CBR14Bingo – Mind – This book addresses the “heart” elements of poetry with a literary critical mind approach.
How to Read a Poem – 5/5 Stars
This is a book that I really enjoyed but even Terry Eagleton admits that it’s not much help to anyone who hasn’t read a decent amount of literary criticism, especially for the first half of the book. It’s rare for an author to suggest that maybe for some readers, starting at chapter 5 (out of 7) would yield the best results. In reading these various “How to Read a Poem” books, my goal has been two-fold: 1) look for things I can directly give to students to help them better understand ways of attacking poetry and 2) look for ideas that I can filter or scaffold for students to better help them attack poetry, and this book is squarely in the second column, while offering some interesting things to think about along the way.
The book is set up with some framing to help us better understand how he is approaching the idea. For Terry Eagleton, and this book is probably for literature students mainly, students in universities have moved away from good critical reading skills in the previous two decades or so. This is not a product of critical theory, but mostly of politics. Or politics as I see it. He is not about to go on a rant about identity politics and grievances, but instead about how the art of figuring out what literature is, how it’s made, and how how it’s made creates meaning has been lost. I was in grad school when this book came out and one of the things that the field was really going through was how to deal with the wider influx of students being English majors and English grad students, knowing of course that the historical field of study just wasn’t going to serve those students. And I think something that has always been at odds with English is the tension between English as a profession and English as a field of study (which is and isn’t always in the larger overview of “education”). Sometime in the mid to late 90s professors were actually being told they had to learn how to teach, and while there have always been good teachers among academics and there has been a move toward more ideas about teaching in academics (and this comes from post-GI bill and baby boomer access issues) this was probably the first era where those professors who had begin the process of demanding learning how to teach and those who were on the way out to some extent were at odds. Anyway, this is all just to say that the field of English shifted and opened up in some different ways, but some of the skills were lost along the way.
One of the best moments within this whole books centers on the question of subjectivity in poems, which Eagleton more or less argues there isn’t any. There are always multiple correct and defensible things to say about a given poem, and many infinite indefensible things. Another great thing that Eagleton does here is react to some poems and admit challenges, obtuseness, and confusions in the face of challenging, obtuse, and confusing poems. It’s nice to have someone who is an expert tell you: this poem is very hard, if not impossible to understand, but that there’s value in giving it a shot and seeing what happens. Poems are a living being and it’s not our job to look at it as a dead thing.
Cbr14Bingo – Series — A Series of Essays about poetry – Lords of Limit -4/5
This is a complex and challenging set of essays by the British poet Geoffrey Hill first published in the early 1970s. He is most notably a poet, but he worked for many years as a scholar, critic, and teacher. These essays read to me like someone without a PhD, and what I mean by that is that the questions raised, the evidence presented, and the ideas explored feel like they are fueled by an earnest and joyful curiosity of the exploration of ideas, rather than settling questions. Hill often notes that his theses in these essays aren’t always explainable. The essays also do what great literary essays do, for me at least: make me want to read the things they talk about. So from these, I ended up reading some Philip Sydney, Jonathan Swift poetry (more about that), about medieval leading to Renaissance forms of state torture, and other topics that are fascinating. He’s interested in some of the weirdos of poetry and literature like John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester and the like.
Anyway, here’s one of the Swift poems — I don’t think I can teach it, but it did make me laugh:
A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed – BY JONATHAN SWIFT
Corinna, pride of Drury-Lane
For whom no shepherd sighs in vain;
Never did Covent Garden boast
So bright a battered, strolling toast;
No drunken rake to pick her up,
No cellar where on tick to sup;
Returning at the midnight hour;
Four stories climbing to her bow’r;
Then, seated on a three-legged chair,
Takes off her artificial hair:
Now, picking out a crystal eye,
She wipes it clean, and lays it by.
Her eye-brows from a mouse’s hide,
Stuck on with art on either side,
Pulls off with care, and first displays ’em,
Then in a play-book smoothly lays ’em.
Now dexterously her plumpers draws,
That serve to fill her hollow jaws.
Untwists a wire; and from her gums
A set of teeth completely comes.
Pulls out the rags contrived to prop
Her flabby dugs and down they drop.
Proceeding on, the lovely goddess
Unlaces next her steel-ribbed bodice;
Which by the operator’s skill,
Press down the lumps, the hollows fill,
Up goes her hand, and off she slips
The bolsters that supply her hips.
With gentlest touch, she next explores
Her shankers, issues, running sores,
Effects of many a sad disaster;
And then to each applies a plaister.
But must, before she goes to bed,
Rub off the dawbs of white and red;
And smooth the furrows in her front
With greasy paper stuck upon’t.
She takes a bolus ere she sleeps;
And then between two blankets creeps.
With pains of love tormented lies;
Or if she chance to close her eyes,
Of Bridewell and the Compter dreams,
And feels the lash, and faintly screams;
Or, by a faithless bully drawn,
At some hedge-tavern lies in pawn;
Or to Jamaica seems transported,
Alone, and by no planter courted;
Or, near Fleet-Ditch’s oozy brinks,
Surrounded with a hundred stinks,
Belated, seems on watch to lie,
And snap some cully passing by;
Or, struck with fear, her fancy runs
On watchmen, constables and duns,
From whom she meets with frequent rubs;
But, never from religious clubs;
Whose favor she is sure to find,
Because she pays ’em all in kind.
Corinna wakes. A dreadful sight!
Behold the ruins of the night!
A wicked rat her plaster stole,
Half eat, and dragged it to his hole.
The crystal eye, alas, was missed;
And puss had on her plumpers pissed.
A pigeon picked her issue-peas;
And Shock her tresses filled with fleas.
The nymph, tho’ in this mangled plight,
Must ev’ry morn her limbs unite.
But how shall I describe her arts
To recollect the scattered parts?
Or shew the anguish, toil, and pain,
Of gath’ring up herself again?
The bashful muse will never bear
In such a scene to interfere.
Corinna in the morning dizened,
Who sees, will spew; who smells, be poison’d.
The Sounds of Poetry – 3/5
I can’t say that this is the “worst” of the different how to read a poem books, but I found it the least helpful. Pinsky is very interested in sound, and I get it, and his poetry is rife with interesting and even delectable sound and soundscapes. But nothing is probably less helpful to understand sound than someone writing at length about it. This might make for a solid audiobook, but part of the problem is that my experience as a teacher shows me that students have difficulty in understanding sound in poetry, especially stress, and all the writing about how to hear stress cannot match a five minute discussion about stress where examples that students already know are used to show them what it means.
CBr14Bingo – Funky — While Billy Collins poems are rarely “funky” he plays around with subject idea a lot in fun and enjoyable ways and also sets many of his poems to a song he’s listening to, often R&B or Jazz – The Trouble with Poetry – 4/5
Billy Collins is such a reader’s poet, in the sense that his poems are so accessible and joyful. He also has the talent to back up the joy of reading his poetry with supplying examples of good poetry. That’s not to say everyone of these poems is groundbreaking or anything like that (that’s a Seamus Heaney joke maybe), but that in reading a collection of his and thinking through the ways that the poem work, the ideas they present, and the language they use, you’re well-served by a Billy Collins poem in general, especially when he’s writing poetry about poetry.
There’s a popular set of poetasters, who I won’t name, but you could guess, who at best, I hope are providing the bridge someone needs to read good poetry. Billy Collins I think provides that bridge in collections like this one.
The Trouble with Poetry: A Poem of Explanation
The trouble with poetry, I realized
as I walked along a beach one night —
cold Florida sand under my bare feet,
a show of stars in the sky —
the trouble with poetry is
that it encourages the writing of more poetry,
more guppies crowding the fish tank,
more baby rabbits
hopping out of their mothers into the dewy grass.
And how will it ever end?
unless the day finally arrives
when we have compared everything in the world
to everything else in the world,
and there is nothing left to do
but quietly close our notebooks
and sit with our hands folded on our desks.
Poetry fills me with joy
and I rise like a feather in the wind.
Poetry fills me with sorrow
and I sink like a chain flung from a bridge.
But mostly poetry fills me
with the urge to write poetry,
to sit in the dark and wait for a little flame
to appear at the tip of my pencil.
And along with that, the longing to steal,
to break into the poems of others
with a flashlight and a ski mask.
And what an unmerry band of thieves we are,
cut-purses, common shoplifters,
I thought to myself
as a cold wave swirled around my feet
and the lighthouse moved its megaphone over the sea,
which is an image I stole directly
from Lawrence Ferlinghetti —
to be perfectly honest for a moment —
the bicycling poet of San Francisco
whose little amusement park of a book
I carried in a side pocket of my uniform
up and down the treacherous halls of high school.
CBR14Bingo – Bird – I am not explaining this one. – “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”
This is one of those poems that everyone is supposed to read, and I get it. Story poems are nice because they can be ridiculous and interesting and all kinds of things at the same time without every truly making students have to think too hard about what is poetry and what it means and why we read it. And of course this poem is a good example of using iambs to tell the story in language that is somewhat more accessible than Shakespeare (the argument might go). But man, maybe it’s the not being forced part for me here, but it just seems a little too silly for words.
Fun fact: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Carried Fisher, and Kim Kardashian all have the same birthday.
CBR14Bingo – Cozy – I am choosing to ironically call this cozy, not because New Hampshire is not cozy, but because of the ways in which Robert Frost has either been misread as folksy (and he is, but he’s also sneaky) and the ways in which Robert Frost is sneaky. – New Hampshire – 5/5
This is a significant, middle-career collection by Robert Frost, first published in 1923 and which won the Pulitzer Prize that year. It’s got a couple of his greatest hits: “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” “Fire and Ice” and “Nothing Gold Can Stay” along with the longer prose poem “New Hampshire” which reads almost like an essay on the state.
Robert Frost is just an absolute institution, and given that, one of the more interesting things that comes out of this book for me is looking at it not as the parts that make it up, but as a collection separate from his other work. That stands out to me as the advantage of having access to this book, the idea of what this book was when it came out.
The Selected Poems of WB Yeats –
This was an audiobook collection of poems by Yeats that felt oddly empty and mis-selected in a lot of ways. I was thinking the whole time why his two most famous (to me, but still very famous) poems were not in it: “The Second Coming” and “Sailing to Byzantium”, but then I realized this is a collection that was actually published as is first in 1915, which does explain it.
What stands out in hearing many many many many of his poems in a row is how much of his work is based in Irish mythology and songs, and how much those poems, which are interesting and entertaining take up the work of “national poet” in a way, but are not necessarily great examples of his poetry.
I swayed upon the gaudy stern
The butt end of a steering oar,
And everywhere that I could turn
Men ran upon the shore.
And though I would have hushed the crowd
There was no mother’s son but said,
“What is the figure in a shroud
Upon a gaudy bed?”
And fishes bubbling to the brim
Cried out upon that thing beneath,
It had such dignity of limb,
By the sweet name of Death.
Though I’d my finger on my lip,
What could I but take up the song?
And fish and crowd and gaudy ship
Cried out the whole night long,
Crying amid the glittering sea,
Naming it with ecstatic breath,
Because it had such dignity
By the sweet name of Death.
CBR14Bingo – Time
Emily Dickinson: Poems and Letters – 5/5
Emily Dickinson is just so truly the best poet (if not writer) that America ever produce or probably will. This small collection gives about 30 or so of her poems, but also gives a brief history and biography of her life and writing. It also includes examples of her letters, which are strange! Her life story keeps leading me to think about her life as sad, and it might have been, and certainly was at times, especially at the end, but it also comes across repeatedly as quite authentically lived.
CBR14Bingo – Gaslight – Not a lot of gaslights in ancient Sumeria.
Gilgamesh – 5/5
It’s important to note here that Stephen Mitchell, who is indeed a well-known translator, is acting more as an editor or even writer in this version of Gilgamesh, which is what he calls it: a version. That’s because he doesn’t read Sumerian, and really who does, so his job here as he sees it is to create a readable and comprehendible version of the epic based on previous translations. The poem itself is 1000 years older than the Iliad, which is almost unfathomable as an idea, but does speak to the atomic idea of humanity. As the Bible says (stealing from something else): “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” And indeed, the Bible just swiped the Flood story from Gilgamesh, which of course probably took it from something else. What’s interesting here is that this is a collection of stories about Gilgamesh, not just one, and part of the joy of reading it is to figure out (with the help of Mitchell of course) which parts were borrowed or stolen from other parts and where the stitches lie. We spend so much time thinking in These are Days of Patreon and Copyright about authorship, but I really enjoy to collectivization of it in these older works.
Leaves of Grass – 5/5
The original Leaves of Grass text remains the purest distillation of Whitman’s vision. It’s not that there isn’t great poetry in the later editions, which includes “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” my favorite of his poems, but the vision is more cohesive and sound. Even the long prologue, which sets everything up with his vision of his subject, speaks to the whole of the project. His project ultimately is “Americans” and a later lyrics says something like “all things give the soul joy” and “but some things give the soul best joy” and that explains his very loving and forgiving nature of Americans. That said, this is also before the Civil War, a subject which Whitman tackles in numerous poems. But even the Civil War, if you are the more or less average white man in the 1850s is more likely to speak to the brutality of humanity, not the cruelty. He never really reckons with the cruelty, which is a clear and empty fault of his.