Since April is National Poetry Month (as well as International Guitar Month, National Frog Month, and Stress Awareness Month — and speaking for myself, I am right on target, April holiday wise: I eyed my guitar when I put away my winter clothes and thought “I should practice;” wondered if the warm, pleasant weather brought out tadpoles in the local ponds; and was plenty aware of my own stress this month) I thought I’d share some of the bookconscious household’s favorite poets and recent poetry books I’ve read.
In the bookconscious house, we put up a poem every week for the family’s literary enjoyment. This used to go on a big laminated piece of poster board on the fridge, and we rotated turns choosing poems. Eventually, the rest of the family lost interest in selecting; I took over, because I love choosing a poem, and I would rather people enjoy reading one than get hung up on choosing.
When they were taking regular turns at choosing poems, the kids often turned to Jack Prelutsky, who we were fortunate enough to hear in person in Kirkland, Washington, several years ago. His rousing version of “Rat for Lunch,” which he sang to his own guitar accompaniment, is among the funniest, most enjoyable live performances I’ve ever experienced — mainly because he had the room of young children and their parents nearly crying with laughter.
One of my daughter’s favorites, and an author whose contribution to the long, cozy read alouds of both of my children’s early years is immeasurable, is Shirley Hughes. Out and About, one of our favorites, is a book of poems that follows a young girl and her baby brother through the seasons. As an aside, if you have a young child in your life, get your hands on Hughes picture books — the Alfie and Annie Rose stories and Dogger are sweet, funny, wise little books that your whole family will treasure.
Another favorite poet in the bookconscious household, popular with everyone from the Computer Scientist (a poetry aficionado in his spare time) to the younger child, is Billy Collins. I have a fantastic live recording I received as a birthday gift, and was disappointed to realize too late that he was reading at Jazzmouth in Portsmouth last night. A previous bookconscious blog post delves into Collins’ unique collection of haiku. iI you’re intimidated by poetry, read Collins’ Introduction to Poetry and you’ll feel much better.
In our new home in NH, the big poster board doesn’t fit on our side by side fridge, but I still post a poem every week on a small white board beside the kitchen sink. I sometimes choose a poem from a book I’m reading, but often I copy a piece I’ve enjoyed from The Writer’s Almanac. Our Sunday paper also prints Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry, which is an excellent source. And I read Poetry Daily, and check out its news column on Mondays, which features other regular poetry columns, like the Washington Post’s syndicated “Poet’s Choice.”
Most of these columns have been anthologized — if you prefer a nice thick book to a weekly or daily poem, check out Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems and Good Poems for Hard Times, various collections of the Poet’s Choice columns (including one I’ll talk more about in a moment), and a couple of collections from Poetry Daily.
In April, I also get a poem of the day in my email box from Poetry Daily (the rest of the year, the poem of the day is on the website), and another from Alfred A. Knopf’s Borzoi Reader. It’s interesting to read poems, some new to me, some familiar, in light of the comments of the various editors who select them. These brief editorial additions may clarify or expand upon my understanding of the poem itself, or may provide interesting insights into the poet’s life and work, or the background behind the poem at hand. I appreciate these reflections, which may also help me to better understand the poet who selected and commented on the poem as well, and to see the many ways writers’ own reading influences their work.
I’m currently reading Poet’s Choice, an anthology edited by Edward Hirsch and compiled in two sections: international poets and American poets. In both sections, I am enjoying Hirsch’s brief essays, which manage to be both erudite and conversational. I feel as if I am chatting with Hirsch over tea and poems as I read. The book is a collection of Hirsch’s columns as I mentioned above. Poet’s Choice is a long running column, which began under then poet laureate Robert Hass in 1997; Rita Dove wrote the column for two years, then Hirsch took over, and Robert Pinsky just recently handed Poet’s Choice over to Mary Karr. You can read it online if your paper doesn’t print it.
Unlike Poetry Daily, which has a different poet commentator in its April emails, and The Writer’s Almanac, which is always Garrison Keillor’s selection (and may or may not include commentary on that day’s poet), Poet’s Choice is interesting because over the years these poets have each spent a long time writing the column, so readers can develop a sense of the aesthetic tastes and critical perspectives of each columnist, all poets themselves.
If you enjoy that kind of commentary, you might also like some other anthologies I’ve recently read. Robert Bly’s News of the Universe: Poems of Twofold Consciousness is a collection he edited for the Sierra Club, with annotations and essays Bly wrote on the development of mankind’s relationship with nature through poetry. Many of the translations are his own, and if you enjoy those, you’d like The Winged Energy of Delight, which is an entire anthology of Bly’s translations. Reading about his process and philosophy of translation is fascinating, and I was left wanting to read more of many of the poets in this collection.
Another collection I haven’t read yet but will check out of the library as soon as I’ve finished Poet’s Choice is Jane Hirshfield‘s Women In Praise of the Sacred: Forty-Three Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women. In the companion book to Bill Moyers’ documentary about the Dodge Poetry Festival, Fooling With Words, the interview with Hirshfield led me to read her most recent book, After. Hirshfield studied Zen for several years, and her poems have a clear, clean style that makes me think of them as open doors waiting for me to enter. Yet while simple to enter, her work is also full of sensory detail and rich beauty. I look forward to reading her collection of translations.
An earlier bookconscious post reviewed the excellent local poetry event Poet’s Three, featuring Charles Simic, Maxine Kumin, and Donald Hall. One reason I’ve sought out more poetry in translation is that Simic, who is a prolific translator himself, is an advocate for poetry in translation. I’ve usually tried to find poetry from the countries my family is learning about, but I realized there are many more poets out there that I would like to know better. For a person fascinated with interconnectedness, poetry offers endless links between cultures and communities, through time and history; people have been drawn to poetic forms to tell their stories and express their feelings and thoughts through oral and written poetry for thousands of years.
And speaking of making connections, when the kids choose a country for our family to explore as part of our life learning, I always try to seek out literature from that country, as bookconscious readers know from my earlier post about Indonesian novelist Praemodya’s Girl from the Coast. We’re currently learning about Portugal, and a few weeks ago I read Fernando Pessoa & Co.: Selected Poems. Pessoa is probably Portugal’s best known poet; his popularity is aided by the fact that he is known by several names, because he wrote in several personas.
I enjoyed the collection of his work, which is divided into sections by pseudonym. The various personas have distinctive voices and styles, but I thought the poems in this collection shared a sense of philosophical seeking, and many had a lyrical quality that made them roll along the page — or off the tongue. Many fado artists in Portugal seem to agree, because Pessoa’s work has remained popular in part through this musical tradition, which travel guru Rick Steves compares to blues music.
Reading in other genres, especially nonfiction, often leads me to new poetic explorations. In my last bookconscious entry, I discussed some Iranian memoirs. Since then, I’ve read Jasmine and Stars: Reading More than Lolita in Tehran, by Fatemeh Keshavarz. Besides being a very thorough rebuttal of the New Orientalist literature represented by Reading Lolita in Tehran, and a fascinating look at the “whole” Iran Keshavarz knows and loves, Jasmine and Stars has ignited my curiosity about Persian poetry. Like many Americans, I’ve read a little bit of Rumi; Keshavarz writes passionately of the prominence of poetry in Iranian culture and recommends the work of Hafez and Saadi among many others. So far I haven’t had a chance to look for these poets’ works, but they’re on my “to read” list.
As I embarked on my “Independent MFA” in January, I made it a goal to read poetry widely — as I can do via the sources I’ve listed so far — and also deeply, choosing some poets and reading their collections more thoroughly and thoughtfully. I’ve also made it a goal to attend as many literary events as possible. At Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord, I have try to get to the monthly book group discussion, and this month we read Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf. I can’t remember ever reading Beowulf before, so it was interesting hearing what other readers had to say, and also reading reviews of the Heaney translation online, and historical background about the work itself.
It’s remarkable that the poem survived for centuries before it was transcribed and translated into English. As a piece of literary history, it’s amazing. Heaney’s translation is very beautiful — read some of it aloud and you’ll feel the mists of time envelop you. Don’t skip the fine introduction, which includes Heaney’s remembrance of studying Anglo Saxon in college and realizing his own Irish Gaelic was historically and linguistically linked with the origins of English, and that setting aside the identity issues of political, cultural, and ethnic divisions, language could be “an entry into further language.”
Also at Gibson’s I had the pleasure of hearing Alice Fogel read a couple of weeks ago. Besides writing, Ms. Fogel also creates one of a kind clothing from recycled fabrics. Her poetry is multi-dimensional – with each subsequent reading, you notice some detail you didn’t see before, and the way she shapes meaning with words adds to the layered feeling of her lush pieces, like elaborately pieced, intricately stitched quilts. Listening to her read, I learned more about her method of honing in on certain sounds or types of words as she crafts a poem. One discouraging note: she told the audience that her current book, Be That Empty, took ten years to publish. That’s after she wrote the poems, revised, selected, and put together the collection – ten years of rejection notices. It takes perseverance to be a poet.
Another part of my writing life is connecting with other writers, and last weekend I had a fantastic time doing just that at Writers’ Day, the New Hampshire Writers’ Project spring conference. I was able to hear Wesley McNair, the keynote, read his poems and discuss his writing process in my first workshop session of the day. McNair’s method of exploratory note taking, questioning, associating, and marking up his thoughts and ideas before he begins a poem is intriguing, and I intend to try to do more of this preparatory writing, which I’ve often done in my head. In both his keynote address and the question and answer period of the workshop, he discussed his longtime friendship and correspondence with Donald Hall, as well as other notable poets.
McNair’s work is a verbal snapshot of American life, particularly of rural New England, and of ordinary people. It’s also very personal; his work is a narrative of his life and his family history, as well as the cultural history of our country, and he spoke to us about tapping our own wells of experience in our poems. I bought and am reading The Town of No & My Brother Running, as well as his essays on poetry and place, Mapping the Heart. He signed my books and offered encouragement — he is a very warm, personable guy, who doesn’t lord his brilliance over his audience nor put on academic airs.
I had a visiting professor during my sophomore year at Goucher College, who taught an advanced poetry seminar, turn me off to that kind of writer (the kind with a self-important attitude, especially towards those less published than themselves) for good; I still can’t read that man’s work without thinking of his condescension towards we poor peon undergrads. McNair, in pleasant contrast, was delightful: generous with his time and his ideas, thoughtful and gracious.
My third workshop at Writers’ Day was with Maggie Dietz, whose session was titled, “The Art of Evocation in the Single Image Poem.” We looked at poems by Denise Levertov and William Carlos Williams and tried an imagery exercise. She signed a copy of her book Perennial Fall, which won the Jane Kenyon award from New Hampshire Writers’ Project in the fall. We also chatted briefly about the fact that she has nine month old twins — a boy and a girl, like my niece and nephew. I admit to wondering how she manages to be an accomplished, critically acclaimed poet, lecturer at Boston University, assistant poetry editor at Slate, and co-editor of the popular Favorite Poem Project books, as well as mother of infant twins, but I pushed these thoughts out of my mind and vowed to use what I learned in her workshop in future poems.
So that’s the whirlwind of words that is going on in the bookconscious house lately. We’re also reading many other things — Katherine is re-reading all the Harry Potter books, she and I are enjoying Caddie Woodlawn together, Gregory is reading Sneaker Wars, and I’m reading a memoir called Stuffed by Patricia Volk, which is part of the Concord Public library’s spring series of book discussions on food and family. Steve recently read The Gunslinger Born, a graphic novel based on Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, and he’s reading a collection of Donald Hall’s essays, Here at Eagle Pond. Since we’re learning about Portugal, I am also reading a novel by Jose Saramago, All the Names.
Here’s to late spring nights with a book, a bowl of popcorn, and the Red Sox game on low. Happy National Poetry Month — and don’t forget to look for frogs and be aware of your stress.