One-Minute Book Reviews

March 10, 2012

What I’m Reading … Forrest Gander’s ‘Core Samples from the World,’ a Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry

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“What I’m Reading” is a series about books I’m reading, which I may or may not review later

What I’m reading: Core Samples from the World (New Directions, 95 pp., $15.95, paperback), by Forrest Gander with photographs by Raymond Meeks, Graciela Iturbide and Lucas Foglia

What it is: A 2011 poetry collection that includes haibun, a Japanese form that intersperses prose and haiku or haiku-like verse, often in a travel diary or journal. Core Samples from the World has poems about Chile, Mexico, China and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Why I’m reading it: I like haiku, and the book combines haibun with impressionistic black-and-white photographs. Haibun seems a fine metaphor for life: You have take a lot of prose to get a little poetry.

Sample lines: “Then they are whisked by van to the desert to witness the Kyrgyz version of a polo match, played with the decapitated carcass of a goat.” From the prose section of a haibun that describes a trip Gander took with other poets through Asia

Furthermore: Core Samples from the World was a finalist for the most recent National Book Critics Circle award for poetry, given on Thursday to Laura Kasischke’s Space, in Chains.

Read an excerpt from Core Samples from the World.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2012 Janice Harayda
www.janiceharayda.com

November 22, 2011

‘The Greatest American Poem’ — Quote of the Day / Harold Bloom

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Critics may argue about whether the greatest American novel is Moby-Dick, The Great Gatsby or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Harold Bloom doesn’t equivocate about the best poem. The “essential American poem” is Walt Whitman’s elegy for Abraham Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” he argues in his new The Anatomy of Influence

“‘Lilacs’ seems to me the greatest American poem because its largeness of vision is inevitably expressed by a metric of which the poet had become a master,” writes Bloom, perhaps America’s most distinguished academic critic. “There is a biblical reverberation to Whitman’s elegy, and not only because the hermit thrush’s song of death echoes the erotic intensity of the Song of Songs.” Bloom adds: “With splendid tact, Whitman avoids praising Lincoln’s victory over his own countrymen, and creates an elegy of 206 lines worthy of comparison with Milton’s ‘Lycidas’ and Shelley’s ‘Adonais.’”

www.janiceharayda.com

March 30, 2010

John Updike’s ‘Seven Stanzas at Easter’ Answers the Question, How Should Christians Talk About the Resurrection?

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A novelist makes the case against turning the event into a parable

“Seven Stanzas at Easter.” A poem by John Updike. From Collected Poems: 1953–1993, Knopf, 387 pp., $27.50.

By Janice Harayda

As a young writer, John Updike submitted “Seven Stanzas at Easter” to a religious arts festival at the Lutheran church he attended on the North Shore of Massachusetts. He won the “Best in Show” award for the poem and returned his $100 prize to the congregation.

Fifty years later, “Seven Stanzas at Easter” has become perhaps the most famous Easter poem of the second half of the 20th century. In some ways, its popularity is surprising. The modified-envelope rhymes of the poem are subtle enough that you might miss them. The seven stanzas might invoke any of many Christian associations with the number seven — the days of Holy Week, the gifts of the spirit, the sayings of Christ on the cross — but it isn’t clear which. And all of the 35 lines in the poem deal with a question that can make Christians squeamish: How should we talk about the Resurrection?

Updike speaks directly to the reader from the first stanza onward:

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules reknit,
the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

The poem goes on to reject the idea of talking about the Resurrection in literary tropes that mask or deny the corporal realities of the Crucifixion:

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
making of the event a parable …

“Seven Stanzas at Easter” is about the body of Christ in more than one sense, and its theme appears unambiguous: In for a dime, in for a dollar; if you talk about the Resurrection, you can’t turn it into a Jungian projection of a collective unconscious. But it’s a mistake to read “Seven Stanzas at Easter” a tract. The poem doesn’t weigh the historical or theological evidence for or against the Resurrection. It less about what happened or didn’t happen at the tomb than about how to talk about it. And its message is more equivocal than Job’s “I know that my redeemer liveth.”

Updike tips his hand with the “if” in his first line: “Make no mistake: if He rose at all.” That “if” modifies all that follows and turns the poem into a variation on Pascal’s wager, the idea that although the existence of God can’t be proved, a person should live as though it could be, because that position has all the advantages. Updike tells us to avoid sanitizing the Resurrection for our own comfort or because we can’t otherwise conceive of it. To mythologize the event, he warns, is to being “awakened in one unthinkable hour” and find that “we are embarrassed / by the miracle, / and crushed by remonstrance.”

In the first quotation above, the line beginning “the amino acids” should be indented six spaces, which this template won’t allow. The full text of “Seven Stanzas at Easter” appears on the site for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, where some lines break in different places than they do in Collected Poems. The Lutheran recounts how Updike submitted to the poem to the Religious Arts Festival at Clifton Lutheran Church in Marblehead, Massachusetts.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 19, 2008

Mark Doty Wins 2008 National Book Award for Poetry for ‘Fire to Fire’

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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 24, 2007

Jack Prelutsky’s Rhyming Animal Poems for Young Children


“Behold the bold UMBRELLAPHANT
That’s not the least afraid
To forage in the broiling sun
For it is in the shade.”

Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant: And Other Poems. By Jack Prelutsky. Illustrations by Carin Berger. Greenwillow, 32 pp., $17.89. Ages 3 and up.

By Janice Harayda

For more than six months, a review of Jack Prelutsky’s collection of sports poems has appeared repeatedly among the top 10 posts on this site. I wish the distinction were going to a worthier book than Good Sports, which has uninspired rhymes, clichéd language and art that’s mismatched with the text.

Prelutksy’s 2006 Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant is in every way superior to it. This sparkling collection of poems about imaginary animals pays its respects to Lewis Carroll’s “The Crocodile.” (“How doth the little crocodile / Improve his shining tale, / And pour the waters of the Nile / On every golden scale!”) Because “The Crocodile” was a parody of an Isaac Watts poem, you might call “Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant” a parody of a parody.

But Prelusky’s book isn’t a parody so much as an homage. Like “The Crocodile,” most poems in “Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant” use the ballad stanzas known as common meter or “hymn” stanzas, or alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter with rhyming first and third lines. And Prelusky stays close enough to Carroll’s work that his book could have become a tired imitation of it.

Instead the poems in Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant have a freshness all their own, paired with sparkling mixed-media illustrations by Carin Berger. Each poem describes a creature that is part animal and part familiar object – an elephant with an umbrella for a trunk in the “The Umbrellaphant,” an octopus with an alarm clock for a head in “The Clocktopus.” This device could have been too clever by a half. It isn’t, partly because Prelutsky keeps most poems as simple and descriptive as “The Panthermometer,” about a panther with a thermometer for a tail: “Here comes a PATHERMOMETER / A cat we fondly hail, / For we can tell the temperature / By looking at its tail.”

Will preschoolers will get the puns and other wordplay in poems like “The Lynx of Chain”? Wrong question. Like Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant is nonsense verse, a form that uses whimisical or incomprehensible words to comic effect. And not the least of the virtues of this book is that it may help to prepare children to appreciate Carroll and other masters of that vanishing art.

Best poem: Many, including the lines from “The Panthermometer” and “Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant” quoted above.

Worst line: The poem “The Circular Sawtoise” describes a creature that combines a tortoise and a circular saw and borders too clever, in part because of the pronunction of “sawtoise.” When you first see the title of the poem, you mentally pronounce it as “saw-toys.” You have to study the picture to realize that it’s “saw-tis” in “tortoise.”

Published: September 2006 www.harpercollinschildrens.com and www.jackprelusky.com

Caveat lector: The second and fourth lines should be indented four spaces in the lines quoted from the title poem, “Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant,” but this template won’t let me do that.

Furthermore: This book is also available on an unabridged audio CD, which I haven’t seen. To read the review of Good Sports, click here: www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/05/12/. read Lewis Carroll’s “The Crocodile,” click here: www.poetry-archive.com/c/the_crocodile.html

Children’s book reviews appear on Saturdays on One-Minute Book Reviews.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

November 22, 2007

Jack Prelutsky’s Rhyming Animal Poems — Coming Saturday

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Jack Prelutsky www.jackprelutsky.com pays homage to Lewis Carroll’s “The Crocodile” in Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant: And Other Poems (HarperCollins, $16.99), a collection of rhyming poems about imaginary animals for ages 3 and up. A review of the book will appear on One-Minute Book Reviews on Saturday, Nov. 24. Reviews of children’s books appear every Saturday on this site, and posts about books for adults may also appear. To avoid missing these reviews, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

November 15, 2007

“It must be a gift of evolution that humans / Can’t sustain wonder … “ Quote of the Day From Robert Hass’s ‘Time and Materials,’ Winner of the 2007 National Book Award for Poetry

Robert Hass’s Time and Materials, winner of the 2007 National Book Award for poetry, deals with an unusually wide range of subjects for an 88-page collection — trees, a mother’s alcoholism, the war in Iraq. One of its best poems is “State of the Planet,” which marks the 50th anniversary of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University. It includes this memorable sixain:

“It must be a gift of evolution that humans
Can’t sustain wonder. We’d never have gotten up
From our knees if we could. But soon enough
We’d have fashioned sexy little earrings from the feathers,
Highlighted our cheekbone by rubbings from the rock,
And made a spear from the sinewey wood of the tree.”

From Robert Hass’s “State of the Planet” in Time and Materials: Poems 1997–2005 (HarperCollins/Ecco, $22.95) www.eccobooks.com and www.nationalbook.org.

November 10, 2007

‘Hey, You!’ — A Picture Book Collection of Recent and Classic Poems for Children Ages 6 and Up

Tell me, O Octopus, I begs,
Is those things arms, or is they legs?

— From Ogden Nash’s light verse classic, “The Octopus”

Hey, You! Poems to Skyscrapers, Mosquitoes, and Other Fun Things. Selected by Paul B. Janeczko and Robert Rayevsky. HarperCollins, 40 pp., $16.89. Ages 6 and up.

By Janice Harayda

The thirty short poems in this picture book all speak to somebody or something — a shell, a horse, an astronaut – or use the literary device known as apostrophe.

Editor Paul Janeczko has chosen a mix of rhymed and unrhymed and comic and serious verse by living and dead poets, including Ogden Nash, X.J. Kennedy and Karla Kushkin. And some of the entries have an unexpected timeliness, such as Emily Dickinson’s “Bee, I’m Expecting You!,” which begins: “Bee, I’m expecting you! / Was saying yesterday / To somebody you know / That you were overdue.” (Could there be a better bedtime poem for a first or second grader who loved Bee Movie?) But the dark and heavy-handed illustrations – which hang over some pages like thunderclouds — are no match for the high quality of the poems. So this is a book to use selectively: Instead of reading straight through it, look for the pages most likely to appeal to a particular child. And just try to keep a straight face if they include Nash’s classic, “The Octopus,” which begins: “Tell me, O Octopus, I begs, / Is those things arms, or is they legs?”

Links: www.harpercollinschildrens.com, www.pauljaneczko.com, www.rayevsky.com

Furthermore: Janeczko is a Maine poet who also edited Dirty Laundry Pile: Poems in Different Voices, a companion to Hey, You!. Rayevsky lives in Parksville, NY, and illustrated Caroline Stutson’s Pirate Pup and other books for children.

Reviews of children’s books appear every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews. They often deal with poetry for ages 2 and up. You can find other reviews of children’s poetry books by clicking on the “Children’s Books” category at right (below the “Recent Posts” and “Top Posts” listings).

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

May 12, 2007

Jack Prelutsky’s Rhyming Sports Poems for Young Children

The new “Children’s Poet Laureate” serves up rhymes about karate, skateboarding, gymnastics and other sports

Good Sports: Rhymes About Running, Jumping, Throwing, and More. By Jack Prelutsky. Illustrations by Chris Raschka. Knopf, 40 pp., $16.99. Ages: See below.

By Janice Harayda

This book of sports rhymes has a gold medal on the cover identifying its author as the “Children’s Poet Laureate” of the U.S. But don’t confuse that honor with that the one bestowed by Library of Congress, most recently on the Donald Hall. The title of “Children’s Poet Laureate” was created by the Poetry Foundation, a nonprofit organization that awarded it for the first time last year. And while the foundation may have had admirable goals in creating the post, you wish that Good Sports had been worthier of that medal on its dust jacket.

Jack Prelutsky is best known for The New Kid on the Block and other collections, including Read-Aloud Rhymes for the Very Young. And it’s easy to see why the Poetry Foundation wanted to honor him: At his best, he’s a hilarious, and he’s probably done more to foster an interest in poetry than any living children’s author.

But Good Sports seems designed more to fill a market niche than to delight children. There’s an obvious need for more good children’s books about sports – their publication hasn’t kept pace with the rise in participation. And many of the children’s sports books that do exist are cheesy celebrity biographies that promote hero-worship instead of a love of reading or a real understanding of sports.

Prelutsky sprinkles a few drops of water this parched landscape with a picture book of 17 rhyming poems about girls’ and boys’ individual and team sports – soccer, baseball, basketball, football, gymnastics, swimming, figure skating, skateboarding, karate and Frisbee. Some of the poems are mildly amusing, such as a ballplayer’s lament: “I had to slide into the plate, / It was my only chance. / Though if I hadn’t slid, then I / Would not have lost my pants.” But most lack the zest of Prelutsky’s best work and sometimes descend into the breathless clichés of the broadcasting booth.

A larger problem is that the audience for Good Sports is unclear. School Library Journal recommends the book for grades kindergarten through five, and, on one level, that makes sense. Some poems show children getting clobbered in football or taking part in other competitive team sports that the American Academy of Pediatrics doesn’t recommend for children under age 6.

But Good Sports has the form of a typical picture book for 4-to-8-year-olds. It’s the size and shape of the hardcover edition of Where the Wild Things Are, which appeals to many 2-year-olds. The book has just one or two poems per spread and large watercolor and pen-and-ink drawings by Chris Raschka, who illustrated the 2006 Caldecott Medal winner, The Hello, Goodbye Window. And the pictures, though spirited, resemble finger-paintings more likely to appeal to preschoolers than children at the upper end of the K–5 range. The poems might have had much more appeal for children beyond kindergarten or first grade if they had been packaged as a chapter book and illustrated by an artist who really knows how to reach that audience, such as Quentin Blake, the genius behind the art for such Roald Dahl books as The B.F.G. and The Twits.

As it is, Good Sports is another book, like Greg Foley’s recent Thank You Bear, that panders to library story hours with large fonts and pictures (and a price tag driven by that format) instead of serving parents who want to read their children poetry without paying $16.99 for mostly so-so rhymes. It’s sad to see the Poetry Foundation lending its imprimatur to this racket instead of bringing attention to gifted children’s poets who have had less attention than Prelutsky, a writer whose latest book would no doubt have sold well without a medal on its cover.

A much better choice for ages 8 and up is Ernest L. Thayer’s classic sports poem “Casey at the Bat,” available in many editions, including the Caldecott Honor book Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888 (Handprint, 2000), illustrated by Christopher Bing. Children may soon forget Prelutsky’s trendy poems about karate and skateboarding. But who can ever forget Thayer’s tragicomic tale of the day there was “no joy in Mudville” because “Mighty Casey has struck out”?

Best line: Quoted above: “ … would not have lost my pants.”

Worst line: Sports clichés like, “The competition’s tough” and “I’ve saved the day.”

Published: March 2007

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 5, 2007

Robert Cording’s ‘Common Life’: Poems for Easter and Beyond

A distinguished poet explores “possible answers to unanswerable questions”

Common Life: Poems. By Robert Cording. CavanKerry, 105 pp., $16, paperback. [Note: The template for this site does not allow for the correct indentation of the lines quoted from “Pigeon Man.”]

By Janice Harayda

One of the poems in the Robert Cording’s elegant Common Life tells of a man who, every Easter, would bring a truck full of caged pigeons to a town green, then release them and drive home to await the return of his flock. “The pigeon man” put on his display for residents who felt an odd mixture of spirits:

High on resurrection hymns, yet dampened by
Nagging reminders – Jim’s young wife dying of cancer

And their two boys who would be
Motherless in a month; a divorce ot two members
Loved by everyone; a suicide bombing in Jerusalem;
And soldiers occupying the church at Bethlehem.

“Pigeon Man” adds that though the release of the birds took only a moment, the townspeople looked forward

To the pigeons which must have suggested,
Whether we believed or not, and even if we knew
The movement in the opposite direction was far
More common, that grief could suddenly turn to grace.

That flash of grace amid tragedy is typical of the poems in Common Life, all rooted in the epigraph from Psalm 37:7: “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.” A professor of English at Holy Cross, Cording has said that he explores “possible answers to unanswerable questions.” And the 43 poems in Common Life radiate a sense of the mysteries of life that, like those of the rosary, can be joyful or sorrowful.

Some of the most memorable poems have their roots in practices you might find in Ripley’s Believe It or Not but that are transmuted in the book into something higher. Cording meditates on a petrified fetus that lived for 15 years in a Brazilian widow’s uterus, the 19th century tradition of photographing the dead and a man who wanted to kill himself when doctors restored his sight after a lifetime of blindness, an event that might have overjoyed others:

But now the most familiar objects lurch at him,
Irrationally, maddeningly.
They bear so little resemblance to his blind conception
Of them, the man actually wishes to be blind again …

Several poems besides “Pigeon Man” relate directly to Easter, including “Lenten Stanzas” and the title poem, which begins:

Like Christ on the Emmaus road concealed
From his disciples by his ordinariness,
The commonplace is sometimes hardest to see –

Yet if “the commonplace is sometimes hardest to see,” Cording evokes it with exceptional skill and mastery of form (which includes an occasional rhyme). He opens with “A Prayer to Adam,” a fine example of sprung rhythm and its strongly accented first syllables. And in “Rosary Bead, Netherlands, c. 1500” he recalls a medieval rosary in five ten-line stanzas that echo the form of the rosary itself.

For all their sacred imagery, the poems in Common Life never read like tracts or veiled exercises in proselytizing. They are poems first and “religious poems” second. Cording has said that he tells his students that the readers of a poem must feel that they are “making contact with a real human being, not simply with arguments and opinions.” In this collection, readers make that connection on every page.

Best line: Many. Here’s one from “Skellig Michael,” about a visit to a monastic ruin: “ … More than half / My life already over, I have come to know lately / How little I know, and how even that gets in my way, / My mind trafficking in perfectly managed confusions, / In creating comfort and security where neither truly exist.”

Worst line: “Much Laughter” is a good poem about the melancholy Samuel Johnson. But to say that Johnson entrusted Hester Thrale with “with a padlock/ And chain to restrain his fits when the time came” may be an oversimplification. Some scholars would argue that he had sexual reasons for doing this.

Published: March 2006

Furthermore: Cording’s poems have appeared in magazines that include the Nation, Paris Review, Kenyon Review, American Scholar, The New Yorker. Among those in Common Life, “Parable of the Moth” appeared in Best American Spiritual Writing 2004 (Houghton Mifflin, 2004) and “Advent Stanzas” in Best American Spiritual Writing 2005 (Houghton Mifflin, 2005).

Links: www.cavankerrypress.org

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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