One-Minute Book Reviews

March 12, 2007

Flannery O’Connor on ‘Compassion’ in Writing … Quote of the Day #13

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Classics,Essays and Reviews,Literature,Quotes of the Day,Reading,Writing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:57 pm

Flannery O’Connor on “compassionate” writers …

“It’s considered an absolute necessity these days for writers to have compassion. Compassion is a word that sounds good in anybody’s mouth and which no book jacket can do without. It is a quality which no one can put his finger on in any exact critical sense, so it is safe for anybody to use. Usually I think what is meant by it is that the writer excuses all human weakness because human weakness is human. The kind of hazy compassion demanded of the writer now makes it difficult for him to be anti-anything.”

Flannery O’Connor in “The Grotesque in Southern Fiction” in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Selected and Edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969).

Comment by Janice Harayda …

“Compassionate” is also a word that that no critic can do without unless she substitutes “generous.” Why are the book reviews in Sunday newspapers so often dull? O’Connor has identified one of the reasons. Too many editors allow critics to substitute fuzzy words like “compassionate” for tough-minded analysis or interesting perceptions. O’Connor, thou shouldst be living at this hour!

Mystery and Manners is a classic book of essays on writing filled with sharp comments like today’s Quote of the Day. This collection was on the syllabus in the journalism classes I took with Donald M. Murray at the University of New Hampshire and has helped to shape my style of reviewing. I strive for the mix of wit, clarity and intelligence that pervades Mystery and Manners, a book I recommend to all writers and hope someday to review on this site.

Once I dated professor who wanted make his writing less academic. I took him to a bookstore, pulled Mystery and Manners off a shelf, and showed him a few passages. He said, “I have to have this,” and bought it. He dumped me but kept the book.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Deborah Garrison Finds Poetry at the Intersection of Work and Motherhood

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Poetry,Reading,Women,Writing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:55 am

The loves and losses of a woman trying to keep a career and family afloat

The Second Child: Poems. By Deborah Garrison. Random House, 76 pp., $19.95.

By Janice Harayda

On the cover of Deborah Garrison’s A Working Girl Can’t Win there’s an elegant black-and-white photograph by Irving Penn that shows two chic women – both young-ish, reed-thin and smoking — languishing at a café table. You might think they were having brunch in Tribeca or the Meatpacking District until you looked the date of the picture and saw that it appeared in Vogue in 1950, long before those districts became favored addresses for stylish New Yorkers.

That cover is brilliant for reasons that go beyond its use of fashion photography instead of the tasteful watercolors of fruits and vegetables you see more often on poetry books. The two people who appear on it could be archetypes of those most likely to identify with Garrison’s work – urbane, intelligent women who have everything except the level of satisfaction they expected their manicured lives to bring.

Garrion’s second collection, The Second Child, consists of 33 poems about the interection of work and motherhood in an age of large and small anxieties – from fears of another terrorist attack to regrets about missed chances to listen to NPR and serve as a playground monitor. Garrison is a former staff member at the New Yorker who is an editor for Alfred A. Knopf and Pantheon, and the title may be, in part, a slightly self-mocking send-up of a publishing cliché. (Is there a writer so original that he or she has never referred to a book as his or her “child”?) If so, the wordplay is is fair representation of The Second Child – a smart and funny collection that is at times just a little glib.

Some of the lesser poems in this book resemble anecdotes in verse, written on the wing. In “To the Man in a Loden Coat,” the working mother who narrates the poems nearly explodes with frustration at a traveler on an escalator at the Port Authority Bus Terminal whose failure to grasp a law of New York life — “walk on the left,/stand on the right” — may cause her to miss the 5:25. The poem suggests how quickly a competent woman may be undone by bottled-up pressures the moment she leaves the office, but you might get as much from dipping into The Bitch in the House.

The best poems in The Second Child rise much higher. Perhaps the finest is a meditation on Sept. 11, “September Poem.” After the terrorist attacks, the working mother wants to have another child, but there’s a problem:

The idea of sex a further horror:
To take pleasure in a collision

Of bodies was vile, self-centered, too lush.

In these lines and others, Garrison suggests how public tragedy can impinge on the most joyous and private of acts. And a shadow remains after she and her husband have created a new life

Which might in any case
end in towering sorrow.

Throughout The Second Child, Garrison works in varied meters, rhymed and unrhymed, and forms that include the sonnet and the sestina. Her city poem “Goodbye, New York” has the anapestic bounce of a Cole Porter-ish Broadway show tune:

You were the pickles, you were the jar
You were the prizefight we watched in a bar

It ends with a final salute to:

my skyline, my byline, my buzzer and door
now you’re the dream we lived before

This kind of sentiment is entertaining, if not deep, despite subtleties such as the lack of punctuation after “before” – the last word of the poem – suggesting a continuing enjambment with the city. And if some of it seems too easy, the same quality could make The Second Child ideal for a working mother who wonders if “too easy” will ever be easy enough.

Best Line: All of “September Poem,” which begins: “Now can I say?/ On that blackest day …”

Worst Line: Part of a description of childbirth in “Birth Day Pun”: “A smoldering butt!/ That’s how it is:” That may be “how it is,” but it makes the woman giving birth sound like a pork butt.

Reading Group Guide: A reading group guide to The Second Child appears in the March 12 post directly below this one and is archived in the “Totally Unathorized Reading Group Guides” category.

Published: February 2007

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘The Second Child: Poems’ by Deborah Garrison

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Libraries,Poetry,Reading,Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:54 am


10 Discussion Questions for Reading Groups
About Deborah Garrison’s The Second Child: Poems


This reading group was not authorized by the author, publisher, or agent for the book. This guide is copyrighted by Janice Harayda, and its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries that many reproduce it for use in their in-house reading groups. Reading groups that wish to use this guide should send links to members or use the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

Deborah Garrison’s The Second Child is a collection of 33 poems about the intersection of work and motherhood in an age of large and small anxieties – from fears of another terrorist attack to regrets about missed chances to be playground monitor. A former senior editor of the New Yorker, Garrison is an editor at Alfred A. Knopf and Pantheon books. She also wrote A Working Girl Can’t Win: And Other Poems (Random House, 1998).

Questions For Reading Groups about The Second Child

1) The title poem in a collection often expresses a theme or the prevailing mood of a book. Is this true in The Second Child? What ideas in the poem “The Second Child” recur in different forms in other poems in the collection?

2) One of the strongest poems in this book, “September Poem,” deals with the events of Sept. 11, 2001. After the attacks, Garrison decides to have another child. But she says didn’t do that for the obvious reason that when people die “ … we want, crudely pining,/ To replace them with more people.” Why did she have another child? How does this poem differ from other things you’ve read about Sept. 11? What does this poem show you that newspaper and other reports didn’t?

3) The dust jacket of The Second Child calls the book “a meditation on the extraordinariness resident in the everyday – nursing babies, missing the past, knowing when to lead a child and knowing when to let go.” What are some poems in which Garrison shows the extraordinary in the ordinary? What details illustrate that quality?

4) David Orr said that what’s known as “the New Yorker poem” consists “basically of an epiphany-centered lyric.” [“Annals of Poetry, The New York Times Book Review, March 11, 2007, p. 31.) Seven poems in The Second Child appeared first in the New Yorker. Do those poems fit that definition? Which poems involve an epiphany?

5) Some poems in The Second Child, such as “A Drink in the Night,” resemble anecdotes in verse. How does Garrison turn these into something more than cute the stories about children that you might find in a women’s magazine? In “A Drink in the Night,” does she use the invented “cup” as a metaphor for something else? What?

6) One of Garrison’s more unusual poems is “Sestina for the Working Mother.” A sestina is a fixed verse form in which six end-words recur in a set order in six stanzas and a three-line envoi (a coda or postscript). This centuries-old form might seem an odd choice for a modern woman who reflects, in part, on her reduced opportunities to listen to public radio and be a PTA mother. Why might Garrison have written a sestina instead of, say, a sonnet or haiku? How do the lives of working mothers resemble sestinas? For example, do mothers do tasks that may vary in order from one day to the next?

7) Garrison uses other traditional forms, such as the sonnet. But she doesn’t follow the familiar rhyme scheme the Shakespearean sonnet, abab cdcd efef gg. The end-words don’t start to rhyme until Lines 7 and 8 in “Unbidden Sonnet With Evergreen” and until Line 11 in “Song After Everyone’s Asleep.” What might explain this? Do the changes in rhyme relate to shifts in the tone or ideas of the poem?

8) You could argue that the most Shakespearean poem in The Second Child is the first, “On New Terms,” which uses the blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) that Shakespeare often used. In this poem some words or syllables rhyme in unexpected places (“most/ghost”). How do the forms of these sonnets add to or detract from their effects? Could Garrison be using these forms to express something about the role of women caught between traditional and new roles? [If you see an emoticon instead of the number 8 in front of this question, it is accidental.]

9) Although often meditative, the poems in this book can also be jaunty. The Cole Porter-ish “Goodbye, New York” sounds like a Broadway show tune: “You were the pickles, you were the jar/ you were the prize fight we watched in a bar.” It sounds that way partly because Garrison uses the bouncy anapestic meter (two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed) instead of the iambic (one unstressed followed by one stressed) of “On New Terms.” Anapestic is one of the most popular meters in children’s poems. You can almost hear an echo of “A Visit From St. Nicholas” in lines like: “my skyline, my byline, my buzzer and door/ now you’re the dream we lived before.” Have you read any children’s poems that use anapestic meter? (Hint: This was Dr. Seuss’s favorite.) Do you see other places where Garrison uses meter to achieve an effect?

10) If you’ve read A Working Girl Can’t Win, how does The Second Child resemble or differ from that one in tone and content? How is Garrison evolving as a poet?

Vital statistics:
The Second Child: Poems. By Deborah Garrison. Random House, 76 pp., $19.95.

A Working Girl Can’t Win: And Other Poems. By Deborah Garrison. Modern Library, 80 pp., $7.95 , paperback.

A review of The Second Child appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on March 12, 2007, and is archived in the “Poetry” category and with the March posts.

Your book group may also want to read:

Late for Work. By David Tucker. Mariner, 64 pp., $12, paperback. Tucker, a newspaper editor, writes about his work in a witty and poignant book of poems that won Breadloaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Poetry Prize. www.houghtonmifflinbooks/mariner/

Late Wife: Poems. By Claudia Emerson. LSU Press/Southern Messenger Poets Series, $54 pp., $16.95, paperback. Emerson writes about divorce and remarriage in a collection that won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

Reference Books:
The Poetry Dictionary: Second Edition. By John Drury. Foreword by Dana Goia. Writer’s Digest Books, 374 pp., $14.99, paperback. A guide to the different types of poetry (including the most common rhymes, meters, stanzas, and more) with more than 250 poems that illustrate the terms. This book describes many forms or techniques that Garrison uses, such as sonnet, end-rhyme, and sestina.

If this guide helped you, please check the “Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides” category on One-Minute Book Reviews for others and forward this link to members of book clubs. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books or other promotional materials from editors, publishers, agents, or authors. And its reviews and reading group guides are completely independent and do not reflect the marketing concerns that may influence creators of other guides.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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