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by Aaron Belz


The charms and annoyances of "collected poems."

Reissue! Repackage! Repackage!
Reevaluate the songs,
Double-pack with a photograph,
Extra track, and a tacky badge.


One benefit of a "collected poems" is that it allows us to read a poet's work in context of his or her larger vision. A collected can reveal strengths, poems that haven't received much attention, and it can reveal weaknesses. A collected, like a box set with B-sides, can prompt a sudden, sad realization: I don't like everything this poet has done; in fact, it seems that what I do like is something of an anomaly. A collected might well lead to the disposal of individual works, either because they have been made redundant, or because they are no longer cherished. A collected has a way of shaking the tree.

The physical presence of a collected can be intimidating or even discouraging. The Collected Poems of Charles Olsen, a handsome volume published a few years ago by the University of California Press, defies even the average attaché case—and that volume doesn't include Olsen's massive Maximus Poems. Tempted to slip a collected into your backpack, you need to remember that the unusual weight of the thing often leads to ripping of the dust cover. Indeed, some collecteds are like cinder blocks wrapped carefully in Kleenex. This changes the reading experience from one of possible momentary pleasure to one of carefully planned engagement.

For publishers, a collected represents a new way to market an author, an opportunity to schedule readings and lectures, and possibly to cultivate a new readership. A collected can be a good way to cash in on a legacy. It's easy to become a bit jaded about this whole "collected" business—for a business it is. Of course, Bibles are big business too.

Of the four new collecteds and two selecteds under review in this essay, Allen Ginsberg's is the heftiest and at $39.95 the most expensive, despite the fact that he often denounced consumerism.  In "America" he asks, "When can I go into the supermarket ...

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