One-Minute Book Reviews

January 12, 2009

Back to the Diner With Mary Jo Salter — The Unofficial Poet Laureate of Female Baby Boomers Remembers Her Past in ‘A Phone Call to the Future’

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:14 pm
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This was the Fifties: as far back as I go.
Some of it lasted decades.
That’s why I remember it so clearly.

From the title poem of A Phone Call to the Future

A Phone Call to the Future: New and Selected Poems. Knopf, 222 pp., $26.95.

By Janice Harayda
America is full of women who promised themselves years ago that someday they would read more than The Managerial Woman and the owner’s manual for Aprica strollers — maybe even poetry. Now the great day is at hand as many of these baby boomers approach retirement.

Mary Jo Salter awaits them. It would be patronizing — and misleading — to call Salter a “women’s poet.” She has written six books, coedited the Norton Anthology of Poetry and won praise from both sexes. Salter is no more of a “women’s poet” than was Elizabeth Bishop, with whom she studied. And yet perhaps better than any other poet, she provides a narrative arc for the shared experiences of female baby boomers.

A Phone Call to the Future reads at times like an index to the milestones of a generation of women. Looking for a poem about menopause? Try “Somebody Else’s Baby.” The death of a parent? “Dead Letters.” The long-ago crisis that your marriage mercifully survived? “The Twelfth Year.” The wistful feelings inspired by your teenage daughter’s maturity? “For Emily at Fifteen.” The incomprehension you felt when you went back to your once-favorite diner and found that it had become a Chinese restaurant? “Inside the Midget.”

If these poems sound like articles-in-verse for More or the AARP Bulletin, they are far from it: They tell truths that tend to yield in magazines to chipper advice on how to look younger without surgery or have the best sex of your life after 50. But they stay rooted in everyday life — the daily pleasures and anxieties of activities as ordinary as watching a much younger couple at a train station or visiting a beach house and eating corn on the cob, each one “a little rolling pin.”

Salter sets the tone of A Phone Call to the Future in the haunting first poem, “Wake-up Call,” about the yearnings and self-delusions of middle age and beyond. Her nominal subject is leaving Venice, that sinking city – first by boat, then by plane. But the visit that has just ended is a metaphor for the “essence / of what must end because it is beautiful,” including life. The speaker in the poem tries to find solace in the possibility of returning to the city

but you’re not going back to so much, and more and more,
the longer you live there’s more not to go back to …

In the end, the possibility of a return provides false comfort, and not just because the next trip inevitably will be different. What you really want, the speaker knows

is more life in which to get so attached to something,
someone or someplace, you’re sure you’ll die right then
when you can’t have it back …

Salter’s rhymes have grown looser over the years, and some of her poems are much slighter than “Wake-up Call” – little more than vignettes in verse. But A Phone Call to the Future shows a remarkably consistent mastery of varied forms and styles. It has a lament (“Lament”), an aubade (“Aubade for Brad”), and a pattern poem with lines that curve in and out like a slalom course (“Poetry Slalom”). It has several villanelles (“Refrain,” the blues-y “Video Blues,” and part of “Elegies” for Etsuko”) that may nod to Bishop’s “One Art” www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15212. And it has so many other familiar and not-so-familiar forms that poetry classes might use the book with profit.

One of the most appealing qualities of A Phone Call to the Future is that Salter has a gift for storytelling, a trait many poets lack. Classic forms like the sonnet can be a narrative straightjacket. Salter knows how to use them to drive a story forward. In a wonderful sequence of 10 sonnets, she remembers her former therapist, who died when his bicycle struck a barrier and hurtled into a truck during a race. She begins by recalling their first session: The therapist said that what she told him would stay in the room unless, in his judgment, she posed a danger to herself or others:

… It was like being read
my rights in some film noir – but I was glad
already I’d at last turned myself in,
guilty of anxiety and depression.

How many poets could pull off the black humor of that film noir simile in an elegy? In her title poem Salter tells us: “This was the Fifties: as far back as I go. / Some of it lasted decades. / That’s why I remember it so clearly.” How nice for us that Salter, unlike so many baby boomers, hasn’t started forgetting.

Best line: Salter’s description of her mother during cancer treatments in “Dead Letters”: “Injected, radiated, / bloated, balded, nauseated.” And all of the title poem, which begins: “Who says science fiction / is only set in the future? / After a while, the story that looks least / believable is the past.” A Phone Call to the Future also has a memorable narrative poem about the adulthood of the third president, “The Hand of Thomas Jefferson.”

Worst line: Three phrases: “your low, confiding chuckle” from “Dead Letters.” “Munching peanuts, bored” from “Please Forward.” And “a comfy sofa” from “A Leak Somewhere.” “Chuckle,” “munching” and “comfy” are cute words that don’t work in most serious poetry unless it’s satirizing them. And why give a poem as good as “Wake-up Call” such a clichéd title?

Published: March 2008

Recommendation? This is one of the best collections of 2008 for book clubs that don’t normally read poetry but would like to do it occasionally. The poems are of high quality but no so high that they’ll sail over the heads of everybody who doesn’t have a graduate degree in English. Instead of assigning the entire collection, consider asking members to read the sonnet sequence and a half dozen others.

About the author: Salter teaches at Johns Hopkins University. Read “Somebody Else’s Baby” at
www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=179004. Read another poem from the book, “Trompe L’Oeil,” www.blueflowerarts.com/mjsalter.html.

You might also want to read: Claudia Emerson’s Late Wife www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/12/03/. Two villanelles appear in All the Poems of Muriel Spark (New Directions, 2004): “Edinburgh Villanelle” (first published in The New Yorker) and “Verlaine Villanelle.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

December 30, 2008

Gerald Stern’s ‘Before Eating’ — A Poet’s Rhyming Toast to Life and Death

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:58 pm
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Here’s something you don’t see every day in poetry: a toast to death. Well, not just death. But Gerald Stern’s poem “Before Eating” celebrates life in all its contradictions. And that includes the ultimate contradiction – death.

Stern is in his 80s, and “Before Eating” makes you wonder if he wrote it for his funeral (or perhaps, given that it has 88 lines, as an elegy for a friend who died at 88), though there’s no evidence of it beyond the poem itself, which begins:

Here’s to your life
and here’s to your death

and here’s to coughing
and here’s to breath.

“Before Eating” consists of more than five pages of similarly lively rhymes — it reads like a ditty. At times a wistfulness creeps into the voice of the speaker, who knows that “ … I could go on for / forty pages // listing my joys / and listing my rages, // but I should stop / while I’m still ahead // and make my way / to my own crooked bed …”

But Stern doesn’t maunder. Just when his poem could devolve into a wallow, he pulls the tone back up again:

so here’s to the end,
the final things,

and here’s to forever
and what that brings …

By the end of “Before Eating,” the speaker is no longer toasting death in the abstract but honoring its tangible realities (“and here’s to the pillows / and here’s to the bed”). Yet the poem is never morbid. Some lines are playful. (“Here’s to judge / here’s to Jewry.”) Other lines celebrate food, drink and, obliquely, sex (“desire”). Even the title “Before Eating” suggests that death could be a feast. Whether written for a funeral or not, this poem finds the chord that so many eulogists seek and miss – the notes that celebrate both our numbered days and “forever / and what that brings.”

“Before Eating” appears in Stern’s recent Save the Last Dance: Poems (Norton, 91 pp., $23.95). Other poems in the collection include “The Preacher,” an adaptation of the Book of Ecclesiastes, and elegies for or homages to the poets William Wordsworth, Muriel Rukeyser and Federico Garcia Lorca. Stern won the 1998 National Book Award for Poetry for This Time. He was the first poet laureate of New Jersey, where he lives.

© 2008 All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

December 16, 2008

Is Frank Bidart the Susan Lucci of Poetry? He Keeps Losing the Big Ones, But ‘Watching the Spring Festival’ Could Change His Luck

Filed under: Book Awards,Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:04 pm
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One of the country’s most respected poets is always a bridesmaid for the top prizes. At least the National Book Awards people don’t make you wear bad dresses to the ceremony.

Watching the Spring Festival: Poems. By Frank Bidart. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 58 pp., $25.

By Janice Harayda

Frank Bidart is turning into poetry’s Susan Lucci, the soap opera star who lost l8 daytime Emmy awards before winning on her 19th nomination. He has spent decades in the trenches and is one of America’s most respected poets, but he has never won one of the Big Three honors in the field: a National Book Award, a Pulitzer Prize or a National Book Critics Circle Award.

Bidart has written seven poetry collections, and if his publisher nominated each book for all three prizes, he passed Lucci in November when he got his 19th snub: He lost the 2008 National Book Award for poetry to fellow finalist Mark Doty. He still has a chance to win on nominations No. 20 and No. 21 when the NBCC and Pulitzer prizes are awarded in 2009.

What explains his perennial bridesmaid’s status? Bad luck — always a possibility in the iffy realm of book awards — may play a role, given that Bidart has won many other honors.

But I suspect that more than chance explains some of his rejections. Bidart often focuses on unpleasant or even grisly subjects. The first of his seven collections had a poem written in the voice a psychopathic child-murderer and necrophiliac.

Bidart has also written many poems that, with up to 30 pages, are unfashionably long by today’s standards. And he plays with typography for reasons that at times seem opaque. The first line of “Under Julian, c362 A.D.” in Watching the Spring Festival is: “[ ] or full feeling return to my legs.”*

Even as an editor with an intimate knowledge of the uses of square brackets, I wonder how to read that line. How would you read the brackets aloud? Doesn’t it matter if you can’t?

Watching the Spring Festival is Bidart’s first book of short poems or lyrics and, on that level, might represent his swing for the fences. All 26 of its poems deal, paradoxically, with death or physical decay, as though there were an inverse relation between the length of a life and that of the poems it inspired. In the sestina “If See No End In Is,” a speaker who is nearing death wonders why life is a double-bind: “… why what we love is / precluded always by something else we love, as if /each no we speak is yes, each yes no.

Those lines express a theme of this book: the constant tension between what is and what ought to be in affairs of state as in those of the heart. In “To the Republic,” the Union and Confederate dead rise up at Gettysburg and “roll in outrage across America”: “You betray us is blazoned across each chest. / To each eye as they pass: You betray us.”

In the poem the ghosts of the dead soldiers meet with indifference: “Assaulted by the impotent dead, I say it’s / their misfortune and none of my own.”

First published in The New Yorker, these are chilling lines. But they read like a speech to an American Legion convention. How has the nation betrayed the Gettysburg dead? What freedoms has it stifled? Is the speaker describing a general or specific warp in the national unity? The poem doesn’t say and instead has a whiff of the harangue about it. The subtext seems to be: You know you’re guilty, and I don’t need to tell you why.

“To the Republic” may evoke strong emotions, but it doesn’t fully earn them. So it’s hard to say whether this and other poems in Watching the Spring Festival will help to change Bidart’s luck with the big literary prizes. If it doesn’t, a few lines from his “Little O” may offer comfort: “The French thought Shakespeare // a barbarian, because in their eyes he wrote as if / ignorant of decorum, remaking art to cut through.”

* Please note that this template can’t reproduce correctly the number of spaces between Bidart’s square brackets. There should be approximately seven spaces.

Best line: The sestina “If See No End In Is” departs from the standard form in interesting ways. Bidart omits the three-line envoi at the end. And instead of repeating the end word “no” in the prescribed numerical order in each stanza, he sometimes substitutes the homonym “know” or “know-“ (the first syllable of “knowledge”). Read the full sestina at www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=180058.

Worst line: The first line of the poem “Under Julian, c362 A.D.,” quoted above.

Published: April 2008

About the author: Bidart www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/162 teaches at Wellesley College. His won Yale University’s 2007 Bollingen Prize for American poetry. The National Book Foundation site has more on Watching the Spring Festival www.nationalbook.org/nba2008_p_bidart.html. Bidart also wrote Desire, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry when I was a judge. That year, he lost to Charles Wright.

Furthermore: Bidart co-edited Robert Lowell’s Collected Poems and may have intended “To the Republic” as a dialogue with Lowell’s “For the Union Dead,” which the critic William Logan has called “perhaps the most significant political poem of the last half-century.” If you’ve read both poems, I’d welcome comments on how if at all they converse.

Janice Harayda has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

December 10, 2008

8 Good Christmas Poems for Adults and Teenagers With All the Words Online – Verse by Shakespeare, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson and Others

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:35 pm
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Many critics agree with the novelist Reynolds Price that John Milton’s “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” is “the supreme Christmas poem in the English language.” But other good Christmas poems are shorter or less insistently religious or were written after the 17th century.

One problem with finding them is that many poems on the Internet are plagiarized, misattributed or inaccurately reproduced. Another is that some books that contain holiday–themed poems may disappear from library and bookstore shelves well before Dec. 25.

Here are some of the best Christmas poems for teenagers and adults and where to find their full texts from trustworthy online or other sources:

1. “The Savior must have been a docile Gentleman” by Emily Dickinson. This brief Nativity poem has just 40 words, divided into 8 lines of iambic trimeter. It casts Jesus as a gentle Savior who was nonetheless strong enough that he “leveled” a road to Bethlehem that would otherwise have been “A rugged Billion Miles –” from his “little Fellowmen.” Full text online at
www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/19309.

2. “Christmas Bells” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The author of “Hiawatha” and “Paul Revere’s Ride” wrote this poem not long after his wife died and his son suffered severe wounds fighting for the Union in the Civil War. Written in iambic tetrameter, it is better known today by the title “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” In the poem speaker despairs and sees “no peace on earth” until pealing Christmas bells remind him that “God is not dead, nor doth he sleep.”
Full text online at www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/16819. Five stanzas are used as a hymn you can hear at Cyberhymnal www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/i/h/iheardtb.htm.

3. “Christmas Trees: A Christmas Circular Letter” by Robert Frost. A country-dweller debates whether to sell his evergreens to a city sharpie who undervalues them in a wistful poem much longer than Frost’s better-known “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” (in itself a good seasonal, though not Christmas, poem) rpo.library.utoronto.ca/poem/856.html. Some critics see the trees in “Christmas Trees” as a metaphor for poetry, which is similarly undervalued.
Full text online at www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/19307.

4. “Some say that ever ’gainst that season comes” (Seven lines from Act I, Scene I of Hamlet) by William Shakespeare. In the first scene of Hamlet, a character who has seen the Ghost of Hamlet’s father speaks seven lines of unrhymed iambic pentameter (blank verse) that begin: “Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes / Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated.” These lines describe the mysteries of a season “So hallow’d” that, people say, “The bird of dawning singeth all night long.” Though not a free-standing poem, the lines work well on their own and rank among the greatest poetry written about Christmas. Full text online at www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/19317.

5. “Christmas at Sea” by Robert Louis Stevenson. During a Christmas Day storm at sea, a young sailor thinks sentimentally of home: “O well I saw the pleasant room, the pleasant faces there, /My mother’s silver spectacles, my father’s silver hair.” This poem has 11 stanzas of four quatrains each that may have special meaning for the families of servicemen and –women overseas. Full text online at www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/19311.

6. “Noël” by Anne Porter. In this poem Advent brings, along with the “customary carols,” the “fresh truth” from children: “They look at us / With their clear eyes / And ask the piercing questions / God alone can answer.” “Noël” springs from the heartfelt Catholicism of Porter, a National Book Award finalist and one of America’s finest religious poets. Full text online at
www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/20503 and collected in the author’s recent collection, Living Things.

7. “A Christmas Carol” by Christina Rossetti. The Academy of American Poets lists the title of this popular poem as “A Christmas Carol,” but most of us know it as “In the Bleak Midwinter” (that season when “Frosty wind made moan”).
Text online at www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/19287. You can listen to the carol at at www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/i/n/intbleak.htm. And there’s a stanza-by-stanza analysis on Wikipedia en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_the_Bleak_Midwinter (As always, use caution with Wikipedia, which I have linked to here because it includes more analysis of the poem than other easily accessible sites.)

8. “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (“’Twas the Night Before Christmas”), attributed to Clement Clarke Moore. This children’s classic has charms that may also seduce adults — its rousing anapestic meter, its “visions of sugarplums,” and its dynamic plot, which ends with St. Nick wishing a “Happy Christmas” to all. Full text online at
www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=171924.

And don’t forget …
John Milton’s “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativitywww.dartmouth.edu/~milton/reading_room/nativity/index.shtml and E . E. Cummings’s “little tree” www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=176724. I left Milton off the main list because his poem, with 27 stanzas and more than 200 lines, is much longer than all the others. And I omitted Cummings because “little tree” reads more like a poem for children (am I missing something here?). But his poetry enraptured me when I was 13 and may have a similar effect on other teenagers.

If you’ve read any of these poems, which do you like best? To keep this site reasonably faithful to its title, I’ve kept my remarks on these poems brief. But many people might like more information them and, if you can provide it, I’d love to have it in the comments section, where I would be glad to say more about any.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

 

November 19, 2008

Mark Doty Wins 2008 National Book Award for Poetry for ‘Fire to Fire’

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:16 pm
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Mark Doty has won the 2008 National Book Award for Poetry for his Fire to Fire. An interview with the author and an excerpt from the book appears on the site for the National Book Foundation, www.nationalbook.org/nba2008.html, which has promised to post a video of the ceremony later tonight.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 5, 2008

Poet Louise Glück Wins $100,000 Prize – Read a Review of Her Latest Collection Here

Filed under: News,Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:55 pm
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Louise Glück has won the 2008 Wallace Stevens Award, which carries a $100,000 prize. The Academy of American Poets gives the prize for “outstanding and proven mastery in the art of poetry.” Glück’s latest collection, Averno, recasts the Greek myth of Persephone, the personification of spring, and was reviewed in a January post on this site said in part:

“Glück writes about figures from Greek mythology as though they might show up tomorrow in a laundry room at Yale, where she teaches. Orpheus and Eurydice, Aeneas and Dido, Achilles and Patroclus – she knows them better than many of us know our relatives, well enough to claim the right to explain them to others” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/01/25/.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 1, 2008

In ‘Late for Work,’ Poet David Tucker Finds the Life in Deadlines

Filed under: Newspapers,Paperbacks,Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:42 am
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[I'm off today. This repost of a review of one of my favorite books of poetry that appeared on this site in 2006.]

A newspaper editor writes about work and makes it work

Late for Work. Poems by David Tucker. Foreword by Philip Levine. Mariner, 53 pp., $12, paperback.

It’s odd, when you think about it, that more journalists don’t write poetry. Newspapers stack their headlines like verse – couplets, tercets, or quatrains – set flush left or stepped. Their stories have a form, the inverted pyramid, that can be as rigid as that of a sestina. And the work of great reporters has, if not meter, a subtle rhythm and an emotional impact comparable to that of a well-made poem.

David Tucker moves to close the gap in Late for Work, winner 2005 Katharine Bakeless Nason Prize for poetry awarded by the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference. Calvin Trillin may call himself a “deadline poet” because he writes his brief, witty poems for The Nation in response to breaking news. But Tucker comes closer to the spirit of the phrase in this wonderful collection of 45 of poems about newspapers and other topics, inspired partly by his work as an assistant managing editor of the New Jersey Star-Ledger.

Tucker has little in common with the modern poets who pack their work so densely with opaque symbols and allusions that you need to read them with The Golden Bough in one hand and the Wikipedia URL in the other. He meets you halfway, whether he’s writing about a great-grandfather you haven’t met or a newsroom you haven’t visited. Sometimes he does this by moving gracefully from tragedy to comedy and back again, so that we stand poised between them in his poems as in life. In “Morning Edition,” a journalist leaving work for the day considers the stories in the next edition:

For tomorrow we offer a photo of bloody hands
passing a coffin over a crowd in Baghdad,
and a photo of the President grinning
like a boy who ate a grasshopper,
and the jubilation of the bowling team that won the lottery.

Later the journalist recalls other stories in the next day’s paper:

The governor lying about the lie he told
the day before, the state senator from Bergen
calling his committee into secret session.
Killer Tree in Rahway, roots weakened
by rain, this rain, toppling on a doctor and his wife
as they sped for the Rahway exist, late for dinner.

Tucker flirts with classic forms like the sonnet and, in “The Woman in the Faraway House,” terza rima (while avoiding its overlapping rhymes):

She always has one more thing to say
about the argument
we had yesterday

But if he nods to Dante and later poets like Jane Kenyon, Tucker makes his subjects his own. One of his themes is that we have the capacity for hope even when hope has let us down — or we have let it down – many times. This idea comes into its fullest flower in “Detective Story,” which begins:

Happiness is a stubborn old detective who won’t give up on us
though we have been missing a long, long time,
who stops in towns where we once lived and asks about us
in a grocery where we shopped ten years ago …

Philip Levine chose Late for Work for the Bakeless Prize and has written an introduction that, though more self-indulgent and less helpful than it might have been, is right in one respect. This book suggests that life, for all its disappointments, can still be “warm and satisfying.”

Best line: From “Detective Story”: “A breeze smelling of the river enters the room though/ no river is near; the house is quiet and calm for no reason;/ the search does end, the detective finally does sleep, far away/ from anything he imagined, his dusty shoes still on.”

Worst line: From “Downsizing”: Tucker writes of bosses whispering “at the water cooler” and “junior executives” going to lunch. Most companies no longer have a “water cooler” or “junior executives” – everybody’s a “manager” now – and both of these fixtures of corporate life had disappeared by the time the word “downsizing” entered the language, so imagery here isn’t just clichéd but internally inconsistent.

Recommended if … you’d love to read contemporary poetry that you can understand without having a graduate degree in English.

Published: April 2006

To read one of David Tucker’s poems, click here www.poets.org/search.php/fs/1/prmAuthor/Tucker/.

To hear Tucker read from Late for Work, click on this link:
http://www.nytimes.com/packages/khtml/2006/04/05/books/20060405_TUCKER_AUDIOSS.html

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

August 15, 2008

Why ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ is Bad Poetry and Other Literary Thoughts on the Olympics

Random literary thoughts on the Olympics:

1. Michael Phelps’s underwater dolphin kick is sports poetry.

2. NBC should fire the swimming analyst who keeps saying “he has swam” (as in “he has swam much better than this”).

3. The first word of “The Star-Spangled Banner” (“Oh”) is an example of the literary device known as anacrusis, a lead-in syllable or syllables that precede the first full foot.

4. The national anthem is written in anapestic meter, Dr. Seuss’s favorite. (What, you’ve never noticed the similarity between “And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air” and “I meant what I said / and I said what I meant …”?)

5. Why is “The Star-Spangled Banner” bad poetry? Take in the last line: “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.” In a good poem, words are not interchangeable. You can’t switch them around with no loss in meaning or effect, because everything in the poem essential. Apart from a rhyme, what would the national anthem lose if Francis Scott Key had written “home of the free and the land of the brave” instead of “the land of the free and the home of the brave”?

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

July 27, 2008

Frances Richey’s Poetry Collection ‘The Warrior: A Mother’s Story of a Son at War’

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:51 pm
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Internal and external conflicts intersect in a collection of 28 poems

The Warrior: A Mother’s Story of a Son at War. By Frances Richey. Viking, 84 pp., $21.95.

By Janice Harayda

Not long ago, I went to an American Ballet Theater production of Sleeping Beauty with a companion who called it, with some justification, “a walking ballet.” The choreography may delight crowds, but you don’t go to this one for aerial special effects such as long sequences of dazzling grand jêtés.

The Warrior is a collection of walking poetry, billed by its publisher as “a memoir in verse.” Frances Richey, a yoga teacher, began to write its 28 poems when her son, a West Point graduate and Green Beret, went on the first of his two tours of duty in Iraq. Her book is about the distances – physical and emotional – that war puts between a parent and child.

Richey is earnest and at times pedestrian writer who works mostly in unrhymed, variable-length free verse with the occasional hint of an internal or end-rhyme or both (“and since my son was the only one / who’d never hunted”). In a poem called “The Book of Secrets,” she recalls her son’s early years: “ … Mornings, / when I left him with the sitter, / I had to close my heart, // or else obsess he was crossing / Oak alone.” You don’t doubt the sincerity of her words, but they read less like poetry than stenography, a literal transcription from life without the alchemy of a great poem. In some of the other poems, no thought seems too obvious to avoid making explicit. “I can’t protect him,” she tells us in one. “Will he come back?” she wonders in another. “ On learning that Iraq can be cold, she reflects, “I was always asking if he was warm enough. / Put a sweater on, I’d say. Your jacket …”

Other poems are less prosaic, and two are particularly good. In “The Aztec Empire” Richey considers artifacts of human sacrifice that she sees in an exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum and links them elegantly to the sacrifice of human lives in Iraq. And in “Kill School” she describes a combat training program that teaches a soldier how to kill by having him rock a rabbit “like a baby in his arms, / faster and faster,” then smash its head against a tree. Richey doesn’t call her book a collection of antiwar poems, but these two poems speak for themselves. And their direction, like that of the other poems in The Warrior, is no less clear because they walk instead of soaring toward their destination.

Best line: From “Kill School”: “The trainer showed him / how to rock the rabbit / / like a baby in his arms, / faster and faster, // until every sinew surrendered / and he smashed its head into a tree.”

Worst line: You may need to assume a lotus pose to appreciate: “… Green: / color of the fourth chakra, / Anahata; it means unstuck — / the heart center — / the color of his fatigues.”

Editor: Paul Slovak

Published: April 2008 www.francesrichey.com

You may also want to read: Robert Hass’s Time and Materials: Poems, 1997–2005, winner of the 2007 National Book Award for poetry, which has several poems critical of the Bush administration and the war in Iraq, including “Bush’s War. ” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/11/15/

Furthermore: Richey also wrote the poetry collection The Burning Point. She lives in New York City.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is a novelist and 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.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

July 17, 2008

Kay Ryan Named Poet Laureate, Succeeding Charles Simic — Here’s a Review of Her ‘The Niagara River’

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:11 pm
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Kay Ryan has been named the next poet laureate of the United States, succeeding Charles Simic. This is a repost of a review of her The Niagara River, which appeared on this site on Dec. 23, 2006.

The Niagara River. By Kay Ryan. Grove Press: Grove Press Poetry Series, 72 pp., $13, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Kay Ryan’s poetry captures better than any I know a quality of life that is obvious but rarely mentioned: It rhymes in unexpected places. Most of our lives resemble neither sonnets with fixed rhymes nor free verse with no rhymes. We hear music when we don’t expect it. So it is with Ryan’s sixth book, The Niagara River. Ryan rhymes the first word of one line with the last word of the next in “Absences and Breaks.” She begins with a rhyming couplet, “The egg-sucking fox/licks his copper chops,” but doesn’t stick to the pattern in “Theft.” This unpredictability might have been chaotic in the hands of a less talented poet. But Ryan has so much control over other aspects of her work, particularly tone, that the result is fresh instead of jarring.

In classical literature the river is dual symbol of life (because it sustains fertility) and death (because it suggests the irreversible flow of time). The 64 brief and intelligent poems in The Niagara River continue this tradition. The poems are autumnal but full of life and color. This is so partly because Ryan’s theme isn’t time in the abstract but what remains after it has passed. She has a sharp awareness of the inevitable injustices of age, reflected in the titles of poems such as “Thieves,” “Theft” and “Late Justice.” Time, the great racketeer, is always stealing from us. Ryan writes in “Thieves” s about the effects of age on the brain, including memory loss:

There are thieves
in the mind, their
dens in places
we’d prefer not to know.
When a word is lifted from
its spot, we show
no surprise,
replacing
supplies
with
provender.

Ryan does not sentimentalize the effects of aging – she knows that those thieves are hatching a “fantastic plot” – but her poems are not morbid. In “Salvage” she writes in about the aftermath of a wreck, perhaps a crash of the body caused by illness. The worst, she says, “has happened.” But there is a consolation:

Thanks be
to God – again –
for extractable elements
which are noi
carriers of pain …

Those lines notwithstanding, Ryan’s poems are not overtly religious. But at times their mood resembles that of the great Protestant hymn by Isaac Watts, “O, God, Our Help in Ages Past,” first published in the 18th century. Watts says:

Time like an ever-rolling steam,
bears all its sons away;
they fly forgotten, as a dream,
dies at the opening day.

In Ryan’s poetry, the dead do not become “stars or ghosts” when time “bears all its sons away.” Instead, she tells us in “Charms,” they reappear in our genes or elsewhere. This may be small comfort. But, she writes, “…E ven a piece/does us some good.”

Best line: One appears in a poem inspired by the artist Joseph Cornell: “ … As/time passes, the/promise is tattered/like a battle flag/above a war we/hope mattered.”

Worst line: None, but some of the quotes on the cover do Ryan few favors. David Yezzi says: “Ryan’s poems leave the reader elevated or changed or moved but at a loss to say exactly how this effect has been wrought.” The first part of that line is meaningless because all good poetry leaves you “elevated or changed or moved.” Otherwise, why read it? And a critic who says he can’t say how an effect “has been wrought” often means: I’m not willing to put the time or effort into figuring it out.

Recommended if … you like poetry that has both traditional and experimental elements.

Published: October 2005

Furthermore: For more on Ryan, see her biography and her poem “Nothing Ventured” on the site for the Academy of American Poets www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/352. She lives in California. To read the New York Times article on her appointment as poet laureate, click here www.nytimes.com/2008/07/17/books/17poet.html?partner=rssnyt&emc=rss.

FYI: Poems in this collection have appeared in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The American Scholar, and elsewhere.

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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