One-Minute Book Reviews

May 16, 2009

Good Clean Limericks for Children – Poems for 1st, 2nd and 3rd Graders

There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, “It is just as I feared!—

From a classic nonsense limerick by Edward Lear

Anyone who wants to encourage a child to read poetry should memorize three good limericks — stopping just short of any that begin, “There was a young girl from Nantucket” — and recite them regularly. Limericks have five rhyming lines and a bouncy rhythm that makes them easy to remember. So children tend to absorb them effortlessly if they hear them often.

The question is: Where can you find the clean ones? True limericks are always bawdy, some critics say. When they aren’t scatological, they may include double-entendres or other risqué elements. Many limericks on the Web are also plagiarized — it’s generally illegal to quote an entire five-line poem by a living or not-long-dead poet even if you credit the author — and could cause trouble for children who quote them in school reports.

But the Academy of American Poets has posted several out-of-copyright classics by Edward Lear (1812––1888), author of “The Owl and the Pussy Cat,” at www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/16814, including:

There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, “It is just as I feared!–
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!”

The academy also offers facts about the rhyme and meter of limericks at www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5783. All 112 of the limericks in the 1861 edition of Lear’s A Book of Nonsense appear on a site that abounds with information about his work www.nonsenselit.org.

A good source of limericks for young children is The Hopeful Trout and Other Limericks (Houghton Mifflin, 1989), written by John Ciardi and illustrated by Susan Meddaugh, available in many libraries. This book is used in grades 2 and up in schools. But some of its limericks would also suit younger children. They include “Be Kind to Dumb Animals” (“There once was an ape in a zoo / Who looked out through the bars and saw – YOU!”), which consists only of simple one-syllable words, and “The Halloween House” (“I’m told there’s a Green Thing in there. / And the sign on the gate says BEWARE!”).

Many limericks are mini-morality tales about people who get an amusing, nonsensical comeuppance. The Hopeful Trout has several in this category. “The Poor Boy Was Wrong” describes the unlucky Sid, who “thought that a shark / Would turn tail if you bark,” then swam off to test the premise. Ciardi refers obliquely to Sid’s fate, but any child who isn’t sure what happened needs only look at the drawing grinning shark and a single flipper.

© 2009 Janice Harayda
www.janiceharayda.com

May 6, 2009

Late Night With Jan Harayda — Frank Bidart Pulls Further Ahead of Susan Lucci

Filed under: News,Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:47 pm
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Back in December, I wrote that Frank Bidart was turning into poetry’s equivalent of Susan Lucci, the soap opera star who lost l8 daytime Emmy awards before winning on her 19th nomination. After decades of work, Bidart is one of America’s most respected poets, but he has never won a National Book Award, a Pulitzer Prize or a National Book Critics Circle Award.

I noted in a review of his latest book that Bidart has written seven poetry collections, and if his publisher nominated each for all three prizes, he passed Lucci in November when he got his 19th snub: He lost the National Book Award for poetry to fellow finalist Mark Doty. He had a chance to win on nominations No. 20 and No. 21 for the most recent NBCC and Pulitzer prizes but didn’t make the shortlist for the critics’ award. And he was a Pulitzer finalist for Watching the Spring Festival (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 72 pp., $13, paperback). Did Lucci send a sympathy card?

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

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

March 17, 2009

‘Passive suffering is not a theme for poetry’ (Quote of the Day / W. B. Yeats)

Members of an isolated British reading group write letters about their favorite books in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Dial, 2008), a bestselling novel set mainly on a Channel Island in 1946. But one character rages against William Butler Yeats, the Irish Nobel laureate. The complaint: Yeats edited The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892–1935 and said in its introduction that he had left out all the great World War I poets, including Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, because

“ … passive suffering is not a theme for poetry.”

This well-known quote was controversial from the start. But it suggests how much poetry has changed: Many recent collections, such as Frances Richey’s The Warrior and Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy, include poems that involve “passive suffering.”

What do you think of the change? Does poetry need less passive suffering and more active engagement with life? Or are modern poets proving that Yeats was wrong?

Read Yeats’s full quote and more on The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892–1935 www.english.emory.edu/LostPoets/Yeats.html.

A review of and reading group guide to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society appeared on this site on Nov. 25, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/11/25/. A review of The Warrior was posted on July 27 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/07/27/ and of Elegy on March 10 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/03/10/.

nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1923/yeats-bio.html

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

March 5, 2009

Muriel Spark Satirizes Bad Writing in Her Poem ‘The Creative Writing Class’

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:56 am
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“Read this!” the critic emoted. “You’ll like it!” she opined. “And laugh!” she chortled.

Muriel Spark is better known for her novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie than for her light verse. But the 73 poems in All the Poems of Muriel Spark (New Directions, 2004) show how well she mastered this and other forms of poetry.

In “The Creative Writing Class,” Spark satirizes the pretentious overwriting often found in the work of bad novelists, amateur poets, and students in MFA programs. This 20-line dialogue poem begins: “’There is,’ he declared. / ‘Really?’ she grinned. / ‘Undoubtedly,’ he stated. / ‘Tomorrow,’ she burbled.” The poem goes on in the same vein, with an alternating male and female voice, through a last line that suggests the frustration of a teacher who has had enough: “‘Silence!’ she sneered.”

Each line in the poem ends with a word ending in “ed” (a variation on the device known as epistrophe, the repetition of a word or phrase at the end of a line). And “The Creative Writing Class” could be a great poem to read aloud in a writing class: Students with a flair for drama could raise this one to a much higher level of hilarity even than it has on the page.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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

January 30, 2009

Good Valentine’s Day Poems for Children With All the Words Online

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:19 am
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More than a dozen poems appear in 'Valentine's Day'

Ages 4–8
At a certain age children love to know secrets, and Valentine’s Day lets them show it. An example: The following two out-of-copyright lines appear in “To a Baby Boy,” collected in Songs and Other Verse, by the American children’s poet Eugene Field (1850–1895):

Who I am I shall not say,
But I send you this bouquet

Children could attach the lines to a bouquet — or to a drawing (or sticker collage) of flowers — for an easy-to-make free card.

Ages 9–12
Tweens and older children may be embarrassed by overtly romantic sentiments, yet still want or need to send Valentine’s Day cards. The complete works of the Elizabethan poet Michael Drayton (1563–1631) include four out-of-copyright lines that might be sufficiently neutral:

Muse, bid the Morn awake!
Sad Winter now delines,
Each bird doth choose a mate;
This day’s Saint Valentine’s.

Teenagers
Teenagers who believe they are desperately in love can find many appropriate poems online. Among the best-known: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s iambic pentameter sonnet “How Do I Love Thee?” (Sonnet 43), which begins:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.

This much-parodied poem has become a cliché to many adults but doesn’t sound trite to teenagers hearing it for the first time (and might inspire some to have fun writing their own parodies). The same goes for the lyrics to that Beatles’s toe-tapper, “When I’m Sixty-Four”:

When I get older losing my hair,
Many years from now.
Will you still be sending me a valentine
Birthday greetings bottle of wine.

You can hear Paul McCartney singing this one on YouTube by searching for “When I’m Sixty-Four” + “lyrics” (though I’m not linking to it because I’m not convinced that any versions of the song on YouTube are legal).

Other good poems and ways to celebrate the day appear in Ann Heinrich’s Valentine’s Day: Holidays, Festivals, & Celebrations (The Child’s World, 2006), illustrated by Sharon Holm, and other books.

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

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

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

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