Saturday, June 4, 2016

Poetry Month, Day 4, George Arnold, "Beer"

My family owns all ten volumes of a 1929 Funk and Wagnalls publication called The World's 1000 Best Poems. Because of course we do. I was looking for a poem by Matthew Arnold, but "Dover Beach" wasn't in the book (which makes me question the rather grandiose title, frankly, but no matter).  However, I did discover this poem, an absolute gem!


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    With my beer 
I sit, 
While golden moments flit: 
    They pass 
Unheeded by: 
And, as they fly, 
Being dry, 
    Sit, idly sipping here 
    My beer. 

O, finer far 
Than fame, or riches, are 
The graceful smoke-wreaths of this free cigar! 
    Should I 
    Weep, wail, or sigh? 
    What if luck has passed me by? 
What if my hopes are dead,—  
My pleasures fled? 
    Have I not still 
    My fill 
Of right good cheer,— 
Cigars and beer? 

    Go, whining youth, 
Go, weep and wail, 
Sigh and grow pale, 
    Weave melancholy rhymes 
    On the old times, 
Whose joys like shadowy ghosts appear,—
But leave me to my beer! 
    Gold is dross,— 
    Love is loss,—
So, if I gulp my sorrows down, 
Or see them drown 
In foamy draughts of old nut-brown, 
Then do I wear the crown, 
    Without the cross!
Look at that rhyme scheme! So much fun to read out loud - go on, read it out loud right now. I'll wait. 

Did you keep a straight face? Because I didn't - the poem is both grandiose AND, at the SAME TIME, entirely unpretentious. Brilliant!

 Look at the way the poem dribbles down the page, like the foam down the side of a beer glass. As a small time home brewer (have I mentioned that before? I brew beer, infrequently, but to reasonably good reviews), I appreciate the subject matter (not so much the cigars - but I'd smoke a free cigar, if one were offered). An absolute gem of a poem - not, perhaps, one for the ages (one of the 1000 best poems! In the world! [as of 1929. according to Funk and Wagnalls.]) but an enjoyable read. I'll be dipping into the collection again, and I'll take a look at "Dover Beach" later.  

Friday, June 3, 2016

Poetry Month, Day 3 - _Ode to the Cold War_ by Dick Allen

Another book from my wife's library sale trawling. According to the back cover, "Dick Allen is a central figure in America's often neglected 'transitional generation' - poets born in the late 1930s and early 1940s." Allen's poems reflect his generation - it is clear that the transitional generation, not unlike the Baby Boom generation, with witch there is some overlap, clearly, was defined by the end of World War Two, the Korea and Vietnam conflicts, and the Cold War in general (as the title of the collection suggests). Throughout the book there are poems musing on these conflicts, and the struggle between the great powers of the Cold War, as well as poems about life in America between the late 1940s and the early 1990s (the book was published in 1997). As with any collection of poetry (or, really, any collection of anything), this feels like a mixed bag. Some of the poems speak to me, while others feel unnecessarily obscure - Allen engaging in lyric density for his own amusement.

I'd like to share the title poem, but it's rather too long for me to re-type; several pages. It has a delightful lyric flow, almost musical in places. There is a fine use of internal rhyme for emphasis, and a rhythm which borrows from jazz, but also from rap. I wish there were a recording of it somewhere, I bet it sounds great out loud. I will share a different poem which is shorter.

The Report

The wind is blowing on the prison walls
Above the secret towns. In the secret towns
Men are walking through the streets with guns.

Men with guns are walking through the streets
Below the prison walls. The prison walls
Are on the cliffs about the secret towns.

Behind the shattered windows and the shattered doors,
The women kneel and pray. The women pray
While men are walking through the streets with guns.

Men with guns are walking through the streets,
Breaking down the doors. Breaking down the doors
Is what the men do in the secret towns.

The women pray they'll stop. Please stop, they pray,
And let the prison fall. Let the prison fall,
They pray behind the windows and the shattered doors.

But the men are laughing in the secret towns,
And carrying the guns. The men with guns
Walk and laugh below the prison walls.

Below the prison walls lie secret towns
With broken doors. Beyond the broken doors
Men are walking through the streets with guns.


The tight form here, with the repetition of theme throughout is reminiscent of Frost, and is not at all typical of the work in the collection. Allen seems to favor a much more open format, sometimes a sprawling blank verse, and sometimes more constrained, but not as formal as this example.  Consequently, this poem feels like an experiment, which I think works quite well. The narrative description, however, is entirely in line with the rest of the collection. Allen's work captures lush pictures in his words - bucolic snow-scapes, agonized war scenes, nostalgic moments of children hiding under desks, that moment just between fall and winter as blankets come down from the attic - and renders them so precisely that the reader can smell the moth-balls, hear the crunch of sled runners on the snow, and see the mud of the battlefield. Not all of the poems are easy to read, but I enjoyed the ones I read.

I should say, though, that I miss sitting with fellow poets and listening to them explain their own work. There were several pieces in this collection that I'd love to hear Allen offer background on.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Poetry Month, Day 2 - The poems of Lois Wyse, collected in _Are You Sure You Love Me?_

My lovely wife picked up several very odd collections of poetry at the local library sale. I'll be dipping into them throughout the month, probably. This is a collection of poetry published in 1969 by Lois Wyse, the wife of Marc A. Wyse, president of Wyse Advertising. I'm sure that has nothing to do with why this collection was published...

Based on this book, Wyse wrote short, almost epigrammatic, poetry, shot through with a certain quantity of long married bitterness. I'll offer you my two favorite poems from the collection.


I closed the door
And crawled into my bed
And from a million thousand miles
I heard you
And sigh.


I wrote three thank-you notes
(I wonder if you're having dinner now),
Talked to Marianne
(Did you go to the theatre?)
Told the children to do their homework
(Who is that with you?)
And planned a dinner for 16.

I read an article on memory pills
(Did you remember to take a raincoat?)
Forgot to water the plants
(Is he cold? Is he warm? Is he tired?)
And then you called.
"Funny thing, dear, I just this minute happened to be thinking of you."

These are the best poems from the collection, I think. Otherwise, it's a fairly mixed bag. Wyse has a wry voice, and likes to play with typography - very short lines, or sprawling the poem across the whole page. There is a certain, as I mentioned, bitterness that goes well with the wry tone. There isn't anything spectacular about this collection. This is not a volume for the ages, but I'm not sad I read it.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Poetry Month, Day 1 - Robert Frost, _Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening_

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

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Whose woods these are I think I know.   
His house is in the village though;   
He will not see me stopping here   
To watch his woods fill up with snow.   

My little horse must think it queer   
To stop without a farmhouse near   
Between the woods and frozen lake   
The darkest evening of the year.   

He gives his harness bells a shake   
To ask if there is some mistake.   
The only other sound’s the sweep   
Of easy wind and downy flake.   

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   
But I have promises to keep,   
And miles to go before I sleep,   
And miles to go before I sleep.
I thought I would start with something fairly classic, and you don't get much more classic than Frost and his Snowy Woods. As I read this poem again, I am struck (as always) by the simplicity and the complexity, and how both hide and enhance each other. The rhyme scheme; AABA, BBCB, CCDC, DDDD - both simple and fantastically complex. Frost pulls readers through the poem smoothly, without the reader being conscious (perhaps) of the pull. Also, with just the rhyme, Frost tells us that the poem is ended. 

Simplicity and complexity - this poem is almost insultingly simple in its narrative, presenting a tidy little picture of a man, a horse, an evening trip, and a snow filled landscape. (I confess, the contrast between the snow filled image and our current heat was one of the reasons I chose the poem to begin.) And yet, this very simplicity has made countless readers analyze the poem in almost byzantine ways - is it about life and death? Is it about the devil? Is this a serene, calm poem, or a poem filled with menace? Where was the narrator (Frost?) going, why is he out on "the darkest evening of the year," with miles to go? Who woods ARE these, and is there anything in them besides snow? You see - complexity and simplicity, playing with each other, in tension with each other - there are so many ways to layer this text, and yet it can still be read as entirely simple, entirely straight. 

There is a serenity here, and a meditative element too. There's a reason that Frost's poetry has endured, and why this poem, among all his works, is so widely read.   

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Potpourri Month Wrap-up - 5/31/2016 - World of Prime (M.C. Planck), _Children of the Earth and Sky_ (Guy Gavriel Kay), and _The Jewish-Japanese Sex and Cookbook and How to Raise Wolves_ (Jack Douglas)

OK, I've been a bad blogger, not keeping up to date and such. I'm less sorry about this than I should be, perhaps. It was a busy week, and Friday was not a great day to sit and write a post - plus, as the title suggests, I read a LOT of books. Before I get to reviews, I'd like to give you all (I assume there is a you all) a heads up for the June format. I've decided to do a poem a day through June (because I'm crazy, perhaps?) and would love suggestions from you all (still assuming that there is a you all) - toss any suggestions into the comments. Favorite poet, favorite poem, favorite collection of poems, anything like that. I've got several collections of (very) random poetry to address. I may, should I feel motivated, record some readings and offer those to you as well. It could be exciting!

OK. Three quick reviews. First, I'd like to talk about the first two books of M.C. Planck's World of Prime series (the third book is not published yet). When I was in high school, I discovered, and devoured, a series of books by Leo Frankowski - The Crosstime Engineer series. I even purchased them as I found them in used book stores - I had all five of the books at one point. The premise was fairly simple - a 20th century Polish engineer is accidentally transported back in time to Poland just before the Mongol invasion. Using his advanced knowledge, he transforms Polish society and technology, allowing him to defeat the Mongols and make Poland into the dominant global power. The books have a lot of problems, which derive from the fact that they are grounded in a white heterosexual male power fantasy. Conrad (the engineer) has lots and lots of sex - women throw themselves at him - and his followers also have lots of sex. At one point, because there is a surplus of women, multiple wives are allowed. (The Catholic church has some issues with that, naturally. I don't remember how that is resolved.) There is at least one instance of sex (not with Conrad) which is non-consensual (which is handwaved with a "it's ok, because he totally loves her, and actually she discovers that she loves him too" - ick.) As a heterosexual teen male (also white and cisgendered), I wasn't really bothered by this. As a more enlightened and educated man ... enh. I'd like to smack my teen self upside the head.

All of that in in support of my observation that Planck's World of Prime (Sword of the Bright Lady and The Gold Throne in Shadow) has all of the good stuff from Frankowski's books (complete with the principle character reworking a medieval society through technology and a different understanding of economics) without any of the bad sexual politics. In fact, as I read the second book, I found myself saying several times (to myself, inside my head) "this is a direct response to Frankowski - like Planck is saying 'see, this is how a REAL hero acts!'" I really wish my teen self could have read these instead.

Also, magic! Planck is clearly drawing from a rich history of Dungeons and Dragons - the monsters are clearly based out of that environment, for one thing, and Planck has an interesting take on the (much maligned [rightfully!]) moral alignment system and the idea of character levels. It's excellent world building and I would totally play in this setting.


I am a huge Guy Gavriel Kay fan, as you may know. I saw Children of the Earth and Sky on the new book shelf at the library and felt some trepidation - Kay does not write short books. Instead, this is a huge door stop of a novel, and I didn't think I had time to read it. I was wrong - when the book was still there a week later, I borrowed it. Set in the Mediterranean analog from the same world as The Lions of Al-Rasan (referenced within the text) and the Sarantine Mosaic duology (referenced heavily - this book is set much much later than the Sarantine books, Sarantium [Byzantium, you know] has fallen to the Muslim analog). Kay tells a deeply complex story (when doesn't he?) of piracy, trade, politics (personal, national, sexual), and the human experience. His characters live in the litoral world where empires meet; the trade empire of the Republic of Seressa (Venice), the distant but still potent empire of Obravic (Holy Roman Empire), the non-Jaddite (Christian) empire of Asharias (the Muslim/Ottoman analog), and the tattered remnants of the old Sarantine empire. In that litoral space, pirates from Senjan and traders from the Republic of Dubrava (part of the Balkan/Croatian/Serbian analog - it's not a direct correlation) struggle to play off the more powerful trading empires, holding strong to their Jaddite faith, or being willing to compromise by trading with the Asharite "infidels". As always, Kay has done extensive research, and presents a book which is satisfying on the level of narrative and on the level of history (even if this is NOT historical fiction, it just has the depth and flavor of historical fiction). All that, plus strong female characters, some of who defy their socially constrained position to get what they want, and others who leverage their social status in a subversive way. Did I mention politics? Lots and lots of detailed politics - delightful! If you like Kay, you'll like this. If you've read no Kay previously, but enjoy historical fiction, this is a perfectly good place to start - the references to Al-Rasan and Sarantium are bonuses for long time readers, and you do not need to have read the other books (although you should!) before reading this one.


Finally, because I promised that I would review it - Jack Douglas' The Jewish-Japanese Sex and Cookbook and How to Raise Wolves. Notable primarily for its absurdly provocative title, this book is a mildly amusing memoir of a Hollywood writer with a wolf obsession. It was published in 1972, and is an artifact of the period - Douglas is able to legally purchase a wolf in Connecticut, and raise it on his property. Later, unwilling to keep the animal in captivity, he releases the wolf, its mate, and their five wolf puppies in Northern Ontario. I'm sure that there would be significant obstacles to this behavior now. The time period is also reflected in the language used, today, much of Douglas' work would be politically incorrect. Douglas, writing in the 1970s, was not trying to be provocative (in his derogatory presentation of gay men, women, and non-whites, at least), he merely reflects the mores of his time - indeed, he seems to be mocking the attitudes towards minorities more than the minorities themselves; arguably a necessary step. However, his caricatures of his friends and neighbors (and his Japanese wife, Reiko) are jarring to a modern ear, and feel overly broad and crude. At best, the humor approaches a Dave Barry-esque knowing smirk at the follies of modern life. At its worst - well, humor is subjective, I suppose, but there were several places where I felt like Douglas wanted me to laugh, but I simply could not.

The wolves are the best part, and clearly the point of the book - there is no sex, and nothing that one might consider a cookbook here, so if you were looking for that, look elsewhere. Douglas presents himself, convincingly, as invested in the long-term preservation of a species he finds beautiful. He recognizes that other people find wolves threatening, and sympathizes, but disagrees. His actions in regards to the wolves - releasing them into the wild - are presented as well reasoned (perhaps), and Douglas' qualms about releasing them (will they be able to transition from semi-domesticity to life in the wild? Will they be able to feed themselves? Will some idiot shoot them out of frustration over not being able to find a moose?) are rendered well, and sympathetically. I like Douglas-the-Conservationist in ways that I do not like Douglas-the-Humorist, and would like more discussion of wolves from that point of view, without the trappings of 1970s sit-com humor. Perhaps it's time to re-read Farley Mowatt.