August was mostly a craft book month. Poetry being the craft of the moment.
Books I read:
How to Read a Poem and Fall In Love with Poetry — Edward Hirsch (1999)
I’m not sure that this book will make anyone who isn’t already crushing on poetry fall in love. But if you are crushing on poetry but don’t quite understand what it’s going on about you might find some help here. One of the things that I like about poetry is once you’ve read a poem and been amused, affected, bemused, overwrought, bowled over, humbled, or puzzled by it you can go back and start to take it apart and glory in the small details of how it’s put together.
The book is 60% discussion of poetry as literature using specific poems and poets to show how poems work. There are a lot of familiar authors, both historic and modern and a handful of new (to me) ones. Hirsch knows a lot about poetry from Poland after the second world war; it’s fascinating stuff and I found a couple of new poets to enjoy.
The other 40% of the book is made up of a glossary and a long list of very diverse poets.
This book does a decent job of explaining some of that machinery — though that’s not the focus. You kind of learn it by accident. It is prone to falling down into the trap of MFA/EnglishLit Major gibberish. e.g. “Desnos’s verbal eroticism creates an aura of enchantment, a speech beyond speech, a prophetic language, and his strongly surrealist technique creates an access through the page to the back of the brain, to the unconscious mind.” (p104)
I wouldn’t usually buy something I feel ambivalent about in paper but the glossary is extensive enough that it might make it worthwhile.
* for those with a poetry crush *
Invisible Cities — Italo Calvino (1974)
Yes, again. I’m still taking this machine apart and being blown away by its intricacy and fineness every time I go back to it. It’s become a totem item to be read and reread.
* perfect little machines of meaning *
Dig and Fiesta Hotel — Lynn Emanuel (1994)
Poetry. There are a couple of things here that blow the top of my head off. (In that very Dickensonian way.) Frying trout while Drunk and The Dig in particular are finely crafted observations of a life made up of tangled relationships.
* poems about a life lived in the midst of subtle and not so subtle chaos *
My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry — Fredrik Backman (2013)
Another from the fellow who wrote A Man Called Ove. In much the same vein. Life changing events overtake the heroine — Elsa. Her grandmother is her only ally in a world that hasn’t much use for preternaturally mature nearly 8 year-old girls. In fact her grandmother is her super-hero. A flawed, cranky, anti-establishment super-hero but a super-hero by any measure. When her grandmother dies Elsa is left with the task of delivering a series of letters in which her grandmother begs the forgiveness of various people she believes that she wronged. Elsa discovers the unspoken connections between the people who populate her life and the house where she lives. I don’t usually like books with children as the protagonists but in this case Elsa is so appealingly misfit and her grandmother, who haunts the book long after her death, is exactly the sort of complicated character who I enjoy playing along with. Also, there is a monster. I love a good monster.
* charming in the very best sense *
Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry — Jane Hirshfield (1997)
A weirdly effective combination of literary criticism, maker’s handbook, and buddhist treatise.
There are nine “craft talks” here. Essays prepared for audiences of poets, students, and others concerned with the art of poetry. Many of the essays rely on her work as a co-translator of Japanese poetry to illustrate her insights into the role of the poet and of poetry in creating a shared world. It’s all a bit heavy on the mindfulness but she has useful things to say to the working poet. The essays on the dualities of Inward and Outward facing work and of Shadow and Light (roughly heaven and hell without the capital letters) and all of the poses in-between are especially effective. There is also an essay on the originality and the creative process that nicely sums up what I think is pretty common knowledge for those actually doing creative work but might help put some concepts into to words for those only beginning to explore that side of work.
* a balance of the scholarly and the practical *
Incarnadine: Poems — Mary Szybist (2013)
A National Book Award winner that Amazon has been trying to get me to buy for two years. I don’t take Amazon’s poetry suggestions seriously and didn’t buy this until it was recommended by a poet who taste I trust. Stupid me. Some of these are incandescent. Some are intriguing new forms (there’s a sunburst of rayed out lines and a diagrammed sentence) and few are pedestrian. Much of content is an examination of the question of faith and of the divine meeting the mortal/physical. In several poems the Virgin Mary is dragged into the twenty-first century and allowed to express both her faithfulness and her hesitations.
* how can I convince anyone to read poetry when I write such lousy reviews of it? *
The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Non-fiction — Neal Gaiman (2016)
A collection of speeches, book introductions, and brief essays on a variety of topics close to Gaiman’s heart. Makes good bedtime reading. Gaiman’s hobby horses reappear in several of these pieces. His love of comics and his contention that there are no bad books for children are on display in at least four speeches. His introductions to classic science fiction will prompt you to search out some of the writers that are unjustly forgotten. And a few that are imo justly forgotten — but there’s no accounting for taste. But introductions to books can make dry reading if you’re not in the market for the book. In addition to comics, prose books (science fiction and otherwise) he takes on film and music. His excellent reporting from the Syrian refugee camp is included.
* a little patience for repetitions will get you to the gems *
I listened to the beginning of Austin’s Sense and Sensibility but I wasn’t paying careful enough attention and will have to restart it. In August there were not many chances to sit and listen as I did very little sewing this month.
I’m in the middle of a handful more books of poetry and poetry criticism. I’ve also started Diane Wynn Jones Dogsbody on the recommendation of Mr. Gaiman, even though I generally avoid books with dogs as protagonists.
P.S. The cover images link to Amazon. If you buy the book using the link I get a (tiny) pay back for writing these reviews.