"Books," she cried, rising to her feet and speaking with an intensity of desolation which I shall never forget, "are for the most part unutterably bad."
--Virginia Woolf, "A Society"
--Virginia Woolf, "A Society"
Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov. Braided narrative couched in quote-unquote commentary makes this novel a novelty. A hypertext version would probably be the best way to go about reading Pale Fire, especially for those keen on discovering all Nabokov's "plums," much preferable to Updike's yams, as anyone who's read Brazil will surely attest.
Trader, Robert Mazzoco. Meh, it's okay, but nothing here leaps out & proclaims itself as must-read poetry. When did I buy this book anyway? Also, why? Probably I bought it as an undergraduate because I spent almost every dollar I had on poetry, at times indiscriminately, so that I could absorb it all, to make myself the best poet I could be. Despite the lack of the success I so richly deserve, I still work toward joining the immortals someday. That, at minimum, requires writing one great poem (e.g., William Cullen Bryant, Joyce Kilmer, Wilfred Owen, et al.) which I certainly am capable of doing. As far as I know, maybe I already have.
Native Son, Richard Wright. Although Wright spends too much time initially establishing characters & setting--the overabundance of foreshadowing serves almost as a spoiler--& although the final section drags with didactic exposition, the message of this novel about oppression, both of class & race, remains poignant. The bombastic bigotry of Buckley, the state prosecutor, sadly still serves as a fair representation of the fear-mongering, race-baiting diatribes of many of today's (so-called) political pundits.
Selected Poems: 1940-1982, Norman Nicholson. The person who gave me this book said that Nicholson reminded her of me. I thought she meant we both have alliterative names, but apparently she was referring to certain aspects of his background. If you're unfamiliar with Nicholson, a mostly overlooked poet--or even if you're not--you may enjoy this link to a cool site.
Spells for Not Dying Again, Diana O’Hehir. Anyone remember Bucky O'Hare? Well, when I first started reading this book, I thought I'd really like it. As I continued, however, I found it rather tedious. "Recovery Spells: The Ordinary Run of Things" & "Waking" come to mind, since I read them last, as poems I like. While O'Hehir has obvious poetic skills, she would get more from her lines if she broke them differently. Long story short, she's not Bucky O'Hare.
You Never Know, Ron Padgett. I'll admit that I want more complexity than "Nuts" or "Amy," for instance, have to offer, but the overall simplicity, however much Padgett's surrealistic flourishes may mask it, of such poems as "The Austrian Maid," "Mountains Are a Feeling" & "Bluebird" make this collection a pleasure to read.
The Probable World, Lawrence Raab. This collection starts strong with "Why the Truth Is Hidden," "Love" & "Respect," but these superb poems fizzle into subpar pieces as mediocre as the schools in Pittsfield ("High School Days") with prosaic lines dull as anyone who'd say, "I thought Henry Mancini was a great composer" ("My Life Before I Knew It"). Many of the poems serve as a microcosm of the book as a whole, for they too start strong & peter out.
New Math, Cole Swensen. I appreciate the bizarre imagery that courses through this volume like "The forest on its long walk / into landscape" ("Grays and Greens"). Indeed, I prefer odd images such as "holding your eyes / in your hands like addresses" ("No Worry") that border on nonsensical to the borderline cliche of "a fine dust is falling / over everything" ("Face") or the near triteness of such lines as "love is not a transitive verb" ("Re"). Or vicey-versey. Too often awkward phrasing impairs the enjoyment of these poems; however, in their favor, they're short.
Orlando, Virginia Woolf. It's not her best novel (To the Lighthouse) or my favorite (Mrs. Dalloway), but even if Woolf wearied of hearing her work depicted as such, each time I read Orlando (I've lost count of the times), I'm convinced it may be her most lyrical.
Ship of Fools, William Trowbridge. If I were to compare Trowbridge to another poet, I'd say he reminds me of Paul Zimmer. Like Zimmer, Trowbridge skillfully writes accessible verse about everyday experiences from an often humorous perspective. Also, like Zimmer, whose poems many times, much to my chagrin, employ a recurring persona named Zimmer, Trowbridge in the majority of the poems in Ship of Fools uses as protagonist a character identified simply as Fool, whom the reader may tend to think of as the poet. Well, not exactly . . . I mean . . . that is to say . . . Ok, this is entirely subjective, but I don't care for the Fool persona. I much prefer those poems without mention of the Fool that comprise the slim mid-section, the meaty filling of a book sandwiched between thick slices of Fool's bread, but ultimately, I guess, it's a matter of taste.
Sound & Form in Modern Poetry, Harvey Gross. In this extensive study of prosody, Gross discusses, down to minute details, varying techniques that poets use to create rhythm. It's an highly informative read, especially if you want "elucidation of technical problems . . . that go beyond technique: to the sources of aesthetic effect." His acute knowledge of the arcane lends his opinions on the numerous poets he discusses the distinct air of objectivity. If I have a criticism--which, in fact, I do--I'd complain that he devotes too many pages lauding Eliot's celebrated ear, too few regarding content (not only with Eliot, but with other poets as well), if I thought anyone would listen.
Story Under Full Sail, Andrei Voznesensky. Based on a story lifted from the pages of history, it's a smallish book, so if you've nothing better to do, reading it probably won't cause major upheavals in your life, but unlike a couple of unfortunate Russian sailors, you probably won't drown in your own tears either.
Irish Musicians American Friends, Terence Winch. That its cover claims this book won the American Book Award shouldn't surprise me, but that the Washington Post (where I always go for my poetry news) compares Winch to James Joyce (no doubt because of his Irish ancestry, though Winch himself is from New Jersey) strikes me as incredibly silly. The poems relate interesting vignettes, depending upon the definition of "interesting," written in a very plain style, not at all like Joyce’s experimental prose or his traditional verse. In fact, these poems don't really seem like poems so much as ideas that Winch needs to develop into poems. I read Winch's The Great Indoors beforehand, which, although I don't remember it now, I must have liked somewhat, since I bought this book afterward, so if you're going to read Winch, yeah, try the other book instead.
Strike Anywhere, Dean Young. Long time readers of this blog may recall I'm a big fan of Young's poetry. This, First Course in Turbulence or Skid may be my favorite of his books. In fact, I'm such a fan, that I wrote "Aspects of Dagwood" as an ode to the comic strip Blondie, which apparently Young draws on the side, hyuck. If you're unfamiliar with Young, I'll assume you haven't read much poetry in the past couple decades. That's on you.
The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse, Geoffrey Bownas & Anthony Thwaite, trans. Finding this book while scrounging around dusty, sprawling stacks at a used book store last summer, I balked initially at paying, if memory serves, five bucks second-hand for a book with an original cover price clearly marked at $1.65, but sweet baby Jesus, I really, really wanted it, so I convinced myself that the book, a paperback from 1966, was probably out of print to justify shelling out the cash. Though I later learned that a more recent edition of the book's available wherever poetry is sold, which, of course, isn't very many places at all, I don't regret my purchase. It's a great little book, chock full of poetry from the Nara Period & before all the way to modern poetry. Bownas & Thwaite present a wide selection of poems beyond the usual cherry-blossoms-in-spring, Mt.Fuji-capped-with-snow variety usually provided for American readers. (See, for example, my interpretation of Otomo Tabito's "Thirteen Tanka in Praise of Saki," based primarly on Bownas & Thwaite's translation.) While I don't read Japanese, I wish the book included the poems' original Japanese characters, which hold a certain appeal from a calligraphic perspective alone.
Second Sight, Jonathan Aaron. The most remarkable thing about Second Sight is the list of prominent authors who wrote blurbs for a first book. Joseph Brodsky calls it "post-modernist poetry at its best." To Harold Bloom, Aaron is a "craftsman & a visionary," a rarity among today's poets. Richard Wilbur says the poems "express . . . the radical unease of Everyman's psyche in a preposterous world." Marvin Bell says "we are absorbed & live nowhere else & speak no other language" than those of these poems, which "both ask & demonstrate," writes William Matthews, "How do we live?" If you're not yet sufficiently impressed, then what if I told you that Anthony Hecht selected Second Sight as the winner of the National Poetry Series Open Competition in 1981?Call me a jaded cynic--speaking of Harold Bloom, ha!--but even before reading a single poem, I had difficulty accepting the sincerity of such--even for blurbs--effusive praise. For me, these poems don't rank among the finest examples of post-modernist poetry (they're not especially post-modernist) nor do I see Aaron as a rare visionary craftsman, but what strikes me as particularly ludicrous is the notion that Aaron writes from the perspective of Everyman. Teaching at Harvard, as Aaron does (or at least did--I haven't a whit of what he's up to these days) has its advantages, to be sure; for instance, it apparently allows one to rub elbows, among other things, with those with names worthy of dropping, but with this exclusive membership, one loses claim to the Everyman designation. That's my opinion. If I sound bitter, fuck you, I am. This collection isn't horrible, but it doesn't live up to the hype either. To be fair, few books could. It's certainly adequate, I'll say that much for it, which admittedly wouldn't make for much of a blurb.
Rommel Drives on Deep into Egypt, Richard Brautigan. I bought this book as a high school student not because of Brautigan's reputation as poet, which, frankly, wasn't very good, nor because of its provocative cover photo of an attractive young woman, wearing a '60-ish San Francisco free-love smile, leather jacket & boots, spawled in a sandbox, which, admittedly grabbed my attention, but because I found it on the used rack for a dime. Today the same book would cost hundreds of dollars once you factor in inflation. Advantage: me, a few decades later, again drawn to this book because my brain hurts & I want something easy to digest on Saturday afternoon. Brautigan writes his share of interesting lines, such as "a little car with blue headlights / passing forever in a dream" or "It is a white sadness that rises / . . . / to sit here beside me like a snowy 1943 map of my childhood." However, I wish he wouldn't settle for his usual minimalist expression, but expand upon his ideas. At times, Brautigan takes minimalism to an absurd level: three poems are merely titles, each followed by a blank page. Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading Brautigan again, if for no other reason, I briefly returned to my teenage years, days filled with so many dreams yet like pimples to pop.
Blessing the Boats, New & Selected Poems, 1988-2000, Lucille Clifton. You'll probably not read many poets as conversational as Clifton. Coupled with minimalism, this conversational tone makes her poetry excessively easy to understand. In the big picture, Clifton's seemingly breezy approach produces a a hit or they miss effect, but either way, they're short, which makes the misses more forgivable than if the poems sprawled interminably page after page, migraine upon migraine. True to her aesthetic, Clifton delves into complex, tragic, and important issues with the same beguiling simplicity & candor that she uses to discuss lighter subjects. I'm disappointed this collection doesn't include "cruelty," one of my favorite poems, but I'll close with "note, passed to superman":
sweet jesus, superman,
if i had seen you
dressed in your blue suit
i would have known you.
maybe that choirboy clark
can stand around
listening to stories
but not you, not with
metropolis to save
and every crook in town
filthy with kryptonite.
lord, man of steel,
i understand the cape,
the leggings, the whole
ball of wax.
you can trust me,
there is no planet stranger
than the one i'm from.
The Dark Old House, Tom Disch. This chapbook concludes with a series of haiku entitled "Ephemera," alluding to the appropriate contents for chapbooks, traditionally speaking. Not so many years ago, soon after Here's How, my first chapbook, was published, I read on the internet somewhere that "chapbook" is an elision of "cheap book." Given the "quality" of most chapbooks, this etymology, albeit apocryphal, seems plausible. (I'm obviously excluding Pudding House which publishes chapbooks of only the finest quality--no ironic quotation marks needed here!) If you can look past the Xerox machine & paper cutter appearance of The Dark Old House (I'm kidding--it's really not that bad) you'll find a delightful read. I especially enjoy "A Sabbath Prayer," in spite of my aversion to even faux religious verse, as it breezes from workers' untied shoelaces to Hurricane Andrew with nary a transition or--thank the gods--a conversion.
Noose and Hook, Lynn Emanuel. David St. John calls this "Lynn Emanuel's most exquisite and powerful book yet." Once again, I find myself at odds with a blurb. Noose and Hook is a good read--though I'm still unsure what to make of the Mongrelogue section of the book in which dogs perform poems as part of play--the term "doggerel" seems apt--but Emanuel's best book remains Then, Suddenly.
Pictures of the Gone World, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. This, the 1995 edition, includes 18 new poems, which, of course, in 2012, aren't new any more. A division exists among Serengeti readers: some like the 1995 edition better because it offers 18 additional poems, while others prefer the previous version for precisely the same reason. I don't know anyone who actually feels the latter way, but saying so gave me a chuckle. I hope it did you too, regardless of your feelings about Mr. Spaghetti. Personally, I'm glad he added more poems. By the way, Pictures is part of the City Lights Pocket Poets Series, which also published Frank O'Hara's Lunch Poems, if I'm not mistaken, & for what it's worth, I'm not.
The Smuggler's Handbook, Albert Goldbarth. Anyone remember when Goldbarth was one of THE names in contemporary poetry? Whatever happened to him, what made him famous--well, famous isn't a word to describe poets unless it's Maya Angelou--but among the qualities that brought Goldbarth critical attention were his wit, his intelligence, his creativity & his collaquial tone. Certainly, he's a bright, engaging poet, but on the flipside lies his characteristic verbosity. Well, fuck-it-all, I like Whitman, Melville & Tolstoy, so obviously I know about the napping sections that courteous writers provide while they babble incessantly about who gives a shit. However, Goldbarth apparently feels you should catnap in the white space, what little of it exists, between stanzas & poems, never-you-mind I've been up since 4:30 with my nightly panic attack. That's not to say his poems aren't enjoyable. I compare reading Goldbarth to talking on the phone with someone who, as interesting as the conversation is, won't let you hang up, no matter how many times you say you have to go, regardless of the excuses you make, e.g., the kitchen's on fire; your dog pooped, threw up or died at your feet; the fucking FBI's banging at the door--again; or you've spontaneously exploded & the phoenix that rose from your ashes is flying, with you in the vice-like grip of its talons, directly into the sun, so your signal's breaking up. With this in mind, I found myself unable, given my current state of mind--let's just say I'm under a tad bit of stress--to tackle the garrulous Goldbarth's
which also occupy space on my bookshelf. Not the same space, of course. That would tend to violate basic laws of physics. So instead I read this Chowder Chapbook from 1980. Highly recommended.
Paper Boy, David Huddle. When I was an undergraduate, this was one of my favorite books. I've read it countless times. I met David Huddle when he visited Marshall. He liked the poem I'd submitted to the workshop & that meant a lot to me. I thought he was a nice guy. Years later, I met him at a writers' conference in Vermont. Still seemed like a nice guy. Here's one of the shorter poems:
At the screen door
a pretty woman just
married and in shorts
on a Saturday in May,
she was sweet to me
when I came up to collect,
offered me something cold
which I refused
for the sake of dreaming
the whole summer I was
twelve about what it
would be like some
morning to walk
Inner Weather, Denis Johnson. Speaking of books I liked as an undergraduate, I enjoyed Inner Weather so much in those hazy days that I eagerly awaited Johnson's follow-up book, The Incognito Lounge. I doubt if I'd read either book in twenty years, & while I'm no longer enamored with Inner Weather, I can see why I'd once admired it. Take these lines from "An Evening with the Evening":
. . . going
home to his wife and children,
turning and trying to walk away from the darkness
that precedes him, darkness of which he is the center.
The Art of the Possible, Kenneth Koch. Subtitled "Comics Mainly Without Pictures," this book falls somewhere short of poetry or comics. In his introduction, David Lehman discusses Koch's lifelong affection for comic strips, as well as his childhood dream of one day becoming a comic strip artist. Reading this reminded me of 1) when I was a teenager, I wanted to draw cartoons like Gahan Wilson; 2) how I spent hours as a kid drawing free-hand the comic strip characters from the daily papers for practice; 3) my ordering a book from a magazine on how to draw cartoons for money. Given the lack of drawings in this makeshift homage to comic strips, I assume Koch wanted to write comic books, not draw them, though I should point out that not being able to draw didn't stop James Thurber or Matt Groening from pursuing successful careers as cartoonists. Thankfully, Koch decided to write poetry instead. If you like Koch, you'll probably enjoy this book. I know I did.
Hotel Imperium, Rachel Loden. Damn fun read. Given that smiling Tricky Dick's on the cover--that's how I judge books--it would've been dumber than a plumber not to expect a fun book with fun poems such as "We Are Sorry to Say":
that the decision has gone against
these poems. It just up and went
against them, like an enormous rearing
horse, a careening locomotive, and we
tried to get out of the way. We still
wake up screaming. Frankly
the decision scares us
more than a little. We think it wears
a muscle shirt and is named Bluto . . .
complete with fun facts in the back such as: "Performance poet Sparrow picketed the offices of the New Yorker with a placard reading 'My poetry is as bad as yours.' His work subsequently appeared in the magazine." Sure, that sounds crazy & even crazier to say it's not, but if you don't have a connection who can put in a good word for you, most elite literary magazines remain out of the reach of mere mortals or bird-man hybrids. Much of Hotel Imperium centers around political & pop cult figures like Nixon, Reagan, Elvis, Bebe Rebozo & that lot, which makes "My Night with Philip Larkin" stand out. Hey, did you know I attended a Philip Larkin reading in London? I remember being so impressed that I gave up writing absurdist, dadaist, off-the-wall, experimental poetry given something he said that evening. He said that poetry should make sense & used a personal anecdote as support. True story--then he died.
The Need to Hold Still, Lisel Mueller. Winner of the American Book Award for Poetry in 1981, according to the cover, but not according to Wikipedia, so make your own decision re: who to trust, The Need to Hold Still is certainly worthy of an award for its simple elegance. Those who think poetry too abstruse apparently haven't read Mueller. (Call me a skeptic, but I wonder what poets these whiners have actually read.) Easy to read, yes, but I don't mean to imply that the poems lack depth. They have that too. Mueller makes her points explicit, but not in an "adult material" way--nobody got laid in the pages of these poems, which is a shame, if you ask me, but if you do, don't mumble because I have difficulty hearing as a result of youth extravagances including but not limited to rock music, to which Mueller, for the sake of full disclosure, makes no reference. However, there's a really cool poem about Mary Shelley.
Still Another Day, Pablo Neruda, trans. William O'Daly. The Spanish title is Aún, which means "And yet," so I'm not sure why "the only authorized English translation" is titled Still Another Day. Neruda's swan song is not so much a poem or group of poems (though it certainly is poetry) as it is a farewell, written hastily during the last two days of the poet's life. So I guess it's unfair to ask for a revision? It's not Neruda's best (for me, a lifelong monolingualist--I'm not proud--that would be Full Woman, Fleshly Apple, Hot Moon or even Bly's translations), but what I said of Ovid's Poems of Exile, I'll say about Neruda too: any is better than none.
House of Light, Mary Oliver. If you know me, you know I like accessible poetry & certainly Oliver provides that, albeit lines such as "This is a poem / about death / about the heart blanching" & "this is a poem about loving / the world and everything in it" ("Terns") go a bit over the top even for me. I like the way Oliver talks about nature (my favorite example in this collection is "Lilies") & she does plenty of that, with poems about flowers, ponds, turtles, deer, fish, snakes & birds. In fact, in "Singapore," she says, "A poem should always have birds in it." Oh, I don't know. Not that she always abides by that premise, though in "Writing Poems" she does liken the act to the birds & bees, an analogy with which, I'm guessing, Freud (sold separately) would nod in agreement as he pensively stroked his beard or rolled a Cuban cigar around in his mouth. It's not a bad book, but I remember liking American Primitive better.
Love Poems of Ancient Egypt, trans. Ezra Pound & Noel Stock. I'd planned to read The Cantos, but still smarting from Yevtushkenko, rather than fat-wallowing tomes, I'm drawn to more petite volumes. I need to do some research--which for me, lazy scholar that I am, usually consists of consulting Wikipedia--to find out if Pound actually spoke Egyptian--I doubt it--or if this is like his Chinese "translations." I'm not, generally speaking, much for love poems, but I read Pound more for poetics than content. For instance, in "Sweet Phrases," the lines "Perfume spreads, / Drunkeness begins" briefly remind me of "In a Station at the Metro" before the poem devolves into, one may presume, an intoxicated rant against the lover. Now my tirades, alcohol-fueled or not, are rarely directed at anything specific, especially not a lover, considering the forced monasticism of my current affairs--though "affairs" seems a painfully bad choice of words--but not content with the poem being an invective, Pound seamlessly inserts a mini-paraklausithyron, which is just the kind of crazy, clever thing you'd expect & yet never expect him to do, isn't it? Also, yelling at inanimate objects like a door sounds a lot like me, but what, you may ask, does that have to do with Pound, his poetics, or these poems? Obviously nada, but I needed to tell someone besides the damn door about my feelings, so thanks for listening.
One Hundred Poems from the Chinese, trans. Kenneth Rexroth. This book includes poems from the T'ang Dynasty of Tu Fu--who Rexroth calls "the greatest non epic, non dramatic poet who has survived in any language," rivaled only by Catullus, Baudelaire & Sappho (whose poetry, he says, didn't really survive)--through various poets from the Sung Dynasty--such as Su Tung P'o, Chu Hsi, & Hsu Chao--up to somewhere around the 13th century, along with bios of the poets & notes on the poems. All in all, good stuff. For what it's worth, my favorite poems in this collection are attributed to Lu Yu & Chu Shu Chen.
Sappho: A New Translation, trans. Mary Barnard. I would tend to agree with Rexroth that Sappho's poetry didn't really survive, given what few examples we have of it, but his claim set my mind on reading this translation by Mary Barnard. To Ezra Pound, ancient Greek is the most poetic of all languages & reading translations is nothing short of absurd--or at least ironic considering how many "translations" he himself did. In any event, in light of my limited understanding of other languages, I must settle for English, which I'm not only familiar with, but actually quite fond of. Here's #83:
Don't ask me what to wear
I have no embroidered
headband from Sardis to
give you, Cleis, such as
and my mother
always said that in her
day a purple ribbon
looped in the hair was thought
to be high style indeed
but we were dark:
whose hair is yellower than
torchlight should wear no
headdress but fresh flowers
Japanese Slanguage, Mike Ellis. This phonetic guide to pronunciation for common Japanese words is fun, as stated on the cover, but much too short. Also, the title is a tad misleading because "Slanguage" suggests a book about Japanese slang, which it is definitely not. The vocabulary consists of basic Japanese household, educational, culinary, familial terms & so on. As for its claim of being a visual guide, the clip-art above English words, used as the phonetic pronunciation guide, serves little purpose. For instance, we're told konbanha (good evening) is the phonetic equivalent of the English words "Cone Bun Wah," with pictures of an ice cream cone & a hair bun illustrating the corresponding words. Since I already know how to pronounce both "cone" & "bun," the pictures strike me as ornamentation. According to Adolf Loos, "Ornament is crime." Well, I don't want to let the author rot in jail, so I'll admit they function to save him from providing additional Japanese vocabulary words (as is, several are repeated) & to give the book the look of a rebus, albeit one previously solved. It's probably as helpful as any quick-peek travel guide--not that I'm going to Japan anytime soon. Maybe it'll give me the confidence to tackle Japanese the Manga Way at long last. Besides, as I said, it is fun.
Follow the following links to follow my full adventures in reading this past year:
First Quarter Book Report