I Am: The Selected Poetry of John Clare

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Born in 1793 in Helpston, Northamptonshire, Clare came from the rural working class. His parents were both illiterate, and he himself only went to a dame school until he was 12, even then often pulled out to help his father in the fields. Yet when he read a poem—James Thompson’s “Seasons”—he was inspired to write as well and went on to write over 3,500 poems.

Many of his best-known and best-loved poems are about nature. He wrote about the rural world he’d grown up in with nostalgia but not sentiment, and about wherever he was currently living, employing a keen eye and great appreciation for the colors, textures, and ecology of country life. In “The Wren” he lauds the humble pleasures he finds around him:

Why is the cuckoo’s melody preferred
And nightingale’s rich song so fondly praised
In poet’s rhymes? Is there no other bird
Of nature’s minstrelsy that oft hath raised
One’s heart to ecstasy and mirth as well?
I judge not how another’s taste is caught:
With mine, there’s other birds that bear the bell
Whose song hath crowds of happy memories brought,
Such the wood-robin singing in the dell
And little wren that many a time hath sought
Shelter from showers in huts where I did dwell
In early spring, the tenant of the plain
Tenting my sheep, and still they come to tell
The happy stories of the past again.

His poetry was influenced by the folk song culture in his family and village, as described in Georg Deacon’s John Clare and the Folk Tradition. Clare played the fiddle and collected folk songs, fiddle tunes, dance instructions and folk customs. As a folkie myself, I’ve been at many a pub sing and can appreciate the effect of Clare’s cultural environment on his work. I’m also grateful for the tunes and songs he collected and preserved.

His life was not all songs and flowers, though. Clare was shocked and shaken by the rapid changes brought by the nascent industrial revolution. Villages emptied as laborers sought better jobs in town. Worst of all, for Clare, was the enclosure of the commons, a severe financial loss to working class folks who used the land for pasture and agriculture, and an aesthetic loss for people like Clare who loved the moors and the wildlife that prospered there. We’re learning much now about the importance of green space for psychological health, but Clare was sounding the alarm long ago, as in this excerpt from “The Moors”.

Now this sweet vision of my boyish hours
Free as spring clouds & wild as summer flowers,
Is faded all—a hope that blossomed free,
And hath been once, no more shall ever be.
Enclosure came and trampled on the grave
Of labour’s rights and left the poor a slave,
And memory’s pride ere want to wealth did bow
Is both the shadow and the substance now.

Clare wrote many poems to his first love Mary Joyce, whom he met at the dame school, but whose father turned him away. He later also wrote poems to his wife Patty with whom he had seven children, but continued to write about Mary until the end of his life. This excerpt from “First Love” shows his unconventional yet powerful imagery.

I ne’er was struck before that hour
With love so sudden and so sweet,
Her face it bloomed like a sweet flower
And stole my heart away complete.
My face turned pale as deadly pale,
My legs refused to walk away,
And when she looked, what could I ail?
My life and all seemed turned to clay.
And then my blood rushed to my face
And took my eyesight quite away,

He suffered from mental illness in his later years, but continued to write even in the asylums where he was confined. While many of these poems are about nature and his lost love, he also wrote wrenching poems about his efforts to right himself, as in the title poem from this selection.

I am—yet what I am none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost:
I am the self-consumer of my woes—
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes
And yet I am, and live—like vapours tossed
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life or joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
Even the dearest that I loved the best
Are strange—nay, rather, stranger than the rest.
I long for scenes where man hath never trod
A place where woman never smiled or wept
There to abide with my Creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie
The grass below—above the vaulted sky.

I come back to Clare’s poems often. I love the way he writes about nature and childhood, his yearning for his lost love and his indignation at the fencing of common land “In little parcels little minds to please”. Reading his work I can imagine myself tramping the moors, looking for jackdaws and starnels, and seeing “An oddling crow in idle motion swing / On the half-rotten ash-tree’s topmost twig”.

Have you read any of John Clare’s work? Do you have a favorite poem of his?

Harlem Renaissance Poets on Poetry Foundation, Part 2

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This post is a continuation from last week, looking at the work of poets associated with the Harlem Renaissance, in particular those whose work I didn’t know well. There’s a great introduction to the Harlem Renaissance poets and a selection of their work at the Poetry Foundation website.

As you may know, the Harlem Renaissance is the name given to the emergence of a group of Black writers, artists, playwrights and musicians in the early 20th century when the Great Migration brought large numbers of Blacks, especially from the south, to work in northern cities. Clustered in Harlem, artists of all kinds came together, influencing and encouraging each other

Fenton Johnson began writing and publishing before the start of the Harlem Renaissance, and spent most of his life in Chicago, where he grew up in a well-off family. Still, he is claimed by Harlem Renaissance poets as a forerunner. In addition to poetry, he wrote short stories, plays and essays. He worked as a college professor and journalist, as well as editor for several small magazines. Many of his poems take the form of spirituals, such as “How Long O Lord”:

How long, O Lord, nobody knows!
My honey’s resting near the brook.
How long, O Lord, nobody knows!
How long, O Lord, nobody knows!
I pray she’ll rise on Judgment Day.
How long, O Lord, nobody knows!

Other poems capture what it’s like to be a Black man in this society, such as “Tired” which starts “I am tired of work; I am tired of building up somebody else’s civilization” and builds to “It is better to die than it is to grow up and find out that you are colored.”

James Weldon Johnson (no relation) combined social activism with his writing activities. Head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) during the 1920s, he also found time to author studies of Black poetry, music, and theater. He’s known for his realism in his novels and for capturing the rhythms of Black life—schooled and unschooled, preachers and orators. For example, in A Poet to His Baby Son” he sees the beginnings of a poetic imagination, but cautions the child not to be a poet:

For poets no longer are makers of songs,
Chanters of the gold and purple harvest,
Sayers of the glories of earth and sky,
Of the sweet pain of love
And the keen joy of living;
No longer dreamers of the essential dreams,
And interpreters of the eternal truth,
Through the eternal beauty.
Poets these days are unfortunate fellows.
Baffled in trying to say old things in a new way
Or new things in an old language,
. . .

My son, this is no time nor place for a poet;
Grow up and join the big, busy crowd
That scrambles for what it thinks it wants
Out of this old world which is—as it is—
And, probably, always will be.

Countee Cullen went in a different direction, calling for Black poets to work within a traditional framework, naming Keats and Houseman as his poetic models. Yet he wanted to reclaim African arts (a movement called Négritude) and was politically active, becoming president of the Harlem NAACP chapter. He was married to Nina Yolande DuBois, daughter of W.E.B. DuBois. No surprisingly, anger at racism was one of his main themes, as in “Yet Do I Marvel”:

I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind
And did He stoop to quibble could tell why
The little buried mole continues blind,
Why flesh that mirrors Him must some day die,
Make plain the reason tortured Tantalus
Is baited by the fickle fruit, declare
If merely brute caprice dooms Sisyphus
To struggle up a never-ending stair.
Inscrutable His ways are, and immune
To catechism by a mind too strewn
With petty cares to slightly understand
What awful brain compels His awful hand.
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing.

William Waring Cuney’s musical background, attending the New England Conservatory of Music, emerges in his poetry. Infused with the rhythms of jazz and blues, his poems bounce and swing. Here’s the beginning of his tribute “Charles Parker, 1925-1955”:

Listen,
This here
Is what
Charlie
Did
To the Blues.
Listen,
That there
Is what
Charlie
Did
To the Blues.
This here,
bid-dle-dee-dee
bid-dle-dee-dee . . .

It’s interesting to see the different approaches to working within or combining various traditions. I’ll certainly be looking to read more of their poetry.

If you write poetry, what traditions influence your work? If you read poetry, what traditions are you drawn to?

Harlem Renaissance Poets on Poetry Foundation, Part 1

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Books are my primary focus on this blog, with an occasional foray into magazines and music. Today it’s a website. While pretty familiar with the more well-known writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance, I wanted to delve into the work of other, less familiar poets. The Poetry Foundation website is a great place to start.

The Harlem Renaissance was a flowering of creative and cultural life in the early 20th century, loosely dated from 1916-1935. Partly a result of WWI, a huge wave of southern Blacks moved to northern cities to take advantage of job opportunities and a seemingly less oppressive society. Known as the Great Migration, this influx brought together a significant number of Black artists and writers as a group for the first time. Harlem alone saw over 175,00 new Black residents. This new sense of social and creative community was fertile ground where the arts could thrive.

Claude McKay, born in Jamaica and committed to social justice, is the author of “If We Must Die”, an enduring trumpet call for freedom which begins: “If we must die, let it not be like hogs / Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot”. But it is his poem “America” that moves me to tears and stays with me week after week as we ride the current wave of potential change. It begins:

Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth.

His love for this country despite its failures is front and center in this poem. Grateful for its gifts, he comes as a rebel but one without malice. Change is coming, he says. It may take time; it may take a lot of time, but it is inexorable.

Like a number of poets associated with the Harlem Renaissance, Anne Spencer never lived there, but was close to several key figures and worked with them to establish the Lynchburg, Virginia chapter of the NAACP. Her tribute to Paul Dunbar, a forerunner and model for the Harlem Renaissance poets, is brief but wrenching. And her poems such as “Lines to a Nasturtium” are a master class in how to use nature to explore the human heart.

Poet, playwright, and novelist Jean Toomer brings his background to his calls for racial unity. Of both White and Black heritage and having attended both all-White and all-Black schools, his poems combine elements of both cultures. In “Banking Coal” he uses the extended image of banking the coals of a fire with ashes overnight, working it first one way and then another before the shocking but perfect middle:

I’ve seen them set to work, each in his way,
Though all with shovels and with ashes,
Never resting till the fire seemed most dead;
Whereupon they’d crawl in hooded night-caps
Contentedly to bed. Sometimes the fire left alone
Would die, but like as not spiced tongues
Remaining by the hardest on till day would flicker up

He continues to add nuances and layers of meaning without leaving his image, until the stirring end.

Georgia Douglas Johnson lived in Washington, D.C., but her salon became an important meeting place for writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Her poems more than any others I read evoke the despair that comes from constantly having your dreams deferred, as Langston Hughes put it. Being a woman in a male-dominated society is hard enough, but is magnified exponentially by the intersection with race and class. Here is her poem “The Heart of a Woman”:

The heart of a woman goes forth with the dawn,
As a lone bird, soft winging, so restlessly on,
Afar o’er life’s turrets and vales does it roam
In the wake of those echoes the heart calls home.

The heart of a woman falls back with the night,
And enters some alien cage in its plight,
And tries to forget it has dreamed of the stars
While it breaks, breaks, breaks on the sheltering bars.

The ambivalence introduced by the last two words—that bars not only confine but also shelter—harkens back to McKay’s difficult love for “this cultured hell”. They, along with my memories of the movements of the 1960s and 1970s (Civil Rights, Anti-War, Women’s), remind me that times of great change may involve destruction but are fueled and formed by love.

Go to the website and explore their work. More next time.

What poets of the Harlem Renaissance have you read?

The Complete Poems 1927-1979, by Elizabeth Bishop

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Although she won the 1956 Pulitzer Prize for her collection Poems: North & South/A Cold Spring, Bishop’s was not well-known during most of her life except among other poets, overshadowed by poets such as her friends Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell, as well as the Beat poets, William Carlos Williams, Randall Jarrell and others.

When she began teaching during the last decade of her life, first at the University of Washington and then at Harvard, she did begin to achieve a wider fame, but it is only since her death that her reputation has risen into the stratosphere. Now she is considered one of the best poets of the 20th century.

I’m not entirely sure why that is. Partly it’s a reaction to the explosion of confessional poetry set off by Lowell’s Life Sentences, the rise of political and feminist poetry, and the general abandonment of formal poetry: all trends that she rejected.

Partly it is an appreciation of her attention to craft. A perfectionist, she labored for years over most of her poems, refusing to publish them until she was satisfied. While she often creates her own form, sometimes she uses forms such as sestina and villanelle. One of her most famous poems, “One Art”, is a villanelle beginning:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

What I like best about her poetry, and possibly the most significant reason for her popularity today, is her use of the things of this world. Her poems have precise descriptions of objects and animals, often insignificant things, such as an old French horn hung on a wall or leaves drifting in the Seine. In the best poems, these descriptions carry an emotional weight far beyond the thing itself.

As a writer, this use of subtext is what I’m always striving for. It’s far more powerful than explicit text because you are leaving space for the reader to have their own experience. You are creating the gaps that Robert Bly speaks of in Leaping Poetry, the kind of gaps that the reader must leap over, an opening for the unconscious or for buried memories to bubble up. This space is also what gives imagery its power.

In this excerpt from “The Fish”, we can see her use of imagery, choice of details, and surprising adjectives not only to bring the fish to life but to invest it with meaning.

He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
and infested
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
—the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly—
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers . . .

We learn that “five old pieces of fish-line” hang from his lip. Through this “battered and venerable” fish we are caught up in her themes of surviving trauma, of loneliness, of grief and loss. And note the resonances around those two adjectives: “battered” carrying also the image of a sizzling frying pan, “venerable” not just old but something to be honored.

There was controversy around the posthumous publication of this collection because it also includes juvenilia and unpublished poems, which seemed to many an insult to a poet so meticulous about what she allowed to be published. Still, it is interesting to see something of her development as a writer and what she still considered works in progress.

Do you have a favorite Elizabeth Bishop poem?

Elizabeth Bishop, by Brett C. Millier

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I’ve been tiptoeing around Bishop’s poetry for many years, intrigued but wanting to carve out a chunk of time to really concentrate on it. The last few weeks have been that time.

Subtitled Life and the Memory of It, a quote from one of Bishop’s poems, this is a critical biography, meaning that it not only tells the story of Bishop’s life, but also discusses her poems. Of course, there’s long been a kerfuffle in the literary community over the relevance of a writer’s life to her work, and in other arts communities as well. Shouldn’t a poem or film stand alone? Don’t we bring our own experiences and outlook to a book or painting?

Well, of course. Yet, many years back, when I finished school and started creating my own study programs, I found that in addition to hunkering down and reading all of a writer’s oeuvre, I wanted to know about their lives. I felt that I knew something about them through their work, but needed to know more, especially in those early years when I was figuring out what my own writing life might look like.

I’ve felt a curious tie to Bishop because I knew that she was born in 1911 in Worcester, Massachusetts, where I also lived for a few years, very close to her home in fact. From Millier’s book, I’ve learned that Bishop’s time there was brief. Her father died when she was eight months old and her mother was in and out of mental institutions for a few years, moving between Worcester and her family’s home in Nova Scotia, before being committed in 1917. At that point, Elizabeth’s father’s family brought her back to Worcester for a miserable few months before sending her to boarding school. Although her mother did not die until 1934, Elizabeth essentially had no family home for the rest of her childhood.

She made lifelong friends at school and later at Vassar and in the literary community at large. Two friendships in particular shaped her as a poet. While still in college she met Marianne Moore who became a mentor as well as a friend. Moore cheered on the young poet, initially critiquing her work and later suggesting places she could submit her work. Later, living in New York, Bishop became friends with Robert Lowell and the two continued to exchange poems, letters and visits until Lowell’s death.

Those of us who write stories are advised to constantly raise the stakes for our protagonist, or if we’re writing nonfiction—memoir or biography—to point out where the risks and rewards have increasing consequence, thus creating tension and suspense. Millier does this admirably for Bishop.

It’s hard enough to be a poet, let alone one without a home or family, a victim of early trauma. Let her be a lesbian in an era when homosexuals were closeted. Give her some chronic illnesses: debilitating asthma and alcoholism. Make her a perfectionist, and put her in New York’s very competitive atmosphere; then give her some early victories and very successful friends to add even more pressure.

Plenty of suspense, then, to keep this biography moving, interleaved with excerpts from letters to and from Bishop. It’s not all sad; Bishop traveled a lot, had strong relationships, created homes that she loved, and most of all wrote and revised and revised again, never letting a poem go until she was sure it was the very best she could make it.

Plus there are Millier’s insightful discussions of the poems. I was glad I had a copy of The Complete Poems 1927 – 1979 at hand to dip back into. I will discuss the poems themselves and Bishop’s thoughts about poetry in another post.

One of the things I enjoyed here was seeing the humorous side of this poet, as in this excerpt from a letter; Bishop was living in Brazil and had just won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry:

Lota went to market, to our regular vegetable man, and he asked her if it wasn’t my photograph he’d seen in the papers. She said yes, and he said it was simply amazing what good luck his customers had. Why, just the week before, one of his customers had bought a ticket in the lottery and won a bicycle.

If you haven’t read her poems, this biography will make you want to read them. If—like me—you feel that there are layers in her poems that you are missing, this book will help open them up for you. Most of all, if you are curious about the life of a poet, particularly one who stands alone, not part of a literary movement, or the life of a brilliant but challenged woman in the mid-twentieth century, this is the book for you.

Have you read a biography that you’d recommend?

View with a Grain of Sand, by Wisława Szymborska

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I’ve had this edition of Szymborska’s Selected Poems for some time but hadn’t gotten around to reading it. Luckily, my poetry discussion group chose her to be the poet we read this month. Unlike a book club where people read the book ahead of time, we meet and read the poems together and discuss. Here, though, I took advantage of the opportunity to read this collection by this Polish poet who won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature.

I’m so glad I did! I love Szymborska’s understated wit skewering our preoccupations and assumptions. For example, in “Seen from Above”, she confronts a dead beetle in the road, unlamented because:

What’s important is valid supposedly for us.
For just our life, for just our death,
a death that enjoys an extorted primacy.

I love her ability to focus intently on the small things, the brief moments of life and celebrate them—something that poetry is especially appropriate for. Here is “Vermeer”, quoted in its entirety:

As long as the woman from Rijksmuseum
in painted silence and concentration
day after day pours milk
from the jug to the bowl,
the World does not deserve
the end of the world.

I love her humor. She writes of wildly inventive dreams or uses the images of clouds floating across the sky and ants trudging through a checkpoint to make fun of our human preoccupation with borders. She even creates neologisms worthy of e. e. cummings, as in “Allegro Ma Non Troppo” which begins:

Life, you’re beautiful (I say)
you just couldn’t get more fecund,
more befrogged or nightingaley,
more anthillful or sproutsprouting.

I love the way she is able to write about the horrors of war in ways that do not accuse but rather appeal to our common humanity, or sometimes to our place in the natural world. In “The End and the Beginning”, she drily points out what perhaps only a woman might notice:

After every war
someone has to clean up.
Things won’t
straighten themselves up, after all.

But she also notes that by cleaning everything up, we run the danger of the next generation forgetting what’s happened; sparing them the horror could lead them blithely into the next war.

Those who knew
what was going on here
must make way for
those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.

In concentrating on themes and overall approaches, I haven’t mentioned her amazingly effective word choice, her use of repetition to add power, her sly allusions to a range of cultural artifacts from popular songs to the Bible. She often uses irony, something for which I have a bit of tin ear, so I’m grateful for others in the group pointing out possible ironic interpretations of some of the poems.

She also finds ways to celebrate life, as in “Miracle Fair”, where she applauds a variety of commonplace miracles, such as “cows will be cows” or “that the sun rose today and three fourteen a.m. / and will set tonight at one past eight”. As one member of the group exclaimed near the end of our discussion, I love this woman!

Have you read any of Szymborska’s poetry? Do you have a favorite among her poems?

Jimmy’s Blues, by James Baldwin

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I’d read fiction and nonfiction by Baldwin but not his poetry, so I welcomed this chance to delve into it. This collection actually includes some of his later poems as well as the ones from the original Jimmy’s Blues.

Some of the poems have the fire that I expected, the anger held in check that powers his stories. In his long poem “Staggerlee wonders”, he doesn’t pull his punches, as in this timely excerpt.

Surely, they cannot be deluded
as to imagine that their crimes
are original?

There is nothing in the least original
about the fiery tongs to the eyeballs,
the sex torn from the socket,
the infant ripped from the womb,
the brains dashed out against rock,
nothing original about Judas,
or Peter, or you or me: nothing:
we are liars and cowards all,
or nearly all, or nearly all the time:
for we also ride the lightning,
answer the thunder, penetrate whirlwinds,
curl up on the floor of the sun,
and pick our teeth with thunderbolts.

Then, perhaps they imagine
that their crimes are not crimes?

Some are witty and sharp like “Guilt, Desire and Love” where he personifies the three as a nighttime encounter on a street corner that ends up causing “a mighty traffic problem”. Others prompt philosophical musings about time and change and memory, such as these lines from “The Giver”: “The giver is no less adrift / than those who are clamouring for the gift.”

His diction can move from high-brow to street slang and back without missing a beat. Many of the poems use repetition and rhythm to summon energy that drives the poems forward, some so jazz-infused they almost seem like scat singing.

Others speak of love, sometimes with humor, sometimes with pain, but also with tenderness, as in these lines from “Song For The Shepherd Boy”:

Hey. The rags of my life are few.
Abandoned priceless gems are scattered
here and there
I don’t know where—
never expected to have them,
much less need them,
but, now, an ache, like the beginning
of the rain,
makes me wonder where they are.

If I knew, I would go there,
traveling far and far
and find them
to give them to you.

His generous line breaks lend weight to even the simplest words, making us pause and recognise their significance. While almost never using a formal rhyme scheme, Baldwin deploys rhyme to spice up a subtle passage or to playfully undercut a solemn theme.

There’s outrage here, and bitter anger. There’s existential despair and heartbreak. But there’s also a recognition of what keeps a people going, as in this last stanza of “Munich, Winter 1973”:

Just as the birds above our heads
circling
are singing,
knowing
that, in what lies before them,
the always unknown passage,
wind, water, air,
the failing light
the failing night
the blinding sun
they must get the journey done.
Listen.
They have wings and voices
are making choices
are using what they have.
They are aware
that, on long journeys,
each bears the other,
whirring,
stirring
love occurring
in the middle of the terrifying air.

Have you read any of Baldwin’s work recently?

Best Books I read in 2019

As a writer, I learn something from every book I read. In no particular order, these are the twelve best books I read in 2019. Please check the links to the blog archive for a fuller discussion of each book.

1. The Fateful Triangle: Race, Ethnicity, Nation, by Stuart Hall
You might think that this collection of talks given at Harvard in 1994 by Stuart Hall couldn’t be relevant 25 years later, but nothing could be more germane to what is happening today. Hall, a prominent intellectual and one of the founding figures of cultural studies, examines the three words in his subtitle and how their meanings—how we understand them—have changed over time.

2. The Book of Emma Reyes, by Emma Reyes
Reyes, who died in 2003 at the age of 84, lived in Paris where she was known as an artist, friends with Sartre, Frido Kahlo, and Diego Rivera. She was also known as a fascinating storyteller, full of stories of her childhood in Colombia. The translator Daniel Alarcón says in his introduction, “Her vision is acute, detailed, remorseless, and true. There is no self-pity, only wonder, and that tone, so delicate and subtle, is perhaps the book’s greatest achievement.”

3. The Souls of Black Folks, by W.E.B. DuBois
DuBois presents a program of what is needed to bring the American Negro, particularly those in the South, into full citizenship: the right to vote, a good education—not just vocational training—and to be treated fairly. His prose is both expressive and straight-forward. These chapters are lessons in how to write about outrageous conditions with your outrage controlled and contained to add power to your sentences without turning the reader away. He marshals facts and numbers to back up his statements, yet doesn’t hesitate to move into lyric prose to bring home to us the reality of what he’s describing.

4. Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler
I’d heard so many good things about Butler’s work, and especially this early (1979) stand-alone novel of hers, and I was not disappointed. Kindred is the story of Dana, a modern-day woman of color who is mysteriously transported back to a pre-Civil War slave plantation. Not only is Maryland’s Eastern Shore a far distance from her home in Los Angeles, in time as well as miles, but it is a shockingly unfamiliar culture.

5. The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula Le Guin
If you haven’t read this classic, stop right now and go read it. Came out in 1969? No problem: it couldn’t be more relevant to today. Don’t like science fiction? Won’t matter; there aren’t any space battles or robots; just beings you will recognise going about their lives. And any initial questions you might have about the culture you’re reading about are exactly the point.

6. A Place on Earth, by Wendell Berry
I had read some of Wendell Berry’s poems and essays, so I was not surprised that one of the big ideas explored in this his second novel is our relationship with the land. Reading this story set in the small town of Port William, Kentucky in 1944, we are immersed in a way of life unfamiliar to most of us today.

7. All for Nothing, by Walter Kempowski
To this last novel, published a year before his death in 2007, Kempowski brings all the experiences of his long life. Born in 1929 in Hamburg, he was caught up in WWII, at 15 witnessing the East Prussian refugees in Rostock, the coastal town where he grew up. Soon after, he learned that his father had been killed. Drawing on these experiences, Kempowski crafts a story of an East Prussian family continuing to live their normal, even banal, lives while the first Baltic refugees fleeing the approaching Russians begin to pass their estate.

8. The October Palace, by Jane Hirshfield
Hirshfield is one of my favorite poets, and I welcomed the opportunity to reread this early (1994) collection of hers. The poems in this book hold mysteries that, like koans, can leave me pondering a few lines for days.

9. Prairie Fires, by Caroline Fraser
A friend recommended this book so vehemently that she actually sent me a copy. I’d never read the Little House books, so I caught up on them as I read this biography. Wilder always maintained that her stories were true, but questions arose even as the books were taking the world of children’s literature by storm. Now Fraser’s meticulously sourced and immensely readable account shows what is fact and what is fiction in those books.

10. The Friend, by Sigrid Nunez
Nunez’s new novel, winner of the 2018 National Book Award, is a quiet and intelligent story of friendship, love and despair, tackling the questions most of us wrestle with at various times in our lives: Should I change my life? Is it worth going on as I have?

11. The Overstory, by Richard Powers
This popular, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel left me with a combination of enchantment and disappointment. It’s an ambitious work, one that is out to change the world, at least our human part of it. Powers conjures our life as a whole, the one that we share with the rest of nature, through nine characters, whose individual tales bounce off each other and sometimes intersect. While their goals may be art or love or survival, each character’s journey is also one of developing a relationship with nature, specifically trees. What I find most stunning is the brave attempt to write a larger story.

12. Memento Mori, by Charles Coe
Coe is a teacher and an award-winning poet. The poems in this book celebrate ordinary days, finding treasure hidden in plain sight. They are the poems of a man no longer young, one who has looked at his own mortality and chosen to live every day, every moment; a man who wishes he could go back and give advice to his teenaged self about what really matters.

What were the best books you read last year?

Collected Poems, by Emily Dickinson

Emily

For our first meeting this year, our Poetry Discussion Group read Dickinson’s poems, a mix of famous and now-so-famous works. To prepare, I reread this collection from my bookshelf, finding notes from my schooldays tucked in its pages, enjoying old favorites and rediscovering ones I’d forgotten.

At our meeting one person remarked that almost anyone reading an unattributed poem by Dickinson would know immediately that it was by her. Why is that? It’s partly her remarkable concision—the way she can pack so much into a handful of lines—and partly her combination of whimsy and practicality.

Of course there are her distinctive dashes. In many cases, they designate a pause, as here:

It’s all I have to bring today —
This, and my heart beside —
This, and my heart, and all the fields —
And all the meadows wide —
Be sure you count — should I forget
Some one the sum could tell —
This, and my heart, and all the Bees
Which in the Clover dwell.

In others, they indicate a modern fracturing of perception, as here:

Each Life Converges to some Centre —
Expressed — or still —
Exists in every Human Nature
A Goal —

Embodied scarcely to itself — it may be —
Too fair
For Credibility’s presumption
To mar —

Adored with caution — as a Brittle Heaven —
To reach
Were hopeless, as the Rainbow’s Raiment
To touch —

Yet persevered toward — sure — for the Distance —
How high —
Unto the Saint’s slow diligence —
The Sky —

Ungained — it may be — by a Life’s low Venture —
But then —
Eternity enable the endeavoring
Again.

Sometimes they add emphasis to certain words or ideas.

I taste a liquor never brewed —
From Tankards scooped in Pearl —
Not all the Vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an Alcohol!

Inebriate of Air — am I —
And Debauchee of Dew —
Reeling — thro endless summer days —
From inns of Molten Blue —

When “Landlords” turn the drunken Bee
Out of the Foxglove’s door —
When Butterflies — renounce their “drams” —
I shall but drink the more!

Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats —
And Saints — to windows run —
To see the little Tippler
Leaning against the — Sun –

She can be joyous, as in the previous poem, or satirical, as here:

What Soft — Cherubic Creatures —
These Gentlewomen are —
One would as soon assault a Plush —
Or violate a Star —

Such Dimity Convictions —
A Horror so refined
Of freckled Human Nature —
Of Deity — ashamed —

It’s such a common — Glory —
A Fisherman’s — Degree —
Redemption — Brittle Lady —
Be so — ashamed of Thee —

More often, though, she’s kind, appreciative of the world around here and aware of its transience:

I had no time to Hate —
Because
The Grave would hinder Me —
And Life was not so
Ample I
Could finish — Enmity —

Nor had I time to Love —
But since
Some Industry must be —
The little Toil of Love —
I thought
Be large enough for Me –

Some of her poems seem straightforward, but may have layers within. Some—such as the last one—are so sweetly positive as to border on sentimentality, though never (in my opinion) crossing over. Some we found baffling, such as this one where the two stanzas seem to be separate poems, the first clear and the second bewildering (Himmaleh indicates the Himalayas).

I can wade Grief —
Whole Pools of it —
I’m used to that —
But the least push of Joy
Breaks up my feet —
And I tip — drunken —
Let no Pebble — smile —
‘Twas the New Liquor —
That was all!

Power is only Pain —
Stranded, thro’ Discipline,
Till Weights — will hang —
Give Balm — to Giants —
And they’ll wilt, like Men —
Give Himmaleh —
They’ll Carry — Him!

As writers we’re often advised to eliminate adjectives and adverbs, yet she deploys them brilliantly, as in this poem where it is the adjectives that give it power:

For each ecstatic instant
We must an anguish pay
In keen and quivering ration
To the ecstasy.

For each beloved hour
Sharp pittances of years —
Bitter contested farthings —
And Coffers heaped with Tears!

I have plenty of friends IRL (in real life) and online, but books too are my friends, and none more welcome than wise and witty Emily.
All the poems I’ve quoted and more may be found here.

What is your favorite Emily Dickinson poem?

Lucky Fish, by Aimee Nezhukumatathil

lucky fish

True confession: I bought this book for its cover. Not knowing much about graphic design, I took advantage of an AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference to wander through its sales hall where a couple of gymnasiums full of publishers displayed their books. When a cover caught my eye, I started a conversation with the representative staffing the table about why it was so intriguing (I’d chosen a slack time so as not to inconvenience them).

Tupelo Press, the publisher of this collection, Nezhukumatathil’s third, had quite a number of outstanding covers. And their representative was generous with their knowledge.

But it’s the inside of the book I’m here to talk about. Nezhukumatathil draws on her Indian-Filipino heritage, her Florida childhood nurturing recalcitrant citrus trees, and her husband’s Kansas farming experiences to create these poems. She writes about two-headed calves, made-up folk remedies, fables and families. She writes about love in fresh yet simple ways, such as this excerpt from “Suppose You Chopped Down a Mulberry Tree”:

I know a man who has such a sweet face,
bees follow him down the street. Ants still collect

in the tread of his shoes.

Many of the poems are a luscious cornucopia of images. The author doesn’t hold back, but sprinkles them liberally throughout, often in surprising combinations that still work. Here’s the beginning of “Fortune-Telling Parrot”:

I will pick
a black card

of luck for you;
star, pinkmoon,

mirror, ostrich, eye,
and jasmine bloom.

How does she do it? What a remarkable imagination!

In the third part of the book the poems are about giving birth, speaking simply and directly about this most fundamental experience, yet incorporating whimsical images and strong emotion. She imagines her baby born with a hedgehog resting in its hand and how that might play out. She speaks of the small moments every new mother will recognise, such as in “Waiting for Him to Speak” where she notes that “his hair // is the tobacco hue of an owl feather.” She worries about whether the baby will latch properly, thinking that “if she thought to wear the silver anklets her Indian grandmother gave her, at least there would be happy bells.”

But she doesn’t shy away from the larger world, writing about the Chinese children assembling her child’s toys. In other poems throughout the book there is a welcome astringent note within the sweet and magical songs. In these specific and sensual poems, whether about the taste of soil or the sound of the stone found in an eel’s head, Nezhukumatathil captures the universal and invites us to share the celebration.

Have you read any poems that overwhelmed you with their richness?