Best reads of 2014 (or what I found in my notebook)

BestReads2014_DSCN2263When I read and write, I connect dots. Maybe you do too. Earlier this month, I noticed — and commented on — a Facebook post that linked to an article on how writing thoughts, ideas and quotes into notebooks makes one smarter. That article reminded me of how commonplace books house many notes and quotes from books read. [Link to article on commonplace books] The art of notations in commonplace books has been a practice of mine for decades. Whether it makes me smarter is yet to be evident.

Connecting some dots. Last week I came across a tweet that read:

“Ranking artists and making lists is a dead culture’s version intellectualism.”
@marcmaron

Considering this originated on twitter, I am inclined to disregard it. Yet, oddly, it resonates with me on some levels. Maybe it is because of the blogs I follow that list and present authors’s reading statistics (examples here and here).

Connecting dots. Over a year ago, sitting in front of the large windows of the Pack Library, I pondered the best of lists of 2013. My response is documented in this post. In brief, I listed my best books I read during the year — that were not printed in 2013.

Should I do a list for this year, 2014? The Seattle Times published their 2014 list. The Economist presented their austere list of best reads of 2014. Of course, the New York Times presented there top books of the year as well as a number of other publishers and blogs that try to capitalize on the posting their lists in time for holiday purchasing.  

For 2014, allow me to open up the pages of my commonplace book — a thick red daily reminder journal used for both a calendar of events and appointments and day book — and share with you some of the notes and quotes found therein. Starting in March there is an entry on the following book:

Nobel Lecture: Czeslaw Milosz by Czeslaw Milosz

Found a hardcover, bilingual edition at the public library. That edition appears to be out of print based on internet searches. (If you find a first edition, hardcover edition please let me know.) Here are a line I wrote in my commonplace book/day journal:

“Two attributes of the poet, avidity of the eye and desire to describe that which he sees.”

And this one:

“In the minds of modern illiterates, however, who know how to read and write and even teach in schools and at universities, history is present but blurred, in a state of strange confusion. Moliére becomes a contemporary of Napoleon.”

Crediting Poetry: The Nobel Lecture by Seamus Heaney

“Ahistorical, pre-sexual, in suspension between the archaic and the modern, we were as susceptible and impressionable as the drinking water that stood in a bucket in our scullery: every time a passing train made the earth shake, the surface of the water used to ripple delicately, concentrically, and in utter silence.”

This Year You Write Your Novel by Walter Mosley

“The first thing you have to know about writing is that it is something you must do every day — every morning or every evening, whatever time it is that you have.”

And…

“The process… is… a journey by boat…. If you get distracted or allow yourself to drift, you will never make it to the destination…. The journey is your narrative.”

A Region Not Home: Reflections from Exile by James Alan McPherson

From the opening paragraph, this book drew me in:

“In 1974,… I lived in San Francisco, California. My public reason for leaving the East and going there was that my wife had been admitted to the San Francisco Medical Center School of Nursing, but my private reason for going was that San Francisco would be a very good place for working and walking.”

What other reason is there to move, right? Here is another selection:

“Friendships grounded in mutual alienation and self-consciously geared to the perception of others are seldom truly tested. They lack an organic relationship to a common landscape, a common or ‘normal’ basis for the evolution of trust and mutual interest.”

More along the theme as well as reference to Ralph Ellison:

“It was Aristotle who thought the most deeply about friendship as a moral virtue. He [referring to Ralph Ellison] distinguished between friendships grounded in pleasure and utility, which friendships last as long as pleasure and usefulness last. These two grounds of friendship are common. For Aristotle, the best of all grounds for friendship was what he termed ‘perfected friendship.’ This degree of friendship obtains when one person wants for the other what is good for him simply because it is good for him. He believed that only people with comparable virtues could sustain this kind of friendship. Aristotle did not mean equality of virtue; he meant proportionate virtue. He meant that each is prepared to render to the other what the other deserved.”

Somewhere More Holy: Stories from a Bewildered Father, Stumbling Husband, Reluctant Handyman, and Prodigal Son by Tony Woodlief

There are so many selections written in my journal that I turned it into a book review and later featured it in a podcast. Listen to it here.

One for the Rose by Philip Levine

This is another jewel found in the public library. Again, it appears out of print according to online retailers and first editions seem to be rare. (Contact me if you find a first printing of this one.) Here are two excerpts of poems from this collection of poems:

“I was born in Lucerne
I faced the longest night
of my life with tight fists and closed eyes
beside a woman of independence and courage
Who sang the peasant songs of her region.”

And

“and I could sit for a moment
remembering what it was
to rise slowly to a world
that seemed at peace on the long
Sunday mornings of lonely first manhood
when I knew nothing
except there was no work that day”

Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey: Poems, 1991-1995 by Hayden Carruth

This book drew a lot of ink into my daily journal. Here are two samples I wrote during the summer:

“and I still cannot believe you wouldn’t
give me a job when I needed one so badly”

And

“Old men converse across the abyss of time
on a hot evening in elusive light—”

Okay, one more…

“Somehow his eyes get lost
in the words and the snow”

Pigafetta Is My Wife by Joe Hall

This is a book I struggled with. A lot. Eventually it won me over and — ahem — became my wife. You will have to read it to understand the allusion. Here is a couple lines to entice you:

“I need to stop imagining that
some straight lines connect us”

Finding the Islands by W. S. Merwin

At some point in autumn, I realized I had written down some many lines from this book I practically transcribed the book into my journal. One day, during the noon meal I quoted a few lines from the book. Everyone at the table went silent. Here is an excerpt that still haunts me:

“How time disappears
while we live under
the big tree”

The Name and Nature of Poetry: and Other Selected Prose by A. E. Housman

What can I say about this book? Well, read some of the things I copied into a commonplace book:

“We should beware of treating the word poetry as chemists have treated the word salt…. If we apply the word poetry to an object which does not resemble, either in form or content, anything which has heretofore been so called, not only are we maltreating and corrupting language, but we may be guilty of disrespect and blasphemy.”

And

“Man had ceased to live from the depths of his nature; he occupied himself for choice with thoughts which do not range beyond the sphere of the understanding; he lighted the candles and drew down the blind to shut out that patroness of poets, the moon.”

There are more notes and books referenced in my commonplace book/day journal that are not included. May this inspire you to connect dots, make notes and start a commonplace book of your own.

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Is poetry dead? or can poetry matter?

Is Poetry Dead?

Earlier this year a quiet and quite active discussion took place in a small corner of the public square. It began with Alexandra Petri’s article “Is Poetry Dead?” [1] John Deming immediately responded with an “Open Letter to Alexandra Petri.” [2] A Few days later, Richard Higgs tossed the question to a group of poets and writers. [3] The topic was actively discussed for months.

Alexandra Petri asked “Is poetry dead?” Referencing Richard Blanco, she writes, “. . . poetry, a field that may very well be obsolete.” She continues:

I say this lovingly as a member of the print media. If poetry is dead, we are in the next ward over, wheezing noisily, with our family gathered around looking concerned and asking about our stereos.

In her article she offers some harsh yet reasonable analysis: “These days, poetry is institutionalized. Everyone can write it. But if you want a lot of people to read it . . . there are a few choked channels of Reputable Publications.”

John Deming immediately replies to this “attack on American poetry” by stating that there are more than “2,000 books of poetry are published each year in the U.S.” He did not reveal where he got that number, but I suspect much of those poetry books are independent or small press publications. Further, knowing intimately how the publishing business works, I suspect that the majority of those poetry books published do not exceed press runs of more than 500 copies. With all due respect to Mr. Deming, his open letter is more a reaction to Ms. Petri’s article and less a defense of American poetry’s life (or death). He does offer a pointed question for both Ms. Petri and for poets: “. . . what kind of ‘change’ [do] you mean. Literal political change?”

Can poetry effect change?

Years ago Dana Gioia asked “Can Poetry Matter?” in his essay published in The Atlantic Monthly [4] [5] I will not go into a lot of detail about his essay because I do not want to spoil his conclusion, but I do encourage you to read it. Mr. Gioia’s question is a better question than Ms. Petri’s. Introducing great poetry in school is part of the equation as well as encouraging the love of reading books to children. Mr. Gioia offers other ways to promote the reading of and love of poetry. The Academy of American Poets published a report years ago that stated that adults who purchase and read poetry books were introduced to poetry at an early age.

Alexandra Petri does present some valid concerns. Like Ms. Petri, I have attended poetry readings where “the attendees were almost without exception students of the poet who were there in the hopes of extra credit.” For that matter, I’ve been that poet (like Charles Bukowski) [6] reading to an audience of “. . . friends, . . . other poets / and the handful of idiots who have wandered / in / from nowhere.” Mr. Deming makes some equally valid points that poetry is “far from obsolete . . .” As someone in the publishing industry I know that poetry books do sell, but not as well as fiction or non-fiction. But lack of book sales revenue does not mean that poetry books are not effective or revolutionary. How many memoirs or novels have you read that feature a few lines of poetry as an epigraph printed at the beginning of the work?

I am convinced that there is a large audience of people that do not know that they enjoy poetry. They have to be introduced to great poetry. The fact that the August 31, 2013 issue of the New York Times featured a large front page photo of the poet Seamus Heaney (printed above the fold in contrast to a small photo of the President of the United States below the fold) testifies to the relevance of poetry in America. [7] Can poetry effect change? The poem “The Names” by Billy Collins was read before a special joint session of Congress in 2002 commemorating the victims of 9/11. [8] Can poetry matter? These are just two examples that attest to it’s impact (if ever so little) in our culture.

NOTES: [1] Alexandra Petri, “Is poetry dead?,” The Washington Post ComPost, January 22, 2013, accessed January 29, 2013 http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/compost/wp/2013/01/22/is-poetry-dead/
[2] John Deming, “Open Letter to Alexandra Petri,” Coldfront Magazine , January 22, 2013 accessed January 29, 2013 http://coldfrontmag.com/news/open-letter-to-alexandra-petri?goback=%2Egde_1651527_member_208175181
[3] Richard Higgs, “Is poetry dead? Washington Post blog article, and a brilliant response,” LinkedIn Poetry Editors & Poets Group, January 25, 2013, accessed January 29, 2013 http://www.linkedin.com/groups/Is-poetry-dead-Washington-Post-1651527.S.208175181?qid=64a426de-d879-42c3-b90d-5c25b99fe691&trk=group_most_popular-0-b-ttl&goback=%2Egde_1651527_member_208175181%2Egmp_1651527
[4] The Atlantic Monthly; May, 1991; “Can Poetry Matter?”; Volume 267, No. 5; pages 94-106.
[5] Dana Gioia, “Can Poetry Matter?,” The Atlantic Monthly, May, 1991, accessed January 29, 2013 http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/unbound/poetry/gioia/gioia.htm
[6] Charles Bukowski, “poetry readings,” The Writer’s Almanac, September 11, 2008, accessed January 29, 2013 http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2008/09/11.
[7] “The New York Times pays tribute to Seamus Heaney,” TheJournal.ie , August 31, 2013, accessed September 25, 2013 http://www.thejournal.ie/new-york-times-seamus-heaney-1063056-Aug2013/
[8] “Poet Billy Collins Reflects on 9/11,” PBSNewsHour, accessed September 25, 2013 http://www.poetryfoundation.org/features/video/301