While it may seem obvious that the term holiday implies one of the few moments of our year during which we can truly relax, shutdown our conceptual brains and tune-in to the inevitable repeat showings of A Christmas Story, let us stop to consider the amount of creativity that goes into gift-giving each season. Whether you are an online shopper or prefer to tackle the crowds in your local mall, you are brainstorming new ideas and thinking out-of-the box to discover that unpredictable, perfect gift for your loved ones, coworkers, and acquaintances. Perhaps we open our creative minds most intensely during the holidays, so, in theory, gifts which speak directly to these creative sensibilities should make it to the top of our must-have lists. Something that allows us to expand our minds just a tad further, pushing past the mundanity of office parties. Something that reminds us of the emotional connections we crave, particularly during the holidays. Enter: poetry.
Tracking the actual numbers for poetry sales in 2013 has proven difficult, even elusive, especially given that the--however unreliable--Nielsen's BookScan system is no longer tracking the category as a whole. With the jury still out on 2013's statistics, the trends indicate, as The Denver Post puts it, "the fact that a major art form has been marginalized." Who could ignore the announcement this May by the popular UK-based publisher Salt that their sales had dropped 18.5% in volume between 2011 and 2012? While we could meditate eloquently on these disappointing facts (done so most recently in Flavorwire and The Guardian), instead, here is a call-to-action: Buy poetry this holiday season.
As we move full-steam ahead into the holidays, not one but two poetry titles remain solidly on the New York Times Bestseller list (Billy Collins's Aimless Love and Mary Oliver's Dog Poems), indicating that the national interest in reading poetry hasn't necessary waned, but is perhaps most comfortable with familiarity--both authors have appeared on the list in years past. If, time and time again, you're confronted with the problem of what to buy your relatives, and feel safe choosing authors you've heard of, consider revisiting the classics. A beautiful facsimile production of Emily Dickinson's handwritten "envelope poems", The Gorgeous Nothings (New Directions, 2013), has just surfaced, giving us a fresh look at the inner mind of a legendary poet. As author Brenda Shaughnessy explained in this LA Times review, "We look at the letters in which she humbly requests her would-be mentor to give her poetic guidance, and we see a powerfully in-charge, audacious, ambitious and seductive woman posing as a supplicant." Hard to deny what a sexy gift this might make. Or, whether intrigued by his recent exhumation and assassination investigation or not, Pablo Neruda's All the Odes (FSG, 2013) reminds us that some poetry can truly withstand the test of time.
Given the amount of attention posthumous poets like Dickinson receive on a yearly basis (an estimated 20,000 copies of Dickinson's work has been sold in 2013 alone), it might be important to note that a younger generation of authors, those who are alive and well, are also writing poetry that might speak directly to your twenty-something neighbor or close friend. Called "poetry's next great gay hope" by OUT Magazine, author Alex Dimitrov debuted earlier this year with a millennial coming-of-age, titled Begging For It (Four Way Books, 2013). While the work is perhaps a bit too risqué for grandma's stocking, Dimitrov and many of poetry's other fresh faces speak directly to young folks looking to see themselves, their lives and their interests, represented in an ancient medium. TwERK (Belladonna, 2013) by newcomer LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs remixes contemporary language into, as Terrance Hayes calls it, "a dope jam of dictions." Chicago-based author Brian Russell emerged on the scene earlier this year with the dynamically poignant The Year of What Now (Graywolf, 2013), a journey into the intimate lives of a couple whose world crumbles, and then rebuilds, in the wake of a serious illness. So while Dimitrov, Diggs, and Russell, along with the multitude of other debut authors published in 2013 that couldn't fit into this list, may be new to the scene, their voices do not lack any timelessness, and their poetry endeavors to understand the world in complicated and sophisticated way.
In between purchasing a premium Spotify membership or re-buying a Sirius XM subscription, consider buying the friend who loves music a collection of poems rooted deeply in rhythm. Yusef Komunyakaa's Testimony: A Tribute to Charlie Parker with New & Selected Jazz Poems (Wesleyan, 2013) comes complete with CDs of music composed by Sandy Evans with Komunyakaa's poetry acting as a libretto. Encompassing poetry from nearly a decade, Testimony is the type of gift that offers both insight and entertainment. If Komunyakka's collection is the literal translation of "musical poetry" then Kiki Petrosino's Hymn to the Black Terrific (Sarabande, 2013) is the figurative version. As the LA Review of Books puts it, "Petrosino shows us the hymn in the human," and in doing so asks us to consider lyricism and musicality as ways to investigate love, racial histories and identity.
Then, of course, there are the poetry books that defy categorization, that simply stand out as indulgent, delicious additions to anyone's bookshelf. David Trinidad's Peyton Place: A Haiku Soap Opera (Turtle Point Press, 2013) is precisely one of these collections. With verses such as "And nothing starts an / episode better than a / repeat of that slap," this is a gift that fulfills our need for irreverence during those holiday work parties...or really anytime. Mixing the age-old Japanese tradition of haiku with a sensational continuation of the 60s soap opera Peyton Place, this collection is fun, smart, and ultimately, a holiday essential. If you're searching for even more essential volumes of poetry to consider this year, you could reference the yearly round-up articles over at Publishers Weekly or NPR, where you'll find no shortage of thoughtful, touching titles that help spread the holiday message as a time of reflection on love and loss in its many forms.