One-Minute Book Reviews

January 3, 2008

Good Poems for High School Students (and Maybe for Yourself, Too)

Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.

From Alfred Tennyson’s “Break, Break, Break”

By Janice Harayda

Looking for good poems for a teenager or for yourself? You’ll find them at Poetry Out Loud www.poetryoutloud.org, the home of National Recitation Project, a nationwide competition that encourages high school students to read poetry in class and elsewhere.

Teenagers who enter the contest must choose from among the 400 new and classic poems posted on Poetry Out Loud, which gives the full text of each and a short biography its author. Students can select work by fine contemporary poets such as Kay Ryan and Yusef Komunyakaa or warhorses like Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson (identified as “the famous hermit of Amherst, Massachusetts”).

Poetry Out Loud is also a good site for teenagers and adults looking for poems to read on their own (which you can find by clicking on “Find a Poem” in the “For Students” category). You might start with one of Alfred Tennyson’s best poems, “Break, Break, Break,” the first lines of which appear above. This brief lament for a lost friend has elements that may appeal to the most reluctant readers, including rhyme, clarity and a strong rhythm. “Break, Break, Break” also deals in part with a theme that’s easy for teenagers to identify with – the difficulty of expressing deep thoughts and feelings. And because it comes from a great English poet of the Victorian era, many students are less likely to have read in it in school than the work of American poets such as Frost and Dickinson.

Furthermore: “Break, Break, Break” is a great tool for teaching teenagers about poetry because it is relatively easy to read but uses many techniques found in more challenging poems, including assonance, repetition, alliteration, and onomatopoeia. The first three words are an example of three-syllable foot with three stresses, known as a molossus.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 15, 2007

“It must be a gift of evolution that humans / Can’t sustain wonder … “ Quote of the Day From Robert Hass’s ‘Time and Materials,’ Winner of the 2007 National Book Award for Poetry

Robert Hass’s Time and Materials, winner of the 2007 National Book Award for poetry, deals with an unusually wide range of subjects for an 88-page collection — trees, a mother’s alcoholism, the war in Iraq. One of its best poems is “State of the Planet,” which marks the 50th anniversary of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University. It includes this memorable sixain:

“It must be a gift of evolution that humans
Can’t sustain wonder. We’d never have gotten up
From our knees if we could. But soon enough
We’d have fashioned sexy little earrings from the feathers,
Highlighted our cheekbone by rubbings from the rock,
And made a spear from the sinewey wood of the tree.”

From Robert Hass’s “State of the Planet” in Time and Materials: Poems 1997–2005 (HarperCollins/Ecco, $22.95) www.eccobooks.com and www.nationalbook.org.

October 29, 2007

‘Baseball Haiku': World-Class Poems About the Seasons of a Sport

Poems that speak to the emotions of Red Sox and Rockies fans today

Baseball Haiku: American and Japanese Haiku and Senryu on Baseball. Edited and With Translations by Cor van den Heuvel and Nanae Tamura. Norton, 214 pp., $19.95.

By Janice Harayda

“Haiku and baseball were made for each other: While haiku give us moments in which nature is linked to human nature, baseball is played in the midst of the natural elements — on a field under an open sky; and as haiku happen in a timeless now, so does baseball, for there is no clock ticking in a baseball game — the game’s not over until the last out.”

With those words, Cor van den Heuvel sets the tone for this exemplary anthology of more than 200 of the finest haiku about baseball written by American and Japanese poets. Most Americans think of haiku as poems of 17 syllables, typically arranged in a 5-7-5 pattern on three stepped or flush-left lines.

But van den Heuvel and Nanae Tamura show how much more flexible the form can be than the traditional pattern might suggest. Van den Heuvel notes, for example, that the best American practitioners of the art typically write free-verse haiku that have fewer than 17 syllables.

Consider the work of the Kansas-born Michael Fessler, who shows how nature can affect baseball in a poem that portrays the game as few of us see it played today: “dust storm trick: / infielders / face the outfield.” Fessler’s haiku suggests the layers of meaning that gifted poets can find in as few as 15 syllables: The word “trick” refers both the players’ shift of position and to a trick of nature, the dust storm. And the poem quietly conveys the passions aroused by baseball, a sport people will play in blinding storms.

Each author in Baseball Haiku gets an intelligent, one-page introduction that mentions a team that influenced him or her. But even without that material you might guess that the Maine-born van den Heuvel is “a lifelong fan of the Boston Red Sox” from one of his own poems that appears in the book, an homage to Ted Williams: “Ted hits another homer / a seagull high over right field / gets out of the way.”

Like all good poetry, the best haiku in this book transcend fandom and evoke deep and, if not universal, at least transoceanic emotions. One comes from the Japanese poet Yotsuya Ryu, known for his ability to capture fleeting moments in nature. He wrote its words years ago. But this one’s for you, Rockies fans: “until raised to Heaven / I’ll go to fields of green / carrying my glove.”

Published: June 2007 www.wwnorton.co

Furthermore: All the Japanese poems in Baseball Haiku include their original text and an English translation. More haiku appear at www.simplyhaiku.com. Van den Heuvel nows lives in New York City and Tamura in Japan.

You may also enjoy: The June 18, 2008, post on this site “Basketball Poems for Celtics Fans and Others” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/06/18/.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

October 13, 2007

Three Good Picture-Book Editions of Ernest L. Thayer’s Classic ‘Casey at the Bat’ – A Poem for All Baseball Seasons


Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville – mighty Casey has struck out.

— From Ernest L. Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat”

By Janice Harayda

“Casey at the Bat” is one of the few poems that nearly all American children like. Yet it is hard to say exactly why this is so.

The story told in the poem almost couldn’t be simpler. A home team is losing a baseball game – perhaps not even an especially important one — when its star player gets an unexpected chance to bat in the last inning. Everybody is sure that “mighty Casey” can bring victory to the Mudville Nine. Instead, he strikes out and the team loses.

This is hardly a riveting drama compared with what children read in contemporary books or see in the movies and on television. And you can’t say that author Ernest L. Thayer makes up for it with brilliant poetry – he doesn’t. Thayer tells Casey’s story in rhyming couplets of iambic heptameter, a nearly obsolete verse form known as the fourteener because a line typically has 14 syllables or seven iambic feet. But he has a slack enough grip on that form that you can’t always tell whether he meant a phrase to be read as iambic, trochaic or anapestic meter. Some of his baseball terms are unfamiliar today, too, such calling a weak player as a “cake.”

Generations of Americans have responded to objections like these with, “Who cares?” First published in the San Francisco Examiner in 1888, “Casey at the Bat” transcends its limits by appealing to a universal human desire – the wish to have heroes and yet also to see them fail sometimes, letting us off the hook for our own failures. Like all good heroes, Casey is like us and not like us. And three illustrators revitalize him in picture books that use the full title and subtitle of the poem, “Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888.”

Thayer’s Casey plays in an adult league. But Patricia Polacco www.patriciapolacco.com turns Casey into a freckled-faced boy — an updated Norman Rockwell character more impish than arrogant — in her winsome 1988 Casey at the Bat. Polacco adds brief prose bookends that allow her to give Casey a baseball-loving sister and a long-eared dog in this paperback edition of the poem, which is hard to find but available in many libraries. If you click on the link for the book on her Web site, you can send a free electronic postcard bearing a picture of Casey. Her youthful characters and bright, airy illustrations, which abound with primary colors, make this a good edition for preschoolers.

School-age children may prefer the 2003 Casey at the Bat (Simon & Schuster, $16.95) www.simonsayskids.com, illustrated by the gifted C.F. Payne. Casey has a handlebar moustache and mythic Paul Bunyan-esque proportions in this atmospheric book that evokes the flavor of 19th-century baseball. Payne’s book ends with an excellent four-page note on the history and afterlife of the poem, which explains some of its real-life parallels and how vaudeville helped to make it famous.

Christopher Bing won a 2001 Caldecott Honor award from the American Library Association www.ala.org for his ambitious Casey at the Bat (Handprint Books, $17.95), printed on pages that resemble yellowing newsprint with halftone pictures (the kind you find in the Wall Street Journal). Each spread is a pastiche that includes more than lines from the poem and a picture of the game. It also has overlaid images — reproductions of the ticket stubs, baseball cards and newspaper editorials about the game. One editorial supports fans outraged by advent of the baseball glove: “They justifiably see this move as a disgrace – perhaps the first step in the calculated and tragic emasculation of the game.” At times the supplementary material can be distracting, a case of what the British call over-egging the pudding. But much of it is fascinating and a feast for detail-oriented children in grades 3 and up.

Each of these editions has virtues. But no one needs to buy a book to enjoy Thayer’s poem. “Casey at the Bat” is out of copyright and available for free on many sites, including that of the Academy of American Poets www.poets.org. (The punctuation varies on the sites, reflecting that of different editions that have appeared in the past century.) It’s also short enough that you could read it to children during the seventh-inning stretch of a playoff or World Series game. And would you really prefer that they hear another beer commercial instead?

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

October 12, 2007

‘Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright; / The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light … ‘

Filed under: Children's Books,Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:43 am
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Of course, not in the land of the Mets and Yankees, where I live. But tomorrow One-Minute Book Reviews will review three picture-book versions of Ernest L. Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat,” an ideal poem to read with children during the World Series. To avoid missing this post, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed. In the meantime, you can find reviews of other picture books by clicking on the “Children’s Books” category below the “Top Posts” list at right.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 5, 2007

‘Casey at the Bat’ — Coming Soon to ‘Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read’

Filed under: Classics,Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:17 pm
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Yes, Ernest L. Thayer’s classic is a narrative poem, not a book, about the day there was “no joy in Mudville.” But there are at least three good picture-book versions of Casey at the Bat in print, and One-Minute Book Reviews will review them all soon in its “Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read” series. To avoid missing this review, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 4, 2007

John Bayley’s ‘Good Companions’ – An Ideal Collection of Poetry (and More) for People Who Didn’t Major in English

A former Oxford professor offers a lively introduction famous and little-known poems

Good Companions: A Personal Anthology. By John Bayley. Little, Brown/Abacus, 246 pp., $9.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Most poetry collections pose one of two problems for the casual reader: They have no commentary, now matter how inscrutable their poems may be, or they are textbooks that are full of commentary but too dry and academic to interest most nonscholars.

John Bayley’s Good Companions is the rare anthology that finds the perfect balance between those extremes. This compact paperback – just the right size for a briefcase or nighttable – consists of good short poems or snippets from novels, letters and diaries of the past three centuries. But it has far more poems than prose, and with good reason: Though Bayley is too diplomatic to say so, this is where most people need help, and he provides it superbly.

Bayley doesn’t try to supply a comprehensive introduction to each poem but instead offers a few insightful and opinionated lines that focus on whatever he finds most interesting about it. Sometimes that’s a bit of context, such as when he writes of Lord Rochester’s “A Song of a Young Lady to Her Ancient Lover”:

“The ancient person was probably no more than forty-five. Rakes and dissipated young men, as Rochester certainly was, thought of themselves as completely worn out at an age which people today would consider the prime of life.”

Elsewhere Bayley notes a strength or weakness of a poem, or an especially interesting idea that it raises. He admires Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish,” in which the speaker catches a valiant fish but releases it after seeing five earlier fish hooks “grown firmly in his mouth.” But for all his admiration, Bayley wonders: “Perhaps the end is a bit too much of a pat on the back for the poet?”

That gentle question exemplifies the conversational tone of the book, its greatest charm. After decades as a professor at Oxford, Bayley might have claimed a Zeus-like right to fling thunderbolts of erudition down from Olympus. Instead he invites you to take part in a lively dialogue about some of his favorite poems. And if you accept, you’re likely to find that some of his selections become your favorites, too.

Best line: Bayley’s shows his gift for summing up a poem in a few deft sentences in his brief comment on Thomas Hardy’s “The Self-Unseeing”: “Hardy at his most moving, and also at his most cannily perceptive. When children are really most happy, and indeed when grown-ups are too, they are very seldom aware of the fact. Perfect happiness is not a state in which self-awareness plays a part.” The last lines of Hardy’s poem bear him out: “Childlike, I danced in a dream; / Blessings emblazoned that day; / Everything glowed with a gleam; / Yet we were looking away!”

Worst line: Bayley includes Blake’s “The Tyger” but punts on the commentary: “What is there to say about the Tyger?”

Published: 2002 Little Brown/Abacus www.littlebrown.co.uk. [I discovered this book this summer at a large Borders store, shelved somewhat oddly in the memoirs section, next to Bayley's Elegy for Iris, so you may find it in a spot other than the poetry aisle.]

Furthermore: Bayley also wrote Elegy for Iris www.picadorusa.com, a memoir of his marriage to the novelist Iris Murdoch and her descent into Alzheimer’s Disease.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. She also wrote the comic novels The Accidental Bride (St. Martin’s, 1999) and Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004).

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

September 29, 2007

A Great Poetry Anthology for Casual Readers — Coming Next Week

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:32 pm
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Frustrated by poetry collections that give you too little information about the poems or too much?

Most anthologies raise one of two problems for the casual or occasional poetry reader: They have no commentary, now matter how inscrutable their poems may be to anyone who doesn’t have a graduate degree in English, or they are textbooks that are too high-priced or have commentary that is too academic for nonscholars.

Wouldn’t you love to find an anthology with well-chosen poems that have smart, brief introductions in an inexpensive paperback format? You’ll read about one next week on One-Minute Book Reviews. To avoid avoid missing this review, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS Feed.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

August 24, 2007

Good Books With Under 200 Pages for Reading Groups and Others

Filed under: Nonfiction,Novels,Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:44 am
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Looking for a short but worthy book to read on your own or with a group? Here are some suggestions. A link follows the description if a review or reading guide has appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews.

Fiction
Born Twice (Vintage, 192 pp., $13, paperback), by Guiseppe Pontiggia. Translated by Oonagh Stransky.
One of the great modern novels about fatherhood and a winner of the Strega Prize, the highest literary honor in Italy. Review and reading group guide (separate posts on the same day): www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/08/.

Hotel du Lac (Vintage, 192 pp., $13, paperback), by Anita Brookner.
A suspenseful and psychologically complex Booker Prize-winner www.themanbookerprize.com about a 39-year-old English bride-to-be who walks away from her wedding at the last minute and, as Anne Tyler wrote, finds “a nonromantic, wryly realistic appreciation of her single state.”

How This Night Is Different: Stories (Free Press, 198 pp., $18) by Elisa Albert.
A sharp, funny and often bawdy collection of 10 stories, each of which focuses on a different Jewish tradition, including a seder, bat mitzvah, and packaged tour of Auschwitz. Review: www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/11/22/.

Nonfiction
The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception (Picador, 191 pp., $13), by Emmanuel Carrère. Translated by Linda Coverdale.
An elegant true crime story that lays bare the double life of an ordinary man and pillar of respectability who murdered his wife, children and parents. www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/07/26/

I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman (Knopf, 137 pp., $24.95), by Nora Ephron.
Witty essays about growing older by the author of Heartburn and Sleepless in Seattle. Review: www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/10/14/ and reading group guide www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/20/.

My Misspent Youth: Essays (Open City, 77 pp. $14, paperback), by Meghan Daum www.meghandaum.com.
A young author’s acerbic essays on Internet dating, her slide into credit-card debt, and other topics, collected in a paperback published before her comic novel, The Quality of Life Report.

Poetry
Late Wife: Poems (Louisiana State University Press, 54 pp., $16.95, paperback), by Claudia Emerson.
An exceptionally fine collection of poems about divorce and remarriage that won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Review: www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/12/03/

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

August 17, 2007

How Should We Judge Poetry? Quote of the Day (Philip Larkin)

Filed under: Poetry,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:56 pm
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How should we judge poetry? What makes it succeed or fail? Does the subject of a poem matter? Or should we judge by execution alone? Philip Larkin (1922–1985) gave this answer after an interviewer for the Paris Review mentioned that the poet and critic Peter Davison saw Larkin’s favorite subjects as “failure” and “weakness”:

“I think a poet should be judged by what he does with his subjects, not by what his subjects are. Otherwise you’re getting near the totalitarian attitude of wanting poems about steel production figures rather than ‘Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?’ Poetry isn’t a kind of paint spray you use to cover selected objects with. A good poem about failure is a success.”

Philip Larkin in an interview with Robert Phillips in Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews: Seventh Series (Viking, 1986), edited by George Plimpton. Introduction by John Updike. To read the full interview, which appeared in the Summer 1982 issue of the Paris Review, go to the Paris Review site www.parisreview.com and enter “Larkin” in the search box.

Comment by Janice Harayda:
Some critics still judge poets and other writers partly by their subjects. For example, they may overpraise writers who deal with new or unusual subjects — even if the writing is awful — because the novelty makes the work appear original. Okay, all of you who knew right away that Larkin’s French quote translates to, “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” (and anybody else who wants to jump in): How do you think critics should judge poems and other works?

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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