Two heavyweight champions in the book world

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forklift

How I got the books home.

Tuesday, November 19, was a dreary day – the first rain of the season. I hurried around the Stanford campus collecting my mail from various locations just as the weather was thinking about getting serious. Then, at the Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages, I found a USPS postcard for an undelivered parcel. The card, too, had staggered about campus, from one address to another, before finding me. The last day for collection, before the package would be returned to the sender, was that very day. I was annoyed to see that it was an unsolicited book from a warehouse, and the parcel was being held for ransom at at a post office at the uttermost reaches of Menlo Park. As raindrops began falling on my head, I headed back to the car, and threaded my way through the awful rush-hour traffic, snarled by the miserable weather in the fast-falling dark, wending my way past the car accidents and the flashing police lights.

glossaryIt was worth the trip.  The heavy package that awaited me was a book by a friend – Edward Hirsch‘s A Poet’s Glossary, 707 pages of it.  I rented a fork-lift to get it home in the traffic, where I’ll put it on a well-supported shelf next to Roland Greene‘s Princeton Encylopedia of Poetry & Poetics, weighing in at an unbeatable 1,639 pages.  How are they different?  Roland’s encyclopedia, the fourth edition by Princeton University Press, is authoritative and scholarly – “as essential for any working poet as a good dictionary,” according to Writer’s Digest.  Ed’s volume is clearly personal and somewhat whimsical.  “I believe its purpose is to deepen the reader’s initiation into the mysteries of poetic practice. It is a repertoire of poetic secrets, a vocabulary, which proposes a greater pleasure in the text, deeper levels of enchantment,” he said of the project, which was ten years in the making.

greeneAccording to the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt release, “With terms ranging from abecedarian to zeugma, Hirsch brings us along on a journey across the world, introducing us to Bedouin women’s ghinnawa (highly stylized verses conveying some hidden emotion – while leaving the excuse that “it was just a song”) and picong, the style of gentle banter that originated as a sung verbal duel in the West Indies, reminding us along the way of terms that have stayed with us since elementary school (remember acrostic poems?).”

Roland’s book doesn’t have ghinnawa, but it does have glossolalia, “the gift of tongues.” Both have ghazal, of course. Ed has maqāma, an Arabic term for picaresque stories in rhymed prose.  But he doesn’t have Marathi Poetry, a poetic commentary on the Bhagavad Gitā in Marathi rather than the usual Sanskrit, a radical move that started a trend. Roland’s book nailed that one.

Moreover, at a Company of Authors last spring, Roland made an unmatchable offer: if anyone purchased his tome, he offered to help the buyer carry it to the parking lot.  I say, buy them both!  I’ll loan you the fork-lift to get them home.  Many end-of-the-year columns are rating the best books of the year – but who is weighing the heaviest?  (Hirsch won’t be able to enter till next year, with an official 2014 publication date – but Roland’s labor of love is in the running.)


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