Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category

jacket.aspxThis novel in verse reads smoothly like prose but with an economy of words that reveal only enough detail to get you into the moments, thoughts, and emotions of the narrator’s present predicaments. Memoir-like, it is so sincere that I couldn’t imagine it not having come from the author’s true life. The author indeed experienced challenges similar to those of the book’s main character, a teen girl named Lupita living in a Texas border town.

In fact, I read it under the impression that it was a factual memoir and didn’t even realize that I was reading poetic verse, probably because I first encountered the book in e-book format. I skipped performing the rituals of reading a printed book jacket, back cover, and title page, plus flipping pages to determine what the book might have in store for me if I were to invest my time in it. Even if I noticed that the book was written in verse when I checked it out to my e-reader, I had forgotten that detail by the time I began reading, and verse doesn’t necessarily appear as such when displayed digitally. Instantly, I got hooked into the voice and story of Lupita, and I became just as eager as she was to investigate household clues, trying to learn Mami’s secret. Once known, she becomes Mami’s ally and finds herself in a family role requiring maturity beyond her age, overwhelmed with yet responsible for the welfare of her seven younger siblings while Mami and Papi struggle with the crisis.

Reading Under the Mesquite provides an authentic internal view of an ambitious and promising young girl’s family life on the edge of poverty and along the blurred ethnic and physical lines bordering Mexico and Texas, USA. A glossary of Spanish words in the back of the book provides guidance to pronunciation, cultural references, and usage. This novel is highly recommended for adults, teens, and mature younger children interested in the family lives and struggles of Latino Americans.

Check the WRL catalog for Under the Mesquite

Or check out the ebook.

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beowulf_1So (or hwaet if you prefer), you may be asking how many versions of Beowulf does one person really need to read (or review)? My answer would be at least one more. As he has been doing since his father’s death, Christopher Tolkien has brought out another previously unpublished work by his father, J. R. R. Tolkien. This time it is a translation of the great Anglo Saxon poem that J. R. R. Tolkien completed in 1926 but never thought to publish.

Tolkien’s translation is, perhaps, not as easy to read as Seamus Heaney’s more poetic version that I reviewed here. For one thing, Tolkien chose to write a prose translation rather than a metered one. The translation is by no means dry though. A scholar of Anglo Saxon, Tolkien has a feel for and a delight in the rolling rhythms of the story, and even in prose he captures that rhythm. His language and sentence structures will seem familiar in some ways to readers of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. There is a formal and almost archaic feel to some of the writing here that is mirrored in Tolkien’s own work, and he does not entirely abandon the alliterative approach that anchors Anglo Saxon poetry, viz. “great gobbets gorging down” as Grendel rends a Dane into dinner.

A welcome companion to the poem itself are excerpts from a series of lectures on Beowulf that J. R. R. Tolkien gave in the 1930s and that Christopher Tolkien has edited here as a commentary on the poem. In these lectures, the senior Tolkien discusses language, symbolism, and early poetry, helping to set his translation into time and place. Following the commentary are two short pieces that Tolkien wrote under the influence of the poem. “Sellic Spell” is a retelling of the possible mythical tale that would become Beowulf, and “The Lay of Beowulf” is Tolkien’s telling of the story in a rhymed ballad form.

Fans of Tolkien will definitely enjoy his translation of this classic poem, and readers interested in Anglo Saxon poetry will find Tolkien’s commentary of interest. While I prefer the poetic version of Beowulf created by Heaney, Tolkien’s translation is a worthy read and a fine addition to the Beowulf canon.

Check the WRL catalog for Beowulf

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hughesHaving taken Latin all through high school, I was a bit familiar with Ovid, at least with the less steamy pieces of writing (Sister Lawrence never had us translating the Ars Amatoria), including some of the stories from Metamorphoses. These tales, drawn from mythology, all tell stories of strange transformations that result from an excess of passion. Ted Hughes, who was poet laureate of England from 1984 until his death in  1998, presents his versions of 24 of these stories in Tales from Ovid.

Hughes is a superb poet, with a clear voice, who was early in his writing career much influenced by the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Like Hopkins, Hughes frequently writes about the natural world, but his poems are often darker than those of Hopkins. He also frequently writes about passion, and how it shapes our lives for better or for worse. Throughout his writings, Hughes often made use of images and themes from mythologies ranging from Classic to Celtic. The Tales from Ovid seem a natural progression from his previous works, since Ovid’s poems explore the transformative nature of passion.

There are some familiar stories here, at least for folks who have read some Roman mythology: the tragic tale of Actaeon, the sad tale of Arachne the weaver, and the mournful Pyramus and Thisbe (in fact none of these stories ends well for the participants). Hughes does not give a straight translation, slavishly trying to capture the Latin stresses and rhythms. Rather, he uses the original as a starting point for telling the story in clear, vibrant English. Here is a sample from “Echo and Narcissus”

The moment Echo saw Narcissus
She was in love.  She followed him
Like a starving wolf
Following a stag too strong to be tackled.
And like a cat in winter at a fire
She could not edge close enough
To what singed her, and would burn her.

So, drawing on my memory of Latin class, now almost 35 years ago, I can only say “Tolle, lege.”

Check the WRL catalog for Tales from Ovid


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kooserTed Kooser was Poet Laureate of the U.S. from 2004-2006, and is one of my favorite writers of short verse. He has often been compared to Robert Frost and Edgar Lee Masters for his ability to take the day-to-day events of rural and small town life and use those to explore the breadth of the human condition.

One of the things that I like the best about these poems is that they are always understandable. Kooser never resorts to obscure language or strange combinations of words. The titles of his poems give you a sense of Kooser’s topics: “The Red Wing Church,” “Furnace,” “A Frozen Stream,” “In an Old Apple Orchard.” And he writes about these things in clear language. But, Kooser then takes these familiar themes and all of a sudden opens up a new way of looking at the world. It is these flashes of insight that make any poem, and particularly Kooser’s, worth reading.

Here is one favorite, “The Grandfather Cap”

Sometimes I think that as he aged,
this cap, with the stain in its brim
like a range of dark mountains,
became the horizon to him.
He never felt right with it off.

Check the WRL catalog for Flying at Night

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poemsGetting back into reading poetry can be daunting. You go to the shelves in the 811 section of the library and there are all these thin books by people you have never heard of. How do you know who is going to be interesting rather than tedious? One great way to get started is to try a poetry anthology. There are lots of books of collected poems in the WRL collection. Some focus on specific types of poetry, e.g. The 100 best love poems of all time, An anthology of modern Irish poetry, or The Oxford book of war poetry. Others are broader collections that cover centuries of poetry. Often, these are arranged chronologically to give the reader a sense of the sweep of poetry through the ages (the best of these is Oscar Williams’s anthology Immortal poems of the English language, a tattered, 35-year-old copy of which sits on my nightstand, thank you Sister Anna Jean!).

William Harmon takes a different approach in The classic hundred. Here, Harmon gathers together the 100 most-anthologized poems in English. The idea being that these are the poems that “have achieved the greatest success for the longest time with the largest number of readers.” These are, for the most part, shorter poems (though Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is included), and they offer readers new to poetry or those trying to rekindle an interest in poems some excellent choices. From William Blakes “The Tyger” to Yeats’s “When You are Old,” these are poems that avoid any hint of intentional obscurity or condescension. In these pieces, Harmon has put together a firm foundation for any further poetry reading.

Each poem receives a brief, but useful, introduction from the editor, placing the poem, and the poet, in their historic, literary, and cultural context. There is also a Notes section that has definitions of words and place names and sometimes a bit more information on the poetic form. All in all, this is an excellent place to start if you are looking for poems to read or to memorize. Here is one to start on,  “Ozymandias,” by Percy Bysshe Shelley:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Check the WRL catalog for The Classic Hundred



by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

- See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15691#sthash.6t7rQQf3.dpuf


by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

- See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15691#sthash.6t7rQQf3.dpuf


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committedApril is poetry month, so turning from Grant and the Civil War, the rest of this week’s posts will look at poetry and poets. As I have written about before, there are lots of reasons to memorize poems. The act of memorization is good for the brain, and I think that memorizing poetry is also good for the spirit. Poems are meant to be recited more than just read. One of the delights of poetry is hearing, not just in the mind’s ear but in your actual ear, the roll and flow of the words and rhythms. And there is nothing better than being able to recite a poem from memory.

So if you are looking to expand your poetry repertoire, Hollander’s book gives ample choices. Compiled by Hollander and a distinguished advisory board that included poets Eavan Boland, Robert Pinsky, Anthony Hecht, and Mona Van Duyn among others, the poems here are arranged to some extent by type. The book starts with Sonnets, and includes some classics like Shelley’s “Ozymandius” and several of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Songs are next, followed by Counsels, Tales, and Meditations. In each of these sections, there is a thoughtfully chosen mix of older and newer poets. All of the poems here are formalist in style. As the editor notes, free verse is by its nature hard to memorize. That is an appeal for me, as I am a fan of poems that have some elements of structure to them.

So, for April, find a poem and memorize it, and then recite it for someone you know. It will strengthen your brain, no doubt, but it will also strengthen your spirit. Hollander’s collection is a great place to start looking for options.

Here’s is a short poem to get started on, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Concord Hymn.”

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the world.

The foe long since in silence slept;
Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.

On this green bank, by this soft stream,
We set today a votive stone;
That memory may their deed redeem,
When, like our sires, our sons are gone.

Spirit, that made those heroes dare
To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
The shaft we raise to them and thee.

Check the WRL catalog for Committed to Memory

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classicsVolume 22 of the Graphic Novel Classics series contains twenty-three stories and poems written by famous early black authors and poets, including Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and W.E.B. Du Bois, among others. Each tale is then adapted and illustrated by notable contemporary black writers and artists including Jeremy Love, who wrote and illustrated the stunning Bayou graphic novel (review here), Trevor Von Eeden, who wrote and illustrated the two-part graphic biography The Original Johnson about the early boxer Jack Johnson, and Mat Johnson, who wrote the graphic mystery Incognegro (review here). With such a talented group of contributors, I had high hopes as I turned the pages of the first story, and I was certainly not disappointed.

Without a doubt, the stories are still as powerful today as when the words were first put onto paper. Sometimes sober, sometimes funny, and always heart-searing, even without the artwork this volume would stand alone as a fantastic collection of literature. But it is the illustrations, framing and woven into the lines of words, that really make the selections shine. Each artist brings their own unique style of lines and coloring to their work, which helps separate the stories from each other in tone and pace. Authors who have multiple contributions have their work drawn by different artists, and the contrast of styles give each piece a different life.

I would be hard pressed to select an absolute favorite among the works, but The Two Americans starts off the book with a powerful, wrenching emotional blow. In contrast, The Negro is simple, beautiful, and cosmic in its elegance. Each of its mere six panels could be justifiably framed and put on a wall as standalone art, something you don’t often get from a graphic novel.

Recommended for readers of poetry, short stories, and/or with an interest in American culture presented by the unflinching voices of those who experience it’s ugliest side.

Search our catalog for African-American Classics.

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I guess you think you know this story.

You don’t. The real one’s much more gory.


These are the first lines of Roald Dahl’s retelling of Cinderella, but it applies to all his Revolting Rhymes. They are all familiar stories with characters such as Jack climbing his beanstalk or Goldilocks breaking into the bears’ house, but as readers of Roald Dahl’s acclaimed children’s books know – he never sugar coats the nastier aspects of life.

With wonderful rollicking rhythm and Roald Dahl’s hallmark mastery over words, Revolting Rhymes is full of quotable tit-bits. My family has been quoting them for over twenty years. I am not sure what it says about us that one of our most quoted lines is, “She beat the boy for half an hour, with (and nothing could be meaner) the handle of a vacuum cleaner” from Jack and the Beanstalk.

All the old favorites are here including Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs and Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs. In these retellings the hero isn’t always who we assumed it was.  Goldilocks is described as a “brazen little crook” because after all she does break into a stranger’s house, steal their food and break their furniture. The morals of these stories might not be what you expect either. Which one of these well-known tales do you suppose has the moral of “A bath he said does seem to pay. I’m going to have one every day” or “Which shows that gambling’s not a sin. Provided that you always win”?

These are great read-aloud poems for all ages. I read them with great enjoyment (on both sides) to my children for years. Before I had children I read them to the residents of a continuing care home where I worked. Even those who were confused seemed to enjoy the readings. They are familiar stories and these versions are fast, punchy and funny. Try Revolting Rhymes for something light and humorous to be shared among the generations these cold winter days.

Check the WRL catalog for Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes

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knightFirst, a series of confessions.  This book isn’t in the library’s collection, so I don’t have a link to it.  I’ve written about Jones’ take on Chaucer before, so I may be replowing the same field.  And, even though my wife doesn’t understand it, Terry Jones makes my heart race.

Like his work with Monty Python’s Flying Circuses, Jones takes a flying leap feet-first into a settled world and turns it on its head.  Chaucer’s Knight was almost universally praised by Chaucerians.  After all, look at how Chaucer begins his description:

A Knyght ther was, and that a worthy man,
That fro the tyme he first bigan
To riden out, he loved chivalrie,
Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie.

Along with calling him “a verray, parfit gentil knyght,” there was, in the minds of literature scholars, little else that Chaucer could have done to hold the Knight up as the noble ideal in a journey filled with rogues, moneygrubbers, and climbers.  Not only an ideal of the nobility, but a brave crusader who fought for the Christian faith, and who embarked on his pilgrimage to Canterbury immediately on his return from overseas. Pious, courageous, humble, courteous – except for his long-winded tale, he truly is a role model for the ages. What could Jones possibly object to?

His career, for one. Line by line, Jones goes through the list of places Chaucer and the other travelers hear that the Knight has been–from Egypt to Spain and up to Russia–and shows that it is actually a catalog of atrocities and brutal warfare not at all characteristic of the noble Crusader.  If fact, in some of the places the Knight has been, the fighting was between Christian and Christian; in others he served Muslim rulers during their internal battles. His signature victory at Alexandria was marked by the massacre of innocent civilians, looting of the city, and the immediate retreat of the English knights, leaving their commander to lose the prize to the returning Muslims. His record of jousting violated every norm of that “sport,” in which the death of a combatant was considered a crime. And in a time when England was under near constant threat from France and internally, and in which desperate battles were fought, the Knight was conspicuously absent, even in direct violation of King Edward III’s order that warriors could not travel abroad.

From his career, Jones follows Chaucer’s description of the Knight’s income, his conduct, his retinue, his horse, and his dress.  At every turn, he cites the writers and mores of the time to demonstrate that Chaucer was satirizing the conduct of a man who could only have been a mercenary fighting wherever money was to be made, booty to be seized, or a reputation for upholding his contracts could be made. The problem for modern readers is that the definitions of the words Chaucer uses have changed over the centuries so that we have taken them at face value rather than studying the context Chaucer’s listeners would have implicitly understood. He also digs into that interminable story of Palomon and Arcite the Knight tells, pulling out the details that show the Knight was more comfortable with the language of battle and despotism than the courtly language of love a true nobleman would have used to tell the story.  How many generations of undergraduates would have paid good money to learn that it was a parody designed to be laughed at?

I don’t know how formal Chaucer scholars received the work, except in a few cases where his interpretation was dismissed. As a medieval historian at Oxford, Jones acquired firsthand knowledge of both the work and of the contemporary writers with whom Chaucer would have been familiar, and it seems to me that his view from outside the specialty may give him insight into the work. As a comic writer himself (and I quote a friend of mine who says, “Smart people aren’t always funny, but funny people are always smart”), he has a built-in eye for the fun Chaucer poked at each of the other pilgrims. And although the work is a serious piece of scholarship, it never bogs down.

Last confession: I learned about this book from a professor I had in college, and I dearly wish I could remember his name. The pebbles he dropped in his classroom continue to ripple to this day–that’s the mark of a good teacher.

Sorry, can’t check the WRL catalog for Terry Jones’ Chaucer’s Knight. If you are interested in it, try interlibrary loan.  Any decent university library should have it.

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seamus-heaneyIt is always a sad day when a favorite writer dies. This morning, came the news that Irish poet and Nobel Prize-winner Seamus Heaney died at the age of 74. We have written about Heaney here at BFGB before, about his masterful translation of Beowulf and his delightful collection Human Chain. I do not think I can describe Heaney’s work better than to repeat what I wrote about Human Chain:

[Heaney] writes thoughtful, thought-provoking, poems that display a love of language and life. Since the 1960s, Heaney has used his poems to explore the natural world, farming and farmwork, the violence that shattered his native Ireland, the intersections of the Irish and English languages, and above all his own place in the world.

Knowing that there will not be a new work from such a wonderful writer makes the day seem dreary and sad. But at least there is a powerful and extensive set of work to go back to. Here is one of my favorite poems from Heaney’s collection Opened Ground.

The Skylight

You were the one for skylights. I opposed
Cutting into the seasoned tongue-and-groove
Of pitch pine. I liked it low and closed,
Its claustrophobic, nest-up-in-the-roof
Effect. I liked the snuff-dry feeling,
The perfect, trunk-lid fit of the old ceiling.
Under there, it was all hutch and hatch.
The blue slates kept the heat like midnight thatch.

But when the slates came off, extravagant
Sky entered and held surprise wide open.
For days I felt like an inhabitant
Of that house where the man sick of the palsy
Was lowered through the roof, had his sins forgiven,
Was healed, took up his bed and walked away.

Here are some of Heaney’s books in the WRL collection

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leguinIt is always interesting when you discover that an author you enjoy for one type of writing also writes in other forms. For many fiction writers, this second form seems to be poetry. Wendell Berry and John Updike, though better known for fiction, are fine poets, and I was pleased to discover while browsing the new books here that Ursula K. Le Guin, whose fiction has been a favorite of mine for years, is also an eloquent poet who has been writing poems for over 50 years. This collection brings together some of Le Guin’s best poetry from 1960-2010.

Like her prose, Le Guin’s poetry is carefully made and reflects a joy in words and ideas. Her poems are precise and crystalline, and there does not seem to be a word used that was not carefully chosen and thoughtfully placed. Le Guin writes equally well about nature (“Wild Oats and Fireweed”) and about the world of the mind (“Learning Latin in Old Age”).

There are some themes that resurface throughout the collection. Loss—of friends and family, places, and abilities—is a recurrent theme, particularly in some of the later poems, but it is balanced by a palpable joy in living that is apparent in even the darkest moments in Le Guin’s verse. The roles of women too are studied here—daughter, wife, lover, mother, Maenad or shepherdess.  These are themes that Le Guin has explored in her fiction as well, and it is fascinating to see them here distilled to poetry.

If you only know Ursula K. Le Guin as a fiction writer, you should have a look at these poems as well, and if you are not familiar with her writing at all, the poems here are a fine place to make her acquaintance.

Check the WRL catalog for Finding My Elegy

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irish_poetryIrish writer Seamus Heaney is one of my favorite modern poets, and I have also found much to enjoy in the work of some of the earlier 20th century Irish poets, Patrick Kavanagh and Louis MacNeice in particular. So as I was browsing the poetry collection here, I was delighted to come across this anthology of modern Irish poets. I have discovered here a wealth of new writers to read.

There are poems here about the Troubles and about the history of the Irish people, but what mostly strikes me as I read through these poems is the love of language that seems to be the hallmark of all of the poets here. Here is an example:

She pushed the hair out of her eyes with
her free hand and put the bucket down.

The zinc-music of the handle on the rim
Tuned the evening

(from Eavan Boland’s “The Achill Woman”)

I love the phrase “zinc-music.”

And another:

I saw magic on a green country road–
That old woman, a bag of sticks her load,

Blackly down to her thin feet a fringed shawl,
A rosary of bone on her horned hand,

(from Michael Harnett’s “Thirteen Sonnets”)

This is a substantial collection with over 900 pages of poems, from over 50 poets. The poems here are all in English, though some were translated from Gaelic, and each poet’s section begins with a short, but thorough introduction to the author and his or her work. If you have any interest in the poetry of Ireland this is a indispensable collection.

Check the WRL catalog for An Anthology of Modern Irish Poetry

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goldbarthI was introduced to Albert Goldbarth through his wonderful poem “Library” (thanks Neil!), that describes what various books have done for and to Goldbarth and others in the course of their existence. It starts off  with “This book saved my life” and proceeds through “This is a book of prohibitions; this other, a book of rowdy license. They serve equally to focus the prevalent chaos of our lives” and “This book is guarded around the clock by men in navy serge and golden braiding, carrying very capable guns” to “This book is going to save the world.”

Goldbarth delights in words, and his poems draw the reader into that delight. He also invests his poems with much humor, though these are by no means light verse. The poems here are frequently long, do not rhyme, and often appear dense on the page. But once you get into them, the way Goldbarth plays with language can leave you breathless. He seemingly effortlessly combines personal stories with bits and pieces of facts about everything from the Bible and literature to physics and the natural sciences. He revels in unusual words and made-up words and in “imperfect knowledge.” He can also be pretty blunt about sexuality, as he notes in “The Singing,” “I have (as colleague X once said) an offensively salty mouth.”

Nonetheless, Goldbarth’s poems are worth the effort of close reading. He plays with words the way a good horn player plays with the notes in a jazz tune. You start off thinking you are listening to an old standard, but by the end you see the piece in a new way. Goldbarth’s poetry opens up new vistas and very well may be being read “in 500 years.”

Check the WRL catalog for To Be Read in 500 Years

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hallTwo Aprils ago, I wrote about poet Jane Kenyon’s last book, Otherwise. Today’s post is her husband Donald Hall’s moving and powerful collection of poems about Kenyon’s illness, death, and the days and months following, as Hall begins life without her.

Hall is a superb poet, and I have always enjoyed his writing, grounded in the New England granite where Hall lives on his family’s farm. His poems are earthy, substantial pieces, that move easily from the personal to the universal.

Here is one of my favorites, “Ox Cart Man,” and another, “Mt. Kearsarge Shines.”

The poems in Without reflect Hall’s deep grief over the illness and death of Jane Kenyon: “Remembered happiness is agony; so is remembered agony” (“Midwinter Letter”). At the same time, they move with grace to explore the necessity of living with that grief, and the possibility of doing so.

These are not easy poems, but no one said that reading poetry (or reading anything else for that matter) should be easy. They are, however, important poems to read as we try to make sense of the human condition, and that is what all of our reading does for us.

Check the WRL catalog for Without

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It is poetry month, and this week, Blogging for a Good Book will look at several books of poetry, both anthologies and works of individual poets. We hope that you will take some time this month to read a poem or two. Read them aloud, as poetry is meant to be heard not just read. And if you are ambitious, try to memorize a poem or two: here are some good ones to start with.

Good PoemsThrough his Writer’s Almanac programs on public radio, Garrison Keillor has done a great deal to refresh poetry’s place in American letters (at least for those who listen to NPR). His programs each morning conclude with a poem. In selecting his poems, Keillor goes for pieces that express “a little humanity” and that will not send readers away feeling that they have just encountered “a puzzle with no right answers.”

Springing from the Writer’s Almanac, Keillor has edited several anthologies of outstanding poems, old and new. In Good Poems, American Places, Keillor has sought out poems with a strong sense of place; poems that take the reader somewhere, be it Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Central Park (“Retired Ballerinas, Central Park West”), Sarah Freligh’s Tonawanda (“City of Tonawanda Softball Championship”), May Sarton’s “Monticello,” or Donald Hall’s Mt. Kearsarge (“Mt. Kearsarge Shines”). Additionally, there are poems that explore more intimate, private space—the farm fields plowed by Joyce Sutphen’s father (“H”) or John Haag’s resting place of a ’37 Chevy pickup (“Homesteader”).

Keillor has a fine ear for verse, and his selections here represent some of the best American poetry around. The collection includes a mix of well-known writers—Billy Collins, Maxine Kumin, Charles Wright—as well as many poets new to me whose work I look forward to exploring.

America is truly present in this book, in the hard work that is done in the factories and farms, in the constant movement from city to rural land, in the bright lights and dark spaces, and in the births and deaths and the in-betweens of the people in these poems. Good Poems, American Places is a superb collection for anyone interested in poetry or America.

Check the WRL catalog for Good Poems, American Places

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OldPossumCoverTo continue last week’s leitmotif of books of cat poetry, I have gone back to what many people consider the original and the best. Rather than a series of poems from the cats’ own perspective, like I Could Pee on This, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats is a series of narratives and how-tos about cats. It was first published in 1939 and has been in print ever since. Our library owns several versions with black and white drawings. We also have a winsomely illustrated version with only three of the poems called Growltiger’s Last Stand.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Cats is based on Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. I have never seen the musical and can’t quite picture how it would work as a musical, but I know it was hugely popular on the stage and is available at our library to borrow on DVD.

In some circles T.S. Eliot is most famous for his serious poetry like “The Waste Land” or “The Hollow Men.” Many students of English literature are familiar with these poems (willingly or not). And many of these same students of literature are surprised that the mind that produced the dark and cynical lines of his serious poems could also produce his light and lilting poems about cats.
Compare this gem from “The Waste Land”:

“I think we are in rats’ alley
Where the dead men lost their bones.”

And from “The Hollow Men”:

Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

To the rollicking:

Macavity’s a mystery cat: he’s called the Hidden Paw –
For he’s the master criminal who can defy the Law.
He’s the bafflement of Scotland Yard, the flying sqad’s despair:
For when they reach the scene of crime — Macavity’s not there!


Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer were a very notorious couple of cats.
As knockabout clowns, quick-change comedians, tight-rope walkers and acrobats

T.S. Eliot’s skill and dexterity with language show through in both cases, lilting or dark. These are great read-aloud poems that roll off the tongue. Some of our copies of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats are shelved in the children’s section, and the poems are certainly suitable for and loved by children, but I also recommend them for cat lovers and lovers of language.

Check the WRL catalog for Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.

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In ancient Egypt

We cats were gods

We ruled the heavens…

So kneel before me

ICouldPeeOnThisCoverI have long suspected that cats are utterly self-centered and only interested in their human companions for what the felines can finagle out of them.  I Could Pee on This: And Other Poems by Cats proves it!

This little book is told from the point of view of various cats.  The poems often start with an enchanting description of normal cattishness, with a surprising twist:

Sometimes when I lie on your warm chest /  And wonder, ‘Who is that?’

Just in case all the cat lovers out there accuse me of slander (and perhaps even that I may be a dog person) I asked three fat cats of my acquaintance what they thought of the book.  Mushroom and Pimpernel sniffed it hopefully, I suspect for food.  Bandit was a bit more proactive and tried to bite it and then batted it with his paw. But all three are shocked at such a slur on their characters.  Or, at least they would be if they had time to consider it –  if it wasn’t time for food, or maybe a nap, or maybe to chase the long-suffering dog’s tail…

If you need a fun little book to brighten up these winter days, I Could Pee on This: And Other Poems by Cats could be just the thing to make you laugh out loud.  It is illustrated throughout with dozens of cat photos, many with extreme awwww qualities.  It may be a bit late to gift this book for the holiday season, but bear it in mind for special occasions for the cat-lovers in your life as it captures the utter and complete, but endearing, selfishness of cats.

Check the WRL catalog for I Could Pee on This: And Other Poems by Cats

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I have written several posts here about the novels and short fiction of Wendell Berry. While I treasure these stories and go back to them for sustenance, I also have found great satisfaction in reading Berry’s poetry. This recently published collection is a great place to start if you are new to Berry as a poet.

The themes that Berry explores in his fiction—community, the connections between people and the land, nature, the struggles to maintain a small farm, religion and spirituality, and redemption—are further developed in these poems. The settings for many of the poems are the same Kentucky woods, farms, fields, and small towns that are so present in Berry’s fiction. The poems distill the longer works, offering the reader the essence of Berry’s thoughts. As any great poet does, and he is indeed a great poet, Berry moves from the particular to the universal, illuminating our lives through his own experience. The about two hundred poems collected here reflect Berry’s published works from 1964 to the present.

Here is one of my favorites, “Burley Coulter’s Song for Kate Helen Branch.” Here, Berry’s elegiac tone is conveyed in language that weaves and winds like a fiddle playing in some lonesome hollow.

The rugs were rolled back to the wall
The band in place, the lamps all lit.
We talked and laughed a little bit
And then obeyed the caller’s call
Light-footed, happy, half-entranced-
To balance, swing, and promenade.
Do you remember how we danced
And how the fiddler played?

About midnight we left the crowd
And wandered out to take a stroll.
We heard the treefrogs and the owl;
Nearby the creek was running loud.
The good dark held us as we chanced
The joy we two together made,
Remembering how we’d whirled and pranced
And how the fiddler played.

That night is many years ago,
And gone, and still I see you clear,
Clear as the lamplight in your hair
The old time comes around me now,
And I remember how you glanced
At me, and how we stepped and swayed.
I can’t forget the way we danced,
The way the fiddler played.

If you enjoy Wendell Berry’s fiction, you should give his poetry a try. If you have never read Berry, you could do worse than to start with this excellent collection.

Check the WRL catalog for New Collected Poems


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