The Farrar, Straus and Giroux Poetry Blog

April 08, 2010

Henri Cole on the Moment of Reckoning

On March 9, 2010, FSG published Henri Cole's Pierce the Skin, a collection of poems selected from his body of 25 years' work. Henri tells us a bit about the difficult process of choosing the poems that appear in the collection.

Last month I published my selected poems, Pierce the Skin, containing sixty-six poems from the past twenty-five years. While putting it together, I used the selected poems of Elizabeth Bishop and Seamus Heaney as my models.

Elizabeth Bishop’s Selected Poems was published in England in 1967, and until a friend gave me a copy two Christmases ago, I didn’t know it existed.  At just over a hundred pages, it is a model of self-restraint.  Though some of my favorite poems from her first three books – “The Weed,” “Love Lies Sleeping,” “The Unbeliever,” “Chemin de Fer,” and “Anaphora” – are not included, I found this unexpectedly liberating. Time would correct things, it seemed to say, if I made my own mistakes. 

Seamus Heaney’s Selected Poems, 1966-1987 (which I bought when I was a young man) showed me the way to excerpt from long lyric sequences, letting parts represent the whole, as ash in an urn can represent the body. So with these two books on my desk, I was strict with myself while excerpting my own six books. The manuscript I submitted was only about 125 pages.

The fact that neither Bishop nor Heaney included new poems in their books seemed to support my choice to hold back new work for my next collection, which I hope to turn in soon. If I’d included a handful of new poems, I feared they might never belong anywhere, like geese left behind on the pond after the seasonal migration.

I think publishing a Selected Poems can be a moment of reckoning. I hope readers will see that I’m here to stay. My book is dedicated to Jonathan Galassi, my editor, because I feel he’s kept me on the map of American poetry, in whatever classroom or skyscraper it hangs. 

– Henri Cole, April 5, 2010



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