Thursday, April 29, 2010

An Appropriate End to Poetry Month

Poetry Month is coming to an end. Obviously, every month is Poetry Month in Bethland, but it always makes me a little sad to see the only month that most people pay attention to poetry disappear. Oh well. Anyway, I finished two books this week that were very appropriate for the end of April.

First up, Jay Parini's recent, brief critical look at the importance of the art, Why Poetry Matters. I really enjoyed this book. I sometimes joke that I wish I could hand people a pile of books that would help them understand me better (like Judy Blume's Superfudge because it's a perfect look at life as an oldest child and Sylvia Plath's novel, The Bell Jar, which I identified with a little too much in high school). This would definitely be one of those books. It's a great look at the art of poetry and perfectly describes what draws both readers and writers to the genre. At times, I was a little frustrated with the fact that Parini basically repeats ideas from the same handful of poets (he's a big fan of Frost, a poet I could easily live without - sorry; but no mention at all of Larkin, one of the most celebrated poets in 20th century English?!?!). In fact, the last chapter is just a critical explanation of why Parini loves T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets (again, I think Eliot is an important poet, but he's always gotten under my skin in a bad way for some reason; the misogyny, perhaps?). But the rest of the book - particularly the first chapter, which is simply titled "Defending Poetry" - is a lovely and well-written look at what makes poetry such a pleasure for so many. As a lover of words, it's hard not to give Parini credit for the way he sees poetry as the purest form of engagement with language. That's actually the reason I write poetry; because of my need to be inside language, fully immersed in it. I don't think prose has the ability to do that in quite the same way.

I know lots of people don't like poetry. And to be honest, it took me a long time before I came to appreciate it. It's something you have to spend a lot of time with initially before you can become a casual reader (and I'm definitely just a casual reader of poetry, even though I consider myself a poet). But for those of us who do like it, we can't really imagine life without it. I can't really explain why I love poetry any better than what Parini says in the introduction to this book:
Poets write in the line of prophecy, and their work teaches us how to live. The language of poetry, when properly absorbed, becomes part of our private vocabulary, our way of moving through the world. Poetry matters, and without it we can live only partially, not fully conscious of the possibilities (emotional and intellectual) that life affords.

Throughout Why Poetry Matters, Parini often quotes one of his favorite poets, Wallace Stevens. So it's quite the coincidence that I've been reading Wallace Stevens's first book of poetry, Harmonium, this month. I finally finished it this week. Quite frankly, I was pretty blown away. I used to hate Stevens. I hated the abstraction, the weirdness, my inability to understand it. To be frank, I still don't get it. But holy crap, do I love the way he says it! His work is bizarre, but underneath the startling imagery and language, there's a strange beauty and engagement with the world. More so than any other poet I've been reading lately (Anne Carson, W.H. Auden, Robert Lowell, etc.), Stevens is a master of the image. The way he connects words with images is really quite amazing. I don't fully understand Stevens all the time, but it hardly matters when he does what he does with such coolness.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Poem of the Week: "The Emperor of Ice-Cream," by Wallace Stevens

This month, I've been reading Wallace Stevens's first book of poetry, Harmonium. I am really enjoying it so far. No other poet uses language as wonderfully as Stevens does. Particularly, I'm a big fan of his use of alliteration. So, here's a poem that has my all-time favorite use of alliteration, right in the third line. Such a cool and fun line in a poem about death! Enjoy!

The Emperor of Ice-Cream, by Wallace Stevens

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month's newspapers.
Let be be the finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Take from the dresser of deal
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

In Which I Wish Neil Gaiman Was My BFF

Remember last week, when I said that my unread Neil Gaiman books were calling to me from my bookshelf? Well, their siren song prevailed, and in only a handful of days, I finished the 600-page American Gods. It did not disappoint.

In my opinion, Neil Gaiman is hands-down the best storyteller I've ever read. He so clearly just loves telling a story that you can't help but fall into his books with a smile on your face. Even a book that has dark moments like American Gods (and boy, does it ever have its dark moments) has the ability to grab you and not let go. I was mesmerized through the whole thing.

Now, I didn't love the book as much as the hilarious but inconsequential Good Omens or the beautiful Graveyard Book. No, this book's complicated plot and wily characters made it a little less charming and a lot more solid. But man, I still enjoyed reading this one. Sometimes, it was subtly humorous. Other times, scenes took place in a weird kind of fever dream of the fantastical. And often, the main character of Shadow broke my heart.

The book starts off right away with a pretty big bang. The mysterious but good-hearted Shadow gets out of prison a couple days earlier because his beloved wife Laura is killed in a car accident while giving a blow job to Shadow's best friend. Then, on his way to her funeral, Shadow meets the bizarre Mr. Wednesday, who right away gives Shadow a job as his "bodyguard." Eventually, Wednesday introduces Shadow to various gods and tells him a "storm" is brewing. These gods, who are basically refugees unable to survive after being brought to America by their believers, are being targeted by "new gods," gods of technology and innovation and media. From there on out, all sorts of crazy and weird shit happens.

Basically, this story has three things going at the same time. There's the stuff going on with the gods and the coming storm. Then, there's the mystery of disappearing children in the perfect little town that Wednesday hides Shadow in throughout the book. Thirdly, there's the somewhat creepy and sad story of Shadow and his wife, who comes back from the dead to visit him and occasionally rescue him. Obviously, all three of these things play into each other. But to be honest, I was much more interested in the last two plotlines than I was in the first one (you know, the one that actually gives the book its name). There are some huge plot twists in the last 200 pages or so, but because there was so much in the air, the resolution of the main story kind of left me a bit disappointed.

But while I may have found the plot a little too overcooked and ultimately unsatisfying in its climax, I still loved the book because of how wonderfully human it was. The thing I've always loved about Gaiman is his clear compassion for people and their everyday lives. Without a doubt, my favorite scenes are the ones between the dead and somewhat scary Laura and her lost widow, Shadow. While there are all sorts of themes about immigration and America and belief in this book, it was the theme of redemption I found the most consistently heartbreaking. Shadow might end up having been misled throughout the book by the people he meets, but he's still a good person. And in the end, he gets to redeem himself and learn some lessons. He doesn't get a happy ending by any means; but he doesn't necessarily get a bad one either. Laura also gets to be redeemed, by finally allowing herself to be let go, thereby making peace with her past actions. That's why the scenes with Shadow and Laura facing death and love and loneliness were so satisfying to me as a reader. Because they had a pay-off in the end.

So to summarize: It's not a perfect book, not quite. But in its quiet moments of desolation or heartbreak or, occasionally, happiness, it really stands above a lot of the books I've read in the last six months. Gaiman always knows how to push my reading buttons just right. Even better, he seems to understand human nature in all its glory and grossness. And that, my friends, is the reason he might be the only contemporary writer with whom I wish to be best buds.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Poem of the Week: "Bucolic No. 1," by Maurice Manning

I'm not a very religious person; in fact, I'm not much religious at all. I have a kind of spiritual belief I like to keep to myself. But for some reason, a lot of my favorite books and poems are the ones that are centered around spiritual themes. Gilead, for one. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Rilke and even, to some extent, Neil Gaiman. I'm not sure why this is, exactly. Obviously, most of Western literature is informed by a Judeo-Christian ideology that is recognizable by a good chunk of the population. Even atheist writers use its imagery, its value-concepts, its language, sometimes without even realizing it. But occasionally, writers use religious themes to tell the entire story. That's the case with this Poem of the Week.

Among the small number of contemporary poets I closely follow, Maurice Manning is particularly important. He taught at my alma mater before I got there, and my advisor there is one of his closest friends. Therefore, I feel a need to keep tabs on what he's up to. Yet, he still managed to blow me away when his book of poems, Bucolics, came out a few years ago. Written from the perspective of a farmer talking to God (here, simply called "Boss"), Manning manages to fit in themes of love, forgiveness, nature, human existence, and doubt in less than a hundred pages of pastoral imagery. The poems are fast little prayers without puncuation or regular grammatical structure, which only adds to the urgency of their speaker's pleas.

Anyway, with the weather being this good to us lately up here in Northern Indiana, I was reminded of Manning's book. Here's the first poem from the collection.

Bucolic I, by Maurice Manning

boss of the grassy green
boss of the silver puddle
how happy is my lot
to tend the green to catch
the water when it rains
to do the doing Boss
the way the sun wakes up
the leaves they yawn a bit
each day a little more
for a tiny reason then
when the leaves outgrow their green
the wind unwinds them Boss
that's the way you go around
if you loose me like a leaf
if you unburden me
if I untaste the taste
of being bossed by you
don't boss me down to dust
may I become a flower
when my blossom Boss is full
boss a bee to my blue lips
that one drop of my bloom
would softly drop into
your sweetness once again
if I go round that way
I'll know the doing means
to you what it means to me
a word before all words

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

This Week in Trashy Reads #3: The Best So Far

I do not do historical romance. I can't get into modern women writing about regency dukes and ladies and their scandalous affairs, with all the bad historical research and terrible metaphors for genitalia that genre entails. But now, I have to shamefully admit I finally read one. And you know what? I didn't just like it. I loved loved loved it!

If there is one trashy book I cannot escape on any romance review site or blog, it's Loretta Chase's Lord of Scoundrels. On my two favorite romance blogs ( and, it's constantly referenced. It's something of a Holy Grail in the romance community, apparently. So I finally caved. Fine, I thought. I'll see for myself what's so darn special about something that seems so darn stupid.

HOLY. CRAP. This book kicks ass.

The plot sounds ridiculous: Sebastian Leslie Guy de Ath Ballister, the Marquess of Dain (he's just called Dain throughout the book) lives a life of ridiculous debauchery in Paris until he meets and falls for Jessica Trent, who eventually redeems her beloved scoundrel. It sounds cliche. But Chase is a lot better than most regency romance writers. She gives her characters actual personalities and sets up complications in their story that come from these personalities rather than actual outside stupidness (well, there's an external plot factor late in the book, but even that largely plays into the hero's redemption story rather than creating false plot points). Dain is definitely a scoundrel, but he also has a sad past that explains a lot of his issues without making excuses for them. Jessica, meanwhile, is clever and confident and works for what she wants. And, unlike most romance heroines, she didn't annoy me. I can't state enough how intriguing and well-written these characters are.

The thing that kept this book from just being another trashy historical romance was Chase's storytelling. The whole thing unfolds so masterfully and circles back in on its own themes and images so well that it's no surprise Chase is something of a legend in the romance world. The novel begins with the lonely upbringing of Dain, plays through a sweet and hilarious back-and-forth romance with Jessica through the middle, and ends with Dain (no longer the monster he was at the beginning) getting over his issues to keep his illegitimate son from falling into the same despair he felt as a child. Chase does a fantastic job of bringing all the disparate plots and themes and characters together in the end without being oversentimental.

And I think that's what I liked best about this book. Sure, it was extremely funny, featured a tortured hero, and was well-written. But mostly, it managed to be romantic and redemptive without being sentimental and melodramatic. Kudos, Loretta Chase. You're no Fitzgerald or Marilynne Robinson, but you still managed to hook me.

So for any of you who are starting to get into trashy books, I can't recommend this one enough. Lord of Scoundrels is probably the most fun I've had reading a book since I finished Good Omens back in January.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Getting Through the "Big Book"

This year, I made one big literary goal: to get through all of Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. I read the book in the space of a couple of weeks in high school. But frankly, besides the basic plotline and a few key scenes, I couldn't remember much about the book. More importantly, I've grown up a lot as a reader and a person since then. With a huge appreciation for 19th-century Russian novelists under my belt, I figured it was time to revisit Dostoevsky's "big one." Well, I started a couple weeks ago, and I'm making my way through it verrrrry slowly. It doesn't help that I'm continuing to read other things that float across my line of vision, but I figure a book like Brothers isn't going to make very good before-bed reading.
So now, I am about 180 pages in, with about another 600 to go. So far, I am already understanding it a million times better now than I did as a gawky teenager. Part of this is surely due to the award-winning and critically-praised translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky that I'm using this time . The translation is clear, clean, and supposedly true to Dostoevksy's actual style and voice.

Anyway, I just wanted to mention this to you all so you might understand why my reading in the next month or so will be so erratic. I am currently finishing a new "trashy read" (and HOLY CRAP, is it the mother of awesomeness in romance - details coming soon!) and some poetry books. And I have the feeling Neil Gaiman might distract me soon, as his books are calling to me from my "bought-but-not-yet-read" shelf. But I promise that sometime in the next couple months, I will finish The Brothers Karamazov, and I will definitely be blogging about it.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Poem of the Week: "Moss-Gathering," by Theodore Roethke

It's that time of year where flowers begin to bloom but trees and plants still have that look of winter deadness to them. This paradoxical season always puts me in the mood for one of my favorite poets, Theodore Roethke. Roethke grew up with gardeners, so the world of plants and natural life inform his work quite a bit. His poetry exists in a kind of "between-place," where life and death coexist within the natural symbols of the earth. Here's one of his earliest poems, which fits this mood quite nicely. Plus, who wouldn't want to end a poem with the word "desecration"? Badass.

Moss-Gathering, by Theodore Roethke

To loosen with all ten fingers held wide and limber
And lift up a patch, dark-green, the kind for lining cemetery baskets,
Thick and cushiony, like an old-fashioned doormat,
The crumbling small hollow sticks on the underside mixed with roots,
And wintergreen berries and leaves still stuck to the top, --
That was moss-gathering.
But something always went out of me when I dug loose those carpets
Of green, or plunged to my elbows in the spongy yellowish moss of the marshes:
And afterwards I always felt mean, jogging back over the logging road,
As if I had broken the natural order of things in that swampland;
Disturbed some rhythm, old and of vast importance,
By pulling off flesh from the living planet;
As if I had commited, against the whole scheme of life, a desecration.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Four Poets For People Who Don't Read Poetry

Poets are an admittedly clique-y bunch. We like to reference other poets and poems in our work, and we tend to stick to pretty academic and art-focused subjects. But occasionally, a really great poet will break out of the mold and become loved by poets and casual readers alike. And if a poet is particularly fantastic, he or she manages to get under the skin of even non-poetry readers. So here are my recommendations for the five poets who might spark the interest of people who don't read or like poetry, including links to the poets' Poetry Foundation pages featuring some of their work.

1. Philip Larkin: I know I constantly rave about Philip Larkin on this blog, and it's for good reason. He's a ridiculously good writer who knows how to play the line between emotional resonance, humor, and a heightened sense of language. He writes about everyday subjects and everyday people because he always saw himself as just another guy, a librarian who happened to write mind-blowingly-awesome poems. Even better (or worse, if you're a Larkin addict like me), he only published four slim volumes in his entire life, so his Collected Poems make for a sweet and satisfying read that won't take longer than a week. If "This Be the Verse" doesn't make you laugh and "Aubade" doesn't stir something in you, I worry you might not be human.

2. Charles Bukowski: I'm a little wary of suggesting Bukowski, since he's not exactly my cup of poetry tea. But for some reason, a lot of non-poetry-readers love his work. He's super-observant and writes in a conversational style that's easy to read. Plus his work is often so funny or preposterous or perverted that people can't help but be charmed by his down-and-outness.

3. Yusef Komunyakaa: Komunyakaa was one of the first poets I fell in love with. If I had to recommend one book of poetry by a single writer, I wouldn't hesitate to name Komunyakaa's Dien Cai Dau first thing. It's about his experiences in Vietnam, and it reads as beautifully and deeply as Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried or any other war book ever written. It's an absolute must-read for anyone who loves books or humanity.

4. Anne Sexton: I was a little over-ambitious as a middle-schooler and made Anne Sexton's collected poems the very first book of poetry I read. Yikes - talk about an education. She writes about really angsty subjects: her battle with depression (she eventually committed suicide), sex, and being a woman in a man's world. A lot of people compare her to Sylvia Plath, who ended up being more famous. But you know what? I'd take Anne Sexton over Plath any day of the week. Sexton's a great poet to start with if you are mad at the world and need to find a way to quietly vent.

I hope this will be a nice starting point for all of you non-poetry people out there. And if you have any other suggestions for good "starter" poets, let me know!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

This Week in Trashy Reads #2

Like the last romance novel I read, I picked up this week's trashy read, Jill Shalvis's Slow Heat, because of its glowing reviews in the romance-reading world. The book just came out a couple months ago, and every major romance-reviewing website gave it a fantastic grade. And then, the killer: all the reviews mentioned that the hero had some issues with his rough childhood. Damaged characters?! Count me in!

I love me some damaged people in my romance books. I don't know why; I assume it keeps the story from feeling overly cutesy or easy. And this one definitely brought on its share of damage. The hero, professional baseball player Wade O'Riley, grew up motherless in a trailer with an alcoholic father who basically ignored the fact he had a son. Meanwhile, heroine/publicist Samantha "Sam" McNead has a wealthy and successful family with crappy morals, making her the only person fit enough to take care of her nephew, Tag. However, despite all these characters' terrible odds at life (and their super-unfortunate names), they all end up with a happy ending!

This was a good trashy read. Shalvis isn't necessarily a great writer and tends to get a little repetitive at times, but she also had the awesome ability to surprise me with small, unexpected moments between the characters. Romance novels and their characters are a pretty predictable bunch, but occasionally, a good writer knows how to play around without making things pretty and pat. There's some nice early goings-on between Samantha and Wade, who have to pretend to be in a relationship for a month to give the wayward Wade (heh, alliteration) some good press, that keeps everything from seeming too cheesy and unbelievable. Even better, Shalvis doesn't press Wade's sad past too hard. She doesn't let Wade dwell on it much, and when Wade's loser dad shows up later hoping to make amends, she makes things between the two men messy and gives them the appropriate distance needed in such a situation. Sure, the final "conflict" between Sam and Wade is as inept as every other romance novel I've ever read ever, but it's still handled pretty deftly, and the ending is a nice call-back to some earlier happenings.

So overall, I liked it a lot, and I managed to read it in only a handful of sittings. The characters are likeable but not cliche, and I actually didn't mind the baseball stuff, despite not being a fan of the sport. Plus, cute hero/kid interaction! On the other hand, I am currently working my way through Dostoevsky's masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov, and quite frankly, Slow Heat might as well exist on a completely separate planet. Oh well; no harm in a little fun once in awhile, right?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Two Reviews for the Price of One

This week, I finished two books, so I thought I'd just review them at once. Let the reviewing begin!

First off: Joe Hill's debut short story collection, 20th Century Ghosts, which came out in 2005. Joe Hill is Stephen King's son, and like his famous father, he writes horror with a humane edge - fantastical stories that aren't afraid to also explore the emotions of their characters. This book lives up to its title, with its ghosts and nightmarish premises and fantasy-heavy concepts. But there are three reasons to pick up a copy of this book, and they're the three best stories in the collection. The title story, "20th Century Ghosts," is as good a meditation on loss and love and obsession as you can find. Hill manages to make it scary and beautiful at the same time, not an easy combination. Meanwhile, "Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead," is a zombie story without zombies; it has nothing to do with real horror at all, in fact. Instead, it's a bittersweet and well-done meditation on second chances.

Then, there is the story that totally makes this collection worth its weight: "Pop Art." The premise is bizarre, where a small number of inflatable people live among us like regular folk. But the story's heart lies in the narrator's boyhood friendship with Art, an inflatable child doomed to meet a bad end. There are a lot of short stories out there about having and losing a childhood friend, but to me, this one rang particularly true. It's absolutely wonderful. I urge everyone to find a copy of the book and just read this one story.


The other book I finished this week was Li-Young Lee's The City in Which I Love You. It always amazes me that Lee manages to create such powerful poems and images out of such quiet and unobtrusive language. That's something that maybe one in a thousand poets can pull off. Lee's poems are ridiculously sensual (and I mean that in two ways: they are very much rooted in the five senses AND some of them have an intensely sexual bent to them), and they always manage to both unnerve me and lull me at the same time. This collection is a couple decades old by now, but the poems take place in a kind of timeless haze. The language is precise, soft, and careful, as if Lee is slowly pulling them out of himself. For me, the book's highlights are "My Father, In Heaven, Is Reading Out Loud," "This Room and Everything in It," "The Waiting," "A Story," and of course, "This Hour and What is Dead." It's no wonder that Lee is considered one of the masters of contemporary poet, and with a major fanbase to boot. He can add one more to the list.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Poem of the Week: "The Mower," by Philip Larkin

Happy Easter, everyone! I hope you've had a great day. I'm going to keep it short and sweet in honor of the holiday. Here's a Philip Larkin poem I've always found quite charming.

The Mower, by Philip Larkin

The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found
A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,
Killed. It had been in the long grass.

I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world
Unmendably. Burial was no help:

Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Happy National Poetry Month!

For those of you who aren't aware, April is National Poetry Month. I'm not a particularly big fan of month-long-only celebrations of culturally relevant things, but I am still going to celebrate this wonderful month! I have several poetry-related lists and special posts in store, and I will be reading and reviewing some poetry-related books throughout the month.

Enjoy this month, and please try to read at least one good poem a day to celebrate! A good place to start: