One-Minute Book Reviews

June 12, 2009

Good Free Reading Group Guides From the U.S. Government

On this site I’ve often faulted publishers’ reading group guides for their poor quality –- poor in part because they tend to pander to book-club members with loopy questions like: “The heroine of this novel is a one-eyed snake charmer whose parents were abducted by aliens. Have you ever known a one-eyed snake charmer whose parents were abducted by aliens?” Gee, I’ll have to think about that one! I might have known one-eyed snake charmer, but her parents got in the space ship voluntarily and technically weren’t abducted!  How about you?

So I was heartened to find that the U.S. Government has posted more than two dozen free reading group guides that are more objective and helpful. The guides come from The Big Read, a National Endowment for the Arts program intended to encourage reading, and most cover major American works of fiction for adults or children, such as My Antonia, The Great Gatsby, The Age of Innocence, The Call of the Wild, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. But a couple deal with books by authors from other countries — Naguib Mahfouz’s The Thief and the Dogs and Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich – and the NEA plans soon to post companions to the poetry of Emily Dickinson and others.

You can download the guides for free at the site for The Big Read. And some libraries can get printed versions and CDs with more information at no cost. (I learned about all of this when I found a stack of free reader’s guides and companion disks for To Kill a Mockingbird at a small-town library giving them away to patrons.) Along with warhorses such as The Grapes of Wrath, The Big Read guides deal with a couple gems that are less well known, including Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl.

www.janiceharayda.com

April 28, 2009

Emily Dickinson, War Poet (Quote of the Day / From Drew Gilpin Faust’s Pulitzer Prize Finalist, ‘This Republic of Suffering’)

Filed under: Poetry,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:53 am
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How did Americans deal with the unprecedented scale of death in the Civil War? Many grappled with the carnage partly by writing about it — in poems, letters, memoirs, sermons, diaries, and more — given a lucid analysis by Drew Gilpin Faust in This Republic of Suffering, a finalist for the most recent National Book Award www.nationalbook.org/nba2008.html and Pulitzer Prize for history www.pulitzer.org/citation/2009-History.

Gilpin Faust writes about Emily Dickinson in this excerpt from a much longer section about Dickinson’s work and that of other writers of the era, including Ambrose Bierce and Herman Melville:

“Emily Dickson is renowned as a poet preoccupied with death. Yet curiously any relationship between her work and the Civil War was long rejected by most literary critics, even though she wrote almost half her oeuvre, at a rate of four poems a week, during those years. Dickinson has been portrayed as a recluse, closeted from the real world and its tribulations. But her work is filled with the language of battle – the very vocabulary of war that she would have encountered in the four newspapers regularly delivered to the Dickinson household. Campaigns, cannons, rifle balls, bullets, artillery, soldiers, ammunition, flags, bayonets, cavalry, drums, and trumpets are recurrent images in her poetry.”

Gilpin Faust adds:

“Like so many reflective Americas of her time, she grappled with the contractions of spirit and matter and with their implications for heaven and for God. Death seemed ‘a Dialogue between the Spirit and the Dust,’ an argument left painfully unresolved. Dickinson wondered where she might find heaven (‘I’m knocking everywhere’) and what an afterlife might be (‘Is Heaven a place—a Sky—a Tree?’) …..

“Ironically, it was death, not life, that seemed eternal, for it ‘perishes—to live anew … Annihilation—plated fresh / With Immortality.’ No territorial justifications, no military or political purposes balance this loss; victory cannot compensate; it ‘comes late’ to those already dead, whose ‘freezing lips’ are ‘too rapt with frost / to take it.’ Dickinson permits herself no relief or escape into either easy transcendence or sentimentality.”

You might also want to read the Oct. 4, 2007, post, “Do Emily Dickinson’s Poems ‘Make a Virtue Out of Collapsing’?” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/10/04/.

© 2009 Janice Harayda

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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

 

October 4, 2007

Do Emily Dickinson’s Poems ‘Make a Virtue Out of Collapsing’? (Quote of the Day/Philip Larkin via John Bayley)

I just reviewed John Bayley’s Good Companions this morning, but I like this anthology so much I can’t resist quoting from it again. Here’s Bayley on Emily Dickinson:

“A wonderful poet at her best; but, unlike Blake, Emily Dickinson seldom keeps going to the end of what is always a short poem. Philip Larkin observed that her poems sometimes seemed to make a virtue out of collapsing, as if the weight of inspiration could no longer be borne. That is certainly not true of either of these poems [‘Tell All the Truth But Tell It Slant’ and ‘Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers,' both included in Good Companions].

John Bayley, the former Oxford professor and author of Elegy for Iris (Picador, 1999) www.picadorusa.com, in Good Companions: A Personal Anthology (Little, Brown/Abacus, 2002). www.littlebrown.co.uk.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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