Monday, November 28, 2011

My Review of The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

Source of book: My wife owns this book

I am at a bit of a loss to describe what this book actually is. It is a detective story of a sort. It also has elements of science fiction. It has really bad puns. It inhabits a very peculiar world that warrants exploration – but the book was too short to do it justice. It does, however, have sequels, which could be interesting.

The basic alternate reality that Fforde creates is one where the Crimean War never ended, Churchill died young, and Hitler was stopped by a powerful and ruthless corporation. England and Wales are separate countries with their own cold war. England itself has become a police state with secret agencies whose purposes are unknown, perhaps even to their agents. Yes, plural agencies, including one responsible for policing literature. In this universe, literature is taken extremely seriously. Imagine Raider fans, but with Shakespearean conspiracy theories.

The final piece of “reality” in this universe is that literature has its own literal world, and that it is possible to cross over to that world from the “real” world. If this were not already odd, it is apparently possible for mortals to alter literature if they are able to enter the world of a book through its original manuscript. Thus, if one were to kill a character of a novel, he would no longer exist in any copy of the novel thereafter.

The protagonist of this book and its sequels is Thursday Next, a rather hard boiled “LiteraTec” agent. As this description hints, this is a detective story rather in the tradition of “American” detective stories. In addition to the familiar heroine, the other elements are present. There is never really any question who committed the crime. The plot concerns the tracking and neutralization of the villain, not the solving of any mystery. This is an odd combination at first, the American detective story as written by an Englishman and set in an imaginary, dystopian England.

I try not to ruin carefully laid plots with spoilers, so I will not further describe the details of the story.

This book is the least serious book I have read this year, and I was due for a light read. Again, classification is difficult because this book doesn’t fit a well defined category. I originally argued to my wife that it also lacked a target category of reader. After all, it is best read by those who have an extensive knowledge of the English classics, a large vocabulary, and a good grasp of history. However, it also is too short and too fast paced to really be considered deep or anything more than a weekend paperback. My wife did point out that she and a few friends love Fforde, and they appear to sell reasonably well. Thus, there must be non-literary sorts that read these as well. Who knows?

I will admit that it is unfair to judge this book without reading the later books in the series, as my wife considers the sequels to be better written. What I found disappointing in this particular book is that there are a number of interesting ideas that are never developed. While we get to know Thursday Next fairly well, and get a bit of information about the villain, Acheron Hades, the rest of the characters are mere names without personalities in any true sense. Some are “expendable crewmen”, of course, but I found I could not remember most of the other characters. Okay, so the batty inventor uncle was memorable, but that’s it.

Fforde also hints at political commentary. Again, it is never truly developed, and is jettisoned as the plot picks up speed.

The strength of the book is the detective narrative itself. If Fforde had spent less time on back story, this might have been a memorable page turner for that alone. Alternately, had his word count allowed him to develop both characters and politics, this could have been a farce or satire. So, one can either sigh at what might have been, or enjoy what really is an enjoyable book that gets better as it goes on.

A caution: there is a good bit of violence and vulgarity in this book, including some rather unprintable puns. Nothing particularly shocking for the hard-boiled genre, and common in most modern novels. Fortunately, Fforde did not feel it necessary to add sex, which would have been irrelevant to the story. Don’t get me wrong: sex can be important to a narrative; but too often these days, it just distracts from a plot that was running right along fine without it.

This book was definitely not a waste of time, but also is unlikely to end up stuck in my memory like some of the others I have read recently. Take this one on vacation, or use it to escape from reality for a while. Sometimes we all need a light read.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Heart of Midlothian by Sir Walter Scott

Original Date of Review: November 16, 2010. Also published in the Res Ipsa Loquitur.
Source of Book: I own this (actually community property - my wife brought this to the marriage) See note at the bottom regarding the edition. 

Sir Walter will have a place in my pantheon of cool writers for the fact that his first career was law. He also wrote some great books, of course. Also sweet was the fact that he grew up here:

For those who care about old books, I have a note at the end of this review on the particular edition we own of this book.

Scott began his literary career writing poetry. He was successful enough to be offered the position of Poet Laureate – which he declined. Of course, the second choice, Robert Southey, was pretty decent himself.

The novels came later. Scott went into partnership to start a publishing house, which was a bit less than successful. His partner probably cheated him, and in any event, he ended up in debt. Scott refused to declare bankruptcy, but wrote at a furious pace up until his death to pay back the creditors. Being aware of his reputation as a poet, he released his novels anonymously at first. Eventually, his identity was guessed, and he confessed to being “the author of Waverly”.

Scott was a contemporary of Jane Austen. At the time, he was much more popular. More recently, however, as Austen has gained in reputation, Scott has suffered in comparison. In my opinion, this is unfortunate. Austen certainly deserves her good reputation – indeed, Scott was one of the first to recognize her genius. Scott deserves a second look by those who have dismissed him.

Scott has received criticism for being wordy and perhaps ponderous. It is true that, like many novelists of that time (and after), he takes his time. Of course, the same should be said of the likes of Dickens, Tolstoy, Joyce, and many others. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it is rarely to be found in long form fiction. But perhaps this is part of the attraction of a well written novel. The slower pace allows the characters to develop, the language to flower, and the reader to become immersed in the story’s world.

Waverley is generally considered to be the first historical novel. Scott essentially invented the genre, and few have matched his skill. Ivanhoe, The Talisman, and Kenilworth live on in the popular consciousness, even though few realize it. Much of what we believe about King Richard the Lion Hearted and Queen Elizabeth I come from these novels. Disney’s animated Robin Hood steals whole scenes from Ivanhoe, for example.

The Heart of Midlothian is one of Scott’s Scottish novels. It is set primarily in Scotland, and makes extensive use of the dialect. Interestingly, the novel is primarily about women. Scott seems to have had a soft spot in his writings for strong female characters, from Rebecca in Ivanhoe to Queen Elizabeth in Kenilworth. In this particular book, the central character is Jeanie Deans, the daughter of a cowherd. When her sister is accused of murdering her illegitimate child, Jeanie decides to take a solo trip on foot to London to ask a pardon from the King.

Jeanie is truly one of the most admirable heroines of all literature. She is torn between her love for her sister and her determination to do the right thing at all times. Thus, she cannot perjure herself at her sister’s trial; but is willing to undertake the journey despite never venturing more than a few miles from her home. As evidenced by his payment of his debts, Scott himself had a strong sense of right and wrong, and probably struggled himself with the question presented. The struggle between moral and personal sacrifice is the theme of the book, and the answers that each character gives to the central question to a large degree determines that character’s ultimate destiny.

Not only is Jeanie the heroine of the novel, the villain and several other main characters are female, covering a broad spectrum of characters. Modern readers should note that Scott, like Austen, was a product of his era. For the time, Scott’s females were considered somewhat revolutionary in attitude, even while more or less remaining in roles approved by society.

Another feature of the book that I, at least, found interesting, was the theological humor. Jeanie’s father is what could be described as a fundamentalist Presbyterian. Neither the Church of England (horrors!) or most of the local Scottish clergy could rightfully be considered part of the faithful to him. Of all the awful things a person could be, the worst was an Arminian. A basic knowledge of the Scottish version of Calvinism is helpful to appreciate the wit in this matter.

I highly recommend Scott as an unjustly neglected author. My advice is to embrace the archaic, garrulous language and leisurely pace. Accept the fact that you must read at least 50 pages before the story starts to get going. If you have never read Scott, I would recommend starting with Ivanhoe, as it avoids the Scotch dialects and contains a good quantity of swashbuckling adventure. However, once you get a feel for Scott’s art, The Heart of Midlothian is well worth a read.

Note on the Edition:

Amanda purchased two of what was originally some sort of set of Scott’s works. These were published in 1884, and were at one point part of the W. Q. Judge Library in Halycon, CA.

Who was W. Q. Judge, and what is the story of his library? This is where the story gets interesting. William Quan Judge was, of all things, a lawyer born in Ireland, who became an important member of the Theosophical Society, a cult of the late 1880s. A group of said Theosophists formed a community called Halycon, which is located just south of Arroyo Grande. (For non-Californians, this is just south of Pismo Beach. Take the right at Albuquerque.)

Other notables from the Theosophists were composer Henry Cowell, and the brothers Russell and Sigurd Varian, who invented the klystron, thereby founding the Varian electronics company.

This community is still in existence today, as is the library. The have a mystical service of some sort each day at noon. However, they have a warning for foreign visitors that they are not accepting applications to live in a utopian community.

Amanda found these books at a used book store in San Luis Obispo after they were retired from the W. Q. Judge library.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Two Autumn Poems

With such beautiful fall weather here in Bakersfield, I could not resist finding a pair of contrasting poems on the subject. First is an ode by Keats, with an unusual eleven line stanza rhymed ababcdedcce (first stanza) or  ababcdecdde (second and third stanzas). Keats' delicate, lyrical touch lightens the heavier effect of iambic pentameter and long stanzas.

Ode To Autumn by John Keats
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o'er-brimmed their clammy cell.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers;
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,---
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir, the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft,
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Dunbar uses the ballad stanza form (four lines with alternating lines of four, then three feet)  with two variations. First, he uses the rhyme scheme abab rather than abcb. Second, he uses the feminine ending on the even numbered lines. (That is, he ends the line on an unstressed syllable.) The bouncing rhythm, optimism, and the use of dialect add to the fast pace. Perhaps Dunbar felt like my kids around a leaf pile.

Merry Autumn by Paul Laurence Dunbar

It's all a farce,—these tales they tell
About the breezes sighing,
And moans astir o'er field and dell,
Because the year is dying.
Such principles are most absurd,—
I care not who first taught 'em;
There's nothing known to beast or bird
To make a solemn autumn.

In solemn times, when grief holds sway
With countenance distressing,
You'll note the more of black and gray
Will then be used in dressing.

Now purple tints are all around;
The sky is blue and mellow;
And e'en the grasses turn the ground
From modest green to yellow.

The seed burs all with laughter crack
On featherweed and jimson;
And leaves that should be dressed in black
Are all decked out in crimson.

A butterfly goes winging by;
A singing bird comes after;
And Nature, all from earth to sky,
Is bubbling o'er with laughter.

The ripples wimple on the rills,
Like sparkling little lasses;
The sunlight runs along the hills,
And laughs among the grasses.

The earth is just so full of fun
It really can't contain it;
And streams of mirth so freely run
The heavens seem to rain it.

Don't talk to me of solemn days
In autumn's time of splendor,
Because the sun shows fewer rays,
And these grow slant and slender.

Why, it's the climax of the year,—
The highest time of living!—
Till naturally its bursting cheer
Just melts into thanksgiving.

Does anyone else have a favorite Autumn poem to contribute?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Letter of Marque by Patrick O’Brian

Source of Book: I own this. 
The Letter of Marque is number twelve of the twenty and one-half books in the Aubrey-Maturin series that O’Brian wrote between 1970 and his death in 2000. The series follows the lives of the two main characters throughout their careers, and thus may be considered to be one exceedingly long novel.

Originally born in England as Richard Patrick Russ, he changed his name in 1945 after marrying the ex-wife of Russian nobleman Dimitri Tolstoy (a distant cousin of the famous author). O’Brian was quite secretive about the early part of his life, and there is some evidence that he was involved in the secret services during World War II, which might explain his wish to leave his past and past name behind.

The Aubrey-Maturin series is the story of Jack Aubrey, naval captain; and Stephen Maturin, a physician and secret agent. The two meet for the first time in Master and Commander, and afterward are inseparable both personally and professionally. The series is often compared to C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series, as both used the real life adventures of the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars as the basis for their plots – particularly the exploits of Captain Thomas Cochrane, the inspiration for Jack Aubrey. However, O’Brian’s novels have appeal beyond the exciting episodes. The character and personalities of the two men are central to the narrative, and keep the series from becoming a mere naval thriller in long form. In fact, O’Brian is most often compared to Jane Austen for his characterization and sparkling dialogue.

The novels themselves are notable for a wealth of careful detail. O’Brian made a study of the geographical details of the places around the world in which the events occur, and is able to use these details in his descriptions of the battles in a vivid manner. I found it easy to picture the position of the characters in each assault on land, the lay of the obstacles around a difficult harbor entry, and the lines taken by the ships in battle as each tries to gain the best position regarding the wind and the orientation of the guns. O’Brian uses plenty of nautical terms, and doesn’t explain them all at first, so the reader must keep up as best he can until things start to make sense. This parallels the disorientation that Maturin feels at sea the first time. (He never quite gets over his lubberly tendencies.) Maturin is also a naturalist, so his adventures bring an abundance of plants and animals to the story, in their natural habitats, and occasionally aboard the ship. The cloak and dagger episodes involving Stephen’s work in intelligence are also full of authentic atmosphere and incident – perhaps lending some credence to the idea that he had lived this life.

O’Brian has an interesting writing style that almost defies a short explanation. On the one hand, his dialogue is similar to Austen and other contemporaries – it certainly isn’t modern speech. On the other, the writing itself feels modern in texture. The words flow naturally, without the stilted feeling typical for 19th Century writing. Also unique is O’Brian’s choice of pacing. He will dwell in loving detail on a seemingly insignificant scene: insignificant to the plot at least. These scenes are often important for character development. O’Brian uses his pacing in other scenes to suggest the perception of time. The preparation for a battle will seem long and tense, building gradually to the big climax, which will then fly by breathlessly, with little chance to notice even the details of the fight. Then, O’Brian will skip over certain events altogether. Some of these, I wished he had fleshed out, but he chose which portions of the story he felt were most important. This is not to say that important plot points are left out, because they are not. I never felt lost, just a bit concussed. I suspect this is intentional. The experience of war isn’t like the movies, or even most books, but the author makes an attempt to recreate the feelings through pacing.

Another more modern facet of the writing is the realism as to the less savory elements of society. Disease and prostitution are ever present in the 19th century world. The fact of adultery is not denied, nor is it glorified. Sex is treated frankly, but not graphically. (There is a scene of rather graphic insect sex, though.) The typical novel of the period either ignores these issues, or treats them in a lurid and unrealistic manner. I found O’Brian’s approach to be a more honest one. There is no bodice ripping here. Venereal disease is common, as are illegitimate children. (Maturin himself is one.) Adultery isn’t the grand romance of certain modern literature, but has real life consequences. Nothing is there for the titillation factor. Everything serves the plot and the characterization.

As to this particular volume of the story, it is set much more at sea than the previous one, The Reverse of the Medal, which takes place primarily on land. It is also less dark in its events than its predecessor, and has plenty of exciting naval action. It also explores Maturin’s opium addiction and Aubrey’s inner torment in more detail than previous books, giving a contrast to the rather sunny events of the book. (Assuming you consider kicking French posterior to be a happy affair, of course.) The book also brings the character of Diana Villiers (now Stephen’s wife), the most interesting female character in the series, back into the story.

It would be pointless to spoil the plot of this or any other book in the series. Suffice it to say that O’Brian can be counted on to tell a good tale. The story is hardly the main point, however, or there would be no reason to re-read these after the plot is known. The excellent writing and characterization are what raise these books above the average adventure tale. 

Some notes on stuff beyond the books:

I have not seen the movie version of Master and Commander. In general, I have a hard time with movies that are based on good books, because a disappointment is likely. There are a few great adaptations of good books: Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy comes to mind, as well as the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice and the first two Anne of Green Gables movies.

I will admit I am prejudiced against this one from the start because of one detail. The plot of the movie is taken from The Far Side of the World, rather than Master and Commander. This is not the problem. The problem is that the enemy in The Far Side of the World is not France, but the United States. Perhaps Hollywood thinks American audiences can’t handle being the villain. Perhaps Hollywood reads American taste well, seeing as Adam Sandler has a career. It still hacks me off. Let Aubrey shoot at Americans!

I have, however, enjoyed one item connected with the movie. Aubrey’s favorite ship, the Surprise was lovingly recreated for the movie. It is now preserved as a functioning ship at the San Diego Maritime Museum. While a purist would quibble that the “actual” Surprise was a bit bigger than the movie one, this is still a truly amazing reproduction. For those of ample means, it is possible to train as a deck hand, and sail this thing on a cruise. If that is beyond your budget and time allotment, the museum itself is well worth the price. In addition to the Surprise, you can tour the Star of India, an actual ship from the end of the age of sail. My kids loved this. One of the original bay ferries has been turned into the main museum, with plenty of displays regarding steam power and other stuff irresistible to young boys. 

Finally, we classical musicians can enjoy the books for the fact that Aubrey and Maturin play violin and cello, respectively. Numerous chamber works from the era find their way into the books. One wonders whether O’Brian played, or if he was a just a fan.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The River War, by Winston Churchill

Source of book: I own this.

One of the interesting questions is whether Winston Churchill would have made his reputation as a man of letters, had he not chosen to serve his country as a statesman. He certainly made a significant fortune with his writings, and his later career certainly owes something to the fame and popularity brought by his books.

The River War was written in 1899, soon after the end of the conflict in the Sudan between Egypt and England, on the one side, and the forces of Abdullah Ibn-Mohammed. Churchill served in the cavalry during the conflict, and thus had personal experience of the decisive battle. However, his superiors were less than thrilled about the book, leading to a change in policy to forbid soldiers from writing about their service.

A bit of a summary of the conflict: Sudan was ruled by Egypt beginning in the early 1800s. Egypt was an ally of England, and was to a degree supported by the British military. The corrupt and oppressive Egyptian regime was resented by the Sudanese, leading to a revolt by “The Madhi”, a self proclaimed prophet of Islam, who promised independence and strict observance of Sharia Law. (This sounds vaguely familiar for some reason.) After the successful revolt and a siege of Khartoum, the Egyptians were evicted. The Madhi then died, and his successor proceeded to consolidate his power by slaughtering most of his rivals, and oppressing any other potential threats. Thus, the Egyptians were replaced by another corrupt and oppressive regime, which further had designs on “freeing” all of Egypt from the apostate form of Islam and foreign influence. Britain eventually decided that its interests were threatened by this, and supported the Egyptians in the reconquest. This occurred over the course of a few years which are the main subject of the book.

The version of the book I read is the abridged version, published in 1902. The original version was nearly twice as long. Many of Churchill’s personal experiences and nearly all of his editorializing was cut from the later version. While it would have been interesting to read these, the book remains a compelling narrative of the conflict.

First and foremost, Churchill was a simultaneously a vivid and a meticulous writer. He had a broad narrative sweep that draws the reader from one incident to another, never taking his eyes off of the destination. On the other hand, even at that young age, he had a remarkable eye for the key details of a military campaign. The ability he showed to comprehend the intricacies of the supply chain, the use of modern weapons and timeless tactics, and the psychology of a disciplined fighting force would later serve him well. Particularly excellent was his chapter on the building of the railroad that enabled the rapid transport of men, weapons, and even gunboats to the front.

In addition to the military details and narrative, Churchill was able to make the desert scenery of the Sudan come alive. The opening of the book sets the atmosphere, and throughout, it continues to add descriptions at key points.

I was also reminded again of how recently disease was a game-changing factor of basic human existence. At one point, five times as many men had died from cholera as from the wounds of war. Later, malaria renders an entire garrison (except for a handful of lucky souls) completely unfit for duty.

Churchill is also notable for his sportsman-like respect for his enemies. He has much good to say about Abdullah and his generals and other key figures on the other side. In contrast to many of his time, he views even the most “savage” of peoples to be human and have ordinary human motives. In this, he is perhaps one of the first to take the modern view of the largely rational motivations behind all except for the most depraved. Ordinary desires for freedom, power, money, glory drive all – some to their own destruction and those of thousands of others. In that sense, he is a critic of the much-abused fiction of the “Just War”. Churchill, of course, believed that it was morally acceptable to fight a war if it is of benefit to the country, without the necessity of ascribing actual evil to the other side. In fact, he believed that it would lead to casual atrocities. After all, if the other side consists of utterly vile vermin, why not torture them? The perhaps older-fashioned view of the enemy as human and even noble, even while misguided, would on the other hand lead to a more humane victory. One can only wonder at whether World War Two would have been as necessary had this view been followed in the aftermath of World War One.

Of the political opinions which survived the abridgment process are Churchill’s views on the aspirations and realities of both colonialism and religious fanaticism. Both can and often do start with noble goals, and both end in something substantially less than noble. An extended quote from the first chapter is worth the space.

What enterprise that an enlightened community may attempt is more noble and more profitable than the reclamation from barbarism of fertile regions and large populations? To give peace to warring tribes, to administer justice where all was violence, to strike the chains off the slave, to draw the richness from the soil, to plant the earliest seeds of commerce and learning, to increase in whole peoples their capacities for pleasure and diminish their chances of pain—what more beautiful ideal or more valuable reward can inspire human effort? The act is virtuous, the exercise invigorating, and the result often extremely profitable. Yet as the mind turns from the wonderful cloudland of aspiration to the ugly scaffolding of attempt and achievement, a succession of opposite ideas arises. Industrious races are displayed stinted and starved for the sake of an expensive Imperialism which they can only enjoy if they are well fed. Wild peoples, ignorant of their barbarism, callous of suffering, careless of life but tenacious of liberty, are seen to resist with fury the philanthropic invaders, and to perish in thousands before they are convinced of their mistake. The inevitable gap between conquest and dominion becomes filled with the figures of the greedy trader, the inopportune missionary, the ambitious soldier, and the lying speculator, who disquiet the minds of the conquered and excite the sordid appetites of the conquerors. And as the eye of thought rests on these sinister features, it hardly seems possible for us to believe that any fair prospect is approached by so foul a path.

The perspective of hindsight is perhaps even more bleak. After World War Two, the continent of Africa was largely freed from European domination, but the result has been brutal. In the Sudan, there has been ongoing civil war, predominantly between the Arab dominated Muslims in the north, and the Christian and Animist tribes, largely black, in the south. Sixty-five years of ongoing war, famine, and genocide. It really is depressing, and there are no easy solutions.

Perhaps then, the most lasting impression of this book is its relevance to the conflicts we face today. Is there a way to establish the rule of law in lawless and dangerous regions without become an oppressor ourselves? Is there hope for a country mired in corruption, oppression, and violence? Churchill reminds us that these issues are far from new, and are likely to continue to be an issue in the generations to come. 

A few minor related notes:

This book is remarkably brief for Churchill, at a mere 350 pages. I have previously read his 6 volume work on WWII (5000+ pages!) and The History of the English Speaking Peoples (4 volumes, 2000+ pages). Both of these are extensively available at used book stores. I found most of mine there, or in thrift stores and library sales. Both are worth reading, but are not for the faint at heart. If you do not care about wars and warfare, the WWII set will bore you to tears. However, if you are interested in that sort of thing, hearing it from the perspective of one of the main participants is priceless. Churchill was, even at that late stage, a soldier at heart, and he captures both the military and the diplomatic aspects of the war brilliantly.

The History of the English Speaking Peoples is, in my opinion, a far more interesting history of England that that found in most textbooks. While Churchill is prone to think in terms of kings and battles more than writers and ideas, his writing is so far from dull. Many a textbook writer should read this before compressing a vivid history into a dry biscuit. It’s also fun because he can’t resist giving his opinion of the military strategy of the American Civil War – a totally different view than we Americans get from our history books.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

My Poetry Reading Project, and notes on A Boy’s Will, by Robert Frost

Date originally posted on Facebook: October 6, 2010
Source of Book: I own this

This is the post that started my poetry reading project. It was originally inspired by reading the excellent anthology edited by Robert Pinsky, Essential Pleasures: A New Anthology of Poems to Read Aloud, which reminded me again of my love for poetry. 

I have decided to embark on a tour of my poetry collection, also supplementing with a few books borrowed from the local library.

Those who have been to my house have seen our library, which contains somewhat more than 2000 books, primarily collected at library sales, thrift stores, and used book stores. I have picked up several complete anthologies by favorite poets, and a good number of collections by individual authors as well. While I have browsed from time to time, I never systematically read through any particular work.

To that end, I will be reading through my collection a bit at a time; not reading one author straight through, but finishing a book (as it was originally published) before moving on to the next poet.

I decided to start with Robert Frost. I have been fond of Frost since grade school, and am inclined to consider him my favorite poet. I find more and more depth to his poems the older I get and the more I read them.

Poetry is in the popular mind the language of love and springtime. Frost is the voice of Autumn and Winter and Solitude and Loss.

Despite being known as a “New England Poet”, Frost was actually born in San Francisco. (Similarly, Creedence Clearwater Revival has the reputation as a Southern band – it also originated in San Francisco) His father died when he was 11 – the first of a string of losses which continued throughout his life. Only 2 of his 6 children outlived him.

I own the complete Frost: Poems, Plays, Letters and Essays. I was given this lovely hardback edition by a young lady, whose good taste obviously won me over.

A Boy’s Will was Frost’s first published collection, appearing in 1912. It consists of 30 short poems (the longest is 72 lines). There is a general feeling of cold about the poems: bracing cold, invigorating cold, and sharp cold. Even the poems that allow the warmth of the sun to touch the lines have a nostalgic, melancholy feel; a looking back on pleasure, love, and springtime. And yet, there is sweetness. Perhaps sorrow never felt so sweet as in Frost’s hands.

From a formal point of view, Frost is a traditionalist. Most of his work has a regular meter, and a significant majority follow a rhyme scheme of some sort. A few could even be considered sonnets, if not quite as rigid as those of earlier poets. He also wrote many works in Blank Verse. (He was irritated to hear it confused with Free Verse)

Frost was particularly fond of the 5 line stanza. He rhymed it in a few different ways, typically using a quadrameter or pentameter, though not always iambic.

A great example is the short poem In Neglect

            They leave us so to the way we took,
                        As two in whom they were proved mistaken,
            That we sit sometimes in the wayside nook,
            With mischievous, vagrant, seraphic look,
                        And try if we cannot feel forsaken.

This is one of the many that demands to be read multiple times. The layers peel back.

There are so many more awaiting me in the future. I will comment on each poet and collection as I read them. I welcome suggestions for additions to my list.