One-Minute Book Reviews

February 25, 2008

Why We Need Negative Reviews of Books (Quote of the Day/William Logan)

Perhaps everyone who’s edited a newspaper or magazine book section has heard the question: “Why do you publish negative reviews of books? When you have so little space, why not focus on the good ones?” William Logan deals with the question as it applies to poetry in his The Undiscovered Country:

“It’s often said that critics shouldn’t write negative reviews, because bad poetry will take care of itself (time will take care of it, too). With so few books in a given year worth remembering, why review those that will soon vanish from memory? I love reviewing poets I admire (isn’t that what a critic lives for?); but if you write only such reviews, how can a reader trust your praise? We learn something necessary about how a few poets go right when we know the ways so many have gone wrong: the latest clichés of feeling, the shop-thumbed imagery, the rags and bones of organization. Great poets transcend their age as much as they embody its ills, or succumb to them; but mediocre poets succumb on every page.

“If you’re too gentle to say a mean thing, are you ever courageous enough to say a truly kind one (or mean enough to say an honest one)? It’s surprising how many poets feel that poetry criticism should never be … critical. Yet these gentle readers love film and theater reviews that would eat the chrome off a car bumper.”

William Logan in the introduction to his most recent book of poetry criticism, The Undiscovered Country: Poetry in the Age of Tin (Columbia University Press, $29.50) www.columbia.edu/cu/cup/. Logan teaches at the University of Florida www.english.ufl.edu/faculty/wlogan/index.html and writes the Verse Chronicle for the New Criterion newcriterion.com:81/. He is author of three other works of criticism and seven books of poetry. His awards include the a citation for excellence in reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review and inflation.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com


February 10, 2008

Recommended Poetry Titles From the National Book Critics Circle

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:27 pm
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Your Sunday book section review section might have stopped reviewing poetry during the Carter administration. But if it doesn’t have suggestions, the National Book Critics Circle does. The NBCC polled its members and came up with a list of five of their favorite recent poetry titles, posted at bookcriticscircle.blogspot.com/2008/02/nbccs-good-reads-winter-list.html. The top vote-getters included Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy (Graywolf, 2007), also a finalist for the NBCC poetry award www.bookcriticscircle.blogspot.com. The NBCC will announce the winner of its annual poetry and other prizes on March 6 in a ceremony at the New School in New York.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

January 25, 2008

The Underworld on a String: Poet Louise Glück’s ‘Averno’

A former poet laureate meditates on a crater lake near Naples that the ancient Romans believed to be the gateway to hell

Averno. By Louise Glück. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 96 pp., $12, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Louise 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.

In her latest collection of poems, Glück recasts story of Persephone, the personification of spring. In most retellings of the myth, Persephone is a man’s victim: She is abducted by the king of the underworld and partially ransomed by her mother, Demeter, who arranges for her to spend two-thirds of the year on earth and one-third in hell. Glück envisions the tale instead “as an argument between the mother and the lover / the daughter is just meat.” In this Freudian version, Persephone is her mother’s victim as much as a man’s.

This interpretation suggests the fatalistic vision of Averno, a collection of linked poems that glide back and forth between myth and modern life. Averno is a crater lake west of Naples that the ancient Romans saw as the gateway to the underworld and that Glück uses as a unifying metaphor for a book about the dialogue between life and death that intensifies in the last trimester of life. In her title poem and others, she returns to a theme introduced in her earlier work, an idea that’s a sophisticated variation on the sign the Grim Reaper often carries in cartoons: “Prepare to meet thy doom.” She delivers an italicized warning in “October”: “You will not be spared, nor will what you love be spared.”

Glück too good a poet to allow this idea to devolve into a parody of a televangelist’s message, and her book has a grim integrity lacking in the work of poets who serve up Splenda in quatrains. Even so, the fatalism at times borders on oppressive. It’s a relief when a spark of hope ignites at the end of “October”: “Surely it is a privilege to approach the end / still believing in something.”

Best/worst line: This is the rare book in which the best and worst lines are the same. In “The Night Migrations” Glück wonders how the soul will find comfort after death. She concludes that “maybe just not being is simply enough / hard as that is to imagine.” The idea “not being” might be “enough” is perhaps the memorable in the book. But the adverbs weaken it, especially that “simply,” which seems to serve no purpose except that of scansion.

Published: 2006 (hardcover), 2007 (paperback) www.fsgbooks.com

Furthermore: Glück won a Pulitzer Prize for The Wild Iris. She was the 2003–2004 U.S. poet laureate. You can hear her read “October” at www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/16723.

Consider reading also: The short poem “Demeter at Yellowstone” in Deena Linnet’s Woman Crossing a Field: Poems/American Poets Continuum Series (BOA Editions, $14.95, paperback) www.boaeditions.org.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation. Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who been the 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.

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 4, 2007

Are You Smart Enough to Understand Geoffrey Hill?

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:32 pm
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A man often called “England’s best living poet” returns with a collection that includes appreciations of Cesare Pavese, Hart Crane and Jimi Hendrix

Without Title. By Geoffrey Hill. Yale University Press, 96 pp., $26, cloth; $16, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Many people call Geoffrey Hill “England’s best living poet.” Donald Hall, the U.S. poet laureate, says he may be “the greatest English poet since George Herbert.”

Then why is Hill less famous than other poets of his vanishing generation, including Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin? One answer is that, in some ways, he makes more demands on you. His poems are so dense and full of pentimento effects that he has more in common with T.S. Eliot than with Hughes or Larkin. Hill may have made fewer concessions to popular tastes than any living writer. And the pattern holds in Without Title. The rhymes of his earlier books have all but disappeared, though not his use of iambic meter and classical forms (which include, in this book, Pindaric odes). He acknowledges his reluctance to dumb-down his poems in “Discourse: For Stanley Rosen”:

I tell myself
don’t wreck a good phrase simply to boost sense –

Yet, in the same poem, he suggests that even high standards may not be enough:

So few of us absolved when what we write
sets us to rights on some scale of justice.

Hill sets the tone of Without Title in its first poem, “Improvisation on ‘O Welt ich muss dich lassen’” (“O world, I must leave you”), a meditation on the tune that inspired a Bach chorale. The first word of that poem – and the book — is German (traurig or “sorrowful”). Then he’s off to the races, salting his book with words or phrases from at least a half dozen languages — German, French, Italian, Latin, Greek and Hebrew – and references drawn from more than a thousand years of literary history. His English is similarly high-altitude. Without Title teems with words like “atrorubent,” “barathea,” “Pasiphaean,” “haruspex,” ”pleach-toned” and “shotten.”

At the core of the book lies a deep awareness of the weight of mortality – Hill’s and others’ – suggested by that “O world, I must leave you.” Nearly a third of it consists of dialogues with two poets who committed suicide, Cesare Pavese and Hart Crane. And it has a three-page elegy for Jimi Hendrix whose death – although not officially ruled a suicide – involved some ambiguity on that count.

Yet these poems are too firmly entwined with Hill’s Christian roots to deny all hope. If they are at times sorrowful, they not cynical. One of the best poems, “Epiphany at Saint Mary and All Saints,” begins:

The wise men, vulnerable in ageing plaster,
are borne as gifts
to be set down among other treasures
in their familial strangeness, mystery’s toys.

This quatrain is fresh and memorable partly because inverts the traditional image: The wise men who once brought gifts to the Christ Child are themselves “borne as gifts.” And if they are “vulnerable,” they are not shattered or absent. A more dogmatic or conventionally religious poet might have gone on to try to persuade us that mystery can survive in an age that reduces it to toys. But in the last line of the poem, Hill surprises us again. He tells us: “The night air sings a colder spell to come.”

Best line: From “Insert Here”: “Let me be, says the dying man, let me fall / upwards toward my roots.”

Worst line: Hill verges on bathos in an elegy for Jimi Hendrix, a user of LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), that casts the guitarist’s life as a Greek tragedy with hallocinogens. The word lysergic, Hill tells is, “also is made up Greek.”

Consider reading instead: Geoffrey Hill’s New and Collected Poems: 1952-1992 (Mariner, 2000) would make a better introduction to Hill’s work for most readers, partly because it is stylistically and thematically broader.

Caveat lector: This review was based on the advance readers’ edition. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Furthermore: In the context of this collection, Without Title may refer to an honorific, the name of a literary work or a property title (perhaps the most fitting sense of the phrase, given that many poems deal with losing a purchase on life). It may also refer to the title of Britain’s poet laureate, which Hill has never held.

Published: April 2007

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 24, 2007

Robert Cording’s Poem “Pentecost in Little Falls, New Jersey’

Filed under: Poetry,Religion — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:34 pm
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A reminder for anyone observing Pentecost (Sunday, May 27) …

Robert Cording’s eloquent collection Common Life: Poems (CavanKerry, $16, paperback) includes the poem “Pentecost in Little Falls, New Jersey.” A review of Common Life appeared on this site on April 5, 2007, and is archived in the “Poetry” category and with the April posts. You can find more information on Cording, a professor of English at Holy Cross, at www.cavankerrypress.org. Click on the “Reading Room” page on that site to read his poem, “A Prayer to Adam,” the first poem in Common Life.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 20, 2007

Poet Lucille Clifton, Winner of a $100,000 Lifetime Achievement Award and Creator of the ‘Everett Anderson’ Series for Children

An acclaimed poet will this week receive the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for her work, which includes an award-wining series about a boy who lives in a housing project

By Janice Harayda

When Lucille Clifton was growing up, her father told her stories about her African great-great-grandmother who was forced into slavery. A sharp awareness of her heritage stayed with her and inspired a memoir, Generations (Random House, 1976). But Clifton may be best known as the author of an award-winning picture-book series that uses rhymed iambic pentameter to tell the story of a sensitive boy named Everett Anderson, who lives in a housing project with his mother.

“I wanted to write about a little boy who was poor and someone who, although he had no things, was not poor in spirit,” she said in an interview with Mickey Pearlman in Listen to Their Voices (Houghton Mifflin, 1993). “He’s full of love, and he and his mother live well together.”

Perhaps the most admired “Everett” book is Everett Anderson’s Goodbye (Holt, 1988, paperback), illustrated by Ann Grifalconi, a Reading Rainbow selection and winner of the Coretta Scott King Award from the American Library Association. Everett struggles in this final installment to accept his father’s death and realizes that “ … whatever happens when people die, / love doesn’t stop, and / neither will I.”

On Wednesday Clifton will receive this year’s $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize from the Poetry Foundation www.poetryfoundation.org, which has more about the award on its site. The foundation said in announcing the prize:

“Widely admired since Langston Hughes championed her work in an early anthology of African-American poetry, Clifton has become one of the most significant and beloved American poets of the past quarter century. She writes with great clarity and feeling about family, death, birth, civil rights, and religion, her moral intelligence struggling always to make sense of the lives and relationships to which she is connected, whether those of her immediate family, her African ancestry, or victims of war and prejudice.”

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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