Five Resolutions, Kept and Failed, and One Great Poem


5 Resolutions Kept in 2013 (So Far)

1. Write every morning. Even if it’s only for an hour. Just sitting down and getting started leads to so much more productivity.
2. Schedule daily guilt-free reading time. Every afternoon I give myself at least an hour to not be a housekeeper, cook, wife, mother or business-owner; I let go of my responsibilities and find new aspects of myself in a book.
3. Eat better—If by “better” you mean richer and tastier. I’m currently reading Julia Child’s My Life in France, there’s no way you can read that book and be on a diet at the same time.
4. Drink less. Cocktail pounds are so frustrating. Happily, this has been an easy one so far.
5. Find one Great Poem per week. Well, it’s only been one week, so… check. You’ll find this week’s Great Poem below.

5 Failed Resolutions in 2013

1. Walk every day. I missed one day—ONE DAY—because of a Downton Abbey marathon. No regrets. It was totally worth it.
2. Finish one book before starting another. I think I’m going to have to give up on my idea of reading one book at a time. I have too many personalities to be a monogamous reader.
3. Say “yes” to the kids’ requests to play with them. Don’t get me wrong, I play with my kids, but I don’t think I can keep this resolution AND resolutions 1 and 2 (above) at the same time. I can say yes sometimes. It will just have to be enough.
4. Be more reliable on Twitter. Oh Twitter, why can’t you and I get along?
5. Clean a little bit of the house every day instead of going on a cleaning binge every two (or three, or four) weeks. Ha! Who was I kidding with this one?!

This week, while the kids have been off school and we’ve all meandered through in that residual “vacation” mode have been easy. It’s next week, when school, work, and after-school activities start up again that will be the real challenge. It’s easy to be a free spirit when your responsibilities are cut in half. Next week I go back to the writing/mother double-shift, and that’s when things get challenging.  Just the thought of it had me turning to Anne Sexton for comfort and commiseration, and it was in The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton that I found this week’s Great Poem:

Her Kind by Anne Sexton

I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.

I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.

I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.

Helpful Resources for Reading Homer’s Iliad

Every summer my Rediscovering the Classics group chooses a reading project that is slightly different from our usual “school-year” syllabus. One year we read short stories, another year we decided to delve into poetry. This year we decided to tackle Homer’s Iliad–one of those classics that everyone wants to read, but many people find intimidating. To our delight, the group is finding that when broken up into bite-size chunks, and read with a worthy group of friends, this daunting book can actually be a page-turner. We’re only 8 chapters in as of this writing, but already our group is asking probing questions, participating in heated discussions, and having a hard time holding ourselves back from reading ahead!

Many of the questions that crop up regularly have to do with the context in which the story takes place–the culture of the ancient Greeks and Trojans, the lineage (both mortal and immortal) of the major characters, the many locations mentioned throughout the story, political structure, religious values and traditions, etc. At each of our meetings we take one of these contextual subjects to learn a little more about and discuss in relation to the book itself. As moderator I have found that the internet is littered with helpful facts and information, but wading through all that information to find the right pieces can be time consuming! Here are a few of the most helpful sites I’ve found. I link to these with a deep bow of gratitude to the original authors and owners.

When starting a new book the first place to start your research is often with the setting. The Trojan War, for all of its timeless and far-reaching consequences, was actually a fairly localized skirmish, almost nothing compared to the world wars we’ve experienced in the past century.

Detailed Map of the Aegean Sea with Places of Origin of Major & Minor Characters.
From the Boston College Cassandra Home Page

 To put it in perspective, here’s what this area looks like today:

Modern Map of the Mediterranean Sea and Surrounding Areas.
Courtesy of Google Maps.

Because The Iliad begins in media res, the next question asked by readers is often “How did these characters get here?” In the case of The Iliad, this isn’t an easy question to answer. The events leading up to the Trojan War are many and convoluted, and in a few cases there is some disagreement about how events actually transpired. For an excellent overview of the events immediately leading up to the story we read about in The Iliad, please see Stanford University’s page on The Trojan War. However, as any lover of ancient mythology will know, one myth always leads back to another, and that one back even further, on and on until it makes your head spin! For even more back story about the events and characters in The Iliad (back story which some argue is extraneous, but which I believe gives important insight into the hearts and minds of some of our main characters) the Heroes and Heroines webpages over at TimelessMyths.com is a useful resource. The grammar and writing style leaves something to be desired, but for sheer volume of information easily accessible in one organized page there is no better place to go.

Once you feel comfortable with the setting and back story of The Iliad you’ll begin to notice that many chapters detail the ancestry of our heroes at length; at such length, in fact, that you may begin to feel that you need to draw a convoluted family tree just to understand how all our heroes are (or are not) connected to each other and to the gods and goddesses. Luckily, someone has already done this for you, and the detailed ancestry of many of our heroes, gods and goddesses can by found in Hesiod’s Theogeny (to find this in a readable size please visit the Theoi Website):

Hesiod’s Family Tree of Greek Gods. Find this in a readable size at the Theoi Website

If you’re looking for a more pared down family tree relating only to the main characters, here is one detailing the Greek side of the war, made by me to share with my class–apologies for the unprofessional look of it, I just drew it up by hand one afternoon. Gods are in black, mortals are in the color of their lineage, demigods are in color with a black underline:

Homemade Family Tree

And there is a genealogy of the royal house of Troy found in the back of the Penguin Classics edition of The Iliad, Robert Fagles translation, which I will not include here for copyright purposes (sorry). I will tell you, however, that Hector and Paris and etc. are descended from Zeus through their father Priam, and that they are cousins to Aeneas (son of Aphrodite and Anchises) and the nephews of the infamous Tithonus.

This is as far as I’ve gotten thus far regarding handy resources for reading The Iliad. As I mentioned, we’ve only read through chapter 8 yet, so I will post more resources as we continue and as they seem useful. If you have any questions or requests please feel free to leave a comment. In the meantime…

…Happy Reading!

Words: A Love Story

Most readers and writers are, in the deepest parts of our souls, word lovers. We love how the right word can express with absolute perfection an elusive emotion; we love how certain words roll around in our mouths and drip from our lips; we love seeing sound and meaning put together to create a kind of linguistic music–whether in the form of poetry or prose or (for those who are particularly savvy) in everyday conversation. There are many things I love in my life, but I would have to say that words are my first love.

I was reminded of this love just recently by my eleven year old daughter, who in the middle of a conversation about a deep sea documentary we had just watched, suddenly pulled out a notebook and started writing.

“What are you doing?” I asked

“I’m adding ‘phosphorescence’ to my list of favorite words.” She replied.

I don’t know why I was initially surprised to find that my book-loving daughter has a book filled with words she has come across and loved; after all, don’t all we readers and writers have a similar list of our own most-loved words somewhere? We may not keep it written down in a book like my daughter does, but we all have it, that list, somewhere in our minds. Even if we aren’t aware of it ourselves, I’m willing to bet that our friends and family are aware of it. They know which words are on our list of favorites because those are the words we use as often as we can in conversation. These are the words we say slowly, so we can savor them. These are the words that make us pause when we come across them in the middle of a sentence or paragraph. These are the words that give us a little thrill deep down in our soul.

Some people like long and complicated words, some like the razor-sharp short words, some are partial to the way certain sounds mingle and caress each other, and some like a word simply for its meaning. As for me, my list is a mixture of all of these. Here are a few of my favorites:

Palimpsest (for what it means and the way it sounds)
Dissonance (it gives me a frisson just to say it!)
Cacophony (again, it makes such a joyful noise)
Woo (who can say this word without giggling and loving it?)
Tipsy (never drunk, only tipsy)
Thistle and Epistle (there’s something about that /stle/ sound that I just love)

I don’t want to bore my readers with too many, but oh it makes me happy just to see those words on a page!

As much as I love words in and of themselves, I love even more when I come across an author who can do with words what a conductor can do with an orchestra. The first authors who come to mind are, perhaps logically, the poets. Gerard Manley Hopkins is a poet who has always seemed to me to play with words, as if he is reveling in them like a delighted child. Who can read “The Windhover” without wanting to say some of those lines aloud:

I CAUGHT this morning morning’s minion, king-
  dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
  Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,        
  As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
  Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
  Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion        
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
  No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
  Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

I can’t help but fall in love with the lines “my heart in hiding/ Stirred for a bird,” or “ah my dear,/ Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.”

Two other authors who are not poets, but who may as well be they make my heart sing so with their prose, are Vladimir Nabokov and Kamila Shamsie. Nabokov plays with language the way Hopkins does, and has what may be the best first lines of a novel ever in Lolita: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta; the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”

As for Shamsie, her prose seems less like children playing and more like scented jasmine growing rampant out of fertile soil–tendrils curling ever so slowly around one-another, pale pink buds against a jungle of dark green, until white flowers burst open by the thousands, star-like. I’m not sure I can choose just one short example to give, as the joy of her prose comes not from one sentence here or there, but from her prosaic beauty sustained throughout the entirety of the book. Perhaps I can give a small glimpse, however, with this sample from my favorite of her novels, Kartography:

   “‘You know, if I wasn’t me, you wouldn’t be you.’
   “Odd. No matter where I begin, that line finds its way into my narrative so very early on, and forces linearity to give way to a ramble of hindsight. This is the worst of our ways of remembering–this tendency to prod the crust of anecdote in the hope of releasing a gush of piping-hot symbolism.”

Shamsie’s prose is luxury and subtlety existing in wedded bliss. Her craft is so well done it’s almost too easy to miss, until you emerge from her story feeling hypnotized, rested, and satisfied.

Oh yes, I have been in love with words for as long as I can remember–since I first read (or had read to me) the first pages of Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline; “In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines/ Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines…” From this auspicious beginning things have only gotten better. Through ecstasy and agony, work and play, friends and lovers, marriage and children; words have been the longest and strongest love affair of my life. Whether I’m searching for a way to anger or inspire, captivate or comfort, words have never let me down. This is my ode–my valentine–to them.

Warning! 5 Poems NOT To Use When Wooing Your Sweetheart

Valentine’s day is a time for romance. It’s a time to make googly-eyes and whisper sweet nothings to the one you love… But let’s face it, how many of us have fallen for that–and then fallen into ruin? What many of us really need during this time of year, when the siren call is loudest, is not more sugary sweetness but a good shot of resolve! And what is a loyal friend for if not to tie you to the mast, put the wax in your ears, and give you a good splash of cold water when danger looms close?

This year, I am that loyal friend. If it’s love poetry you’re looking for, you’ve come to the wrong place. What I am providing here are poems that will harden the hearts of all but the most daring and devoted of lovers. These are not to be read by the loverly faint of heart!! (On the other hand, if you’re just getting through a break-up you’re going to LOVE these!)

  1. My Last Duchess by Robert Browning. “She had a heart, how shall I say? Too soon made glad.” Chilling and delightful. Dramatic readings of this one are particularly good, especially if you can find one by a woman.
  2. Sonnet XX by Michael Drayton. “An evil spirit, your beauty haunts me still” speaks volumes about how all of us are fools in love.
  3. Amanda Barker from Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River Anthology. A little over the top, true, but still worthy of inclusion, as it is definitely not a come-hither poem.
  4. Fire and Ice by Robert Frost. “I think I know enough of hate to say that for destruction ice is also great…” I think I know of more hearts broken by ice than fire.
  5. Here is a wound that never will heal, I know by Edna St. Vincent Millay. “But that a dream can die, will be a thrust between my ribs forever of hot pain.” Ouch.

And of course, as I was reminded earlier today, no list of angry love poems can be complete without a poem by the Bard himself; Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129. “Enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight; Past reason hunted; and no sooner had, past reason hated”. It doesn’t leave much room for hope, I’m afraid.
If you want romance this Valentine’s Day there are plenty of places where you can find some good, seductive poetry, but the unromantic are a grossly underrepresented group this time of year. This list is merely a small contribution to that deserving minority.
So curl up with some of the authors mentioned above and some angry Alanis Morissett playing in the background, and have a very happy Valenti– Uh, I mean, an absolutely mundane second week of February!

Kay Ryan’s "Snack-Size" Poems Will Stick To Your Ribs

Our new Poet Laureate Kay Ryan describes her short poems as “snack-size”, and on the one hand, she’s right–her poems are so short they’re almost haiku. But don’t let their size deceive you; these poems are anything but snacks. Take as an example her poem entitled “Hope” (from the book Elephant Rocks):

Hope

What’s the use
of something
as unstable
and diffuse as hope–
the almost-twin
of making-do,
the isotope
of going on:
what isn’t in
the envelope
just before it isn’t:
the always tabled
righting of the present.

Nothing snack-like about the content of that particular poem! And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. All of Ryan’s poems tap into deceptively simple truths; honest morsels to which your first thought is to shrug and think well of course that’s true, but which upon further reflection leave you agog, mouth hanging open in amazement at the shades of complexity to be found in one simple truth. “Mirage Oases” (Also from Elephant Rocks) is just one of many of Kay Ryan’s poems that leave me open-mouthed:

Mirage Oases

First among places
susceptible to trespass
are mirage oases

whose graduated pools
and shaded grasses, palms
and speckled fishes give
before the lightest pressure
and are wrecked.

For they live
only in the kingdom
of suspended wishes,

thrive only at our pleasure
checked.

I have to admit that I was surprised to find myself falling in love with Kay Ryan’s poetry. There are very few contemporary poets to whom I feel drawn. It was only after hearing an interview with Ryan on NPR’s On Point that I felt compelled to pick up one of her books. Ryan reads a few of her poems during the course of her show, and after hearing her read the first poem I was hooked. Her voice is rich and hypnotic, giving context to each poem with mere sound, no back-story or explanation was ever necessary.

Once I started to spend some quality time with Ryan’s poetry, it seemed only natural that she would become one of my favorites. Ryan’s poetry puts me somewhat in mind of Emily Dickinson, another singer of deceptively simple songs with an endless well of truth and meaning.

I’m glad to have Kay Ryan added to the roster of United States Poets Laureate, and not just because she’s a native of California. (A state that–as a native Californian myself–I feel is grossly under represented.) I like that her poetry is unpretentious. It is (to use an over-used word) accessible. I don’t feel that her poems are pushy, or require that I cup my chin and look skyward. But at the same time, Ryan asks that her readers do put sincere thought into age-old assumptions

I will end this post with the poem of Ryan’s that first hooked me. Everything after this one has only drawn me in deeper. I’m a willing victim, held spellbound by the cadence of her lines, the honest simplicity of her themes, and perhaps a little by the decidedly un-intimidating length of the poems; each one of which seems to say, “Oh what’s the harm in reading just one more?” This poem, in which the author asks God to please simplify the world a bit, seems a particularly apt closing to a blog post about a poet who makes us see more by showing us less.

Blandeur (from the book Say Uncle)

If it please God,
let less happen.
Even out Earth’s
rondure, flatten
Eiger, blanden
the Grand Canyon.
Make valleys
slightly higher,
widen fissures
to arable land,
remand your
terrible glaciers
and silence
their calving,
halving or doubling
all geographical features
toward the mean.
Unlean against our hearts.
Withdraw your grandeur
from these parts.

Unavoidable Duality and the Pain of Composition: The Romantic Poets

I started a summer poetry group this year (an offshoot of my “rediscovering literature” group during the academic year) which meets once a week on Thursday evenings. We discuss things such as:

  • How poems use tools such as imagery or structure to evoke an emotional response
  • What are the qualities of sonnets and why is that form so timeless
  • Why write a narrative poem rather than a short story
  • How poetry can be used to make a political statement
  • And more

In tonight’s class we will be talking about Romantic Poetry. No, not reading love poetry to each other (although there are plenty of love poems written by Romantic Poets), but reading the writings of poets during the Romantic era. The Romantic era was a reaction to the prevailing ideals of the enlightenment, and consisted mainly of artists trying to express the reconciliation of man and nature, and the duality of using man-made words and structure to express a natural ideal. The Romantic poets were also the first to eschew the classical, formal language to use the common vernacular. Here are some classical poets and poems we will discuss:

William Blake, The Tyger (one of my very favorites) and Introduction to Songs of Innocence
William Wordsworth, Lines Composed Above Tinturn Abbey
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Kubla Kahn
George Gordon, Lord Byron, So We’ll Go No More A’Roving and She Walks in Beauty
Percy Bysshe Shelley, Love’s Philosophy
John Keats, La Belle Dame Sans Merci

If you have any favorite Romantic Poets, or any opinions about Romantic Poetry you’d like to share, please leave a comment.

Happy Reading!