One-Minute Book Reviews

February 19, 2009

The Myriad Reasons Not to Eschew Anthony Thwaite’s Witty Send-Up of the Rules for Writing in ‘A Move in the Weather’

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:44 am
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Poems about poetry are often a sign that a poet is running out of gas. Two irresistible exceptions appear in A Move in the Weather (Enitharmon, 2003) by the British poet Anthony Thwaite, co-executor of the estate of Philip Larkin.

The first poem — ironically titled “Untitled” — wonders why writers so often fail to write the great works they believe they have in them. It concludes: “You know how it goes, you even know the title, / But an act of making / Is an act of breaking.”

The second poem is even better. “The Art of Poetry: Two Lessons” sends up the unofficial rules of writing poetry in a pair of sonnets that break the rules for the rhyme, meter, structure and development of sonnets. The first “lesson” begins:

Write in short sentences. Avoid
Unnecessary breaks. Strictly control
(Or totally eliminate) the adverb.
Eschew such words as “myriad” ….

These poems work partly because of their wit and because they are about more than poetry. Isn’t every “act of making” — in life as in literature — also an “act of breaking”? And Thwaite satirizes the rules imposed on all kinds of writers, not just poets. In the first sentence of this post, I broke a rule that journalism students defy at their peril: Don’t use the same noun or variations on it three times in a sentence. Some of their professors would say I should also have killed that cliché “running out of gas” and that “even” in the third paragraph. If you’ve read this far, doesn’t that tell you something about whether Thwaite is on the right track?

Read more about Thwaite and hear him read at the Poetry Archive www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/singlePoet.do?poetId=36.

A Move in the Weather is available from the Poetry Bookshop Online www.poetrybookshoponline.co.uk/book-template.asp?isbn=1900564580.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

February 6, 2009

Barbara Pym’s ‘Good Books for Bad Days’

The British edition of Barbara Pym's 'Jane and Prudence'

Barbara Pym wrote about ordinary people without “self-pity or despair or romanticism, but with realistic firmness and even humor,” the poet Philip Larkin said. That’s partly why her fiction remains so appealing 29 years after her death: Next to all the recent novels about freaks and vampires and aliens, her men and women look radically normal.

“I should have liked the kind of life where one ate food flavored with garlic, but it was not to be,” a woman says in Jane and Prudence (Moyer Bell, 222 pp., $12.95, paperback), the story of two Oxford graduates whose lives have diverged. In this novel and others, Pym’s characters often show a similar matter-of-factness about the limits of their lives, a refreshing contrast to the desperate striving found in so much contemporary fiction.

In Jane and Prudence, Jane Cleveland, a clergyman’s wife, believes she has found the ideal mate for her friend, Prudence Bates, who has overinvested emotionally in her married boss. The plot centers on whether her matchmaking will work. But the pleasures of the novel have as much to do with Pym’s shrewd observations on human nature as with suspense about the outcome. Noticing the attention Prudence squanders on her boss, Jane reflects:

“Oh, but it was splendid the things women were doing for men all the time … Making them feel, perhaps sometimes by no more than a casual glance, that they were loved and admired and desired when they were worthy of none of those things — enabling them to preen themselves and puff out their plumage like birds and bask in the sunshine of love, real or imagined, it doesn’t matter which.”

That “real or imagined, it doesn’t matter which” is the depth charge in the sentence, and it’s typical of Pym. Her novels are so calm thoughtful that they are often called “good books for bad days.” Amid the current torrent of bad days, couldn’t we all use more of those?

This is the last in a series of daily posts this week on some of my favorite books. The other posts dealt with Now All We Need Is a Title (Monday), Middlemarch (Tuesday), Greater Expectations (Wednesday), and To Kill a Mockingbird (Thursday).

Tomorrow: A review of the new memoir, Knucklehead, by Jon Scieszka, an author beloved by many 9-to-12-year-old boys. Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear on this site on Saturday.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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

Ten Books That Should Have Been on Entertainment Weekly’s List of the ‘The 100 Best Reads’ of the Past 25 Years But Weren’t

I love Entertainment Weekly‘s annual list of the year’s worst books, which is usually right on the money. But the magazine’s list of “The New Classics: The 100 Best Reads From 1983 to 2008”
www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20207076_20207387_20207349,00.html falls a bit wider of mark.

Here, off the top of my head, are 10 books that didn’t make the EW list. These titles appear in random order (and I hope to say more about some of them later):

1. Liar’s Poker (1989) Michael Lewis
2. The Polar Express (1985) by Chris Van Allsburg
3. Heartburn (1986) by Nora Ephron
4. Barbarians at the Gate (1990) by Brian Burrough
5. Collected Poems: Philip Larkin (1989) by Philip Larkin and Anthony Thwaite
6. A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide (2003) by Samantha Power
7. Richard Wilbur: Collected Poems 1943–2004 (2004) by Richard Wilbur
8. Late Wife: Poems (2005) by Claudia Emerson
9. Jane Austen’s Letters: New Edition (1997) by Jane Austen. Collected and edited by Deirdre Le Faye.
10. Hotel du Lac (1984) by Anita Brookner

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

February 1, 2008

Diary: Barbara Pym’s ‘Good Books for Bad Days’

[This is the first in an occasional series of brief posts on books or authors whose work I can’t review at more length. The posts will be saved in the “Diary” category.]

A soggy morning in New Jersey. The chilly rain reminded me of a comment often made about the novels of Barbara Pym – they’re “good books for bad days.” They’re good books for good days, too.

Pym (1913–1980) had suffered more than her share of rejection until, in the 1970s, the Times Literary Supplement asked well-known writers to name the most underrated writer of the 20th century. After years of neglect by the British literary establishment, Pym was the only writer nominated by two of the authors, the poet Philip Larkin and the biographer David Cecil. Their praise, especially Larkin’s, sparked a revival of interest in her work that has abated slightly in the U.S. but has never disappeared.

I’ve read five or six of Pym’s quiet novels of English life and admire their modesty, intelligence and low-keyed irony. No writer would be less likely to give a book the sort of bombastic title — Everything Is Illuminated, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, I Am America (And So Can You) — that is fashionable today. And each of her novels involves circumstances different enough to keep them from becoming repetitive despite their similarlarities of tone. Excellent Women is about a group of single women who, though young, are verging on what used to be called spinsterhood. Quartet in Autumn deals with the enmeshed lives of four friends, male and female, who are facing retirement. An Unsuitable Attachment explores the effects of a single woman’s attraction to a younger man. And The Sweet Dove Died is about the losses of middle age and beyond, especially menopause (though Pym is too discreet to use the word).

Where will I start when I return to Pym en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbara_Pym? Excellent Women is among the wittiest of her novels, so I might begin there if I needed reliable diversion on a day when the weather was hoarding its comforts – a day, in other words, like today.

© 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

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.

July 20, 2007

Shocking News in Poetry! Philip Larkin Chases Harry Potter on WordPress News Front Page

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:00 pm
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Can a dead English poet continue to hold his own against the boy magician?

Just looked at the top 50 posts of the day in the Entertainment category on the WordPress News Front Page www.news.wordpress.com … and here is a shocker. Philip Larkin is holding his own against Harry Potter. Fourteen of the top Entertainment posts on WordPress (including the top two) deal with the final installment in J.K. Rowling’s series. But clocking in at #42 (at about 3:45 p.m. Eastern Time) is the quote of the day from Larkin on One-Minute Book Reviews www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/07/19/. Larkin actually came in ahead of two of the Harry Potter posts. This can’t last, so if you’re a poetry-lover and could use a little cheer, check out the WordPress News Front Page now.

I don’t usually mention it when One-Minute Book Reviews makes it into one of those categories like “top blogs” or “top posts,” because it usually happens when I do a post on somebody like Mitch Albom, and I don’t want to depress you by pointing that out. But today may be the first day I’ve gotten there for a post about a writer I actually like, one of the great English poets of the 20th century (who earned his living as a university librarian). I may owe this partly to a nice link from Bookslut www.bookslut.com. Is a counterreaction to Potter mania already setting in?

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 19, 2007

The Case Against Poetry Readings: Quote of the Day (Philip Larkin)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:03 pm
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Most poets today seem to give readings. One who usually declined invitations to do this was Philip Larkin (1922–1985), one of the great English poets of the 20th century. Larkin explained why in an interview with the Paris Review:

“I don’t give readings, no, although I have recorded three of my collections, just to show how I should read them. Hearing a poem, as opposed to reading it on the page, means you miss so much – the shape, the punctuation, the italics, even knowing how far you are from the end. Reading it on the page means you can go at your own pace, taking it in properly; hearing it means you’re dragged along at the speaker’s own rate, missing things, not taking it in, confusing ‘there’ and ‘their’ and things like that. And the speaker may interpose his own personality between you and the poem, for better or worse. For that matter, so may an audience. I don’t like hearing things in public, even music. In fact, I think poetry readings grew up on a false analogy with music: the text is the ‘score’ that doesn’t ‘come to life’ until it’s ‘performed.’ It’s false because people can read words, whereas they can’t read music. When you write a poem, you put everything into it that’s needed: the reader should ‘hear’ it just as clearly as if you were in the room saying it to him. And of course this fashion for poetry readings has led to a kind of poetry that you can understand first go: easy rhythms, easy emotions, easy syntax. I don’t think it stands up on the page.”

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. This is one of the great interviews in the Paris Review series for several reasons, including Larkin’s genius, Phillips’s skill as an interviewer and the scope of the questions. You can find the full interview at the site for the Paris Review www.parisreview.com . (I’m having trouble linking directly to the interview, but you can find it by going to the site and entering “Larkin” in the search box. The interview appeared in the Summer 1982 issue.) Most libraries and many bookstores also have books in the Paris Review series.

Comment by Janice Harayda:
I go to poetry readings and read from my novels at bookstores and elsewhere, but I can see Larkin’s point. How about you?

You can find more information on Larkin and read his poem “Home Is So Sad” at www.poets.org.

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

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