction and prose are usually strategically and meticulously crafted, poetry emanates from deeper within a writer, often from 'the heart' as much as from the mind. That is not to say that the process of poetic composition is not at times utterly painstaking, for indeed it is. Rather, it is to emphasize that there is an element of contingency beyond authorial skill in poetic composition. Writing poetry is contingent on a kind of unique inspiration that cannot be superficial or insincere. This particularity, and even peculiarity, of vision sets poetry aside from other mainstream literary genres and demands the attention of an equally committed and inspired audience. As a result, the delivery of most modern poetry to its audience has become the enterprise of numerous small and diffuse presses. These presses, which often publish only poetry, print their books in limited runs and have quite modest means of publicizing the work which they print. On the one hand, this system suits the nature of the poetic material itself (often ensuring that books end up in the hands of avid and devoted readers). At the same time, this publishing landscape prevents most poetry from reaching a more mainstream readership and thus inhibits a wider cultural appreciation of poetry in America.

While the past several decades have seen the proliferation of anthologies such as The Best American Poetry, 100 Poems Worth Memorizing, and the other similar catchy titles, serious attention to poetry has remained a minor concern to most major publishing houses. There are, however, important exceptions to this overarching trend. Three major presses, in particular, have consistently and enthusiastically committed to publishing quality poetry for a mainstream audience: New Directions; Farrar, Straus & Giroux (FSG); and The University of Chicago Press. These three presses, each in distinctive ways, have pioneered a courageous and laudable course devoted to cultivating audiences for poets and poets for audiences that marks them apart from the rest of the publishing industry. Furthermore, in addition to pledging their resources towards publishing quality poetry, these presses have succeeded in marketing their talented poets to the extent that their poetic publishing endeavors have become more than acts of literary fortitude, they have become profitable and savvy publishing undertakings.

The collection of books described herein focuses on the poetic publishing accomplishments of these three particular presses. The organizing principle of my collection is precisely the attention and devotion to publishing quality poetry in a mainstream market that I outlined above. I am especially interested in collecting volumes relating both to the development of these presses' underlying commitment to poetry in general as well as their commitment to the development of individual poets of exceptional talent and promise.

Specifically, although New Directions continues to publish some of the most interesting and important poetry in America today, the presses commitment to publish such poetry is the direct result of the vision of its founder, James Laughlin, himself a noted poet. Therefore, I have made a point to seek out volumes of poetry by Laughlin himself as well as the earliest New Directions Poetry and Prose Anthologies, which he edited himself. Similarly, in the case of FSG, I have focused on their recent robust attention to poetry, which has coincided with the editorial leadership of Jonathan Galassi, a poet and former poetry editor of the Paris Review. As Editor-in-Chief of FSG, Galassi has continued and redoubled the press' tradition of publishing prominent up and coming authors as well as seminal poets of global renown. As part of my efforts to more develop my collection of FSG poetry, I met with Mr. Galassi at his office in the summer of 2002 to discuss the relationship of his own poetic interests and the recent FSG publications. The present collection includes the volume of poems by Eugenio Montale which Galassi edited and translated himself, the two volumes of Galassi's own poetry (which he signed for me), as well as an issue of Poetry magazine featuring two FSG poets (Yusef Komunyakaa and Charles Wright) that Galassi gave me which still has the delivery label with his own name and address on it. Finally, the University of Chicago Press material represents a selection of works from their distinctly popular Phoenix Poets series, which are edited by distinguished critics and scholars. I have concentrated on the series edited by the University of Chicago Professor Robert van Hallberg. This series, in particular, mixes the intellectual vitality for which Chicago as an institution is so famous with a lyrical accessibility that appeals to a much broader audience.

Collection History

I began collecting New Directions editions during the late 1990's. After first being introduced to Laughlin by a former teacher, I began to immerse myself in the vibrant group of poets whom Laughlin launched in America. On several occasions, I would spend entire days coming through small bookstores in Norfolk, CT (where Laughlin founded New Directions before he moved the press to New York) and the surrounding New England towns looking for New Directions editions. It was on one such day that I came upon the New Directions anthology Number Seven from 1942, a rare and exceptionally important edition. Most of my New Directions editions have therefore come from second-hand bookstores, though I have bought several of the more recent titles new, including Robert Creeley's latest work, which I had him sign just this week on his visit to Chicago. I have acquired most of my FSG books firsthand, although I never miss a chance to scan the shelves of a used book store that I visit for FSG titles. As I mentioned above, the FSG titles in my collection have been assembled in conversation with the current Editor-in-Chief of FSG, Jonathan Galassi and I have focused on the more recent volumes from the past fifteen years which represent his directorship. Lastly, the volumes in my collection from the University of Chicago Press have developed directly out of my experiences as a student at the University of Chicago. I have often purchased these titles on the recommendations of Chicago faculty and have utilized Powell's and Oghara and Wilson's, where many of these volumes are available periodically.

Future Development

While my collection has matured significantly in the last two years, I am only now at the point where I can focus on enhancing the robustness of my collection. With each press, this present and future work is largely in line with the distinct aspects of their respective poetry operations which I have focused on. For FSG, I am looking to develop my collection in terms of particular poets, whose work embodies FSG high-quality and mainstream goals. As I have done with Frederick Seidel, I am looking to acquire a good portion of the poetic oeuvre of Carl Phillips, August Kleinzahler, Paul Muldoon, and Charles Wright among others. This requires seeking out volumes already published and continuing to monitor forthcoming editions. I am also quite interesting in acquiring the now available hardcover editions of the complete works of Ted Hughes, Pablo Neruda, and Robert Lowell, each of which would complement my present collection immensely. For New Directions, my task is much broader and goes back throughout the twentieth century. At the same time, my personal interest in focusing on the writing of James Laughlin and the writers closest to him (like W.C. Williams) will serve as a useful guide in proceeding with my future acquisitions of New Directions volumes, especially as I navigate my way to precious antique editions. And though I am now finishing my undergraduate career at the University of Chicago, my connection with the Press and its poetry has only just begun. I have much work to complete my collections of the series' edited by Robert von Hallberg, Alan Shapiro, and Tom Sleigh. I hope to use my final months in Chicago to speak with these editors and other editors at the Press so that I can approach my future work in collection with the same intellectual veracity and literary vitality that they approach their publishing work.

Mr. Desai won the 4th-year prize in 2004
for the collection described in the preceding essay.

A sample of his bibliography follows.


Note: All Hardcover editions, unless otherwise specified, are first editions.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG), all published in New York

Bishop, Elizabeth. The Complete Poems: 1927-1979. Paperback, 1990. [Good condition]

Brodsky, Joseph. Collected Poems in English. First paperback edition, 2002. [New]

Galassi, Jonathan. Morning Run. Paris Review Editions, New York. Hardcover, signed by the author, 1988. [Good condition]

Galassi, Jonathan. North Street. HarperCollins Publishers, New York. Hardcover, signed and personalized by the author, 2000. [New]

Galassi, Jonathan (translator). Eugenio Montale: Collected Poems 1920-1954. Hardcover, 2000. A Bilingual Edition (English and Italian). [Good condition]

Ferry, David (translator). Gilgamesh: A New Rendering in English Verse. Hardcover, 1992. [Good condition]

Frisardi, Andrew (translator). Giuseppe Ungaretti: Selected Poems. Hardcover, 2002. A Bilingual Edition (English and Italian). [Like New]

Heaney, Seamus. The Spirit Level. Paperback (Noonday imprint), 1996. [Good condition]

Hughes, Ted. Selected Poems: 1957-1994. Hardcover, 2002. [New]

Kleinzahler, August. Red Sauce, Whiskey and Snow. Paperback (Noonday imprint), 1996. [New]

Kleinzahler, August. Live from the Hong Kong Nile Club. Paperback, 2000 [First edition; Good condition].

Komunyakaa, Yusef. Talking Dirty to the Gods. Paperback, 2000. [New]

Lorca, Federico Garcia. The Collected Poems. Hardcover, 2002. A Bilingual Edition (English and Spanish). [New]

Lorca, Federico Garcia. The Collected Poems. Paperback, 2002. A Bilingual Edition (English and Spanish). [New]

Muldoon, Paul. Moy Sand and Gravel. Paperback, 2002. [Winner of the Pulitzer Prize; New]

Murray, Les. Conscious and Verbal. Hardcover, 2001. [New]

Phillips, Carl. The Tether. Hardcover, 2001. [New]

Phillips, Carl. Rock Harbor. Hardcover, 2002. [New]

Seidel, Frederick. The Cosmos Poems. Paperback, 2000. [Good condition]

Seidel, Frederick. Life on Earth. Hardcover, 2001. [New]

Seidel, Frederick. Going Fast. Paperback, 2000. [New]

Seidel, Frederick. My Tokyo. Hardcover, 1993 [New]

Seidel, Frederick. Sunrise. Penguin Books, New York. Paperback, 1980. [Winner of the 1979 Lamont Poetry Selection of the American Academy of poets: one of the three judges was Charles Wright; Good condition]

Stainton, Leslie. Lorca: A Dream of Life. Hardcover, 1999. [Good condition]

Williams, C.K. The Vigil. Hardcover, 1997. [Good condition]

Wright, Charles. Negative Blue: Selected Later Poems. Paperback, 2000. [New]

Zagajewski, Adam. Without End: New and Selected Poems. Hardcover, 2002. [New]

Poetry magazine. Volume CXXIII, Number 5. February 1974. Stephen Yenser's review "Half Legible Bronze?" of Robert Lowell's History, The Dolphin, For Lizzie and Harriet. All books published by FSG.

Poetry magazine. Volume CLXXV, number 1. October-November 1999. A special double issue of Long Poems & Sequences, featuring nine poets including Yusef Komunyakaa and Charles Wright and with an essay on "the Art of Charles Wright" by J.D. McClatchy. [Good condition; Delivery label with Jonathan Galassi's name and address still affixed]

New Directions, published in New York, unless noted otherwise

Creeley, Robert. If I were writing this. Hardcover, 2003. [New; signed by the author during his visit to Chicago, April 1-2 2004]

HD. Selected Poems. Paperback, 1988. [New]

Hinton, David (translator). The Selected Poems of Li Po. Paperback, 1996. [New]

Hinton, David (translator). The Selected Poems of Tu Fu. Paperback, 1989. [New]

Laughlin, James. The Love Poems of James Laughlin. Paperback, 1998. [Like new]

Laughlin, James. The Man in the Wall. Paperback, 1993. [Like new]

Laughlin, James. Remember William Carlos Williams. Paperback, 1995. [Like new]

Laughlin, James. Poems New and Selected. Paperback, 1998. [Good condition]

Laughlin, James. The Secret Room. Paperback, 1997. [Good condition]

Levertov, Denise. Collected Earlier Poems: 1940-1960. Paperback, 1979 [Like new]

Levertov, Denise. This Great Unknowing: Last Poems. Hardcover, 1999. [Like new]

Levertov, Denise. Breathing the Water. Paperback, 1987. [Good condition]

Lorca, Federico Garcia. Cricket Sings. Paperback, 1980. [Like new]

Lorca, Federico Garcia. The Selected Poems of Federico Garcia Lorca. Paperback, 1961. [Fair condition]

Pound, Ezra. Thrones: 96-109 de los cantares. Hardcover, 1959. [Fair condition]

Pound, Omar S. (translator). Arabic & Persian Poems. Paperback, 1970. [Fair condition]

Rilke. Poems from the Book of Hours. Paperback, 1975. [Like new]

Thomas, Dylan. Collected Poems: 1934-1952. Paperback, 1971. [New]

Thomas, Dylan. The Poems of Dylan Thomas. Hardcover re-issue, 2003. With Audio CD. [New]

Thomas, Dylan. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog. Paperback, 1968. [Good condition]

Williams, William Carlos. Paterson. Paperback, 1963. [Fair condition]

Williams, William Carlos. Asphodel, That Greeny Flower & Other Love Poems. Paperback (Bibelot imprint), 1994. [Good condition]

New Directions. Number Seven: An Anthology of Poetry and Prose. Hardcover, 1942. Norfolk, Connecticut. [Fair condition considering the volume's age, but still fragile]

New Directions. 24: An International Anthology of Prose and Poetry. Paperback, 1972. [First edition; good condition]

The University of Chicago Press, all published in Chicago

Baudelaire, Charles. Selected from Les Fleurs de Mal. Hardcover, 1998. A Bilingual Edition (English and French). [Good condition]

Bernstein, Charles. My Way. Paperback, 1999. [New]

Jacobsen, Thorklid and Wilson, John A. (translators). Most Ancient Verse. Special Cloth bound Oriental Institute Edition with an introduction by David Grene, 1963. [Good condition]

Rimbaud. Complete Works, Selected Letters. Paperback, 1966. A Bilingual Edition (English and French). [Like new]

Phoenix Poets Series

Edited by Robert van Hallberg

Di Piero, W.S. The Restorers. Paperback, 1992 [New]

Feldman, Irving. The Life and Letters. Hardcover, 1994. [Like new]

Ferry, David. Dwelling Places. Paperback, 1993. [New]

Gibbons, Reginald. Maybe It Was So. Paperback, 1991. [New]

Mazur, Gail. The Common. Hardcover, 1995. [Like new]

McMichael, James. Each in a Place Apart. Hardcover, 1994. [Like new]

Schwartz, Lloyd. Goodnight, Gracie. Paperback, 1992. [Good condition]

Wilner, Elenor. Otherwise. Paperback, 1993. [New]

Edited by Alan Shapiro

Ferry, David. Of No Country I Know. Paperback, 1999. [Like new]

Miller, Greg. Iron Wheel. Paperback, 1998. [Like new; signed by the author]

Polito, Robert. Doubles. Hardcover, 1995. [Good condition]

Sleigh, Tom. The Chain. Paperback, 1996. [Good condition]

Sommer, Jason. Other People's Troubles. Paperback, 1997. [Like new]

Edited by Tom Sleigh

Hahn, Susan. Holiday. Paperback, 2001 [New]

Miller, Greg. Rib Cage. Paperback, 2001. [New]


A Brief Annotative Note

Having developed my collections of these three distinct presses poetical works according to one overarching common theme, I have been particularly pleased when discovering and acquiring volumes from one press which are connected somehow to one of the other presses. The two most notable examples of this in my collection are the presence of Federico Garcia Lorca's work in both New Directions editions and FSG editions and the David Ferry's volumes published by the University of Chicago Press and FSG as well. In many ways these and other connections illustrate the committed attitude to poetry that these presses exemplify. In the case of Lorca, while his vision was initially recognized and championed by New Directions (and still is today), FSG's publishing of his monumental complete works in 2002 signals FSG's concern in continuing to expose Lorca to a modern popular audience in the same wonderful way that New Directions first did over forty years ago.