One-Minute Book Reviews

December 28, 2008

Good Children’s Poems About January

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:24 pm
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Do poets have trouble finding rhymes for “hangover”? Or believe that all kids go to bed early on Dec. 31? For whatever reason, there are few good children’s New Year’s Day, compared with the many about Christmas, Thanksgiving and other major holidays.

But John Updike has written a lovely poem about January that appears in his A Child’s Calendar (Holiday House, 32 pp., ages 4-8), and in The Random House Book of Poetry for Children (Random House, 248 pp., $22.99, ages 12 and under), selected by Jack Prelutsky. “January” doesn’t mention the New Year and instead celebrates the charms of the month with rhyming iambic quatrains: “The days are short, / The sun a spark / Hung thin between / The dark and dark.” The Random House Book of Poetry for Children also includes Sara Coleridge’s poem “The Months,” which consists of 12 rhyming couplets, one for each month, that begin: “January brings the snow, / makes our feet and fingers glow.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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 11, 2008

And Today’s Gusher Award for Hyperbole in Reviewing Goes to …

Filed under: Gusher Awards — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:19 pm
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Clive James in the essay “Little Low Heavens” in the September 2008 issue of Poetry:

“ … think of ‘Spring,’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Everyone knows the first line because everyone knows the poem. ‘Nothing is so beautiful as Spring’ is a line that hundreds of poets could have written, and was probably designed to sound that way: designed, that is, to be merely unexceptionable, or even flat. Only two lines further on, however, we get ‘Thrush’s eggs look like little low heavens’ and we are electrified. I can confidently say ‘we’ because nobody capable of reading poetry at all could read those few words and not feel the wattage.”

and

“Previously in this magazine I mentioned the Amy Clampitt poem with the exquisite few lines about the cheetah whose coat, when she ran, turned from a petalled garden into a sandstorm. Nobody who has ever read that poem can possibly have forgotten that moment.”

Clive James www.clivejames.com is a wonderful critic whose many sparkling reviews include a much-anthologized evisceration of Judith Krantz’s Princess Daisy that remains a model of its form nearly 30 years after its publication. And “Little Low Heavens” makes the worthy argument that the structure of a poem matters.

But James loses it in “Everyone knows the first line because everyone knows the poem,” “nobody capable of reading poetry at all could read those few words and not feel the wattage,” and “Nobody who has ever read that poem can possibly have forgotten that moment.” These lines are just gush. It’s pure snobbery to say that if you can’t “feel the wattage” of Hopkins’s words you’re not “capable of reading poetry at all.” People respond to poetry on different levels.

As for James’s comment that nobody “can possibly have forgotten” the Clampitt line: I mentioned earlier this week that I had forgotten seven lines from Hamlet, a work I revere above all others in English literature. Alas, poor Clampitt, I could forget hers, too.

Read James’s essay here www.poetryfoundation.org/journal/feature.html?id=182120.

Previous winners of Gusher Awards include Jonathan Franzen and Claire Messud www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/06/13/. Enter the word Gusher (without quotation marks) in the Search box at right to find others.

© 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

 

December 8, 2008

Christmas in Shakespeare? Astound Us With Your Memory, English Majors

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:10 pm
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I’ve been looking for good Christmas poetry and found enough of it that I split the material into two posts: one on the seasonal offerings for children, posted on Saturday, and a one on the possibilities for teenagers and adults, which will appear Wednesday, Dec. 10.

The biggest surprise was that I came across a wonderful passage in Shakespeare that I’d be tempted to use on my Christmas cards if I didn’t already have this year’s batch. How I could have forgotten this one is a mystery given that I’ve read it or heard it many times on film or on stage — unless the explanation is that I majored in political science was reading Che Guevara’s diary when I could have been rereading some of the plays.

Do you know which passage I’m thinking of? It’s not a free-standing poem – not one of the sonnets, in other words – but it’s entirely appropriate to the season. I’m throwing this one out there because there may be other Christmas-card–worthy lines by Shakespeare that I’ve forgotten or never known. If you can point them out in a comment, you may help people still casting about for these.

[As usual when reading poetry on the Internet, I’ve been struck by how much of it is misquoted, misattributed or plagiarized. So the Dec. 10 post will list more than a half dozen good Christmas poems for adults or teenagers with a brief commentary on each and links to trustworthy sites that have posted the full texts. Poetry may be a genteel art, but when it comes to online verse, it’s a jungle out there, and on Wednesday I will don my leopard-skin Tarzan suit and try to clear a path to the safer vines.]

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

December 7, 2008

Good Christmas Poems for Children With All the Words Online

Filed under: Children's Books,Uncategorized — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:01 pm
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Christmas has inspired more good poems than any other holiday. But many of the seasonal children’s poems on the Internet are insipid, badly written or otherwise not worth learning. (Do you really want to introduce your child to poem built on the theme of “stupid presents I didn’t like”?) And that doesn’t count all the poems that are plagiarized, misattributed or inaccurately reproduced.

Here are some of the best holiday or Christmas poems for young children and where to find their full texts from trustworthy online or other sources. As always, use caution with Wikipedia, listed here because it provides more background on “The Goose Is Getting Fat” than other sites:

For Toddlers, Preschoolers and Others (Ages 8 and Under)
“A Visit From St. Nicholas” (“’Twas the Night Before Christmas”). No poem has had more influence on children’s fantasies of Christmas than “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” first published in 1823 and generally attributed to Clement Clarke Moore. Even children too young to understand all the words are often captivated by its rousing anapestic meter, its “visions of sugarplums,” and its exciting plot, which ends with St. Nicholas wishing a “Happy Christmas” to all as he departs. Full text online at
www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=171924.

“Christmas Is Coming, The Goose Is Getting Fat.” Few American children today may know the tune that goes with the folk rhyme beginning: “Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat. / Please put a penny in the old man’s hat.” But the words stand on their own and appear in many poetry collections. You can ask toddlers and preschoolers to add gestures, such as dropping a penny into a hat, so this is a great poem for the Webcam. And the nature of folk rhymes is that they change over time, so you can vary the words with a spotless conscience. (“Please put a penny in your mother’s hat.”) If you’d like to charm the grandparents at a holiday gathering, ask your child to go around the room and hold out a hat for a penny after reciting a variation that includes her name: “Please put a penny in Samantha’s [or “your nephew’s” or “your grandchild’s”] hat.” Full text online at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_Is_Coming.

“December.” Young children who are reading on their own may enjoy “December” in John Updike’s A Child’s Calendar (Holiday House, 32 pp., $17.95), a Caldecott Honor book beautifully illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. This quiet, lovely poem has a first-grade reading level and takes a thoughtful view of the season in short, rhyming, iambic lines. Full text in the Holiday House book holidayhouse.com/title_display.php?ISBN=978082341445

Five other short winter, Christmas, or holiday poems appear in The Random House Book of Poetry for Children (Random House, 248 pp., $22.99, ages 9 and under), an excellent collection selected by Jack Prelutsky and illustrated by Arnold Lobel. The book includes all the words to Langston Hughes’s 3-line “Winter Moon” (“How thin and sharp is the moon tonight!”) and to Aileen Fisher’s 8-line “Merry Christmas” (“I saw on the snow / when I tried on my skis”). It also has a 15-line excerpt from David McCord’s “A Christmas Package” (“My stocking’s where / He’ll see it – there!”) and all the words to “A Visit From St. Nicholas.” The Random House Book of Poetry for Children is available from online and other booksellers, and I found a copy a few days ago in the children’s poetry section of a large Barnes & Noble stores.

A post on good Christmas or holiday poems for older children, teenagers and adults will appear later this week.

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

November 28, 2008

A Good Children’s Poem About December That Doesn’t Mention Santa Claus

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:28 pm
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John Updike doesn’t use the word Christmas in “December,” a 16-line rhyming poem collected in the Caldecott Honor book A Child’s Calendar (Holiday House, 32 pages, $17.95 hardcover, $6.95 paperback, ages 4–8), beautifully illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. But the spirit of the day shines in lines like: “The shepherds wait, / The kings, the tree – “ / All wait for something / Yet to be.” “December” uses mainly words of one- or two-syllables – the publisher recommends it for first graders – so it would suit children who are starting to read on their own as well as younger ones.

Updike writes in iambic meter – the closest to natural speech – instead of the galloping anapests and dactyls so often found in rhymes for the very young. Partly for that reason, “December” has a more subdued tone than many poems about the season. But it’s so thoughtful, it might appeal to children older than 8 if you can get them to pick up picture book. A big if, but worth the effort if you’re looking for a good poem about December that doesn’t mention Santa Claus or reindeer. The Christmas tree in the illustration for it has a Star of David on it, so this one may appeal to interfaith families. holidayhouse.com/title_display.php?ISBN=978082341445

© 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.

November 15, 2008

A Poem That Teaches You the Names of All 50 States

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:03 pm
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California, Mississippi,
North and South Dakota.
New York, Jersey, Mexico, and
Hampshire. Minnesota.

– From “Someday Someone Will Bet That You Can’t Name All Fifty States”

Alas, poor Jeopardy! losers! Judith Viorst has written a book that could have helped you name that fourth state beginning with “I” that was all that stood between you and early retirement. Her Sad Underwear and Other Complications: More Poems for Children and Their Parents (Aladdin, 80 pp., $6.99, paperback) has dozens of short poems that find the humor everyday hazards like lost sneakers, mosquito bites and broken dishes. But none of those (mostly) rhyming verses may have earned her more gratitude than the list poem “Someday Someone Will Bet That You Can’t Name All Fifty States,” which teaches you how to win the dare in its title. Is Sad Underwear a book for the 7-to-10-year-olds that its packaging suggests? Or a cleverly subversive exercise in remedial reading for adults? Jeopardy! losers, you be the judge.

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

November 8, 2008

A Thanksgiving Limerick for Children

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:54 pm
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Marsha Cutler’s Thanksgiving limerick “There Once Was a Turkey Named Gus” takes a light-hearted look a turkey trying to stay alive until December. It begins:
There once was a turkey named Gus.
Each November he’d raise a big fuss.

For copyright reasons, I can’t quote the entire limerick, but it appears in Thanksgiving: Stories and Poems (HarperCollins, 1994), edited by Caroline Feller Bauer, available in many libraries. Feller’s book also has more than a dozen other Thanksgiving poems. Among them: Jack Prelutsky’s “The Thanksgiving Day Parade,” a bouncy, 20-line poem about the fun of watching a big parade on TV, as seen by a young viewer: “Great balloons are floating by, / Cartoon creatures stories high.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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