One-Minute Book Reviews

November 6, 2008

How Kinky Does Poetry Get? How About a Poem in the Shape of the State of New York? (Quote of the Day / ‘The Poetry Dictionary’)

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The other day I came across the late Australian writer Judith Wright’s poem “Rainforest,” in which the lines are arranged in the shape of a tree – a subtle an example of a pattern poem, or a poem in which the words or lines form a typographic picture that relates to the subject. And I wondered: How kinky does poetry get? What are some of the more offbeat shapes that poems have taken? Here’s an answer from John Drury’s The Poetry Dictionary (Writer’s Digest Books, 374 pp., $14.99, paperback), which has a foreword by Dana Gioia:

“John Hollander’s Types of Shape consists entirely of pattern poems. The shapes include a key, lightbulb, harpsichord, bell, sundial, lazy Susan, kitty, kitty with bug, the state of New York, a double helix, a swan with its reflection. These poems, however, can still be read aloud.”

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

October 22, 2008

Two Quatrains by Tadeusz Różewicz

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Two quatrains I like from the 17-line poem “knowledge” in Tadeusz Różewicz’s New Poems (Archipelago, 259 pp., $16, paperback), translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston:

cogito and dubito
share a house you know
mr cogito above
mr dubito below

having lived a rich life
they switched you know
dubito above
cogito below …

Różewicz is considered one of the finest poets in Poland and won the Nike Prize, his country’s highest literary honor, for Mother Departs. His plays have earned him a reputation one of the major Polish playwrights of the 20th century www.culture.pl/en/culture/artykuly/os_rozewicz_tadeusz.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 5, 2008

Poet Louise Glück Wins $100,000 Prize – Read a Review of Her Latest Collection Here

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Louise Glück has won the 2008 Wallace Stevens Award, which carries a $100,000 prize. The Academy of American Poets gives the prize for “outstanding and proven mastery in the art of poetry.” Glück’s latest collection, Averno, recasts the Greek myth of Persephone, the personification of spring, and was reviewed in a January post on this site said in part:

“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” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/01/25/.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 1, 2008

In ‘Late for Work,’ Poet David Tucker Finds the Life in Deadlines

Filed under: Newspapers,Paperbacks,Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:42 am
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[I'm off today. This repost of a review of one of my favorite books of poetry that appeared on this site in 2006.]

A newspaper editor writes about work and makes it work

Late for Work. Poems by David Tucker. Foreword by Philip Levine. Mariner, 53 pp., $12, paperback.

It’s odd, when you think about it, that more journalists don’t write poetry. Newspapers stack their headlines like verse – couplets, tercets, or quatrains – set flush left or stepped. Their stories have a form, the inverted pyramid, that can be as rigid as that of a sestina. And the work of great reporters has, if not meter, a subtle rhythm and an emotional impact comparable to that of a well-made poem.

David Tucker moves to close the gap in Late for Work, winner 2005 Katharine Bakeless Nason Prize for poetry awarded by the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference. Calvin Trillin may call himself a “deadline poet” because he writes his brief, witty poems for The Nation in response to breaking news. But Tucker comes closer to the spirit of the phrase in this wonderful collection of 45 of poems about newspapers and other topics, inspired partly by his work as an assistant managing editor of the New Jersey Star-Ledger.

Tucker has little in common with the modern poets who pack their work so densely with opaque symbols and allusions that you need to read them with The Golden Bough in one hand and the Wikipedia URL in the other. He meets you halfway, whether he’s writing about a great-grandfather you haven’t met or a newsroom you haven’t visited. Sometimes he does this by moving gracefully from tragedy to comedy and back again, so that we stand poised between them in his poems as in life. In “Morning Edition,” a journalist leaving work for the day considers the stories in the next edition:

For tomorrow we offer a photo of bloody hands
passing a coffin over a crowd in Baghdad,
and a photo of the President grinning
like a boy who ate a grasshopper,
and the jubilation of the bowling team that won the lottery.

Later the journalist recalls other stories in the next day’s paper:

The governor lying about the lie he told
the day before, the state senator from Bergen
calling his committee into secret session.
Killer Tree in Rahway, roots weakened
by rain, this rain, toppling on a doctor and his wife
as they sped for the Rahway exist, late for dinner.

Tucker flirts with classic forms like the sonnet and, in “The Woman in the Faraway House,” terza rima (while avoiding its overlapping rhymes):

She always has one more thing to say
about the argument
we had yesterday

But if he nods to Dante and later poets like Jane Kenyon, Tucker makes his subjects his own. One of his themes is that we have the capacity for hope even when hope has let us down — or we have let it down – many times. This idea comes into its fullest flower in “Detective Story,” which begins:

Happiness is a stubborn old detective who won’t give up on us
though we have been missing a long, long time,
who stops in towns where we once lived and asks about us
in a grocery where we shopped ten years ago …

Philip Levine chose Late for Work for the Bakeless Prize and has written an introduction that, though more self-indulgent and less helpful than it might have been, is right in one respect. This book suggests that life, for all its disappointments, can still be “warm and satisfying.”

Best line: From “Detective Story”: “A breeze smelling of the river enters the room though/ no river is near; the house is quiet and calm for no reason;/ the search does end, the detective finally does sleep, far away/ from anything he imagined, his dusty shoes still on.”

Worst line: From “Downsizing”: Tucker writes of bosses whispering “at the water cooler” and “junior executives” going to lunch. Most companies no longer have a “water cooler” or “junior executives” – everybody’s a “manager” now – and both of these fixtures of corporate life had disappeared by the time the word “downsizing” entered the language, so imagery here isn’t just clichéd but internally inconsistent.

Recommended if … you’d love to read contemporary poetry that you can understand without having a graduate degree in English.

Published: April 2006

To read one of David Tucker’s poems, click here www.poets.org/search.php/fs/1/prmAuthor/Tucker/.

To hear Tucker read from Late for Work, click on this link:
http://www.nytimes.com/packages/khtml/2006/04/05/books/20060405_TUCKER_AUDIOSS.html

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 27, 2008

Frances Richey’s Poetry Collection ‘The Warrior: A Mother’s Story of a Son at War’

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:51 pm
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Internal and external conflicts intersect in a collection of 28 poems

The Warrior: A Mother’s Story of a Son at War. By Frances Richey. Viking, 84 pp., $21.95.

By Janice Harayda

Not long ago, I went to an American Ballet Theater production of Sleeping Beauty with a companion who called it, with some justification, “a walking ballet.” The choreography may delight crowds, but you don’t go to this one for aerial special effects such as long sequences of dazzling grand jêtés.

The Warrior is a collection of walking poetry, billed by its publisher as “a memoir in verse.” Frances Richey, a yoga teacher, began to write its 28 poems when her son, a West Point graduate and Green Beret, went on the first of his two tours of duty in Iraq. Her book is about the distances – physical and emotional – that war puts between a parent and child.

Richey is earnest and at times pedestrian writer who works mostly in unrhymed, variable-length free verse with the occasional hint of an internal or end-rhyme or both (“and since my son was the only one / who’d never hunted”). In a poem called “The Book of Secrets,” she recalls her son’s early years: “ … Mornings, / when I left him with the sitter, / I had to close my heart, // or else obsess he was crossing / Oak alone.” You don’t doubt the sincerity of her words, but they read less like poetry than stenography, a literal transcription from life without the alchemy of a great poem. In some of the other poems, no thought seems too obvious to avoid making explicit. “I can’t protect him,” she tells us in one. “Will he come back?” she wonders in another. “ On learning that Iraq can be cold, she reflects, “I was always asking if he was warm enough. / Put a sweater on, I’d say. Your jacket …”

Other poems are less prosaic, and two are particularly good. In “The Aztec Empire” Richey considers artifacts of human sacrifice that she sees in an exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum and links them elegantly to the sacrifice of human lives in Iraq. And in “Kill School” she describes a combat training program that teaches a soldier how to kill by having him rock a rabbit “like a baby in his arms, / faster and faster,” then smash its head against a tree. Richey doesn’t call her book a collection of antiwar poems, but these two poems speak for themselves. And their direction, like that of the other poems in The Warrior, is no less clear because they walk instead of soaring toward their destination.

Best line: From “Kill School”: “The trainer showed him / how to rock the rabbit / / like a baby in his arms, / faster and faster, // until every sinew surrendered / and he smashed its head into a tree.”

Worst line: You may need to assume a lotus pose to appreciate: “… Green: / color of the fourth chakra, / Anahata; it means unstuck — / the heart center — / the color of his fatigues.”

Editor: Paul Slovak

Published: April 2008 www.francesrichey.com

You may also want to read: Robert Hass’s Time and Materials: Poems, 1997–2005, winner of the 2007 National Book Award for poetry, which has several poems critical of the Bush administration and the war in Iraq, including “Bush’s War. ” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/11/15/

Furthermore: Richey also wrote the poetry collection The Burning Point. She lives in New York City.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is a novelist and award-winning critic who has 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.

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

July 17, 2008

Kay Ryan Named Poet Laureate, Succeeding Charles Simic — Here’s a Review of Her ‘The Niagara River’

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Kay Ryan has been named the next poet laureate of the United States, succeeding Charles Simic. This is a repost of a review of her The Niagara River, which appeared on this site on Dec. 23, 2006.

The Niagara River. By Kay Ryan. Grove Press: Grove Press Poetry Series, 72 pp., $13, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Kay Ryan’s poetry captures better than any I know a quality of life that is obvious but rarely mentioned: It rhymes in unexpected places. Most of our lives resemble neither sonnets with fixed rhymes nor free verse with no rhymes. We hear music when we don’t expect it. So it is with Ryan’s sixth book, The Niagara River. Ryan rhymes the first word of one line with the last word of the next in “Absences and Breaks.” She begins with a rhyming couplet, “The egg-sucking fox/licks his copper chops,” but doesn’t stick to the pattern in “Theft.” This unpredictability might have been chaotic in the hands of a less talented poet. But Ryan has so much control over other aspects of her work, particularly tone, that the result is fresh instead of jarring.

In classical literature the river is dual symbol of life (because it sustains fertility) and death (because it suggests the irreversible flow of time). The 64 brief and intelligent poems in The Niagara River continue this tradition. The poems are autumnal but full of life and color. This is so partly because Ryan’s theme isn’t time in the abstract but what remains after it has passed. She has a sharp awareness of the inevitable injustices of age, reflected in the titles of poems such as “Thieves,” “Theft” and “Late Justice.” Time, the great racketeer, is always stealing from us. Ryan writes in “Thieves” s about the effects of age on the brain, including memory loss:

There are thieves
in the mind, their
dens in places
we’d prefer not to know.
When a word is lifted from
its spot, we show
no surprise,
replacing
supplies
with
provender.

Ryan does not sentimentalize the effects of aging – she knows that those thieves are hatching a “fantastic plot” – but her poems are not morbid. In “Salvage” she writes in about the aftermath of a wreck, perhaps a crash of the body caused by illness. The worst, she says, “has happened.” But there is a consolation:

Thanks be
to God – again –
for extractable elements
which are noi
carriers of pain …

Those lines notwithstanding, Ryan’s poems are not overtly religious. But at times their mood resembles that of the great Protestant hymn by Isaac Watts, “O, God, Our Help in Ages Past,” first published in the 18th century. Watts says:

Time like an ever-rolling steam,
bears all its sons away;
they fly forgotten, as a dream,
dies at the opening day.

In Ryan’s poetry, the dead do not become “stars or ghosts” when time “bears all its sons away.” Instead, she tells us in “Charms,” they reappear in our genes or elsewhere. This may be small comfort. But, she writes, “…E ven a piece/does us some good.”

Best line: One appears in a poem inspired by the artist Joseph Cornell: “ … As/time passes, the/promise is tattered/like a battle flag/above a war we/hope mattered.”

Worst line: None, but some of the quotes on the cover do Ryan few favors. David Yezzi says: “Ryan’s poems leave the reader elevated or changed or moved but at a loss to say exactly how this effect has been wrought.” The first part of that line is meaningless because all good poetry leaves you “elevated or changed or moved.” Otherwise, why read it? And a critic who says he can’t say how an effect “has been wrought” often means: I’m not willing to put the time or effort into figuring it out.

Recommended if … you like poetry that has both traditional and experimental elements.

Published: October 2005

Furthermore: For more on Ryan, see her biography and her poem “Nothing Ventured” on the site for the Academy of American Poets www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/352. She lives in California. To read the New York Times article on her appointment as poet laureate, click here www.nytimes.com/2008/07/17/books/17poet.html?partner=rssnyt&emc=rss.

FYI: Poems in this collection have appeared in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The American Scholar, and elsewhere.

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 26, 2008

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

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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

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