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The Seven Best Poetry Books of 2021… Maybe

T’is the season for “Best of” lists, and yes, even poetry gets in on the game, at least if the playing field is as large as The New York Times, where the Book Review’s poetry columnist Elisa Gabbert selected seven favorites from 2021 only to be pounced on by readers.

One named “to each their own taste” commented “The NY Times carries great authority, yet this list is so arbitrary and slants so steeply toward poets who are not widely known. How can any round up being called the year’s ‘best poetry books’ not include even Kaveh Akbar’s “Pilgrim Bell,” let alone the Louise Glück book seemingly ignored exactly because it’s by a Nobel poet. Does being better-known disqualify?”

I couldn’t disagree more. I mean, I get it. Having read both Nobel winner Louise Glück’s wonderful Winter Recipes from the Collective and Kaveh Akbar’s Pilgrim Bell: Poems, I can understand why they might merit consideration for a “Best of” list. But really, do Nobel winners and familiar names like theirs even need the attention? And isn’t that a little too easy for an expert like Elisa Gabbert?

Unlike “to each their own taste,” I favor slants “toward poets who are not widely known.” In fact, I think The Times’ Gabbert could slant even more. Two of her seven selections were choices of a Brooklyn bookstore’s poetry subscription series – one I myself receive. And while I’m in the confession box, I’ll state here that one of those two choices struck me as ordinary while the other I abandoned (though now I may give it a second go, to see if it’s me or Gabbert). In any event, keep slanting, Elisa! Make the widely unknown a little bit more known and trust that the famous can fend for themselves!

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SHORT TAKES

I’ve been reading Michael Ignatieff’s short essays, On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times, and so far have most enjoyed the pieces on Marcus Aurelius and Michel De Montaigne. Poor Marcus Aurelius. Like Bartleby the Emperor, he would “prefer not to” do anything Roman emperors had to do – rule, lead battalions against barbarians, entertain fools. Yet he slogged on, writing his Meditations to reprove himself (for lack of Stoic discipline) as much as others.

Montaigne, though he lived in the 16th century, struggled with the party (read: religious) line on consolation. He was too busy writing essays about himself as a human mind and a human body. How 21st century of him!

“I renounce any favorable testimonials that anyone may want to give me not because I shall deserve them but because I shall be dead,” he said, neglecting that little business of an after-life. As he lived in a time of Catholic vs. Protestant bloodshed in France, one can see why he loathed religious zealots.

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Care to sample a few poems from my book online? In the Miracle Monocle out of the University of Louisville, you’ll find “A Boy, A City” (originally written as an ekphrastic poem to go with a photograph) and “Loyalty,” one of my favorite short poems in the book.

You can also find one of the “lost brother” thematic poems, “My Brother’s Bedroom,” in Jacar Press’s poetry publication, one, Issue 21.

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Speaking of Reincarnation & Other Stimulants, my thanks go out to Steve Penkevich from Reader’s World Bookstore in Michigan, who published this awesome-isn’t-the-word-for-it review of my book on Goodreads.

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Am I the only one who thinks the scariest bit in the news these days is the slow taking down of our Republic? In this sense, the good news of Donald Trump’s defeat may turn out to be the bad news. If not for his legitimate defeat in the 2020 presidential election, none of this perfidy would have been turned loose.

Ever child-like and narcissistic, Trump denied losing and insisted it could only happen if he was “robbed.” His slavish minions in countless key states with Republican majorities in their houses and senates have taken this lie as an excuse to blatantly gerrymander voting districts so the GOP can’t possibly lose future elections.

Couple that with voter-suppression laws designed to favor voters registered with the GOP and the purging of any election official (Republicans as well) who had the integrity to stand up to Trump’s lies, and you get a recipe for one-party rule, much like you see in, say, Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China today. Elections may occur in those countries, but they are little more than bad jokes with outcomes a preordained given. Is that what we want for the formerly United States? To see Trump succeed where Jefferson Davis failed?

I’m not sure why Republicans and Democrats alike in states like Arizona, Texas, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina are not up in arms over this breach of citizens’ rights. Why are they OK with some American voters counting more than others? Is it patriotic to acquiesce to electoral systems used in Fascist and Communist (small difference, as both are built around cults of personality in a single leader… sound familiar?) countries today? I’m looking for ways to fight back, but it’s difficult when you don’t live in one of the states that are betraying basic precepts of the Constitution, all while cloaked in a false flag of patriotism.

 

The Secret Superpower You Don’t Know About

If you’re like me, you probably remember teachers who asked you to memorize a speech (“Four score and seven years ago…”), a Shakespeare soliloquy (“The quality of mercy is not strained…”), or a political document (“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”).  And, if you’re like me, you probably hated the assignment. After all, as you pleaded, you were terrible at memorization. Suzy Straight-A might manage it (like everything else), but you? Never!

Trouble is, your high drama was a bit of a lie. 

You see, as humans, we are hard-wired for memorization. It’s something we do naturally, if not by design then by happenstance. Why? Because memorized words are possessions, and if there’s one thing people like, it’s owning stuff (look around yourself or, for more dramatic purposes, think of Gollum speaking preciousssss nothings to a mere ring).

Still doubtful? The proof is in the pudding. You know hundreds of idioms like “the proof is in the pudding.” Chances are you know a few prayers by heart, too: “Our Father, who art in Heaven,” “Hail Mary, full of grace,” “Now I lay me down to sleep,” “It is our duty to praise and thank you, to glorify and sanctify Your name, “ etc.

And songs. There’s no telling how many lyrics you can pull out of nowhere once a song you love graces your ears.

Pretty impressive for someone incapable of memorization, no?

One of the most interesting English professors I took a course with at college had the misfortune of being a prisoner of war during WWII. He told us stories about the war and said he kept his sanity thanks to memorized poetry. Each day, throughout months of misery, he would recite poems in his mind over and over — words he had learned during his own schooldays — to keep himself together.

These poems became his company. His friends and his succor. His daily mantras. Without them, he said, he would almost surely have pleased his captors by going mad.

A memorized poem or three is a tool we all should have in our kits. They are great for your mental health in that they are like meditations: Calming touchstones. Sweet treats from inner voice to inner ear. Or, if you want to amaze your family or a few friends, there’s that, too.

To start, go short. Poems that rhyme and have a nice beat are easiest. Here are three that I memorized in minutes, meaning you can con them in less time still. The go-to guy for short rhymes that blend with the great outdoors and the great indoors we call gray matter is Robert Frost. Let’s start with an 8-liner that works especially well in winter (coming soon to a northern hemisphere near you):

 

Dust of Snow

by Robert Frost

 

The way a crow

Shook down on me

The dust of snow

From a hemlock tree

 

Has given my heart

A change of mood

And saved some part

Of a day I had rued.

 

Face it, in these pandemic days, saving a part of a day you had rued is vastly underestimated, crow or no. 

Here’s another rhyming 8-liner. It’s featured in S.E. Hinton’s young-adult classic The Outsiders. In that book (and movie), the protagonist Ponyboy Curtis lowers his defense shields in front of his pal Johnny by showing off some memorized poetry. The catalyst? Sunrise. And Johnny, who promises not to tell the gang back in Tulsa, thinks it’s plenty cool, too. (If you need better endorsement than Johnny, who coined the words, “Stay gold, Ponyboy,” there’s no helping you.)

 

Nothing Gold Can Stay

by Robert Frost

 

Nature’s first green is gold,

Her hardest hue to hold.

Her early leaf’s a flower;

But only so an hour.

Then leaf subsides to leaf.

So Eden sank to grief,

So dawn goes down to day.

Nothing gold can stay.

 

With those two under your belt, you can look to the stars and belt out Frost’s ode to the heavens — in particular, the brightest star Sirius, which is part of Canis Major, loyal dog co-starring in the winter sky with his owner, the constellation Orion.

 

Canis Major

by Rober Frost

 

The great Overdog,

That heavenly beast

With a star in one eye,

Gives a leap in the east.

He dances upright

All the way to the west

And never once drops

On his forefeet to rest.

I’m a poor underdog,

But tonight I will bark

With the great Overdog

That romps through the dark.

 

On winter mornings, if I’m out before sunrise, I like to recite “Canis Major” and watch Frost’s words rise as white steam in the beam of my headlight. They rise to join Orion’s best friend for eternity — and how cool (or, depending on the month, cold) is that?

Your confidence high and your inner powers bolstered (I kid you not — having poems memorized for any moment is a superpower), I’ll leave you with the most beloved Frost poem, one you probably heard a lot as a child and had half-memorized once upon a time anyway.

Let’s revisit this sweet-16 liner (really 15, as the last two lines echo each other through the ages), practice, and become a foster parent to four poems, shall we? You’ll thank me later, guaranteed.

 

Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening

by Robert Frost

 

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.

 

Will you sleep better after memorizing these poems? No doubt. And feel better. And feel more a part of the nature of things, like men who gathered round the fires long ago to hear bards unfold their long, memorized songs and sagas about heroes and heroines, monsters and dragons, et and cetera.

Speak, Memory, I say.

And why not? You’re already good at it. Very good.

 

Don’t Look Now, But Your Books Are Talking About You

Fallout from the ongoing pandemic has affected all aspects of life — many in negative ways, as might be expected, but some in positive ways, too (even if your name isn’t Jeff Bezos). One of the more pedestrian positives? Warming relations between you and your books.

First let’s look at England comma Jolly Olde. According to book sale monitor Nielsen BookScan, over 200 million print books were sold in England during 2020 — the first time that rampart had been scaled since 2012.

In the Somehow-Still-United States, news for 2020 book sales was equally good. NPD BookScan reported an 8.2% increase in sales from 2019, clocking in at 750.9 million sales — the largest annual American increase since 2010.

Book spines have joyfully photo-bombed us during this pandemic, too. Or maybe Zoom-bombed is a more accurate term. How many talking heads have appeared on our screens with books leering and mugging from over their shoulders? This is usually intentional, of course. Rather than broadcast with the expensive clothes hanger (read: Peloton) in the background, Zoomers set up shop before bookshelves with strategically-placed spines showing both outstanding posture and pedigree. That or they “set up” before strategically-placed illusions (known in the chicanery business as “credibility shelves”).

Not that anyone’s complained. During meetings, looking at book titles behind people gives us something to do while they yammer on. You see self-help books and say, “Hmn.” Or tomes on the Reformation in 16th-century Germany and say, “Interessant!” Or Donald Trump, Junior’s, book Triggered and say, “Seriously?” Or possibly Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, leading to “Yeah, right!” (that’s English for “Oui, droit!”)

You see, books speak clothbound volumes. Paperback volumes, too. About who we are (if we’ve read them) or who we wish we were (if we haven’t). Our relations with our books go deeper than we suspect. They say something about our personalities.

Though the following list is not definitive, here are 9 Ways Our Books Are a Rorschach of Who We Really Are.

1. We are ambitious. Are some of your books fat, like Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport (1040 pages), David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1,088 pages), or Stephen King’s It (1,168 pages)?

2. We hide our old Monarch Notes (or modern SparkNotes) well. As evidence, I give you leatherbound classics on the shelves competing with your expensive red wine in the aging well category. Check tops of books for dust.

3. We are detail-oriented. Some people arrange their bookshelves by color (at first I thought this was a joke, but I looked it up and it’s a thing!). Others arrange books by topic. Or genre. Or year purchased. Or height (tall boys to the left, shorties tapering right). Or alphabetically by author’s last name (it’s the frustrated librarian in us). Or — wait for it — not at all!

4. We can be depressing. Do you lay your books on their backs or stomachs? Are you a horizontal couch sort vs. a stand-tall vertical one? Do you realize how difficult it is to pull a book from the bottom of a prostrate heap? Like the old tablecloth trick, that. Pull fast and hope nothing falls to the floor as breaking news (cue CNN).

5. We can be one-trick ponies. I once saw a shelf that was all mysteries. Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Sue Grafton, etc. Or pick a genre, any genre. Some bookshelves are just. all. that. Some readers know what they like, that’s all. They’re like me at the ice cream stand selling 100 flavors — I still order black raspberry chip on a waffle cone every time.

6. We can be kind to orphans. Library books have a place in every reader’s house, too. A temporary place. When I visit Dewey’s Decimals at my local library, I sometimes peek at the “Date Due” sticker in the back. If it’s an empty grid, I next look for the date the book was entered. Recently, in the 811’s, I found a copy of Adrian Blevin’s Live from the Homesick Jamboree that had been stamped into circulation on July 24, 2015. For over six years, no one had taken this little gem home! Like a foster parent at the ugly dog shelter, I had to check it out and read it front to back (and like the Ugly Duckling, it was pretty impressive). That’s for you, Adrian!

7. We can cry for help or seek the Holy Grail of Perfection. When you see titles like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, 12 Rules for Life, and How to Win Friends and Influence People, you know books are answering the call. Whether they’re answered or not is another thing (maybe saying something about the reader, maybe saying something about the writer).

8. At times, we can cut lines. Two words: “Credibility” and “Bookshelf.”

9. We can be messy. Maybe your system is like mine — no system. Maybe your books like where they may (or may not) land. Maybe you own a copy of Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and leave it precariously atop a mish-mash of books. Maybe you refuse to hand over one of your darlings by saying “They all spark joy, and I’m not letting a single one go!” Maybe you dog-ear pages instead of using bookmarks, which horrifies some people. Maybe you annotate in the margins, which horrifies the remaining people. Maybe you even EAT and DRINK while reading, leaving crumbs for the ages in the book’s crevice (spelunking, anyone?) and red wine-stained pages for the ages that look a lot like Gorbachev’s forehead.

Whatever, any of the above can be a reflection of who you are, all through the medium of books. Whether they’re accurate or not will take some research. If someone who knows you well comes over, reread the 9 Ways. Then meet them in the reference section for further discussion.

 

 

When It Comes to Books, You’re Probably Too Fast and Too Far-Flung

Chances are you eat too fast. And buy food from very far away (which is next to Fiji, I believe). And financially feed the profits of some incredibly huge corporations, be they retail (Amazon, 24 billion in 2020, as an example), Big Food (Cargill, 115 billion, for another), or Big Pharma (Pfizer, 42 billion, and I could go on) .

Is it any wonder things like the Buy Local and the Slow Food movements came on the scene like Davids without their slingshots? In the case of slow food, the basic tenet is a throwback: People (especially families) should sit at the table together every day, break bread, eat their food slowly, and talk to each other. 

No televisions. No electronics on or within reach. Just speaking, listening, and slowly savoring (vs. inhaling) a home-cooked meal — a talent most of us lost somewhere along the line.

Then there’s the Buy Local Movement, which gave rise to farmers’ markets, which in turn gave hope to The Little Farmers That Could (and DID, but it took a village).

Turning these admirable trends to literature, you might ask yourself this as a reader: Why don’t more readers (or people who want to read more) subscribe to the Slow Reading Movement. Or how about the Read Local (as in someone you know, either well or virtually) trend?

Poetry offers unique answers to both questions because poetry is a unique animal. As Randall Jarrell once wrote: “Since most people know about the modern poet only that he is obscure — i.e. that he is difficult, i.e. that he is neglected — they naturally make a causal connection between the two meanings of the word, and decide that he is unread because he is difficult. Some of the time this is true; some of the time the reverse is true: the poet seems difficult because he is not read, because the reader is not accustomed to reading his or any other poetry.”

Think about it. Reading novels — which the majority of readers do — is often a race. You “inhale” your entertainment and turn pages in the name of that golden calf, Plot. Speed means page-turner means reader pleasure.

Chances are pretty good, too, that you financially feed the bottom line of the equivalent of large literary corporations (“Big Lit,” if you will — or even if you won’t): Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, James Patterson, John Grisham, Danielle Steele, et al.

If only more readers would diversify by mixing a little poetry into their reading regime. Poetry requires different reading skills than novels do. With different rewards, too. You need to slow down, first of all. Savor words and white space. Reread in the name of “How did the poet do that?”

Unlike a novel, which you might reread five or ten years from now if you truly loved it, you can no sooner finish a 100-page poetry collection then set to rereading it again, start to finish. You won’t just notice one or two new things on the second voyage, I assure you. It’s like being a driver the first time and a passenger the second — you see a lot more scenery coming back. 

Some things you may notice include sound devices that are music to your ears, metaphors that you first skimmed over, or multiple word meanings which, at first glance, you never considered. Or how about a rhythm equivalent to a favorite song’s. Or imagery that brings good old Kodak to mind. Or even unlikely word pairings — words you’ve never seen together that, after some thought, belong together.

Nice? Nice!

And what of “reading local”? For decades we paid no mind to the farmer in town beyond maybe mooing at his cows (irresistible!) as we drove by those big, doleful-eyed cuties along the fence. Now, despite realizing we can’t get EVERYthing we need from this farmer, we sure can savor the limited (and still growing) specialties his farm has to offer.

Read Local means taking a flyer on the writers you know or have heard of but Archie in Oshkosh has not. The up-and-comers who are where the large literary “corporations” stood themselves once upon a time. (Yes, Virginia, there once was an unknown writer named Stephen “Who?” King.)

Without the spirit of a Slow Reader Movement and a Read Local Movement, literary grassroots turn brown and die from lack of attention. Farming is work, and without support from the locals, small farmers go under and are forced to stop production.

Writing is work, too. Few realize it, but months and often years of writing and revision go into any finished product — the book you can hold in your hand. Like farming, writing is a business we don’t consider a business. And like farming, to reach the next level, it needs leaps of faith on the part of the locals. 

A poem that falls in the wilderness, after all, is heard by no one. Even if no one has an imagination like Emily Dickinson (“I’m Nobody! Who are you? / Are you — Nobody — too?)

The silver lining to this advice? Diversifying your reading, like mixing up your buying and exercising habits, will make you a better person. An eclectic person! (That’s Greek for “fascinating.”)

As Robert Frost would say: 

Whose readers these are I think I know.
Their house is in my village though;
They may not see me writing here
For the sake of their reading, you know.

OK, so I left out the snow. And I’m only pretty sure Frost would write that. On a slow day. In a good mood. While thinking about “books less traveled by.”

 

 

 

 

 

“April Is the Coolest Month.”

Front CoverT.S. Eliot? No. Me, actually.

Just in time for National Poetry Month, the publication date for my first collection of poems, The Indifferent World, has arrived. Expect reviews in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe (who will try to claim me as “their own”) soon. Just don’t get too curious about the definition of “soon.”

Here’s a link to my publisher, Future Cycle Press, for details: The Indifferent World. And in truth, it’s still in the abstract for me. The actual book is still not in my hands. But soon (that word again!).

While writing this book, I came across some interesting thoughts on the word “indifferent.” For most of us, it has a decidedly negative connotation. This is how Pope Francis uses it, for instance, when he laments human indifference to our fellow humans’ suffering.

But Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, saw it differently. To him indifference could be a positive. It could be a type of acceptance to whatever life deals us. A calmness in the face of life’s well-known track record for randomness. That, my friends, is a tougher breed of indifference, almost reminiscent of the Stoics.

In this book, I’m not as deep as these two theological giants. I simply look at it as the world’s shrug. It goes on. Its indifference is not so much malicious or intentional as natural. “Nothing personal,” it seems to be saying. “I’m just spinning along like I did before you and will after you.” And that’s reflected in many ways in these poems–a fun project all around!

If you are interested in a signed copy directly from me, that can be done. Simply click ABOUT and email me for details! In the mean time, I’ll be enjoying the coolness of my 15 seconds (or whatever it is that Andy Warhol allotted me way back when)…