Complete Poems 1904-1962 by E.E. Cummings, edited by George J. Firmage, 5/5
By turns beautiful and baffling, these poems seem less made to be read than absorbed. Many passages that stoutly resisted my best attempts at analysis revealed their meaning at a careless second glance, like stepping back from a painting far enough for the brushstrokes to blend together. Brushing aside petty rules of grammatical convention, Cummings covers the whole spectrum of poetic possibility, from grotesque to delicate, brutal to erotic (sometimes both at the same time–no judgment here), simple to incomprehensible.
Here’s one of my favorites that captures most of the things I love about Cummings:
the great advantage of being alive
(instead of undying)is not so much
that mind no more can disprove than prove
what heart may feel and soul may touch
–the great(my darling)happens to be
that love are in we,that love are in we
and here is a secret they never will share
for whom create is less than have
or one times one than when times where–
that we are in love,that we are in love:
with us they’ve nothing times nothing to do
(for love are in we am in i are in you)
this world(as timorous itsters all
to call their cowardice quite agree)
shall never discover our touch and feel
–for love are in we are in love are in we;
for you are and i am and we are(above
and under all possible worlds)in love
a billion brains may coax undeath
from fancied fact and spaceful time–
no heart can leap,no soul can breathe
but by the sizeless truth of a dream
whose sleep is the sky and the earth and the sea.
For love are in you am in i are in we
Why I read it: I hoped to find more poems like his famous “i carry your heart with me,” which I did! The following poem reminded me of it most because of its sweetness and simplicity:
skies may be blue;yes
(when gone are hail and sleet and snow)
but bluer than my darling’s eyes,
spring skies are no
hearts may be true;yes
(by night or day in joy or woe)
but truer than your lover’s is,
hearts do not grow
nows may be new;yes
(as new as april’s first hello)
but new as this our thousandth kiss,
no now is so
helium by Rudy Francisco, 3/5
By the time my library bought this book for me (have I mentioned how much I LOVE libraries?!) and I got around to reading it, I had forgotten why I requested it in the first place and only remembered a vague feeling of excitement and anticipation. Despite the positive feelings going into it, I didn’t really connect well with most of Francisco’s poetry and found the vocabulary a bit forced, cliched, and melodramatic. It wasn’t until I reached the penultimate poem that I remembered why I had looked the book up in the first place and also why I wasn’t enjoying it. Earlier, I had come across Francisco’s powerful spoken-word performance of “Complainers” and it had inspired me to find out more about his work. Turns out, spoken-word poetry needs a speaker just like a song needs a singer. Both the artist and the performance are such an integral part of the art that it is virtually lifeless without these elements. So, this book has value as a physical collection of Francisco’s writings and as a way that fans can provide financial support for him, but to really explore his work, I think YouTube is a better option.
Wit and Wonder: Poetry with Rhythm and Rhyme by James D. Herren, 5/5
When the author, a fellow fan of Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled, asked me out of the blue to review his newly self-published e-book of poetry, I felt a bit worried about balancing the responsibilities of being both a Very Nice Person and an Honest Book Reviewer. Thankfully, this moral dilemma was postponed to another time–I wholeheartedly love Herren’s poetry, finding it to be unpretentious, heartfelt and skillfully written. There is something in it for everyone–I kept pausing to read certain poems aloud to family members and even sent a couple screenshots to my sister on the east coast. When print copies of Wit and Wonder become available in April, I plan to buy one for my private library, as well as one for my family’s library and one to give a friend (something to look forward to, Alison B.). For those of you who aren’t quite as addicted to the smell of fresh ink as I am, the e-book is available now on Amazon through this link.
I tried to pick out a favourite poem to include in this review, but I liked too many of them to narrow it down to one. So I decided to pick out two that illustrated the range of tone and style in this collection, but they contrasted too much to appear side-by-side. So I finally narrowed it down to three (which is pretty good, given that there are 148 poems to choose from).
I juggled the bills —
and my family, and job —
all while keeping a roof on our heads,
then I threw in a dance,
and a dash of romance,
for my wife who was juggling kids.
Away with words.
Crash in a dazzling way.
Dance on the shoulders of giants.
Mock them with your brilliance.
The things I think are sometimes not
the things I think I thought I thought.
I thought I heard a dinosaur
but that was just my father’s snore.
I thought I saw a crocodile
but it was just my sister’s smile.
I thought I heard a dying cat —
my mother’s singing, only that.
I thought the world was torn apart
but that was just my brother’s fart.
I think it would be fun if you
could think of things the way I do.
The Works of Oscar Wilde by Oscar Wilde, 5/5
Oscar Wilde is one of my favorite authors and I have read (and re-read) his major works, such as the entrancing novella, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the impossibly witty play The Importance of Being Earnest. However, there were a few of his short stories, plays and poems that I’d never encountered before, so this collection was a delightful mix of old favourites and new discoveries.
Why I read it: this collection was a birthday present from my dad.
The Song of Roland, translated by Frederick Goldin, 5/5
I can’t say I enjoyed reading this second translation of the epic poem as much as the first, but that is probably not a reflection of each version’s merit so much as the fact that reading The Song of Roland twice in two weeks is too much. Goldin’s translation is longer and seems much more true to the original from a grammatical point of view, but I found it to be less accessible than Luquiens’ version, which is more emotional and dramatic, while being less wordy. There is a sort of Old Testament rhythm and repetitive style to Goldin’s work that made it difficult not to zone out while reading.
Here is the opening laisse from each version for comparison:
Charles the King, our Emperor, the Great,
has been in Spain for seven full years,
has conquered the high land down to the sea.
There is no castle that stands against him now,
no wall, no citadel left to break down–
except Saragossa, high on a mountain.
King Marsilion holds it, who does not love God,
who serves Mahumet and prays to Apollin.
He cannot save himself: his ruin will find him there. AOI.
-Translated by Frederick Goldin
Charles the great King, lord of the land of France,
Has fought beyond the hills for seven years,
And led his conquering host to the land’s end.
There is but one of all the towns of Spain
Unshattered–grim Saragossa, mountain-girt,
Held by Marsila, King of Spain, of those
Who love not God and serve false gods of stone
Brought from the shores of Araby.–Happless King!
Your hour is come, for all your gods of stone.
-Translated by Frederick Bliss Luquiens
The Song of Roland, translated by Frederick Bliss Luquiens, 5/5
This epic tale of the betrayal and death of Roland at the hands of the Saracens clearly belongs in the company of other great epics, such as Gilgamesh, the Iliad and Beowulf. There is a timelessness and inevitability to the events in this poem that make you forget for a while that mythical heroes don’t walk the earth (though villains of mythical stature seem to). In my opinion, Luquiens’ translation in unrhymed iambic pentameter is tasteful and conveys poetic beauty without pretension.
Why I read it: one of those famous works I’d heard about but never actually read. Update: now I’ve read two versions–here’s a link to my review of the second.
Inspired by Mots d’Heures: Gousses, Rames, these German verses sound, when read aloud, like Mother Goose rhymes being spoken in accented English.
You can give it a try if you’re in private (or not easily embarrassed):
Little Bo-peep has lost her sheep,
And doesn’t know where to find them;
Leave them alone, and they will come home,
Bringing their tails behind them.
Liesel Bopp hieb es Schloss der schieb
An Dutzend Noor, wer zu Feind dem,
Lief dem Aal ohn’ an Tee willkomm Ohm;
Brenken der Teil Spee ein dem.
Compared to the French version of this concept, I found the rhymes much easier to recognize in German. I also liked that this edition had all the English verses in the back, so I didn’t have to resort to Google for translations nearly as often.
Why I read it: while researching Mots d’Heures, I learned about this book and bought a copy immediately. I sing in German a lot (in fact, this weekend I’m performing in Bach’s St. John Passion), so this is great practice and fun.
This might be the strangest and most ingenious premise for a book I have ever seen–even after reading it, I still don’t really see how it’s possible. It is a collection of poems written in French that, when read aloud, sound like Mother Goose rhymes being read in English with a thick French accent. The author supplies entertaining footnotes that attempt, with varying degrees of success, to make sense of the “original” French.
Here’s an example for “Little Bo Peep”:
Little Bo Peep
has lost her sheep
and doesn’t know where to find them;
leave them alone and they will come home
wagging their tails behind them.
Lille beau pipe
Ocelot serre chypre
En douzaine aux verres tuf indemne
Livre de melons un dé huile qu’aux mômes
Eau à guigne d’air telle baie indemne.
Why I read it: My friend, Alison (whose own book, Entropy Academy, is soon to be released), gave this book to me while I was taking a French language class. Hearing the verses read aloud in her English accent was a hilariously bizarre experience.
N.B. There is a German version of this concept called Mörder Guss Reims.
Slavitt sets himself a Herculean task–translating the Latin Odes of eminent Roman poet Horace with a view to recreating for modern readers a similar reading experience to the one that the poems might have offered ancient audiences, who enjoyed a different language, different range of knowledge, and different sensibilities.
The commentary Slavitt provides for each ode, clarifying difficult parts of the text and explaining what he added in or left out, is both helpful and horrifying: helpful in that it provides insight into the intricate art of translation, horrifying in its revelation of some of the liberties he takes with the text. It set my teeth on edge when Slavitt inserted the anachronistic “cougar” (an older woman who chases younger men) into one of the odes, explaining that “Had such a convenient concinnity of terms been available to Horace, I am sure he’d have used it” (134). Or when he describes a “murder” of crows, using the word because it’s “one I have always liked” (130). Or when he invents unwarranted poetic additions simply to increase the “linguistic density” of the poem (113).
I admire Slavitt’s stated goal very much, but felt that many of the liberties he took with the text were unscholarly, unjustified and disrespectful to the original works. After all, it boils down to this: Horace was one of Rome’s leading poets. Who is David R. Slavitt? I would have had absolutely no problem with this book if Slavitt had just fully indulged himself and created a work titled Odes by David R. Slavitt, inspired by Horace.
In addition to my dislike of Slavitt’s approach to translation, I also did not much enjoy the resulting poems themselves. This is not a reflection of their quality or value, just the fact that I failed to experience a connection with them. Poetry has always seemed to me a very personal thing–you never know what is going to resonate, when, and with whom. Overall, however, I did not find the odes to be very beautiful or thought-provoking, they generally did not demonstrate pleasing word choices and metres, and they did not make me look at things in new or different ways (all aspects common to poetry I enjoy).
[Why I read it: I think I just stumbled across it while browsing in the library and thought it looked interesting.]
Poetry doesn’t come more witty, concise and hilarious than the gems found in this collection, which contains just a small sample of the over 7000 “grooks” written by Danish polymath Piet Hein.
Here are a couple of my favourite examples from the first book:
Losing one glove
is certainly painful,
compared to the pain
of losing one,
throwing away the other,
the first one again.
The Road to Wisdom
The road to wisdom? — Well, it’s plain
and simple to express:
and err again
Sadly, these books are long out of print and, since little information is available about the different versions that were published in Denmark, Canada and the U.S., it is a confusing task to try to assemble a matching set. I settled for Doubleday editions from the mid-1960s to early-1970s and was able to buy the books individually from AbeBooks (relying on ISBNs, not cover images, which were often missing or incorrect).
[Why I read it: the first three books were a random find at the thriftstore and I passed them along to my brother after enjoying them. Years later, I happened to be visiting him and saw these books on the shelf. They were so funny a second time that I decided to buy a complete set for myself.]
The gallery below contains large images of the front covers, so you can get a feel better feel for the artwork and style of poetry: