One-Minute Book Reviews

May 27, 2009

‘Books, What a Jolly Company They Are’ – Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘Repression of War Experience’ – Quote of the Day / Maureen Corrigan

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:42 pm
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How much comfort can books offer as the death toll rises in Iraq and Afghanistan? Maureen Corrigan responds indirectly in her memoir, Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books (Vintage, 240 pp., $14.95, paperback):

A book critic for NPR’s Fresh Air, Corrigan begins a chapter with the line “Books, what a jolly company they are,” by the English poet Siegfried Sassoon, who saw combat on Western Front in World War I. She adds:

“The line is from Siegfried Sassoon’s great 1918 poem, ‘Repression of War Experience,’ and it’s meant to be taken, at best, ambivalently. The poem is written in the form of a dramatic monologue, and the narrator is a World War I vet suffering from shell shock. He’s been shipped away to a rest home in the English countryside, but judging from his off-kilter observations, his prognosis looks bleak. The vet sees ghosts out in the wet darkness of the nearby forest and hears the thud of big guns, booming, booming in the distance. Presumably, he’s sitting in a library as he speaks, because he turns for comfort to the shelves of books nearby. Unfortunately, their black, white, brown, and green spines remind him of his once straight-backed comrades marching off to their deaths. Shaken, the narrator tries to get a grip on his nerves by reassuring himself that ‘all the wisdom of the world / Is waiting for you on those shelves,’ but it’s a claim that rings hollow. Book learning didn’t save a generation of young Oxbridge students from dying in the trenches, along with their shabbily educated working-class countrymen. Indeed, some of those books – filled with tales of chivalric adventure and noble sacrifice – misled their impressionable readers into their wartime deaths.

“I can’t imagine living in rooms without books, but like Sassoon’s narrator, I also think the comfort books offer is qualified. All those voices, all those thoughts, all those reminders of how much there is to read and how little time there is to read it. Mentally and physically, books can be oppressive, even hazardous.”

February 13, 2009

Valentine’s Day Poems for Straight or Gay Lovers, Including Couples Getting Engaged or Married on Feb.14, With All the Words Online

Two poems that aren’t usually thought of as Valentine’s Day poems contain lines that would suit longtime lovers, including engaged and married couples.

Robert Browning’s classic “Rabbi Ben Ezra” begins:

Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:

“Rabbi Ben Ezra” isn’t a love poem but a meditation in verse on the life of the 12th-century scholar in its title. But countless lovers have inscribed its famous first two lines, both written in iambic trimeter, onto the flyleaves of books or Valentine’s Day notes and cards. And all three would work for straight or gay couples. The full text of the poem appears online at

Another classic with lines that would suit gay or straight couples is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s translation from the German of Simon Dach’s “Annie of Tharaw.” It includes the rhyming couplets:

Oppression, and sickness, and sorrow, and pain,
Shall be to our true love as links to the chain.

As the palm-tree standeth so straight and so tall,
The more the hail beats, and the more the rains fall, —

So love in our hearts shall grow mighty and strong,
Through crosses, through sorrows, through manifold wrong …

Though forests I’ll follow, and where the sea flows,
Through ice, and through iron, through armies of foes.

“Annie of Tharaw” sounds less sophisticated than many contemporary poems, in part because of its anapestic meter, commonly found in children’s poems such as “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” But Dach’s words may speak more directly than some of their modern counterparts to couples facing serious illnesses such as AIDS. Their sentiments implicitly ratify and amplify the “in sickness and in health” of wedding vows, so they would also suit anniversaries. The full text appears online at Litscape.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 3, 2008

Good Poems for High School Students (and Maybe for Yourself, Too)

Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.

From Alfred Tennyson’s “Break, Break, Break”

By Janice Harayda

Looking for good poems for a teenager or for yourself? You’ll find them at Poetry Out Loud, the home of National Recitation Project, a nationwide competition that encourages high school students to read poetry in class and elsewhere.

Teenagers who enter the contest must choose from among the 400 new and classic poems posted on Poetry Out Loud, which gives the full text of each and a short biography its author. Students can select work by fine contemporary poets such as Kay Ryan and Yusef Komunyakaa or warhorses like Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson (identified as “the famous hermit of Amherst, Massachusetts”).

Poetry Out Loud is also a good site for teenagers and adults looking for poems to read on their own (which you can find by clicking on “Find a Poem” in the “For Students” category). You might start with one of Alfred Tennyson’s best poems, “Break, Break, Break,” the first lines of which appear above. This brief lament for a lost friend has elements that may appeal to the most reluctant readers, including rhyme, clarity and a strong rhythm. “Break, Break, Break” also deals in part with a theme that’s easy for teenagers to identify with – the difficulty of expressing deep thoughts and feelings. And because it comes from a great English poet of the Victorian era, many students are less likely to have read in it in school than the work of American poets such as Frost and Dickinson.

Furthermore: “Break, Break, Break” is a great tool for teaching teenagers about poetry because it is relatively easy to read but uses many techniques found in more challenging poems, including assonance, repetition, alliteration, and onomatopoeia. The first three words are an example of three-syllable foot with three stresses, known as a molossus.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 7, 2007

‘The Supreme Christmas Poem in the English Language’ Is … Quote of the Day (Reynolds Price)

This is the Month, and this the happy morn
Wherein the Son of Heav’ns eternal King,
Of wedded Maid, and Virgin Mother born,
Our great redemption from above did bring …

From John Milton’s “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”

What is “the Supreme Christmas poem in the English language”? This must have been more of a stumper than I thought, because I asked the question Tuesday, and nobody got it right. I may have thrown you off by saying I’d give an American writer’s answer when the poem wasn’t written here. (Oh, sons and daughters of Cambridge! Where were you when a fellow Cantabrigian needed you?) The novelist Reynolds Price argues – and many others would agree – that the poem is John Milton’s “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.” Price says of Milton and his poem:

“The most powerful early component of his genius became visible in December 1629. While on the winter vacation from his studies at Cambridge, he wrote his initial indispensable poem, an ode ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.’ It was, almost certainly, the result – only two weeks after his twenty-first birthday – of his eagerness to exhibit a first fruit of the high calling he sensed within himself. And in the freewheeling rhetorical rapture which pours out memorable phrases in joyous profusion, in its complex musical urgency, and its unquestioned Christian sense of God’s immanence in nature, the ode continues to be the supreme Christmas poem in the English language.”

Reynolds Price in an essay on Milton in the just-published Literary Genius: 25 Classic Writers Who Define English and American Literature (Paul Dry Books, $18.95, paperback), selected and edited by Joseph Epstein with wood engravings by Barry Moser. Price, the poet and novelist, is the James B. Duke Professor English at Duke University

The first lines of Milton’s poem appear at the top of this post. You can read the annotated full text in the Milton Reading Room on the Dartmouth College site Please note that on this template I can’t indent the lines as Milton did.

© 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.

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