Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Explaining Poetry Better Than I Can

It's the last day of National Poetry month (yeah, I'm a little sad) so I thought I'd recommend a couple of books for those people who would like to better understand poetry. (With my acute psychic powers I sensed there are shy millions of you wanting to know more.)

Rules of the Dance by Mary Oliver is about reading and writing metrical verse and includes an anthology of 50 poems. Confused by all those "old-fashioned" poems? Spend not a moment longer in poetry induced frustration. This book will sort you out.

A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver is more of a general guide to poetry, covering the more
traditional forms as well as modern ones, like free verse. It includes several poems as well as advice for the practising poet.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Sonnet

You can't have poetry month without Shakespeare. At least not with me, you can't. So before April slips away let's have a look at the sonnet. The word sonnet means "little song." It originated in Italy but became very popular among English poets, who slightly changed the form. Basically it is fourteen lines, traditionally written in iambic pentameter. The English or Shakespearean sonnet is composed of three quatrains and a final couplet. Its rhyming pattern goes like this: a,b,a,b c,d,c,d e,f,e,f g,g.

So much has been so beautifully said in those mere fourteen lines by great poets like Donne, Milton, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley and, of course, Shakespeare. Shakespeare even used the sonnet in his plays. The first fourteen lines of conversation between Romeo and Juliet are a sonnet. I may be the only person in the world that finds that kind of cool.

I'll leave you with this, one of the most famous sonnets by Shakespeare.

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometimes declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course, untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest;
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

My Bench

There is a park a few minutes walk from my apartment and lately I've been sneaking out whenever I have a bit of time to sit on a bench in the sun and read. But it is not simply a bench, but THE bench. I've fallen for a bench, you see. It's tucked off in a corner and allows me to feel like I am alone but still lets me see everything that is happening in the park: the dogs playing, the baseball game if one is in progress, the kids on the jungle gym, the other lazy folks like me sitting around. So far my bench has always been empty when I get to the park but one of these days there is going to be an interloper sitting on it and I don't know what I'm going to do then.

This got me thinking about favourite spots to read. When I was a kid we had this ugly armchair, but its one redeeming feature (for me anyway) was that it fit me perfectly when I sat in it sideways, my legs dangling over one overstuffed arm. I would happily spend hours reading in that chair. And there have been other park benches over the years (I'm a big fan of park benches - they are right up there near the pinnacle of civilization for me.) But my all time favourite spot to read is in bed, especially in the morning. Is there anything better than being left alone on a weekend morning to read in bed for as long as you like? Now that's civilized.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

I need more time

Wouldn't it be great if you could stretch the day? Squeeze a few more hours out of it for things like reading? It's so easy to buy books, but so hard to find the time to read them all. I mentioned I've been getting interested in Virago titles, well, I added four more to my collection. Last Friday I stopped by the book shop in the reference library here in Toronto. They sell withdrawn library books as well as books that have been donated to the library. When I cull my overflowing bookshelves that's where I take my no longer wanted books, though it tends to be self defeating since I always end up buying more from their shop and schlepping them home. Anyway I was nosing through their shelves last week when I spotted two Antonia White novels: Frost in May (which I knew was the very first Virago title) and The Sugar House. When I got them home and had a closer look, I realized they were numbers 1 and 3 in a series of 4 books that White wrote. In fact, they seem to be the only novels she wrote.

The next day was sunny and warm and the love of my life proposed we take a drive to a nearby city where he would buy me lunch and let me browse around one of my favourite out of town used bookstores. How could I refuse? After some delicious vegetarian Chinese food I was let loose to roam among the shelves. You know what's coming next - I found the missing numbers 2 and 4 of the White quartet: The Lost Traveller and Beyond the Glass. The best part is the two books at the library set me back a whole $2 and the other two books were priced at $4 each, so for only 10 bucks I bought the set! Now all I need is the time to read them.

Friday, April 18, 2008


Sometime in grade school you were probably taught how to write a haiku. Three lines - first line containing 5 syllables, second line 7 syllables, third line 5 syllables. You may have written a few corny haiku poems and forgotten about haiku. But haiku is one of the great arts of Japan and, if done well, makes for stunning poetry. I've always had a fondness for haiku. I like the tight restrictions. Sometimes your creativity just can't spark with no rules, as in free verse. Sometimes it wants rules, and there are no rules as strict as in haiku.

Beginning of spring -
the perfect simplicity
of a yellow sky

~ Issa

the cardinal's call
drills a row of scarlet holes
in the summer air

~Alfred Marks

a fingernail moon:
all that is left in the sky
after the blizzard

~ Perdita Finn

If you are interested in writing haiku I recommend Seeds from a Birch Tree by Clark Strand.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

This Real Night

I finished reading This Real Night by Rebecca West the other day. This is the second novel in the trilogy that began with The Fountain Overflows (which I read a few months ago and loved). I was a wee bit apprehensive since This Real Night and the third volume in the series, Cousin Rosamund, were unfinished at the time of West's death. Usually I avoid unfinished novels published posthumously, but I loved the characters in The Fountain Overflows so much I wanted to spend more time with them. And I'm glad I broke my own rule in this case because I really enjoyed This Real Night. And it read to me like a finished, polished novel. The only thing that struck me as odd was the ending, and not because it was a bad ending, but because the story seemed to end rather abruptly. If you are thinking of reading it I would recommend having Cousin Rosamund handy so you can pick it up and keep going with the story.

In The Fountain Overflows we meet Rose Aubrey and her family: sisters, Mary and Cordelia, brother Richard Quin and her parents. Together they form a poor, bohemian household in London, England. Growing up in the years before World War 1 it is a magical life, but made unstable by their father's gambling. In This Real Night the children are coming of age. Rose and her sister Mary are both studying to be concert pianists, Cordelia is struggling to find her place in the world after failing as a violinist and Richard Quin is hoping to get accepted to Oxford. Then war intervenes. Cousin Rosamund (which I have only just started) picks up the story in the 1920s, after the war has ended. Both Rose and Mary are now successful pianists. I'll write more about it when I've finished it. Today is such a warm, sunny day I think I might just sneak out and find myself a park bench to read on for a while.

Monday, April 14, 2008


Saturday was a rainy, dreary day so I accompanied my love to one of his favourite bookstores, Hampstead House. It specializes in British stuff, non-fiction mostly. My guy is into aviation history so loves the place. I wasn't expecting to find anything for myself, was just along for the ride. But while browsing their small DVD section I spotted Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. I loved this when I saw it on TV a few years ago. It was the deluxe 10th anniversary limited collector's edition, which meant it came with a book, The Making of Pride and Prejudice, packaged in a very nice green slipcase, and priced at only $14.95!! I was fairly dancing around the store. Then I spotted a copy of The Birds and other stories by Daphne du Maurier, a Virago edition too! I'm nuts for Virago now, I was late catching on to it but I'm in collector mode now. So, the rain now longer mattered, I was happy! And I've been fairly annoying ever since, swooning around the apartment, saying, "Oh, Mr. Darcy!" over and over.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Yehuda Amichai

Since it is National Poetry Month (and no I probably won't stop mentioning that until May) I thought I would feature a few different types of poetry. First up I thought I would start with free verse since that is what most people think of as poetry nowadays. I like this poem by Amichai because it manages to say so much about war and its devastating effects in so few words.


The radius of the bomb was twelve inches
And the radius of its effective force seven yards
Containing four dead and eleven wounded.
And around those, in a wider circle
Of pain and time, are scattered two hospitals
And one graveyard. But the young woman,
Buried in the place she came from,
Over a hundred kilometers from here,
Widens the circle quite a bit,
And the lonely man mourning her death
In the provinces of a Mediterranean land,
Includes the whole world in the circle.
And I shall omit the scream of orphans
That reaches God's throne
And way beyond, and widens the circle
To no end and no God.

~ Yehuda Amichai
(translated by Benjamin and Barbara Harshav)

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Congratulations to Bob Dylan

I read in this morning's paper that Bob Dylan has been awarded an honorary Pulitzer Prize for his "profound impact on popular music and American culture." Congrats Bob. I've always been something of a Bob Dylan fan, and mainly because of his clever lyrics. I also like that this coincides with Poetry month, because song lyrics are a form of poetry. Some people may sniff at that statement, not wanting their high art mixed with pop culture but songwriters use many of the same tools a poet does: rhythm, metaphor, imagery, repetition - you get the idea. I have to admit I used to keep the two quite separate in my mind, poetry and song lyrics. Then I fell in love with a guy who adores music. I gradually realized the words were more important to my love than the actual music. Which was weird to me because I tend to judge music by how much it makes me want to dance, but hey, love expands your horizons, right? This is all a roundabout way of saying, even if you never read poetry, you may be more of a fan than you realize.

Monday, April 7, 2008


I need some help with a writing project. I'm asking women what they would most like to hear their husband/boyfriend say to them. Other answers have been:
~ "I love you."
~ "Let me do the dishes tonight. You sit down."
~ "Your hair looks great."
~ "I'm just going to pull over and ask for directions."

What would the perfect man say to you? You can leave a comment or email me. Thanks!

Friday, April 4, 2008

A Word About Poetry

Somewhere in your past there may have been a teacher that made you think, "Poetry is not for me." Who made you think - poetry is too hard, I don't understand it, it makes me feel stupid. That teacher was an idiot. Forget them. Poetry is the first language you learned. You were fluent in it before you spoke your first word. Poetry is the language of the heart (and I'm not just talking about love poems here). So it is natural and right that the brain will not always understand poetry.

Dive in. Read some poems, them read some more. Don't worry if you don't understand them. Keep going. It's like learning a foreign language: immerse yourself deeply enough and, miraculously, one day you'll understand what the waiter is saying.

Forget about "getting it." If the poem has meaning for you, if it reminds you of the time your Aunt Alice got drunk at your wedding and took off all her clothes, making you realize for the first time how sad and lonely she was, terrific! Even if the poem appears to be about flowers, it spoke to you, reminded you of your Aunt Alice and loneliness. All your responses, all your interpretations are valid. There is no "right" or "wrong" among poets - only among teachers and literary critics. Forget them!

If the poems that are considered great don't make your heart leap in recognition and say yes, forget them. Move on, read other poems until you find the ones that do. Poetry is the language we use to express the deepest, truest, scariest, most boring and most wonderful things about being human. You do understand poetry, you wouldn't be human if you didn't.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

National Poetry Month

April is National Poetry Month here in Canada and in the US. Anywhere else? I'm not sure. Let me know if you do. Anyway I'll be posting about poetry on and off throughout the month, but I thought I'd start by telling you about the poem a day. Over at the Academy of American Poets website you can sign up for a poem a day to be sent to your inbox, every day for the month of April. Cool huh? You can sign up here.