Source of book: Borrowed from the library
Date originally posted to Facebook: September 24, 2010
I am gradually reposting my old Facebook book reviews to my blog. I have read a few poetry anthologies in addition to the selections from my courses in school. This is the best I have read. Also, note that the inauguration referred to in the review was President Barak Obama’s first inauguration, in 2009. The ceremony had many highlights, but the poetry reading was, quite frankly, a great example of why modern poetry is mocked. The reading was just terrible - my first thought really was “Garmin Girl,” which apparently was a common response. If you want to hear good readings, check out the Favorite Poem Project videos.
Robert Pinsky was the US Poet Laureate from 1997 to 2000. (Quick, can you name any of the other recent holders of that office?) Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams were probably the only others that a casual reader would recognize. In any case, he is a current writer for Slate.com, among others. He also is far better at public reading than the recent poets featured at presidential inaugurations. I note with particular disappointment the most recent event, in which the poet sounded like the Garmin Girl. It certainly caused me to take a hard look at my own reading, and made me determined to practice cadence until it began to sound more natural, like a human, rather than a machine.
As for this collection, it spans 5 centuries of poems, mostly shorter in length, selected for the use of language. The intent of the book is to draw out the relationship of poetry to the sound of the language as it is spoken: a reminder that its roots were in the spoken and sung word, to be passed down as an oral tradition.
To that end, Pinsky has selected poems that demonstrate short and long line lengths, repetition, use of theme, and story telling. This is not a scholarly book in the sense that it is aimed at the new reader of poetry. Those who are familiar with a variety of poetic forms may find the brief introductions to each chapter to be a bit simplistic. Pinsky keeps the introductions quite brief, and lets the bulk of the volume consist of the individual poems.
I enjoyed reading this book primarily because Pinsky has an excellent ear. It is often difficult in my experience to find an editor who can tell the worthy modern poetry from the chaff. As often as not, I find that “trendy” modern poems are selected because their themes are fitting the current zeitgeist. It is refreshing to find them selected in this book because they are well written. Pinsky does an excellent job in identifying those worth reading.
Note: While this book does contain many poems that are excellent to read to children, I would urge caution. Several poems contain vulgar language (used appropriately) and adult themes. I don’t mean “adult” in the pornographic sense – merely that the themes are unsuited to children but well suited for adults.