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The Best Contemporary Confessional Poetry Books

Posted by Scott Holstad on June 22, 2011

Just because I want to kick start this blog off and get some content out there, and even though I’ve got some topics in mind I want to write about, my time is quite limited these days, so this post will actually be stolen from an Amazon.com list I put together earlier this year. I introduce the list with these words:

“Of course I realize that ‘Confessional’ poetry didn’t just start circa 1970. I recognize the importance of Robert Lowell, Plath, Sexton, etc. That said, I think a great number of the ‘accepted’ mainstream poets considered to be confessional poets today are basically crap, so I’ve compiled MY list of what I believe to be the best, newer, confessional poetry books, written by some of the best poets out there. Enjoy!”

As a poet and writer who is both a confessional writer and lover of confessional poetry and writing, I’m biased and I admit it.  Still, I’m going to list MY top 20. I would love comments from anyone out there who encounters this post.  Disagree, discuss, add to the list — whatever you want. Oh, and I think I’ll add my descriptive commentary on each of these books after the list, in order of the list (if that makes any sense). Cheers!

  1. Play the Piano Drunk Like a Percussion Instrument until the Fingers Begin to Bleed a Bit by Charles Bukowski
  2. Love is a Dog From Hell by Charles Bukowski
  3. Factory (Pocket Poets Series) by Antler
  4. The Southeast Asian Book of the Dead by Bill Shields
  5. Firebird Poems by Gerald Locklin
  6. Stand Up Friend With Me by Edward Field
  7. What Is This Thing Called Love: Poems by Kim Addonizio
  8. Scream When You Burn: A Pound of Sacred Flesh from the Lap of Coffee Culture by Rob Cohen
  9. Stand Up Poetry: An Expanded Anthology by Charles Harper Webb
  10. The Doctor Poems by Lyn Lifshin
  11. Counting Myself Lucky: Selected Poems 1963-1992 by Edward Field
  12. Mad Dog, Black Lady by Wanda Coleman
  13. The Flash of Lightning Behind the Mountain: New Poems by Charles Bukowski
  14. Lifetaker by Bill Shields
  15. North Beach Revisited by A. D. Winans
  16. Deep Red by Donna Hilbert
  17. Goodstone by Fred Voss
  18. MAKING LOVE TO ROGET’S WIFE by Ronald Koertge
  19. In Danger (The California Poetry Series) (California Poetry Series, V. 2) by Suzanne Lummis
  20. Alchemy of Opposites: Poems by Clifton Snider

My commententary:

  1. The first Bukowski I ever read, decades ago, and I still remember to this day how it just blew my mind. I have all of his books, but this poetry book remains my favorite.
  2. Aside from my admittedly biased Buk fav — Play the Piano Drunk… — I’ve long felt this book was one of his strongest books of poems.
  3. One of the most important poetry books in American history. That’s not merely my opinion. Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder & many other big names heaped massive amounts of praise on this book, and with good reason.
  4. While Shields remains controversial re his bio/reputation, his books — particularly this one — just hit you in the gut, over and over, until you feel like you’ve gotten the hell beat out of you, yet strangely you want more.  Massively intense!
  5. Locklin’s best, IMO.  Great book!
  6. Geez, this is a serious classic.  What can you say, really?  This book, from early in the 1960s, went on to impact countless numbers of poets and aspiring poets ever since.
  7. She’s the superstar, and this book shows why.
  8. One of the very best contemporary anthologies I’ve EVER read, focusing, yes, on the L.A. coffeehouse confessional crowd, but packed with incredible stuff (including Bukowski, I believe — oh yeah, and me too — am I biased?).  Get this!
  9. Similar to Scream When You Burn, but a bit more mainstream, IMO.
  10. My favorite Lifshin book, out of all of her millions of books.  She IS the most heavily published author in the history of the world, right?
  11. A wonderful, wonderful collection.
  12. Coleman presents a worldview that is slightly different than that of some of the other confessionals.  Find her classic Black Sparrow books.  Well worth the investment.
  13. My favorite posthumous Bukowski book.  Good stuff.
  14. Another Shields poetic beating, brutal and rough, but you emerge (if you still have your sanity) simply amazed at this poet’s talent.
  15. Winans — major underground influence on the scene.
  16. I like Donna, always have. Good person, good writer. I don’t know if this book would make everyone else’s list for this topic, but I feel it’s worthy of inclusion.
  17. The under appreciated Voss is like the poor man’s Antler, yet I don’t mean that in a critical way.  This book is good.
  18. Koertge. Shoot, any of his books will do!
  19. This is one of my two favorite books by Lummis.
  20. I’m not certain I would always categorize Clifton as a “confessional” poet, per se, but I do feel like this books lends itself toward that feel, and is worthy of making the list.

Well, thank you for letting me “cheat” with some stuff I’d actually already done. I hope this list will find some new readers here and perhaps will encourage someone to read a poet previously unknown to them.

Finally, off topic, I just found this out this afternoon while nosing around Amazon, and I did go ahead and add it to my post from yesterday, but I’m just so stunned at seeing this (for so many different reasons) that I want to mention it again. As of this afternoon, Amazon.com is showing that a new copy of my 2004 book, Cells, is available for purchase through a reseller for $164.13!!!  Craziness! Who the heck would pay that for my book??? I remember thinking it was crazy when a used copy of another one of mine, Artifacts, was for sale at one of these online bookstores for $137 earlier this year. Seriously? I’m not Bukowski or Ginsberg people!

Here’s a thing that honestly irritates me though. It’s not like I made a ton of cash off the royalties of these or any of my poetry books. Truly. So, since I’ve seen a number of my old books for sale online over the past few years for over $100 at a time, there must be some demand somewhere for Holstad poetry collections, right? Yet, because these are sold used, or in this case of Cells today, new via a reseller, I’m not getting a penny from any of this! Yeah, that kind of irritates me. When my books were on sale new for $7 or $12 or $21.95 or whatever, I was damn lucky to get my standard 8% of the gross, which didn’t amount to much. Now that some of my old books are selling for hundreds of dollars, apparently, yeah, I wouldn’t mind getting a cut of that — they’re MY damn books and my words and my poems and my experiences and someone somewhere is making a sweet profit in selling these for those silly amounts. You know? Just my main thought on that topic….

14 Responses to “The Best Contemporary Confessional Poetry Books”

  1. Thanks for this listing … some I need to check out.

    Like

  2. Lisa Zaran said

    Dearest dearest Scott,

    A great post! You deserve attention and I’m pleased as punch you’re blogging again.

    Lisa

    Like

  3. C Reno said

    Scott, great points to ponder & great blog idea! Hope all is well!!

    Like

  4. Gretchen said

    Very interesting! My favorite, from the ones I have read is What is This Thing Called Love: Poems. I really like her style and her sense of humor. Admittedly, I haven’t read all of these, but there are some here that sound very interesting. Mad Dog, Black Lady sounds intriguing simply based on the title and your commentary.

    What do you mean you won’t get a penny from the sale of your own book?! Man, that is a travesty!!

    Thanks for this. I would really like to read the ones I haven’t yet.

    Like

    • So nice to hear you like that book. Wanda Coleman is one of L.A.’s best, and widely considered to be so by many, but she’s certainly going to be a different read than many of the others you’ll find on this list.

      I won’t get a penny from these book sales because they’re either being sold as used (writers don’t get anything from sales of used books) or from resellers, who have acquired the books and the right to sell them elsewhere, meaning my publisher sure got THEIR money, but I’m not getting a dime! Irritates me, to be honest, but that’s just the nature of the game.

      Thanks for chiming in!

      Like

  5. Lesley Lau said

    I will have to do some research to see what genre of poetry I usually read but confessional does sound as if it could be rather interesting/enlightning. Apart from Charles Bukowski (because of yours truly) I will confess (apropos eh?( to having never heard of any of the other authors. The next time I go to work I’ll check and see if I can get any of this in. Thanks for sharing this, will eagerly await future posts from you.

    Like

  6. Hi Scott,

    Dee Thompson sent me your way. Looking forward to reading some of your work at the blog! I could discuss the ups and downs of publishing forever, but the takeaway for me in what you wrote is: now’s as good a time as any to consider reissuing your work or revising it into a new work.

    Like

    • Hi Annmarie!

      Thanks so much for dropping by and writing. Sorry I haven’t responded sooner, but I’ve been mostly offline for awhile. Looking forward to talking with you…. Cheers!

      Like

  7. Sandra said

    Great choice. I must admit I have never heard about some of these books, so this makes a good recommendation. 🙂

    Like

    • Hi Sandra! Thanks for chiming in. I hope you can check some of these poets & their books out, & I hope you’ll find something you like. BTW, I just checked out your Tumblr site & like it very much. Thanks so much. Cheers!

      Like

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