One-Minute Book Reviews

June 20, 2009

A Good Children’s Poem About the Fourth of July

John Updike celebrates the Fourth in the spirited children’s poem “July,” which begins: “Bang-bang! Ka-boom! / We celebrate / Our national / Independence date.” The poem is one of 12, one for each month, collected in A Child’s Calendar (Holiday House, 32 pages, $17.95 hardcover, $6.95 paperback, ages 4–8). Beautifully illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, this picture book won a Caldecott Honor for its images of four seasons in the life of members of an interracial New England family and their friends. Don’t miss Updike tending the barbecue grill in the full-page picture next to the poem.

June 9, 2009

Poet Mary Jo Salter Remembers TWA Flight 800, an Airline Disaster That Occurred 13 Years before Air France Flight 447 Crashed

Filed under: News,Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:58 pm
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On July 17, 1996, TWA Flight 800 took off from John F. Kennedy Airport en route to Rome via Paris and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean over Long Island en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TWA_Flight_800. All 230 passengers and crew members on board died in the disaster, which the National Transportation Safety Board concluded had probably resulted from a fuel tank explosion caused by faulty wiring.

Mary Jo Salter remembers the tragedy in “TWA 800,” collected in her Open Shutters and A Phone Call to the Future. In this brief poem Salter recalls that, months after the accident, friends of hers in France got a postcard from her that had ended up on the flight. “Sea-soaked but intact,” the card was fully legible: “Shipped in a padded bag, with a letter / from the U.S. Postal Service (‘apologies / for any inconvenience caused / by the accident’).”

To read the entire poem “TWA 800,” go to the Amazon listing for A Phone Call to the Future and use the “Search Inside” tool to search for “TWA 800.”

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

May 16, 2009

Good Clean Limericks for Children – Poems for 1st, 2nd and 3rd Graders

There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, “It is just as I feared!—

From a classic nonsense limerick by Edward Lear

Anyone who wants to encourage a child to read poetry should memorize three good limericks — stopping just short of any that begin, “There was a young girl from Nantucket” — and recite them regularly. Limericks have five rhyming lines and a bouncy rhythm that makes them easy to remember. So children tend to absorb them effortlessly if they hear them often.

The question is: Where can you find the clean ones? True limericks are always bawdy, some critics say. When they aren’t scatological, they may include double-entendres or other risqué elements. Many limericks on the Web are also plagiarized — it’s generally illegal to quote an entire five-line poem by a living or not-long-dead poet even if you credit the author — and could cause trouble for children who quote them in school reports.

But the Academy of American Poets has posted several out-of-copyright classics by Edward Lear (1812––1888), author of “The Owl and the Pussy Cat,” at www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/16814, including:

There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, “It is just as I feared!–
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!”

The academy also offers facts about the rhyme and meter of limericks at www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5783. All 112 of the limericks in the 1861 edition of Lear’s A Book of Nonsense appear on a site that abounds with information about his work www.nonsenselit.org.

A good source of limericks for young children is The Hopeful Trout and Other Limericks (Houghton Mifflin, 1989), written by John Ciardi and illustrated by Susan Meddaugh, available in many libraries. This book is used in grades 2 and up in schools. But some of its limericks would also suit younger children. They include “Be Kind to Dumb Animals” (“There once was an ape in a zoo / Who looked out through the bars and saw – YOU!”), which consists only of simple one-syllable words, and “The Halloween House” (“I’m told there’s a Green Thing in there. / And the sign on the gate says BEWARE!”).

Many limericks are mini-morality tales about people who get an amusing, nonsensical comeuppance. The Hopeful Trout has several in this category. “The Poor Boy Was Wrong” describes the unlucky Sid, who “thought that a shark / Would turn tail if you bark,” then swam off to test the premise. Ciardi refers obliquely to Sid’s fate, but any child who isn’t sure what happened needs only look at the drawing grinning shark and a single flipper.

© 2009 Janice Harayda
www.janiceharayda.com

May 11, 2009

‘The Aeneid’ in Three Sentences (Quote of the Day / Robert Fagles)

Filed under: Classics,Poetry,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:08 am
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The problem with book reviewing in America isn’t usually that it’s unfair or inaccurate – it’s that it’s dull. And it’s dull partly because it’s timid. Reviews often tell you almost everything about a novel except what it is really “about” beyond the plot details.

This failing has less to do with dwindling review space and than with declining courage and intellectual confidence. You can express the theme or message of even a complex, multilayered work in a few sentences if you know it well enough. Here’s how the classics scholar Robert Fagles summed up The Aeneid:

“It says that if you depart from the civilized, then you become a murderer. The price of empire is very steep, but Virgil shows how it is to be earned, if it’s to be earned at all. The poem can be read as an exhortation for us to behave ourselves, which is a horse of relevance that ought to be ridden.”

As quoted by Charles McGrath in “Robert Fagles, Translator of the Classics, Dies at 74” in the New York Times, March 29, 2008.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

March 14, 2009

Good Poems for Middle-School Students (Grades 5, 6, 7 and 8)

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:47 am
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The middle school years are treacherous for reading in general and poetry-reading in particular. Up to a certain age, children enjoy poetry and may even prefer stories that rhyme. But by the time they reach middle school, they are often starting to lose interest. What books have poems that will hold their attention? Here are two possibilities:

Sad Underwear and Other Complications: More Poems for Children and Their Parents (Aladdin, 80 pp., $6.99, paperback, ages 9-12), by Judith Viorst. Illustrated by Richard Hull. The short and mostly rhyming poems in this book have the irreverent — and, at times rueful — wit that you expect from Viorst, author of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Some of the poems in Sad Underwear deal with near-universal childhood woes like mosquito bites and lost sneakers. Others describe the trials of a certain sort of worldly wise preteen or teenager. (“I’m freaking! I’m freaking! / My mom’s gone antiquing. / And guess who she’s dragging along?”) Sad Underwear has more than a few poems sophisticated enough to engage adults. But its picture-book format may limit its appeal mainly to younger middle-schoolers.www.simonsays.com/content/book.cfm?tab=1&pid=411400.

Classic Poems to Read Aloud (Kingfisher, 258 pp., $8.95, paperback, ages 9 to adult), compiled by James Berry. Illustrated by James Mayhew. Should you still read aloud with children in the fifth grade and beyond? Absolutely, if you read poems of the quality of the 138 in this book. The great virtue of Classics to Read Aloud is that it doesn’t patronize children. It has easy poems like Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat” and Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit From St. Nicholas.” And it has many that are more complex: Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” Robert Frost’s “After Apple-Picking” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare to a summer’s day?”). It also excerpts from epics such as “The Iliad” and “Hiawatha” (bereft of the famous lines, “By the shores of Gitchee Gumee, / By the shining Big-Sea-Water”) So children won’t outgrow Classics to Read Aloud. Neither will their parents. If you keep promising yourself that you’ll look up “that poem in Four Weddings and a Funeral,” you can stop now. Berry reproduces W. H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues” on page 186.

You’ll find suggested books of sports poetry for middle-school students on the site for the Horn Book, the leading children’s literature journal
www.hbook.com/resources/books/sports.asp.

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

March 5, 2009

Muriel Spark Satirizes Bad Writing in Her Poem ‘The Creative Writing Class’

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:56 am
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“Read this!” the critic emoted. “You’ll like it!” she opined. “And laugh!” she chortled.

Muriel Spark is better known for her novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie than for her light verse. But the 73 poems in All the Poems of Muriel Spark (New Directions, 2004) show how well she mastered this and other forms of poetry.

In “The Creative Writing Class,” Spark satirizes the pretentious overwriting often found in the work of bad novelists, amateur poets, and students in MFA programs. This 20-line dialogue poem begins: “’There is,’ he declared. / ‘Really?’ she grinned. / ‘Undoubtedly,’ he stated. / ‘Tomorrow,’ she burbled.” The poem goes on in the same vein, with an alternating male and female voice, through a last line that suggests the frustration of a teacher who has had enough: “‘Silence!’ she sneered.”

Each line in the poem ends with a word ending in “ed” (a variation on the device known as epistrophe, the repetition of a word or phrase at the end of a line). And “The Creative Writing Class” could be a great poem to read aloud in a writing class: Students with a flair for drama could raise this one to a much higher level of hilarity even than it has on the page.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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 Bartleby.com.

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.
www.janiceharayda.com

January 30, 2009

Good Valentine’s Day Poems for Children With All the Words Online

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:19 am
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More than a dozen poems appear in 'Valentine's Day'

Ages 4–8
At a certain age children love to know secrets, and Valentine’s Day lets them show it. An example: The following two out-of-copyright lines appear in “To a Baby Boy,” collected in Songs and Other Verse, by the American children’s poet Eugene Field (1850–1895):

Who I am I shall not say,
But I send you this bouquet

Children could attach the lines to a bouquet — or to a drawing (or sticker collage) of flowers — for an easy-to-make free card.

Ages 9–12
Tweens and older children may be embarrassed by overtly romantic sentiments, yet still want or need to send Valentine’s Day cards. The complete works of the Elizabethan poet Michael Drayton (1563–1631) include four out-of-copyright lines that might be sufficiently neutral:

Muse, bid the Morn awake!
Sad Winter now delines,
Each bird doth choose a mate;
This day’s Saint Valentine’s.

Teenagers
Teenagers who believe they are desperately in love can find many appropriate poems online. Among the best-known: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s iambic pentameter sonnet “How Do I Love Thee?” (Sonnet 43), which begins:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.

This much-parodied poem has become a cliché to many adults but doesn’t sound trite to teenagers hearing it for the first time (and might inspire some to have fun writing their own parodies). The same goes for the lyrics to that Beatles’s toe-tapper, “When I’m Sixty-Four”:

When I get older losing my hair,
Many years from now.
Will you still be sending me a valentine
Birthday greetings bottle of wine.

You can hear Paul McCartney singing this one on YouTube by searching for “When I’m Sixty-Four” + “lyrics” (though I’m not linking to it because I’m not convinced that any versions of the song on YouTube are legal).

Other good poems and ways to celebrate the day appear in Ann Heinrich’s Valentine’s Day: Holidays, Festivals, & Celebrations (The Child’s World, 2006), illustrated by Sharon Holm, and other books.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

January 23, 2009

The Case Against Free Verse (Quote of the Day / J. V. Cunningham)

Filed under: Poetry,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:21 am
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The battle for free verse was over by the time I became a critic: Unmetered poetry was, if not dominant, well on its way to it. So I missed many of the early great essays that argued for or against the verse of Walt Whitman and others.

But I caught up with one of them after the recent publication of Praising It New: The Best of the New Criticism (Ohio University Press/Swallow Press, 288 pp., $18.95, paperback), edited by Garrick Davis with a foreword by William Logan. Davis notes that in the essay, “The Problem of Form,” the American poet and scholar J. V. Cunningham (1911–1985) makes the case against free verse with unusual skill: “The indispensability of meter has never been argued for more succinctly.”

Cunningham holds that the popularity of free verse springs from American ideals: We live in a democratic society and “give a positive value to informality.” Formal language is an anathema because we associate it with a hierarchical and authoritarian world with rules set by a privileged class. We see the measured or formal as insincere or a perversion of “the central value of our life, genuineness of feeling.”

If we value informality, we believe we must get rid of formality or form, which is by nature repetitive, Cunningham goes on: “But to get rid of it we must keep it; we must have something to get rid of.” And formal poetry involves a convergence of forms that — metrical, grammatical, rhetorical, conceptual and more. “Indeed, it is the inherent coincidence of forms in poetry, in metrical writing, that gives it its power.” So when we abandon meter in poetry, we abandon more:

“And here in naked reduction is the problem of form in the poetry of our day. It is before all a problem of meter. We have lost the repetitive harmony of the old tradition, and we have not established a new. We have written to vary or violate the old line, for regularity we feel is meaningless and irregularity meaningful. But a generation of poets, acting on the principles and practice of significant variation, have last nothing to vary from. The last variation is regularity.”

Cunningham wrote this decades ago, and a lot has changed. Many contemporary poets work at least partly with forms that include not just meter but rhyme. Those poets include Mary Jo Salter, editor of the Norton Anthology of Poetry, whose recent A Phone Call to the Future will be reviewed soon on this site.

So I’m quoting this not because I agree with all of what Cunningham says but because he makes an argument rarely heard these days. What do you think? Should more people be making it?

Read more about Praising It New at www.ohioswallow.com/book/Praising+It+New and about J. V. Cunningham at www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poet.html?id=80763.

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

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December 30, 2008

Gerald Stern’s ‘Before Eating’ — A Poet’s Rhyming Toast to Life and Death

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:58 pm
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Here’s something you don’t see every day in poetry: a toast to death. Well, not just death. But Gerald Stern’s poem “Before Eating” celebrates life in all its contradictions. And that includes the ultimate contradiction – death.

Stern is in his 80s, and “Before Eating” makes you wonder if he wrote it for his funeral (or perhaps, given that it has 88 lines, as an elegy for a friend who died at 88), though there’s no evidence of it beyond the poem itself, which begins:

Here’s to your life
and here’s to your death

and here’s to coughing
and here’s to breath.

“Before Eating” consists of more than five pages of similarly lively rhymes — it reads like a ditty. At times a wistfulness creeps into the voice of the speaker, who knows that “ … I could go on for / forty pages // listing my joys / and listing my rages, // but I should stop / while I’m still ahead // and make my way / to my own crooked bed …”

But Stern doesn’t maunder. Just when his poem could devolve into a wallow, he pulls the tone back up again:

so here’s to the end,
the final things,

and here’s to forever
and what that brings …

By the end of “Before Eating,” the speaker is no longer toasting death in the abstract but honoring its tangible realities (“and here’s to the pillows / and here’s to the bed”). Yet the poem is never morbid. Some lines are playful. (“Here’s to judge / here’s to Jewry.”) Other lines celebrate food, drink and, obliquely, sex (“desire”). Even the title “Before Eating” suggests that death could be a feast. Whether written for a funeral or not, this poem finds the chord that so many eulogists seek and miss – the notes that celebrate both our numbered days and “forever / and what that brings.”

“Before Eating” appears in Stern’s recent Save the Last Dance: Poems (Norton, 91 pp., $23.95). Other poems in the collection include “The Preacher,” an adaptation of the Book of Ecclesiastes, and elegies for or homages to the poets William Wordsworth, Muriel Rukeyser and Federico Garcia Lorca. Stern won the 1998 National Book Award for Poetry for This Time. He was the first poet laureate of New Jersey, where he lives.

© 2008 All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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