Friday, May 29, 2009

Just a Good Poem

Here's today's dilema:

I talked with my students this morning about how today's readers -- especially internet readers -- don't really read all that slowly or carefully. Instead, they skim and skip around. They click here and there, and they get easily distracted. They tend to have short attention spans. So, here's the dilema:

QUESTION: On this blog would it be better for me to write literary analysis which you'd likely skim or skip altogether or would it be better for me to link you to one good short poem you'd be more likely to read?

ANSWER: I think I'd rather have you read one good poem than anything I have to say.

And it just so happens that I have a new favorite poem. I love it so much I even copied it and hung it on my office door (which is a university professors ultimate tribute).

So today, feel free to skip and skim over anything I have to say (which you probably already have) -- but please read this carefully.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Featured Book Friday: A Poem by David Wagoner

Last night, for the first time this spring, the pieces finally all fell into place. The hurricane winds in Rexburg stopped. The cold disappeared. My children went strait to bed, and the sun powered out enough of a dusky, orange glow that I could read outside.

I grabbed a book, headed for the back porch, and plunked down in a lawn chair. After a few minutes, the two neighborhood teenagers on motorcycles who, for hours, had been terrorizing the late afternoon stillness called it a day. Then, a previously distracted parent realized it was his child screaming bloody murder in the backyard and tended to her. The workmen down the street finished re-shingling a roof and loaded up their air compressors, nail guns, and radio.

All at once, engines rested. Doors closed. The sun began to set. And the day-people vanished.

Then, I read this poem ten times over, stopping again and again to think, to listen, and to breathe it in.

Thank heavens for moments of stillness.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Slate and A Poem to Break Your Heart

I'm a big fan of Slate.

If you've never heard of it, Slate is an online magazine that manages to blend pop culture, politics, art, and science in quirky, random, and sometimes completely bizarre (but always fascinating) ways.

For example, headlines you can find at Slate today include "Politicians make lousy commencement speakers. Hire a celebrity instead", "How Obama is like Spock", and "What can reality TV teach us about clinical drug trials?"

Fun stuff.

Slate also has a pretty great section on the arts, and from time to time, they'll publish a book review, short story, or poem.

Today, they published a beautiful, heartbreaking poem, "Last Days" by Elise Partridge. In addition to the text of the poem, Slate also includes a recording of Elise Partridge reading it aloud. I've always been interested in how authors read their own work, so this is a nice inclusion (though I find most poets, including Partridge, to be pretty bad readers -- slow and boring and theatrically-cerebral, and they tend to take themselves and their work very seriously).

Anyway, check out the poem, which is good; and maybe ignore the reading, which is not.

I warn you, however, that the poem is absolutely tragic. Prepare to be broken.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Featured Book Friday: Two Good Poems

I've been a lousy blogger this week. I've been busy with work and home tasks, and I haven't, sadly, read as much of Good Poems as I'd like (though this "Featured Book Friday" post is showing up a few hours early, so that should count for something).

When I have read though, I've been glad I did. Good Poems is, I think, a true literary gem. Sure, there are probably much better collections of poetry in the world, and there are certainly smarter, more complex, more layered poems out there than the ones that appear in this book. In fact, if Good Poems has a flaw, it's that a lot of the poems in it are dangerously simple. Some of the poems are even downright coherent (gasp!).

But there's immense value in this simplicity. Too often, English professors and academics like me tend to value complexity and depth and even difficulty more than we value clarity and beauty. This is one reason, I think, I hear so many people complain about poetry and literature and English classes from their past.

You'd probably be surprised, incidentally, just how comfortable people are, after they find out I'm an English professor, throwing all of their literary angst in my direction -- "I hate poetry!", "You're not one of those professors who makes people agree with your interpretation, are you?", "You're an English professor? I'll be careful what I say around you" (conversation ends) .

Maybe there'd be less angst over literature in the world today if we taught more poems like the ones Garrison Keillor puts in this collection. Take this poem, for example, by Wendy Cope. It's so simple and easy to understand that I wouldn't hesitate teaching it to a class of children. It's got a playful, sing-songy meter and easy-to-listen-to, end-stopped rhymes. And yet, it's not mundane. It's important and captures the beauty that comes from simple pleasures.

Or consider this poem by Sheenagh Pugh. It's just a simple expression of well-wishing for the reader. People get this poetry. And yet, I could read this poem ten times, back-to-back, without getting bored. I could sit down to memorize it without growing tired of it.

These are the poems I most admire -- poems that are simple, but still beautiful; accessible, but still meaningful. Good Poems contains a host of these, and stumbling on one is like finding a twenty-dollar bill you'd forgotten about in your pants pocket.

"Oh," you think when you find it. "There's that wonderful little thing. I knew it had to be somewhere."

Friday, May 8, 2009

Featured Book Friday: Poems Are Short!

This month, as I'm reading Good Poems edited by Garrison Keillor, I'm discovering yet another benefit of reading poetry, an obvious benefit that presumably everyone on earth already knows and I'm only just figuring out. It's this:

Poetry is short, and you can read a good poem in no time at all.

This is fortunate because I've had a remarkably busy week. My wife's birthday is this week. My anniversary is this week. Mothers' Day is this week. I'm in charge of a major community project this week. I've had meeting after meeting. I've been grading papers.

And yet, I've read a lot of poetry this week, but never in long, sustained stretches. Instead, I've read in snippets. I read a few poems in the 10-minute break between my classes. I read a bunch of poems while I was cycling at the gym. I read a poem while walking to class. I read a poem while waiting in line at the bank. I'm even contemplating reading poetry later today while I mow the lawn. I could just prop the book up of the lawnmower's handle and go at it. I'll bet it would work, and my neighbors already know I'm weird, so what would I lose?

In two minutes of down time -- in the time it takes to check your email or drop a bill in the mailbox or make yourself a sandwich -- you can read a good poem.

So, read this. It's one of the poems included in Good Poems. It'll take you about a minute to read, and it'll show you something beautiful.

And to those who say they're too busy to read, go get a copy of Good Poems and try carrying it around with you. If you do, you'll find a few minutes here and there to read -- maybe in the grocery store or at the dentist -- and before you know it, you'll have read dozens, maybe even hundreds, of beautiful poems.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Three Western Poets

There's something wonderful about poets from the American west.

I know this is a gross generalization, but it seems to me that poets from the west aren't trying as hard to impress anybody. They tend to shun obscure, intentionally difficult poetry in favor of clean, simple language.

Poets from the west seem to end up writing poems that are clear and definite and hard and rugged and gritty.

And I like it.

So today I'd like to tell you about three cool western poets and link you to some of their poetry. Here they are:

1. William Kloefkorn

Kloefkorn, who's from Nebraska, has written twelve books of poetry. He's said, "Poems should not be simplistic, nor should they be sermons. Poetry is for those who want to use their own minds to find answers. It can challenge without being elitist or obscure."

Kloefkorn's also a darn nice guy. I once went to a poetry reading he gave and loved his work. I approached him after the reading and asked where I could buy the book he'd been reading from. "You want to buy one of these books?" he said. "Why would you buy one when there's one right here?" Then he signed the book he'd been reading from and gave it to me. He's a class act.

You can read one of his shorter poems about a belated confession here.

2. Lucas Howell

Howell lives in Wyoming and studied creative writing in Idaho. He's a younger writer, and I'd never heard of him until yesterday when I encountered this poem in Slate. It's fantastic, and if this one poem ends up being the only thing Howell ever writes, I think he should count himself a success.

I've never understood men who relive their glory days through adult softball leagues, but Howell's poem brings these men and the conflict between their lives and wishes into clear, easy focus. He shows these men as likable, longing-filled creatures, and I like that.

I'll look for more Lucas Howell in the future.

3. David Lee

Lee was Utah's first poet laureate, and his poetry grows out of his eclectic background. Check out these resume lines:
  • He's raised pigs.
  • He's been a boxer.
  • He's a war veteren.
  • He's been a semiprofessional baseball player.
  • He's worked in a cotton mill.
  • He has a PhD in poetry.
The man's done an awful lot, and you can read one of his poems here.

I hope you enjoyed today's poetry. We start our discussion of Good Poems by Garrison Keillor on Friday, so get your copy soon.

Monday, May 4, 2009

New British Poet Laureate: Carol Ann Duffy

Did you know that the British have been appointing poet laureates for 341 years?

And did you know that poet laureates of Britian have included some top-notch classic poets, like John Dryden, Alfred Tennyson, and William Wordsworth?

And did you know that in 341 years, the poet laureate of Britian has never -- not once -- been a woman?

Until now.

On Friday, for the first time in history, a woman received the appointment to become the British poet laureate.

Her name is Carol Ann Duffy, and The New York Times has a nice write up about her life and poetry here.

If you'd like to learn more about her, you can read two of her poems here.