One-Minute Book Reviews

June 26, 2008

Why Isn’t Poetry Ever ‘a Good Read,’ Entertainment Weekly? Books the Magazine Left off Its List of ‘The New Classics’

Filed under: News,Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:00 pm
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Isn’t poetry ever “a good read”? Entertainment Weekly has published a list of “The New Classics: The 100 Best Reads From 1983 to 2008”
www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20207076_20207387_20207349,00.html that I wrote about earlier today. An obvious omission deserves a post of its own: EW includes no poetry on its list of the “100 Best.”

My choices for the list would include Collected Poems: Philip Larkin (1989) by Philip Larkin and Anthony Thwaite, Richard Wilbur: Collected Poems 1943–2004 (2004) by Richard Wilbur and Late Wife: Poems (2005) by Claudia Emerson. What others should have appeared on it?

How many of you, for example, would like to send EW Larkin’s “This Be the Verse,” which begins: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. / They may not mean to, but they do.”? Many sites purport to give the full text of the poem, but because most of those I looked at are either misquoting or plagiarizing it, I won’t link to them. But “This Be the Verse” appears in the Collected Poems, which is widely available at bookstores and libraries.

Update at 3 p.m.: Just to give a more prominent place to a point I make in the comments on this post: EW might have acknowledged the existence of poetry by listing Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go! (1990). I dislike the oxymoronic phrase “instant classic” — which I have criticized on this site — but if ever a book has proved that it deserves it, it’s this one. I left Oh, the Places You’ll Go off my earlier post only because many Dr. Seuss books are better, including Horton Hatches the Egg.

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

June 5, 2008

Baseball Poems – One of Poetry’s Power-Hitters Picks His Favorites

Filed under: Essays and Reviews,Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:31 am
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Edward Hirsch, the poet and National Book Critics Circle Award winner, lists baseball poems he likes best

Part of the fun of having a blog like One-Minute Book Reviews is that you can rarely predict which posts will be the most popular. Often reviews I expected to have little appeal — and almost didn’t write — end up among the Top 10 on the site.

A case in point is Baseball Haiku (Norton, 2007), a book of American and Japanese haiku about baseball edited by Cor van den Heuvel and Nanae Tamura. From the start I liked everything about this book — from the high quality of the poems to their thoughtful introductions and handsome packaging. But Baseball Haiku sat on my shelf for weeks. I wondered if by writing about it, I might be trying to thread too small a needle: How many people would want to read about a book of baseball poems, none with more than 17 syllables?

You’d be surprised.

My review of Baseball Haiku appeared on the morning after the 2007 World Series and at first attracted only modest traffic www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/10/29/. Like a pitcher recalled from the minors, it blazed back at the start of the 2008 season and has since ranked often among the Top 10 posts.

What are some of the best baseball poems in forms other than haiku? You’ll find answers in a lucid essay on baseball poems in Poet’s Choice (Harcourt, 2006), a collection of popular columns written for the Washington Post Book World by Edward Hirsch www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poet.html?id=3173, the poet whose many honors include a National Book Critics Circle Award www.bookcritics.org.

Hirsch writes:

“My shortlist of favorite baseball poems includes May Swenson’s quirky ‘Analysis of Baseball,’ Robert Francis’s study of a pitcher [‘Pitcher’], Michael Collier’s ‘The Wave,’ B. H. Fairchild’s ‘Body and Soul,’ Robert Pinsky’s ‘The Night Game,’ Michael Harper’s ‘Archives,’ Linda Pastan’s sly lyric ‘Baseball,’ and Richard Hugo’s class-driven ‘Missoula Softball Tournament.’”

Hirsch’s essay also includes the text of Hugo’s villanelle, “The Freaks at Spurgin Road Field,” and comments on baseball poems by Donald Hall, Carl Sandburg, William Carlos Williams and Ernest L. Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

April 5, 2008

Jack Prelutsky’s Worst Book? The Magic Is Gone in ‘The Wizard,’ Illustrated by Brandon Dorman

A popular children’s poet casts no spell when he recycles earlier material

The Wizard. By Jack Prelutsky. Illustrated by Brandon Dorman. HarperCollins/Greenwillow, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages 4–8.

By Janice Harayda

The Wizard is the only picture book that a bookstore clerk has ever tried to talk me out buying. I wish I had taken her advice.

You know that how critics say that there’s a curse of the Nobel that keeps writers from doing great work after they become laureates, which Gabriel García Marquez beat with Love in the Time of Cholera? Jack Prelutsky seems to suffer from a similar jinx. Two of his worst books have come out since the Poetry Foundation named him the children’s poet laureate of the U.S., a title unrelated to the honor conferred by the Library of Congress. Early in 2007 Prelutsky served up uninspired sports poems in Good Sports. Now there’s The Wizard, a picture book based on the time-honored literary principle that Maureen Dowd has described as: “Never sell once what you can sell twice.”

The Wizard consists of a brief rhyming poem about sorcery that first appeared in Prelutsky’s 1976 book, Nightmares: Poems to Trouble Your Sleep. A magician who might have been airlifted from Hogwarts to his gray stone tower in a suburbia turns a bullfrog into a flea and the flea in to mice. He then causes other transformations until he brings the frog back with a warning that departs from the iambic tetrameter used elsewhere: “Should you encounter a toad or lizard, / look closely … / it may be the work of the wizard.”

As those strained lines suggest, The Wizard is the kind of weak poem that works best in a collection that includes stronger ones. And it gets no help from the lurid, digitized pictures, long on a shrill lime green with silver glitter on the cover. “It’s so commercial,” protested the bookstore clerk who tried to talk me out of buying it. She was right: If the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders wore green and white instead of blue and white, they might choose the shades in this book.

There’s a place for honest commercialism in children’s literature – for, say good spin-offs television shows – but the illustrations for The Wizard are among the most pretentious I’ve seen in a picture book. Brandon Dorman scatters the pages with objects found in Dutch vanitas paintings — a skull, a clock, flickering candles. In art these are classic symbols of mortality and the flight of time. In this book they are just clichés.

Prelutsky has written many good books of children’s poetry, including Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant, that don’t pander as this one does to the marketplace. But he may have little incentive to do more of them: The Wizard was a No. 1 New York Times bestseller.

Best line / picture: None is a good as a typical line in Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant. But these two lines make clear that four-year-olds can understand iambic tetrameter: “He spies a bullfrog by the door / and, stooping, scoops it off the floor.”

Worst line / picture: The wizard has “a tangled beard that hangs from his skin.” But in nearly all of Dorman’s pictures, the beard is as smooth as satin.

Published: October 2007 www.jackprelutsky.com, www.brandondorman.com and www.harpercollinschildrens.com.

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

March 20, 2008

Martín Espada Wears His Causes on His Sleeve in ‘The Republic of Poetry’

A visit to Chile helped to inspire a collection that includes anti-war poems

The Republic of Poetry: Poems. By Martín Espada. Norton, 63 pp., $23.95.

By Janice Harayda

Martín Espada wears his causes on his sleeve, and it’s a heavy sleeve. Many of his poems read like editorials in verse, but without the surprise endorsements that most newspapers serve up occasionally. His politics are as predictable as an incumbent’s stump speech. He opposes torture, apartheid, dictatorship, police brutality and, apparently, war in general and the war in Iraq in particular. (Two of the poems in this book appeared on the site Poets Against War www.poetsagainstwar.net.) He supports poets and poetry.

Espada visited Chile in 2004 for the centenary of the birth of the Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda, and his trip inspired a dozen poems that form the core of The Republic of Poetry. In “City of Glass” he writes of the ransacking of Neruda’s home by soldiers loyal to Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who had overthrown the elected Salvador Allende. The opening lines set the tone for a poem that turns the fragility of glass into a graceful metaphor for the fragility of democracy in Chile:

The poet’s house was a city of glass:
cranberry glass, milk glass, carnival glass,
red and green goblets row after row,
black luster of wine in bottles …

Elsewhere Espada reaches frequently for images that are banal or strained. On a visit to his childhood home in Brooklyn, he recalls a youthful injury with the mawkish line: “Blood leaked on the floor like oil from the engine of me.” In a bar he has a vision of a wooden figure he saw in Neruda’s home: “He likes for me to be still, / she grinned …” That “she grinned” isn’t bad poetry so much as hack writing in general; it would be as bad in your local newspaper as in a book. Espada can do better – and sometimes he does – but he clearly has the spirit of Chilean poets who once protested their oppression by bombing the national palace with bookmarks imprinted with poetry. In his way, he’s bombing you, too.

Best line: All of “City of Glass,” one of two poems in the book first published in The New Yorker.

Worst line: In “Black Islands” Espada writes of a meeting the Chilean father of a five-year-old: “ Son, the father said, this is a poet, / like Pablo Neruda.” That “like Pablo Neruda” could mean two things: “a poet, as was Pablo Neruda” or “a poet similar to Pablo Neruda.” Either way, this is unappetizing self-congratulation. You wonder what Neruda would have thought of that self-congratulatory “like Pablo Neruda” in “Black Islands.”

Published: October 2006. Paperback due out from Norton in April 2008.

Furthermore: Espada www.martinespada.net was born in Brooklyn, New York, and teaches at the University of Massachusetts. He has written seven other poetry collections, including Imagine the Angels of Bread, which won American Book Award.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist 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 would like to expand One-Minute Book Reviews to include podcasts, broadcasts and other services, such as online book discussion groups or forums in “real time,” and is looking for a home for this blog that would make it possible to provide these.

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

March 10, 2008

National Book Critics Circle Award Reality Check: Mary Jo Bang’s ‘Elegy,’ Poems About Her Son’s Death, an ‘Addiction Catastrophe’

The latest in an occasional series on book-award winners and whether they deserved their honors

Title: Elegy: Poems. By Mary Jo Bang. Graywolf, 92 pp., $20.

What it is: Sixty-four poems about the year after the death of Bang’s 37-year-old son, an event described as an “addiction catastrophe.” Elegy consists mostly of short- or medium-lined free verse and includes the three elements of classical elegy: praise, lament and (in this case, faint) consolation.

Winner of … this year’s National Book Critics Circle award for poetry www.bookcriticscircle.blogspot.com

Was this one of those awards that make you wonder if the judges were all on Class B controlled substances? No. But some of the judges did seem to be enjoying the wine at the reception after the awards ceremony on Thursday night.

Worthy of a major prize? Yes, chiefly for the poem “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.” At times Elegy reads less like poetry than therapy, strewn with banal words or phrases: “describable,” “a wince-making barrenness,” “Paxil’s myoclonal kick.” Some of its ideas might have come from a card rack at Shop-Rite or a women’s-magazine article on coping with loss. (“I love you like I love / All beautiful things.” “Grief was complicated.”) But poetry collections can justify their awards with a single poem. And Elegy does it with the exceptional “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” an homage in multi-part harmony to Bang’s son, to the Bruegel masterpiece with the same title and to poems about the painting by William Carlos Williams and W. H. Auden. In this 22-line poem Bang recalls the last time she saw her son, standing on a subway platform after they had admired mosaics at the Met, and reflects that their day should be embedded in amber. Then, in the chilling final lines, she suggests a brutal truth about the isolating effect of death: “ … And how can it be / that this means nothing to anyone but me now.” Bang knows what Auden meant when he wrote in “Musee des Beaux Arts” that “everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster.” And in “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” she deals with this ageless idea in a way that is fresh and memorable.

Best line: The lines quoted above, beginning: “And how can it be.”

Worst line: The jarring pun in the line: “And my I sees.”

Published: October 2007 www.graywolfpress.org

Consider reading instead: Anne Porter’s Living Things, which has both new poems and all of those collected in her An Altogether Different Language, a National Book Award finalist www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/28/. Living Things includes the wonderful poem “For My Son Johnny,” Porter’s elegy for her son, who had what she believes was autism or schizophrenia. Bang tells you so little about her son Michael that Elegy is almost a misnomer and Grief might have been a better title. You don’t feel you know Michael from the book — you how his mother experienced his death. This isn’t a “flaw.” Poets have a right to choose their subjects. But Porter’s son Johnny is so alive on the page in “For My Son Johnny” that you learn more about him from one poem than you do about Bang’s son from her entire book. Poetry groups might want to compare how two admired contemporary poets have portrayed the loss of a mature child.

Furthermore: Bang has written four other collections of poetry. She is a professor of English and director of the Creative Writing Program at Washington University. “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” appeared in The New Yorker. Other poems in the collection have appeared publications that include Poetry and The Paris Review.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

March 9, 2008

Another Book Awards Reality Check — Coming Tomorrow

Filed under: Book Awards — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:57 pm
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Have you ever read a book that won a major award and thought, “Were those judges all on Class B controlled substances?” One-Minute Book Reviews deals with questions like these in its occasional “Reality Check” series that explores whether recent winners of literary prizes deserved their honors.

Tomorrow this series will focus on Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy www.graywolfpress.org, which won the National Book Critics Circle award for poetry on Thursday www.bookcriticscircle.blogspot.com. You can find other posts in the series by using the search box on this site to search for “Reality Check.”

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 25, 2008

Why We Need Negative Reviews of Books (Quote of the Day/William Logan)

Perhaps everyone who’s edited a newspaper or magazine book section has heard the question: “Why do you publish negative reviews of books? When you have so little space, why not focus on the good ones?” William Logan deals with the question as it applies to poetry in his The Undiscovered Country:

“It’s often said that critics shouldn’t write negative reviews, because bad poetry will take care of itself (time will take care of it, too). With so few books in a given year worth remembering, why review those that will soon vanish from memory? I love reviewing poets I admire (isn’t that what a critic lives for?); but if you write only such reviews, how can a reader trust your praise? We learn something necessary about how a few poets go right when we know the ways so many have gone wrong: the latest clichés of feeling, the shop-thumbed imagery, the rags and bones of organization. Great poets transcend their age as much as they embody its ills, or succumb to them; but mediocre poets succumb on every page.

“If you’re too gentle to say a mean thing, are you ever courageous enough to say a truly kind one (or mean enough to say an honest one)? It’s surprising how many poets feel that poetry criticism should never be … critical. Yet these gentle readers love film and theater reviews that would eat the chrome off a car bumper.”

William Logan in the introduction to his most recent book of poetry criticism, The Undiscovered Country: Poetry in the Age of Tin (Columbia University Press, $29.50) www.columbia.edu/cu/cup/. Logan teaches at the University of Florida www.english.ufl.edu/faculty/wlogan/index.html and writes the Verse Chronicle for the New Criterion newcriterion.com:81/. He is author of three other works of criticism and seven books of poetry. His awards include the a citation for excellence in reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review and inflation.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com


February 10, 2008

Recommended Poetry Titles From the National Book Critics Circle

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:27 pm
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Your Sunday book section review section might have stopped reviewing poetry during the Carter administration. But if it doesn’t have suggestions, the National Book Critics Circle does. The NBCC polled its members and came up with a list of five of their favorite recent poetry titles, posted at bookcriticscircle.blogspot.com/2008/02/nbccs-good-reads-winter-list.html. The top vote-getters included Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy (Graywolf, 2007), also a finalist for the NBCC poetry award www.bookcriticscircle.blogspot.com. The NBCC will announce the winner of its annual poetry and other prizes on March 6 in a ceremony at the New School in New York.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

January 25, 2008

The Underworld on a String: Poet Louise Glück’s ‘Averno’

A former poet laureate meditates on a crater lake near Naples that the ancient Romans believed to be the gateway to hell

Averno. By Louise Glück. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 96 pp., $12, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Louise 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.

In her latest collection of poems, Glück recasts story of Persephone, the personification of spring. In most retellings of the myth, Persephone is a man’s victim: She is abducted by the king of the underworld and partially ransomed by her mother, Demeter, who arranges for her to spend two-thirds of the year on earth and one-third in hell. Glück envisions the tale instead “as an argument between the mother and the lover / the daughter is just meat.” In this Freudian version, Persephone is her mother’s victim as much as a man’s.

This interpretation suggests the fatalistic vision of Averno, a collection of linked poems that glide back and forth between myth and modern life. Averno is a crater lake west of Naples that the ancient Romans saw as the gateway to the underworld and that Glück uses as a unifying metaphor for a book about the dialogue between life and death that intensifies in the last trimester of life. In her title poem and others, she returns to a theme introduced in her earlier work, an idea that’s a sophisticated variation on the sign the Grim Reaper often carries in cartoons: “Prepare to meet thy doom.” She delivers an italicized warning in “October”: “You will not be spared, nor will what you love be spared.”

Glück too good a poet to allow this idea to devolve into a parody of a televangelist’s message, and her book has a grim integrity lacking in the work of poets who serve up Splenda in quatrains. Even so, the fatalism at times borders on oppressive. It’s a relief when a spark of hope ignites at the end of “October”: “Surely it is a privilege to approach the end / still believing in something.”

Best/worst line: This is the rare book in which the best and worst lines are the same. In “The Night Migrations” Glück wonders how the soul will find comfort after death. She concludes that “maybe just not being is simply enough / hard as that is to imagine.” The idea “not being” might be “enough” is perhaps the memorable in the book. But the adverbs weaken it, especially that “simply,” which seems to serve no purpose except that of scansion.

Published: 2006 (hardcover), 2007 (paperback) www.fsgbooks.com

Furthermore: Glück won a Pulitzer Prize for The Wild Iris. She was the 2003–2004 U.S. poet laureate. You can hear her read “October” at www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/16723.

Consider reading also: The short poem “Demeter at Yellowstone” in Deena Linnet’s Woman Crossing a Field: Poems/American Poets Continuum Series (BOA Editions, $14.95, paperback) www.boaeditions.org.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation. Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who been the 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.

January 20, 2008

Do We Need ‘Easier’ Poetry to Bring Back Readers? (Quote of the Day/William Logan)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:34 pm
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William Logan reviews the latest book by Geoffrey Hill, who writes perhaps the most complex and difficult poems of the 21st century, in today’s New York Times Book Review. Hill believes that “sinking to common ground betrays the high purpose of verse,” Logan says in his review of A Treatise of Civil Power (Yale University Pres, $30, cloth, and $16, paper) www.nytimes.com/2008/01/20/books/review/Logan-t.html. Should poets dumb down their work to attract readers? Logan expressed his own views on the question in his most recent collection of poetry criticism:

“Many have argued that to regain its lost audience poetry must become as easy to read as the instructions for opening a tin of sardines (no, easier), whimsical and ordinary in all the right whimsical and ordinary ways. This will bring back the common reader – once we have him, once he has that taste for poetry, by baby steps he will develop a passion for Alexander Pope. There have been a few such readers, no doubt, though they might have progressed to Pope just as quickly if they’d started with the backs of cereal boxes. The poems for prospective readers must be written in first person, in free verse, as often as possible in present tense, and as much like prose as possible, because metaphor is obscure, allusion elitist if not unjust, and something as strict as meter surely undemocratic, even (as has been claimed) the design of fascists. Oh, and such poems must be about the poet’s life, because we should always write about what we know, and what else does a poet know? How fortunate that Shakespeare was a close friend of Julius Caesar and that Milton supped frequently with the Devil.

“Poetry has for some time tried to dumb itself down to attract an audience; when any art becomes so desperate, it is already endangered. … Perhaps there is a place for disposable poetry; but let’s not fool ourselves that it’s better than it is, simply because the times are what they are. What we lack is not readers but a culture that teaches how to read.”

William Logan in the introduction to his most recent book of poetry criticism, The Undiscovered Country: Poetry in the Age of Tin (Columbia University Press, $29.50) www.columbia.edu/cu/cup/. Logan teaches at the University of Florida www.english.ufl.edu/faculty/wlogan/index.html and writes the Verse Chronicle for the New Criterion newcriterion.com:81/. He is author of three other works of criticism and seven books of poetry. His awards include a citation for excellence in reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review and inflation.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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