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poetry books

No poet ever wrote a poem to dishonor life, to compromise high ideals, to scorn religious views, to demean hope or gratitude, to argue against tenderness, to place rancor before love, or to praise littleness of soul. Not one. Not ever.

On the contrary, poets have, in freedom and in prison, in health and in misery, with listeners and without listeners, spent their lives examining and glorifying life, meditation, thoughtfulness, devoutness, and human love. They have done this wildly, serenely, rhetorically, lyrically, without hope of answer or reward. They have done this grudgingly, willingly, patiently, and in the steams of impatience.

They have done it for all and any of the gods of life, and the record of their so doing belongs to each one of us.

Including you.

—Mary Oliver, Rules for the Dance

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tulips table book bowl curry lunch

It is bleak (snowy) midwinter over here – the season for strong cups of tea and lots of books. Here’s what I’ve been reading so far this month:

The Bees, Carol Ann Duffy
This poetry collection was a Secret Santa gift from a colleague. Duffy’s language is stunning and often highly political. Poems about bees are woven throughout. Lovely.

Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Reading and Writing Metrical Verse, Mary Oliver
I love Oliver’s poetry and found much to ponder in this exploration of metrical verse. She explains the technical terms but also drops in some beautiful words about why poetry matters.

Recipes for a Beautiful Life, Rebecca Barry
A wry, insightful, often hilarious memoir of marriage, home renovation, life with young children, and the slow realization that chasing your dreams is hard work. To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 7).

Mrs. Tim Carries On, D.E. Stevenson
World War II has broken out, and Mrs. Tim is bravely carrying on, despite having to manage her own troubles and everyone else’s. I loved this second installment of her adventures – witty, amusing, occasionally poignant.

The Long Winter, Laura Ingalls Wilder
I’ve never seen anything like the snow we’re getting this winter – but at least I’m not stuck in a tiny, isolated prairie town, living on wheat. I love every page of the Ingalls family’s adventures, and the ending makes me cry.

Murder at the Brightwell, Ashley Weaver
Unhappy in her marriage, socialite Amory Ames agrees to go on a seaside holiday with an old friend – only to encounter a web of murders and lies. A sparkling, witty 1930s mystery with a wonderful narrator. A perfect snow day read.

Salt & Storm, Kendall Kulper
Avery Roe has always believed it’s her destiny to become the sea witch of Prince Island. But when a troubling dream shows her another fate, she must figure out how to stop it – if she can. Fierce, luminous and gorgeously written.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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Poem for January

winter sunset gold

Looking for a Sunset Bird in Winter
by Robert Frost

The west was getting out of gold,
The breath of air had died of cold,
When shoeing home across the white,
I thought I saw a bird alight.

In summer when I passed the place,
I had to stop and lift my face;
A bird with an angelic gift
Was singing in it sweet and swift.

No bird was singing in it now.
A single leaf was on a bough,
And that was all there was to see
In going twice around the tree.

From my advantage on a hill
I judged that such a crystal chill
Was only adding frost to snow
As gilt to gold that wouldn’t show.

A brush had left a crooked stroke
Of what was either cloud or smoke
From north to south across the blue;
A piercing little star was through.

(Photo: the view from my front porch at sunset, in December.)

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poetry books

Recently, Alyssa tweeted about having “a personal canon of poems” – a few lines or poems she depends upon to be “permanently in [her] head.” Of course, I immediately started thinking about my own essential poems – the ones that rise up to comfort me after a loss, or get me through a tough day.

I stumbled on most of them in college or thereabouts, studying them in classes or discovering them via friends. I’ve quoted some of them here during Poetry Fridays, but today I wanted to gather them up, like a bouquet of words, and share them all with you.

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God / It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.” I love Gerard Manley Hopkins’ words about “the dearest freshness deep down things.” In the face of deep and unrelenting darkness, the world is still heartbreakingly, powerfully lovely.

Since I came across it a few years ago, Wendell Berry’s “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” has been saving my life, line by line. I read it aloud from the pulpit in church this summer, and it was as good as any biblical exhortation.

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.”

And a few lines down: “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.” (This is hard but so necessary.)

I am a lifelong bookworm, and I love Wordsworth’s “The Tables Turned” because it pushes me to get out of my head and into the beautiful world around me. The last lines are my favorites: “Come forth and bring with you a heart / That watches and receives.”

Marie Howe’s poem “What the Living Do” stopped me in my tracks the first time I read it, on Sarah’s blog. I later read it aloud to a roomful of college freshmen one Sept. 11, as a way of paying tribute to those who died. The last lines still choke me up: “I am living. I remember you.”

I first encountered W.S. Merwin’s “Thanks” as the epigraph to Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies. It speaks powerfully to the beauty and the difficulty of life, and the continued impetus to keep saying thank you.

Mark Strand’s poem “The Coming of Light,” discovered years ago in a rickety cabin at a camp tucked deep in the hills of northern New Mexico, always reminds me how magic lives in the everyday.

“My work is loving the world.” Mary Oliver’s “Messenger” reminds me of this again and again.

These poems have worked on me in different ways through the years. Sometimes they comfort me; sometimes they wake me up, through rhyme and rambling meter and startling images. But they all do what Seamus Heaney talks about in the last line of his wonderful poem “Postscript“: they “catch the heart off guard and blow it open.”

What poems have made it into your personal canon? I’d love to hear.

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travels with charley steinbeck

Amy & Roger’s Epic Detour, Morgan Matson
Amy’s dad has died, her brother is in rehab, and her mother has moved to Connecticut, leaving instructions for Amy to follow her in their car. Enter Roger, a long-absent (and now really cute) family friend. Together, he and Amy deviate from the planned route, crisscrossing America while listening to wonderful playlists and gradually opening up to one another. Utterly charming.

Running Like a Girl: Notes on Learning to Run, Alexandra Heminsley
Curvy and nonathletic, Alex Heminsley never fancied herself a runner – but she is one. This candid memoir traces her journey, from her first disastrous run to several marathons. I’m a sporadic runner at best, but this book made me want to lace up my running shoes. Recommended by Kerry.

Baby Proof, Emily Giffin
My friend Rachael handed me this novel during a discussion about the perennial question of whether to have children. The protagonist, Claudia, is child-free and happily married until her husband decides he wants a baby after all. A thought-provoking premise, but I found Claudia selfish and shallow: not because she didn’t want kids, but because everything had to be about her.

Crocodile on the Sandbank, Elizabeth Peters
Amelia Peabody, a wealthy, opinionated Victorian spinster, heads off to explore Egypt by way of Rome. Love, intrigue and nocturnal mummies among the pyramids, all told with Amelia’s biting wit. So much fun. First in a series and highly recommended by Jaclyn.

Looking for the Gulf Motel, Richard Blanco
Blanco writes vivid poetry about love, memory, his Cuban-American family, and belonging. I recognized many images and characters from his memoir (which I confess I liked better than this collection).

The Curse of the Pharaohs, Elizabeth Peters
Amelia Peabody (see above) and her archaeologist husband return to Egypt, working on a dig supposedly plagued by the titular curse. Quirky characters and red herrings abound, but Amelia solves the case. Not as engaging as the first book, but still fun.

The Paris Winter, Imogen Robertson
Maud Heighton, a genteelly poor Englishwoman, struggles to get by while studying art in Paris. When she lands a job as companion to a charming Frenchwoman, Maud believes her troubles are over, but she is drawn into a web of lies, thievery and revenge. A dark, evocative portrait of Belle Époque Paris, with some wonderful characters. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 18).

Travels With Charley in Search of America, John Steinbeck
I broke my book-buying fast because I could not resist the charming, slightly battered copy (above) on the $3 book cart at Raven. I have no regrets. Steinbeck takes a rambling cross-country road trip with Charley (a large French poodle), searching for the language and spirit of America, and narrates it all in wry, witty detail. Wonderful.

And Only to Deceive, Tasha Alexander
After reading The Counterfeit Heiress for review, I picked up the first book in the Lady Emily series. This is clearly a first effort: well written but the mystery’s solution was obvious. I like the characters, though.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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bookpeople austin tx interior

(The first floor of BookPeople in Austin, where I spent several blissful hours last month.)

The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, Dorothy Gilman
My friend Jacque has been urging me to pick up the Mrs. Pollifax series for years. I loved this first installment, in which Mrs. Pollifax, bored with her quiet widowhood, volunteers for the CIA! So much fun and packed with fascinating Cold War-era detail.

The Grapes of Math: How Life Reflects Numbers and Numbers Reflect Life, Alex Bellos
Parabolas, circles, negative numbers and pi aren’t just for math class – they show up again and again in the real world. Bellos delights in exploring the quirks of mathematics. Technical at times, but mostly entertaining. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 10).

Henrietta’s War: News from the Home Front 1939-1942, Joyce Dennys
I picked this one up on Jaclyn’s rec and loved it. Henrietta (the author’s alter ego) writes letters to a childhood friend about life in her Devon village during WWII. I giggled over her descriptions of the villagers’ antics, reading the best bits aloud to my husband. Such fun.

Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
I’d never read this classic gothic tale, but tackled it for book club. Reminded me strongly of Jane Eyre – grand house, dark brooding leading man haunted by his first wife, etc. Suspenseful, but deeply sad, and I wanted more spirit from the narrator.

The Stories We Tell, Patti Callahan Henry
Eve Morrison has the perfect life: a successful husband, a daughter, a thriving letterpress business. But when her husband and sister are injured in a car accident, she must decide whose story she believes, and whether the glossy image of her life matches the reality. A moving story of love, family and gaining the courage to move on. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 24).

The Amazing Mrs. Pollifax, Dorothy Gilman
Mrs. Pollifax’s second adventure finds her flying to Istanbul to make contact with a Communist agent. Of course, nothing goes as planned, and she ends up on a wild ride across Turkey with a band of gypsies and a mismatched group of outlaws. Slightly outlandish, but so much fun.

The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, Steven Pressfield
An exploration of Resistance (to creativity) and pithy advice, which can be summed up as: Do the Work. (The first 100 pages were great; the last 60 pages, musings on the Muse, totally lost me.)

The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food and Drink, ed. Kevin Young
A savory, sweet, surprising collection of poems about eating, cooking, foraging and memories of food. (Includes an astonishing number of poems about blackberries – not that I’m complaining – and a whole section on barbecue.)

Henrietta Sees It Through: More News from the Home Front 1942-1945, Joyce Dennys
This sequel to Henrietta’s War (see above) is a little grimmer than its predecessor: tempers are fraying as the war drags on. But Henrietta still reports on village life with wit and humor. She reminds me of Miss Read (though she’s a doctor’s wife instead of a schoolteacher).

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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Poem for May

May 2011 026

Song

A rowan like a lipsticked girl.
Between the by-road and the main road
Alder trees at a wet and dripping distance
Stand off among the rushes.

There are the mud-flowers of dialect
And the immortelles of perfect pitch
And that moment when the bird sings very close
To the music of what happens.

—Seamus Heaney

I love everything about this poem – the lipsticked rowan tree, the musical imagery, and that bird whose song gets at the heart of the bewitching, delightful medley that is spring.

 

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