Category Archives: Poetry

Robert Burns and the Clarinda Letters

Robert Burns is a favorite poet of mine. I don’t know which came first, my fascination with Scotland or with Burns, but one feeds the other and I am besotted. imagesThrough his poems, Burns takes me to Scotland – “Yon wild mossy mountains sae lofty and wide…yon wild, mossy moors…” – where we share our need for green hills and rolling waters — “Amang thae wild mountains shall still be my path, Ilk stream foaming down its ain green, narrow strath…” – and our taste for nostalgia: “I dreamed I lay where flowers were springing, Gaily in the sunny beam, List’ning to the wild birds singing, By a falling crystal steam…”

Burns explains goodness to me – “the gust o’ joy, the balm of woe” – and religion – “The heart most benevolent and kind, The most resembles God”- and he teaches me lessons about life: “Then catch the moments as they fly, And use them as ye ought, man! Believe me, Happiness is shy, And comes not ay when sought, man!” burns__cover

A poet writes of personal experiences and so I can know so much about Burns through his poems. And yet I still want – I need – the even more intimate view provided by his letters. How lucky I am that Burns was such a prodigious letter writer. And how lucky to have in my possession the 1959 edition of The Poems of Robert Burns and Selected Letters, edited by Anthony Hepburn. What a treasure! I can read my favorite poems and follow up with a perusal of selected letters.

But to know my beloved better than ever, I have to turn to the fifty letters Burns exchanged with Agnes Craig MacLehose – Nancy to her friends – over three months in 1787-88 (which I have in a marvelous 1917 editon). 51-pIP7HgxL._SL500_SX258_BO1,204,203,200_

The famous “Clarinda” letters offer an especially intimate interlude with Burns. Burns first met Nancy when she was already ten years married but a virtual widow. Her husband James MacLehose had ardently pursued her, despite the obstacles put up by Nancy’s wary father. When MacLehose learned that Nancy was taking a trip to Edinburgh, he reserved all seats but one in the carriage, then shut himself in with her all the way from Glasgow to Edinburgh. By the end of the journey Nancy was engaged to James and within six months they were married. But just as quickly as he had wooed his lass, MacLehose left her, going away for years on end to his lands in Jamaica.

All alone at home, Nancy became restless. Years passed, hubby stayed away, and Nancy took on activities like writing and reading poetry to keep herself occupied. In 1787 she chanced upon the poems of a rising star on the Scottish scene. She asked friends to arrange a meeting between the two of them.

It was a dreary December day when Burns first met Nancy at a tea party in Edinburgh but he remembered it as a light in the darkest season: “O May, thy morn was never so sweet, As the mirk right of December…”

Burns fell in love, writing to a friend, “I am at this moment ready to hang myself for a young Edinburgh widow, who has wit and beauty more murderously fatal than the assassinating stiletto of the Sicilian Banditti.”

On Nancy’s part, she was quick to point out to Burns that she was married. And yet she also encouraged his intimate attachment to her, addressing him in letters as her “Sylander”, and signing off as his “Clarinda.” They chose to use these pet names to hide their relationship – and the nicknames reflected what Nancy wanted from their relationship, an Arcadian idyll of simplicity and sympathy: a connection that was fresh, vibrant, unrestrained, and yet innocent.images-2

Burns had other objectives. Certainly he loved her – “I do love you, if possible, still better for having so fine a taste and turn for poesy …” But just as certainly he desired her and wanted more than just the hand of friendship: “Take a little of the tender witchcraft of love, and add to it the generous, the honourable sentiments of manly friendship, and I know but one more delightful morsel, which few, few in any rank ever taste. Such a composition is like adding cream to strawberries; it not only gives the fruit a more elegant richness, but has a deliciousness of its own.”

I would have caved, without doubt, to such words of love and desire. Nancy, however, is determined to keep Burns’ love at a distance and her skirts down. She wrote firmly in a poem sent to him, “Talk not of Love, it gives me pain, For Love has been my foe; He bound me with an iron chain, And plunged me deep in woe…”

Burns promises restraint on his part: “I would not, for a single moment, give…. a selfish gratification, at the expense of her whose happiness is twisted with the threads of my existence….”

He is rewarded by a lowering of Clarinda’s defenses, proven by a letter she writes to him after a particularly engaging evening: “I will not deny it…. last night was one of the most exquisite I ever experienced… though our enjoyment did not lead beyond the limits of virtue, yet to-day’s reflections have not been altogether unmixed with regret.”

While continuing to promise restraint (“I would not purchase the dearest gratification on earth, if it must be at your expense in worldly censure; far less, inward peace”), Burns pursues Nancy and is at times successful: “What luxury of bliss I was enjoying this time yesternight!”

The visits and the letters go on and on for weeks, back and forth, give and take, love sworn and taken: “Oh Clarinda! Tell me, were you studious to please me last night? I am sure you did it to transport. How rich am I who have such a treasure as you! You know me; you know how to make me happy, and you do it most effectually.” images-1

In the end, dearest Clarinda was not so often “most effectually” physical as Burns desired her to be. He began to look elsewhere for satisfaction. By late February, he found refuge in the arms of a servant girl named Jenny Clow (she would bear him a son nine months later) and in March, Burns left Edinburgh and returned to his old lover Jean Armour, who was also pregnant with Burns’ child. Robert described their reunion in a letter: “I have taken her to my arms. I have given her a . mahogany bed. I have given her a guinea and I have f—ed her till she rejoiced with joy unspeakable and full of glory.” The couple was married a month later.

Upon hearing of the marriage, Nancy wrote to Burns, chiding him for his betrayal. Burns eventually responded, not to his “Clarinda” but to “Madam”: “When you cull over the scenes that have passed between us, you will survey the conduct of an honest man, struggling successfully with temptations the most powerful that ever beset humanity, and preserving untainted honor in situations where the austerest Virtue would have forgiven a fall….”

Alone once again in Edinburgh and fed up with her imposed widowhood, Nancy sailed to Jamaica, seeking reconciliation with her husband. Upon arrival, she discovered that her husband James had taken up with a mixed-race mistress and fathered a child. Nancy returned to Scotland where she ended her days, as described by Sir Walter Scott, “old, charmless, and devout.”

Burns composed one final poem for Agnes in 1791 and sent it to her just before she sailed to Jamaica; it would be become one of his most well-known, titled Ae Fond Kiss:

Had we never loved sae kindly,
Had we never loved sae blindly,
Never met – or never parted,
We had ne’er been broken-hearted.

Burns would never have traded away the hours spent with his Clarinda, or the letters written to her. Hours well spent by him, and letters blissfully read by me.
SILOUETTE

Special thanks to Janet Thompson Deaver for her comments, corrections, and the photograph of Burns’ statues, and the silhouettes of Nancy, Robert, and Jean.

Words to Live By

Poetry Month is coming to an end. Events such as poem in your pocket day, which encourages the carrying around of a poem in your pocket; thirty poets, thirty days, a celebration of poets through tweets; and the spring books list, reproduced below, a specially-compiled list of great new collections of poetry, celebrate the power of the poem to provide beauty in the everyday, and soul food for a lifetime.

What I mean by soul food is that the reading of poems amplifies not only our understanding of the world but our feeling of it and for it: we become part of a profoundly personal experience — both the writing of the poem and the event, emotion, or landscape about which the poem is written — and we change through being part of that double experience. The same thing can happen when we read a novel or a memoir or look at a painting or listen to music. One person created an expression of an experience and we received that impression and made it ours, through our experience of it.

Experience broadens the soul, whether through actually living an event or through reading words or viewing images or hearing music. And I believe the broader my soul, the more fully my life is lived, the more my family and friends are loved, the deeper the beauty around me is understood, and the more appreciative I am, for everything.

I read at least one new poem a week (thanks to a wonderful poetry-sharing group I am part of) and I often go back to poems I’ve read to find again and again the beauty, the wisdom, the experience offered in their words.

There are poems that offered all new experiences — The Charge of the Light Brigade by Tennyson, for example, and then there are the ones that reflect my experiences exactly, offering me the comfort of company and of being understood, as in the poem sent to me by a friend, Poet as Housewife by Elisabeth Eybers, with the great final line:
Leave her alone — let her read.

 

The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
edited by Ilan Stavans

Birds, Beasts, and Seas: Nature Poems
New Directions
edited by Jeffrey Yang

Poem in Your Pocket for Young Poets
Harry N. Abrams, Inc.
edited by Bruno Navasky

The Blue Tower
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
by Tomaž Šalamun

Northerners
New Issues Press
by Seth Abramson

Compression & Purity
City Lights Publishers
by Will Alexander

Money Shot
Wesleyan University Press
by Rae Armantrout

Waifs and Strays
City Lights Publishers
by Micah Ballard

American Fanatics
University of Pittsburgh Press
by Dorothy Barresi

Burning of the Three Fires
BOA Editions
by Jeanne Marie Beaumont

Vertigo
Copper Canyon Press
by Marvin Bell

Pinko
Hanging Loose Press
by Jen Benka

The Selected Poems of Ted Berrigan
University of California Press
by Ted Berrigan

Intruder
Alfred A. Knopf
by Jill Bialosky

Poems
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
by Elizabeth Bishop

Talking into the Ear of a Donkey
W.W. Norton & Co.
by Robert Bly

Walking the Dog’s Shadow
BOA Editions
by Deborah Brown

The Infatuations and Infidelities of Pronouns
Bright Hill Press
by Christopher Bursk

Death Obscura
Sarabande Books, Inc.
by Rick Bursky

Solar Throat Slashed: The Unexpurgated 1948 Edition
Wesleyan University Press
by Aimé Césaire

Forest of Eyes: Selected Poems of Tada Chimako
University of California Press
by Tada Chimako

The Sun-fish
Wake Forest University Press
by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin

Selected Poems
Alfred A. Knopf
by Amy Clampitt

The Whalen Poem
Hanging Loose Press
by William Corbett

The Double Truth
University of Pittsburgh Press
by Chard deNiord

California
Four Way Books
by Jennifer Denrow

Flies
Copper Canyon Press
by Michael Dickman

The Wind Blows Through the Doors of My Heart
Alfred A. Knopf
by Deborah Digges

Sasha Sings the Laundry on the Line
BOA Editions
by Sean Thomas Dougherty

The H.D. Book
University of California Press
by Robert Duncan

Here and Now
W.W. Norton & Co.
by Stephen Dunn

Noose and Hook
University of Pittsburgh Press
by Lynn Emanuel

Click and Clone
Coffee House Press
by Elaine Equi

The Trouble Ball
W.W. Norton & Co.
by Martín Espada

Ian Hamilton Finlay: Selections
University of California Press
by Ian Hamilton Finlay

Night of Pure Breathing
Hanging Loose Press
by Gerald Fleming

The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands: Poems
Graywolf Press
by Nick Flynn

Core Samples from the World
New Directions
by Forrest Gander

Bringing the Shovel Down
University of Pittsburgh Press
by Ross Gay

Aftermath
W.W. Norton & Co.
by Sandra M. Gilbert

The Dance Most of All
Alfred A. Knopf
by Jack Gilbert

Threshold Songs
Wesleyan University Press
by Peter Gizzi

Heart First into the Forest
Alice James Books
by Stacy Gnall

Spindrift
Wake Forest University Press
by Vona Groarke

The Needle
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
by Jennifer Grotz

The Back Chamber
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
by Donald Hall

Things Come On: An Amneoir
Wesleyan University Press
by Joseph Harrington

Selected Poems
Alfred A. Knopf
by Anthony Hecht

Hoodwinked
Sarabande Books, Inc.
by David Hernandez

Words for Empty and Words for Full
University of Pittsburgh Press
by Bob Hicok

Heaven & Earth Holding Company
University of Pittsburgh Press
by John Hodgen

Journal of American Foreign Policy
New Issues Press
by Jeff Hoffman

Sightseer
Persea Books
by Cynthia Marie Hoffman

Crossing State Lines
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
by Bob Holman

That This
New Directions
by Susan Howe

Bone Fires: New & Selected Poems
Sarabande Books, Inc.
by Mark Jarman

Imaginary Logic
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
by Rodney Jones

Space, in Chains
Copper Canyon Press
by Laura Kasischke

Ennui Prophet
BOA Editions
by Christopher Kennedy

I Love a Broad Margin to My Life
Alfred A. Knopf
by Maxine Hong Kingston

Selected Poems
Wake Forest University Press
by Thomas Kinsella

The Chameleon Couch
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
by Yusef Komunyakaa

The Last Usable Hour
Copper Canyon Press
by Deborah Landau

The Book of Men
W.W. Norton & Co.
by Dorianne Laux

Young of the Year
Four Way Books
by Sydney Lea

Testify
Coffee House Press
by Joseph Lease

Sky Burial
Copper Canyon Press
by Dana Levin

News of the World
Alfred A. Knopf
by Philip Levine

lie down too
Alice James Books
by Lesle Lewis

A Hundred Doors
Wake Forest University Press
by Michael Longley

Remnants of Another Age
BOA Editions
by Nikola Madzirov

Becoming Weather
Coffee House Press
by Chris Martin

This Strange Land
Alice James Books
by Shara McCallum

Of Indigo and Saffron: New and Selected Poems
University of California Press
by Michael McClure

The Man Who Wrote On Water
Hanging Loose Press
by Pablo Medina

When I Was a Poet
City Lights Publishers
by David Meltzer

Invisible Strings: Poems
Graywolf Press
by Jim Moore

Dark Archive
University of California Press
by Laura Mullen

Taller When Prone
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
by Les Murray

The Memory of Water
New Issues Press
by Jack Myers

On the Other Side, Blue
Four Way Books
by Collier Nogues

Clean
Persea Books
by Kate Northrop

Songs and Stories of the Ghouls
Wesleyan University Press
by Alice Notley

Metropole
University of California Press
by Geoffrey G. O’Brien

The Cold War
Sarabande Books, Inc.
by Kathleen Ossip

How Long
Coffee House Press
by Ron Padgett

Thread
New Directions
by Michael Palmer

Traveling Light
W.W. Norton & Co.
by Linda Pastan

The Animals All Are Gathering
University of Pittsburgh Press
by Bradley Paul

Double Shadow
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
by Carl Phillips

The Hunger Moon
Alfred A. Knopf
by Marge Piercy

Selected Poems
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
by Robert Pinsky

Apples from Shinar
Wesleyan University Press
by Hyam Plutzik

In a Beautiful Country
Four Way Books
by Kevin Prufer

Voyager
University of California Press
by Srikanth Reddy

Diwata
BOA Editions
by Barbara Jane Reyes

Tonight No Poetry Will Serve
W.W. Norton & Co.
by Adrienne Rich

Illuminations
W.W. Norton & Co.
by Arthur Rimbaud

Otherwise Elsewhere: Poems
Graywolf Press
by David Rivard

The Wrecking Light
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
by Robin Robertson

Paper Anniversary
University of Pittsburgh Press
by Bobby C. Rogers

Undone
New Issues Press
by Maxine Scates

Red Clay Weather
University of Pittsburgh Press
by Reginald Shepherd

the new black
Wesleyan University Press
by Evie Shockley

Stranger in Town
City Lights Publishers
by Cedar Sigo

Army Cats: Poems
Graywolf Press
by Tom Sleigh

Life on Mars: Poems
Graywolf Press
by Tracy K. Smith

Selected Poems
Alfred A. Knopf
by Wallace Stevens

The Iovis Trilogy
Coffee House Press
by Anne Waldman

Your Father on the Train of Ghosts
BOA Editions
by G. C. Waldrep

Blinking Ephemeral Valentine
Four Way Books
by Joni Wallace

Ghost in a Red Hat
W.W. Norton & Co.
by Rosanna Warren

Spring and All (Facsimile Edition)
New Directions
by William Carlos Williams

Address
Wesleyan University Press
by Elizabeth Willis

Falling Out of Bed in a Room with No Floor
Hanging Loose Press
by Terence Winch

World Tree
University of Pittsburgh Press
by David Wojahn

The Book of Ten
University of Pittsburgh Press
by Susan Wood

Fall Higher
Copper Canyon Press
by Dean Young

Torn
Four Way Books
by C. Dale Young

Dear Darkness
Alfred A. Knopf
by Kevin Young

Field of Light and Shadow
Alfred A. Knopf
by David Young

Ardency
Alfred A. Knopf
by Kevin Young

Almond Town
Bright Hill Press
by Margaret Young

The Ada Poems
Alfred A. Knopf
by Cynthia Zarin

The Book of Things
BOA Editions
by Aleš Šteger

 

Jo Shapcott: Living With Cancer as a Companion

This year’s Costa Book of the Year Award went to a book of poetry, On Mutability by Jo Shapcott.  Bravo!  Makes a nice change to have poetry win a major book award and the Shapcott is a sharpshooter of a poet, quick, accurate, and piercing.

Inspired by her battle with breast cancer, the poems in On Mutability portray how life changes when cancer becomes a part of the daily equation.  Perceptions alter, both of internal workings of mind and body, and of the surrounding world; memories from the past shift in meaning, and anticipation for the future skews to adapting for a shorter version. Shapcott’s poems aren’t so much about cancer so much as they are about living, experiencing, loving, winning and losing, always with the unwanted companion of cancer fighting to keep hold.

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Life Over Death

Yesterday  I read The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, the only novel written by poet Rainer Maria Rilke.  Brigge is a young man living in Paris at the end of the nineteenth century; he is Danish, poor, aristocratic and poetic but the most salient feature of Brigge is that he is encompassed by depression.  He is one seriously bummed-out guy and there is nothing that can cheer him up.  Not music: he complains that while “it lifted me out of myself more powerfully than anything else“, it also “never put me back where it had found me, but lower down, somewhere deep in the uncompleted.”  Not springtime; Brigge castigates himself for finding the “bursting year” to be “a reproach…The garden was beginning but you…you dragged winter into it….a bird rang out and was alone and denied you…Ah, should you have been dead?”  Not books: “you didn’t have the right to open one book unless you were prepared to read them all.”  Not even Paris; Brigge’s first sentence is,  “So this is where people come to live; I would have thought it is a city to die in.”  And women?  Women are a complete mystery he just does not understand.

Brigge’s obsession is death, scarred as he has been by the early death of his mother, the more recent death of his father, the un-death of a certain relative (ghostly Christine) and the loss of his true love, Abelone.  Brigge has some very interesting ideas about death, for example that we all carry within us the fact of our death and it is fruition of this fact that is life’s purpose.  Cheerful, yes?  He imagines how compelling is the vision of the pregnant women stroking their bellies “in which there were two fruits: a child and death.”  Cheerful, no.

Brigge has given up on looking forward: “Just one step, and my misery would turn into bliss.  But I can’t take that step; I have fallen and I can’t pick myself back up.” Instead, he looks backward, sifting through childhood memories and looking for answers about love, life, and –yes– doden (death in Danish). The only consolation to Brigge is the memory of Venice; his writings about Venice even approach a kind of bliss, “Beautiful counterweight of the world, which, down to its very ornaments, stands full of latent energies that spread out like finer and finer nerves…this Venice.”  The only consolation to the reader of Brigge’s notebooks is that depressed as he is, he will not kill himself:  “The main thing was being alive.  That was the main thing.” Life, even steeped in depression, is better than death.

I  like Rilke’s poems about life extending its reign over death more than I liked this novel.

We know nothing of this going away, that
shares nothing with us. We have no reason,
whether astonishment and love or hate,
to display Death, whom a fantastic mask

of tragic lament astonishingly disfigures.
Now the world is still full of roles which we play
as long as we make sure, that, like it or not,
Death plays, too, although he does not please us.

But when you left, a strip of reality broke
upon the stage through the very opening
through which you vanished: Green, true green,
true sunshine, true forest.

We continue our play. Picking up gestures
now and then, and anxiously reciting
that which was difficult to learn; but your far away,
removed out of our performance existence,

sometimes overcomes us, as an awareness
descending upon us of this very reality,
so that for a while we play Life
rapturously, not thinking of any applause.

This poem, entitled “Death Experience”, holds more in its five stanzas than poor Brigge can approach in the 257 pages of his notebooks.

Easy to Read: War Dances by Sherman Alexie

Yesterday I read War Dances by Sherman Alexie, his latest collection of stories, thoughts, and poems.  Alexie’s works are fresh, open-faced, and straightforward, without irony or subtlety.  His stories are like network TV versus cable, sincere enough but without that tinge of ambiguity and surprise that mark real life characters and situations.  Not that his characters are fake; his portrayals of alcoholic old men, lost boys, and lonely middle-aged guys ring true but they lack the full nuances of what such characters hold inside: they are flat, as true to life as photographs but without the flesh and blood of real people.

The stories, poems, and dialogues are too often marred by Alexie’s facility with language: he is too cute with the word play or too glib — entertaining but glib — with observation, as when one character marvels “at the way in which a five-minute relationship can be as gratifying and complete (and sexless!) as a thirteen-year marriage.”  Under no circumstances that I can possibly imagine, and certainly not under the circumstances of that certain story, could that sentence to be true, or even close to truth.  Or when he has a character say “I am opposable as my thumbs.”  What is that supposed to mean?  It is cute, sounds good, but it does not mean anything and adds nothing real to the story.  Or when he finishes up a poem about flying on a plane and being asked to give up his seat so a couple can sit together, with the lines, “Whenever I’m asked/To trade seats/For Somebody else’s love,/I do, I always do.”  Those lines do not strike me as profound or even that sincere, just very easy to write and easy to read.

And that is the crux of Alexie’s writing: it is easy to read.  I have not read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian for which he won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, but I can see that his writing style would be good for engaging kids in important questions and issues.  Good for him that he covers issues that are interesting, at times provoking, and that his characters are struggling with problems of identity, responsibility, and connection.  But even better if Alexie were to find more layers of thought, memories, and reaction within his characters and more possibilities for surprise within his plots, and if he used his great facility with language not to entertain us but to enlarge our view of the world.

Pinter’s Words on War

Harold Pinter’s Death etc. is a slim but sobering collection of his essays, plays, and poems about war, and specifically war as promulgated (fostered, supported, funded) by the United States. The works abound in references both veiled and stark to the United States’ promotion of right wing regimes of terror, and The U.S.’ record of human rights abuses including torture and wrongful imprisonment throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.  This collection was published in 2005, the same year Pinter received the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Pinter decries the hypocrisy of the United States using claims of spreading freedom and democracy and protecting the oppressed to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq; he bemoans Blair’s support for the invasion; and he points out the discrepancy between Hussein’s atrocities in his country and U.S. atrocities against countries as diverse as Vietnam, Greece, Guatemala, and Haiti, as well as against Iraqi civilians once the war began.  Pinter never asks if our country’s power to wreak misery and death throughout the world will end before another century begins, but history would say this is most likely. Will another power take over where we leave off?  Will we find ourselves at the mercy of a force believing “God” and “Right” is on its side?  Pinter, who died in 2008, would say that power is always used to justify actions, and vice versa.  Pity — and protect — those on the wrong end of power.

Pinter uses few words to pack his very hard punches.  The plays “The New World Order” and “One for the Road”  are painfully clear in the message that women and children, the vulnerable, pay the highest cost of war, but men made vulnerable by being on the losing side get  it too, and badly.  The horror of reading the plays is knowing that although Pinter writes fiction, the scenes are real and have been played over again and again in oppressive regimes around the world.

Pinter’s final poem in the collection is an elegy to the unknown dead, to all who have been killed in war and left as bodies by the side of the road or in a heap of other bodies, unidentified but mourned, alone in death but held close in someone’s memory, somewhere:

Who was the father or daughter or brother
Or uncle or sister or mother or son
Of the dead and abandoned body?

Did you wish the dead boy
Did you close both its eyes
Did you bury the body
Did you leave it abandoned
Did you kiss the dead body

No matter what your politics, there is a truth in what Pinter writes that cannot be denied, and a responsibility that must be remembered.  We have to protest against those wreak death, and protect those whose lives are threatened. War is terror, and we have to protest against it as the least humane of all human endeavors.

All Poetry is Personal

Yesterday I read Ten Poems to Set You Free by Roger Housden.  Housden has written a series of books about poems, all with the theme of reading and using poems to help a person change themselves for the better.  Housden writes with energy and sincerity and he picks great poems by good poets. Mary Oliver, Stanley Kunitz, and Miguel de Unamuno are poets I’ve read for a long time with joy and pleasure and I will be sure to read Jane Hirshfield now that Housden has introduced her work to me.

As much as I believe that great good comes from reading great books, and of course this includes great poetry, I have trouble with the jargon of self-help and self-knowledge and self-focusing that Housden too often uses in discussing the works of the ten poets he’s chosen for this volume (he’s written other books about poetry).  He knows poetry well; he discusses and uses many more poems and poets than just the ones listed in his table of contents.  He is also well-versed in religious traditions, particularly eastern ones and seems very comfortable aligning those philosophies with the dictates he finds in the ten poems he’s chosen to “set you free.”

Poetry and prose inevitably have at least two meanings:  there will always be what the author meant to say and convey, and what the reader gets out of the words.  The more readers, the more meanings. It is not fair really to say a reader did not “get” a certain writer; every reader is free to interpret as he/she wishes.  But in making an argument for the meaning of a poem, a reader has to be able to support his/her argument. I was not convinced by Housden’s rather literal undertakings of the poems, nor was I  comfortable with his generalizing application of the words.  One person’s  interpretation of a text is interesting to me, and especially when that one person is thoughtful and intense. Housden makes good and sound arguments for himself; he deeply feels the poetry that he reads and is genuine in his essays about them.   But when he strays from himself and starts giving general advice to the reader, he loses me completely.  I just am not convinced by the language of self-awareness and self-knowledge: too much generic “self” and too little that is interesting or unique.

Poetry is great for how it brings you out of yourself and to someplace new.  Even when you recognize where you are (in a place of love or despair or obsession or loss) it is the new  – and shared with the poet — experience of it that changes you forever.  Sometimes poetry is just about the beauty of a line, the way one line can resonate with you and make your heart actually vibrate with understanding.  That is where poetry sets you free (to use Housden’s title), by taking you out of yourself and bringing you to someone else’s private outlook, like going to a tree house with its new special view over the yard you may have known (and mowed) for years.  Because you are seeing everything from a new and different angle, you are freed from old interpretations of life and love, goodness and strength, what is worth it and what is not.  It is the same with great works of art: seeing a painting can change the whole way you look at, for example, nighttime, after looking at the night paintings of Van Gogh (see my review of December 29).

Housden has chosen great poems for delivering the message of joy and the  mandate of getting up and doing whatever it is that you need to do or want to do. Live authentically, as told in David Whyte’s poem: “you can look back with firm eyes saying this is where I stand.”  Live with commitment to your living, from Unamuno:  “to live is to work, and the only thing which lasts is the work; start then, turn to the work.”

But I disagree with Housden that Unamuno is talking about one’s life work. Housden says a lot in this book about how important it is to find out what our work is meant to be and to discard the easy or stable job and go for the gusto.  But I think Unamuno’s point is that whatever the job you get paid for is, the only important job is the actual act of living; what is important is to live fully committed, no matter what our job or our labor is, and our reason for living is the living itself.  Get out there and live, throw the seed of active, engaged, committed living everywhere you go, in everything you do: “the man who wants to live is the man in whom life is abundant.” Many of us will live with jobs that are just jobs but our lives are full and rich because we are committed to fully living (appreciating) the moments of each day.  Our life is abundant when within ourselves we see the abundance of life.

As Mary Oliver asks, in the poem used by Housden:  “Listen, are you breathing just a little and calling it life?”  This is an amazing line and I appreciate Housden sharing it with me; I appreciate him sounding the warning bell of half-lived lives and using the beauty of poetry to ring the message home.  I just wish that he would stick to his own personal experiences in bringing us this wonderful poetry and leave the jargon of self-help to the preachers.

The Beauty of The Yellow Leaves

Yesterday I read The Yellow Leaves, a collection of memoir pieces, essays and poems, by Frederick Buechner.  I have never read any of his work before but I loved the title The Yellow Leaves and so I dove in.

The title comes from a sonnet of Shakespeare:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.

These words reflect where Buechner finds himself now, in the latter years of life but still with yellow leaves of beauty to offer to his readers. His writing is fine, clear and simple; it is also somewhat preachy (he is an ordained Presbyterian minister) in that every story has its moral, sometimes baldly stated so that we do not miss the point of the sermon. I believe every story does have a moral, so I have no problem with Buechner’s style.  I don’t know what his fiction is like but I don’t mind his straightforwardness here, in non-fiction.  There is no doubt his words are genuine and his intent is clear: to share what he has seen along the way and pass on the knowledge gained. When that knowledge is the beauty that exists in small moments of life, his writing is especially sharp and true.   His writing is prosaic and fair, even quite sweet at times.  The poems that conclude the volume are family histories, to be cherished by his family but less moving for me.

The loveliest pieces tie together memories from all over his childhood and youth, unifying them in themes of connection and understanding and choices made and lived with.  I especially liked “Presidents I have Known” which tells of his chance meetings with Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower, interwoven in with the suicide of his father: “What I learned for the first time from that glimpse I had of him [FDR] in the elevator is that even the mightiest among us can’t stand on our own.  Unless we have someone to hold us, our flimsy legs buckle.  My father made his way down the two flights of stairs as quietly as he could, then sat on the running board and waited.  When he was discovered an hour or so later that morning, he was crumpled over like Sleepy Sam.”

I also liked the essay “Fathers and Teachers”.  Buechner presents the various father figures he had in his life after his father died, when he was trying to find someone of authority and integrity for inspiration or solace or friendship (all those things we do get from our fathers).  He was certainly lucky to have known so many good people, from his years at boarding school through college and then as a teacher and professor himself.  Judging by these essays and memoirs, he was certainly a figure to inspire others, maybe even someone else who had lost too soon their own father.