Can you recite a poem without any notes or prompts?
When was the last time you learned a poem by heart?
For me the answers are:
- No. I know the starts of many poems and snatches of many others but if I were ever called upon to deliver one in public, I’d be a complete failure
- I suspect many people will say that they haven’t learned a poem since they were in school (and I don’t mean college; I mean the kind of school you attended before you were 18). My last experience is rather more recent than that but is still a good 10 years back. I was taking an Open University module which included poetry and needed to go into the exam confident I could quote from a good range of poems. So I pushed myself to learn large sections of about six poems.
I’ve since forgotten most of what I learned then.
Poetry, it has to be said, does not figure much in my life. I have some collections at home but can’t remember the last time I took one off the shelf let alone opened the book.
But then alone came National Poetry Day in the UK which resulted in a number of articles and broadcasts about poetry.
One was a feature article about a man called Gary Dexter who walks up to complete strangers in the street or the pub, asks them to name their favourite poem, and then offers to recite it in exchange for a small fee.
He started off with a repertoire of 30 poems (which took him a month to learn) but has now doubled this. He finds that the same requests crop up over and over again. Top of the list is Rudyard Kipling’s If, followed by This be the Verse by Philip Larkin and Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen.
Then there was a broadcast on Radio 4 One in which Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, disclosed she runs through poems to help her sleep. Pretty impressive since she learned these poems at school and she is now 71 years old. She’s backing a call for the public to learn poetry by heart to stave off “senior moments”. Judi Dench is also on board (astoundingly she can recite the whole of Twelfth Night and Midsummer Night’s Dream without notes!).
So I got to thinking that learning some poems by heart could be a) a good way to help keep my brain working and thus mitigate the potential of dementia and b) a means to encourage me to read more poetry.
I’m not setting myself a target for how many I try to learn or over what period. That would be one way to guarantee I lose interest.
But I’m going to attempt one a month. I don’t just want to learn the poem so I can recite it back; I’d like to be able to discuss its potential meaning and where it fits into the canon of that poet’s work.
But where to begin?
I could just start with the “nation’s favourite poems”, a list of the 30 most requested pieces as documented by Gary Dexter. There are some predictable choices in there – Daffodils by William Wordsworth and Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas.
But I think I’d rather start with poems of which I already know some lines. It’s a wayof easing into the practice.
October is therefore the month that I tackle William Wordsworth. Not Daffodils or any of his Lucy poems but the sonnet Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802.
Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendor, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! The very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!
I chose this because it relates to one of my favourite parts of London and unusually for Wordsworth, who was not a great lover of the city, this sonnet shows that he finds beauty in a man-made scene. The rhyme scheme also helps with recalling the lines (yes I wanted an easy option to get me started…)
October already? What an odd Autumn this is turning out to be. Thursday afternoon I was able to sit in the garden soaking up the sun (yes it was that warm). Today I’ve been sitting wrapped in a thick sweater and waiting for the heating to kick in.
This week I bring you an article about the elements of a good story, a blog post about the importance of context in our reading and a book written by a woman who for eight years was hardly out of the media spotlight.
Book: Becoming by Michelle Obama
I rarely read autobiographies. Those by ‘celebrities’ are instant turn offs (they’re usually rushed out on the back of some recent success in a TV series or film and have little content of substance). I’d rather go for a memoir or an autobiography by someone who isn’t well known except outside their immediate circle of expertise and experience but who has an interesting story to tell.
Michelle Obama is of course extremely well known in the sense that for the eight years she was America’s First Lady she was hardly out of the public eye. I’ve always wondered how someone with her level of intelligence coped with the accepted wisdom that First Ladies are not meant to have opinions of their own. How does it feel to have every aspect of your appearance scrutinised and dissected?
Her forthcoming memoir Becoming will I hope answer some of those questions.
According to the blurb, Becoming is “a work of deep reflection and mesmerising storytelling, Michelle Obama invites readers into her world, chronicling the experiences that have shaped her-from her childhood on the South Side of Chicago to her years as an executive balancing the demands of motherhood and work, to her time spent at the world’s most famous address. With unerring honesty and lively wit, she describes her triumphs and her disappointments, both public and private, telling her full story as she has lived it-in her own words and on her own terms. Warm, wise, and revelatory, Becoming is the deeply personal reckoning of a woman of soul and substance who has steadily defied expectations – and whose story inspires us to do the same.”
The book is due out in the UK in November.
Blog Post: Frame of reference for reading
Simon at Stuck In A Book wrote recently about the experience of reading a particular book is affected by lack of knowledge about the ‘rules’ for certain genres or of the historical and social context. His example relates to his own experience of reading a novel which uses magical realism and is set during the civil war in Mozambique.
This post chimed with my experience of reading some of the books I selected for my World of Literature project. I struggled for example with The Tree of Life by Maryse Conde because I knew little about the history of Guadeloupe. The same thing happened with The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (I gave up on that one because it was too confusing). I know I could get info easily enough from the Internet but I don’t like interrupting the experience of reading the book.
How does everyone else deal with this situation? Do you just plough on and hope things fall into place? Or do you press pause, do some background reading and then come back to the novel?
Article: What makes a good story –
Talking of ‘rules’ apparently Anton Chekhov had some clear views about the elements that needed to be in place for the story to work effectively.
- Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature
- Total objectivity
- Truthful descriptions of persons and objects
- Extreme brevity
- Audacity and originality: flee the stereotype
I’m with him wholeheartedly on the first rule – I really don’t want to feel I am being given a lecture if I am reading fiction. Originality? Yes but not if this is just for the sake of being original and where the author is having more fun than the reader ( as in Will Self and his unpunctuated paragraphs).
But I’m not on board with his direction of extreme brevity. What about ideas that start off as a kernel but by allowing them space to blossom they end up with even deeper meaning? I don’t see a virtue in an author thinking how quickly they can get the scene or the episode wrapped up.
Here’s the article. See what you think….
And so that’s a wrap for this episode of Bookends. Have you found anything new exciting and to read this week that might entice me?
For once I am not racing to get the Bookends post done before the weekend disappears. Maybe it’s the Indian summer we are currently experiencing in the UK that has stimulated my productivity?
This week I bring you an article about one woman’s bid to read 200 female writers by 2020, how to tackle the challenge of reading challenging books and a novel
Book: Ash by Alys Einin..
My book choice today comes from Honno, an independent women’s press based in Wales. This is the second novel by Alys Einon who somehow finds the time to write in between her work as an associate professor in midwifery and women’s health and a part-time lecturer for the Open University.
Ash is the story of a woman who runs away from an abusive marriage in Saudi Arabia with her four sons and infant daughter, Aisha. She finds sanctuary with a community of women at Blossom House but is always fearful that her husband will come looking for his children.
It’s a while since I read anything by Honno but this is a good opportunity to make up for lost time.
Blog Post: Unhappy experiences reading assigned books
CurlyGeek has been making good progress with a ReadHarder challenge this year but the latest requirement, to revisit a classic that she hated, has her thinking back to other unhappy experiences with classics. In her latest update she names Jane Eyre as her nemesis but also still bears scars from being made to read Crime and Punishment, The Grapes of Wrath and The Scarlet Letter.
I bet everyone has their own bête noires from their time in the education system.
Mine would be:
Comus by John Milton. Can you imagine anything more unlikely to interest a bunch of hormone-charged sixteen-year-olds than a 17th century masque in honour of chastity? I have no recollection about the plot or the characters – I simply remember it as being deadly dull.
Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev. This was something to do with a student and the gulf of understanding between him and his father. I had my usual difficulty with Russian novels – the way that characters seem to have more than one name, making it doubly hard to keep track of who each person is.
The Rover by Aphra Behn. This was a set text on an Open University literature course, selected I strongly suspect because it was felt there should be a recognition of women writers. Even seeing a production starring Daniel Craig (many many years before he became famous as James Bond) did nothing to increase my enjoyment of this text.
Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I know that for some people, my inclusion of this novel is tantamount to heresy. Sorry everyone but I just don’t get what all the fuss is about. It’s ok but nothing more. I’ve read it three times and get the same reaction each time.
What would be on your list??
Article: 200 books by women writers
Sophie Baggott was shocked to learn that male authors account for two thirds of the translated fiction market. Three months ago she set out to change her own reading habits by embarking on a project to read 200 books by women authors from around the world by the year 2020.
Her starting point she says was ” a realisation that anglocentric and male-dominated reading habits were blinkering my worldview.”
She’s now 10% of the way to achieving her goal and has put a list together of books she has read so far, and the countries she has yet to visit. The Guardian article in which she explains her project is here. She has also created a blog where she lists the books she has read and the countries she has yet to visit. I’m going to watch this with interest because in my own world of literature project (one that is considerably more modest in scale than Sophie’s) I have struggled to find authors from some countries and I wasn’t giving myself the added hurdle of only reading female authors.
And so that’s a wrap for this episode of Bookends. Have you found anything new exciting and to read this week that might entice me?
What a disappointment The Line of Beauty, winner of the 2004 Booker Prize, turned out to be. It was so dull at times that I was tempted to abandon it in preference for the ingredients panel of a cereal packet.
It’s meant to be a novel reflecting on the nature of Britain in the 1980s, the era of Margaret Thatcher and a time of economic euphoria and ultra confidence among the privileged governing classes. This is also the decade that saw the emergence of the Aids/HIV crisis.
Alan Hollinghurst tackles both topics via the story of Nick Guest, a young homosexual who comes from a middle class background but has mingled with the great and the good during his time at Oxford university. He’s invited by his friend Toby, the son of a rising Tory MP (Gerald Fedden) to move into their upmarket family house as a lodger while he undertakes his postgraduate research on Henry James. His presence in the house gives Nick a chance to mingle with aristocrats and politicians, to party in castles, holiday in French chateaux and even to dance with the Prime Minister.
Nick is a charmer, an aesthete who is entranced by beauty in all its forms. A piece of furniture, a Gauguin painting; the shape of a man’s buttocks and especially the double “S” shape of the ogee, the double curve cited by Hogarth as the “line of beauty”. Where the Feddens see art as a commodity, Nick appreciates beauty for its own sake.
Over the course of the novel, we see the changing nature of his relationship with the Feddens. But more fundamentally we also witness the development of Nick’s sexuality. The Feddens accept his sexuality if only to the extent of never mentioning it but when it threatens their privileged lives and Gerald’s prospects of high office, they turn on him. The tolerated lodger becomes persona non grata.
Hypocrisy is just one of the themes explored in The Line of Beauty. The book also considers the relationship between politics and homosexuality, the bubble world of the the Conservatives in the 1980s (summed up by one civil servant “The economy’s in ruins, no one’s got a job, and we just don’t care, it’s bliss.”) and, of course, the nature of beauty.
So why do I say the novel is boring?
Firstly it’s incredibly slow especially in the first of the three sections which takes place in 1983 when Nick is in the first few months of his stay at the Feddens’ Knightsbridge home. He takes a lover for the first time, meeting him in secret in public parks and quiet streets.
Part 2 is an improvement. We now move forward to 1986 when Nick is in a relationship with Wani Ouradi, the wealthy son of a Lebanese businessman, with whom he enters the world of drugs and promiscuity.
Part 3 takes place just one year later when his lover has been diagnosed as HIV positive and deteriorating rapidly and the Feddens world is about to disintegrate.
The drama doesn’t materialise in any meaningful way until more than halfway through that second part. Until then we’re subjected to a series of eventful country-house parties and family gatherings where Nick is still very much the outsider (his surname – Guest – is a clue to his real status). They’re considerably more sedate than his other social interactions which involve sex and drugs.
The problem here is that the interest in a decadent lifestyle declined for me as rapidly as my appetite for a second ice-cream. Sex is seldom far from Nick’s mind. He only has to see a man in a street and he immediately imagines him as a sexual partner. But how many times do we need to know this? How many times do we need to read a passage describing furtive coke-snorting and sexual encounters? The repetitive nature of this book made it hard to enjoy.
One critic in The Independent thought The Line of Beauty was “fabulous” and Hollinghurt’s recreation of a “bigoted, nepotistic, racist, callous and mean-spirited epoch” was “brilliant”. Not for the first time I find myself considerably at odds with critics and with the judges of the Booker Prize.
My Bookends post is where I share just three things that have sparked my interest from the multitude of news articles, blog posts and announcements that drop into my email box.
On a day when the incessant and torrential rain here in the UK reminds us that summer is no more, I hope that my three selections this week will lighten your mood a little,
This week brings an article about one author’s approach to the problem that besets many writers – the temptation to edit while still creating.
Book: Still waiting for inspiration…
I had chance for a good old mooch in a bookshop this week but wasn’t all that excited by what was on offer. The shop was pushing Kate Morton’s The Clockmaker’s Daughter (doesn’t interest me because I don’t much like her style) and of course the latest offering by Robert Galbraith.
Two authors whose work I’ve enjoyed in the past both have new novels hitting the shops this month. William Boyd’s Love is Blind came out this week. I used to be a big fan of his (Brazzaville Beach was my favourite) but haven’t been that excited by what he’s produced in the last few years. i’m toying with getting this because it’s set partly in St Petersburg which is always a draw for me. The publishers blurb describes it as a “sweeping, heart-stopping new novel. Set at the end of the 19th century, it follows the fortunes of Brodie Moncur, a young Scottish musician, about to embark on the story of his life.”
I’m also mildly interested in Paris Echo by Sebastian Faulks, again whose early work seems stronger than the more recent output. According to the blurb this novel “brings together a city’s urgent present with its inescapable past. In this urgent and deeply moving novel, Faulks deals with questions of empire, grievance and identity, considering how, as individuals and societies – we learn to make peace with our history. With great originality and a dark humour, Paris Echo asks how much we really need to know if we are to live a valuable life.”
Blog Post: What is the most acclaimed yet unread novel?
When I saw this headline come through on my feed from the Paris Review blog feed. If the question had been phased a little differently and asked about acclaimed but unread books in general my answer would probably have been Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. I’d love to know how many people bought this and never got past page 10…. But the question was about novels so I guessed War and Peace.
I was wrong.
The answer is a book I have never heard of by an author who also is completely unknown to me.
Marguerite Young’s Miss MacIntosh, My Darling is a twelve hundred page novel published in 1965 which is set in the American mid west. Neither the plot nor the structure are straightforward it seems. The length alone would be off-putting (any book would have to be absolutely stunning to keep my attention over that length) but one extract shows that the narrative style would also be a challenge.
And his night was his day, and his day was his night, for his twilight was his dawn, and his dawn was his twilight, and his moon was his sun, and his sun was his moon, and his beginning was his end, and his end was his beginning.
Maybe that makes more sense if you’ve had a few glasses of wine first.
Any other contenders for acclaimed but little read novels?
Article: Slaying the dragon of fiddling with your text
I have a lot of sympathy with the author Daniel Torday who describes himself as a “a tinkerer by temperament.” By that he means he finds it hard to resist the temptation to rework material he has already rewritten instead of making progress with new content.
I do that all the time.
It means it takes me forever to finish a piece of text; whether that’s an essay or a blog article or a piece of creative writing. I know the advice is to crash out a firs draft no matter how bad it is, and only then think about revision. I have tried that more than once. It does not work for me.
Daniel has however found a solution that works for him. He calls it bizarre. Read about his approach in this lithub article
And so that’s a wrap for this episode of Bookends. Have you found anything new exciting and to read this week that might entice me?
And then there were six.
The Booker Prize judging panel announced today the books that have made it through to the shortlist round of the 2018 prize.
One surprise is that the biggest name on the longlist has now been removed from the prize. I’m still waiting for my copy of Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight to become available in the library but I’ve seen nothing but praise for this book so it’s strange not to find it on the shortlist.
One disappointment is that Donal Ryan’s From A Low And Quiet Sea didn’t make it through. As you can read in my review I thought this was even better than his earlier Booker contender The Spinning Heart.
No surprises that Belinda Bauer’s Snap is not on the shortlist. Frankly it was a surprise to find it on the longlist. Much has been made of the fact that this was the first crime novel to be included in the Booker longlist. That’s not factually correct (Eleanor Catton’s The Illuminations was a crime novel in a sense) but even Snap isn’t anything remarkable according to many comments and reviews I’ve seen in recent weeks. I’ll reach my own conclusion shortly since this has been chosen for our next book club read.
The other longlisted title about which there was a lot of fuss was Sabrina by Nick Drnaso, the first graphic novel to be included on the list. This has now disappeared from the contenders.
So what are we left with? These are all the shortlisted titles, ranked in order by members of the Mookes and the Gripes group on Goodreads.
Robin Robertson (UK): The Long Take (Picador): debut novel from a Scottish poet, written partly in verse. Chronicling the drift of a Canadian D-Day veteran across post-war America, Robertson fuses poetry, cinema and the traditions of noir into an elegy for a lost age.
Richard Powers (USA): The Overstory (William Heinemann): Pulitzer- winning novelist longlisted in 2014 for Orfeo. The Overstory is a mosaic of stories spanning time and space, joined together by the overarching strata of the world’s trees and a mission to save the last virgin forest
Daisy Johnson (UK): Everything Under (Jonathan Cape): debut novel that reimagines The Oedipal myth of divided families, inter-generational rivalry and twisted fate. Set in a remote cottage in the British countryside, the novel centres on the complex and fractured relationship between an isolated young lexicographer and her mother, a woman gradually succumbing to dementia.
Anna Burns (UK) : Milkman (Faber & Faber): described as a darkly wry – but disquieting – coming of age novel set in a thinly-disguised Belfast of the “Troubles”. The narrative focuses on a nameless, 18-year-old narrator and her affair with the somewhat sinister ‘Milkman’, a much older married man allied with the paramilitaries.
Rachel Kushner (USA): The Mars Room (Jonathan Cape): a novel partly set in a women’s correctional facility from an author who says her inspiration is Don DeLillo. The narrative follows convict Romy Hall as she begins two consecutive life sentences at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility.
Esi Edugyan (Canada): Washington Black (Serpent’s Tail): Edugyan is a previous nominee having been shortlisted in 2011 for Half-Blood Blues. Her new novel is described as a dazzlingly inventive new story of antebellum-era slavery and exploration that spans the globe.
I have three of these on hold at the library so with a little luck I might get to read at least a few before the winner is announced on October 16.
I achieved something today that I have never before accomplished. I managed to sell some the books I no longer want.
I’ve tried in the past to sell them on e-bay and on Amazon but without even a sniff of interest. So I just got into the habit of taking them to the local library which has a regular book sale, or to a charity shop. Occasionally I took some to a BookCrossing zone but then would forget to fill in all the details on the website.
But this week when I had a bit of a clear out I realised that the majority of the titles I wanted to give away were either unread or looked like new. If I take them to the library they’ll sell them for just 20p each. I know this adds to their funds but I thought these books were worth more than than. So I lugged them to a second-hand store in one of the arcades in Cardiff, fully expecting to have had a wasted journey.
Surprisingly the shop owner took all of them and I walked away £15 richer. Ok, not a huge sum but it was still worth the effort.
I overheard the shop owner tell another customer that he was selective when customers approached him with books for sale; he didn’t want to end up with duplicate copies of the same titles. That was perfectly understandable when you see the multiple versions of popular crime fiction titles that fill the shelves of many a charity shop. Cardiff has three university colleges so I suspect, come end of the academic year, this shop — the only dedicated second-hand book shop in the city — is a prime target for students wanting to offload the likes of Tristram Shandy.\
This is what I sold today……
Two of them, Delirium by Laura Restrepo and The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, were books I had started but abandoned. Since this was about four years ago I decided I wasn’t ever going to go back to them and it was time they made way for titles more to my taste.
The Othello, Murder in the Cathedral and Peter Pan were remnants of various Open University modules from long ago.
There are two Booker winners in this pile, both of which I had kept after reading on the basis that I had enjoyed them and might want to re-read them one day. But realistically, that day is never going to come, so I bid farewell to both The Sea by John Banville and Graham Swift’s Last Orders. Ditto, The Book of Gaza and another novel by Banville, Ancient Lights.
The final one to mention in this stack, Reflections on the Revolution in France, is a non fiction book that was the latest delivery from my subscription to The Random Book Club. As I said in a recent post, I’ve not been very happy with the books I’ve received through this subscription. They, just like this one, have all gone out of the house within a few days of them coming through the letterbox.
Based on this experience I’d be inclined to try and sell books this way in the future although sometime ago I saw a reference on another blog site about a company that will give you a quote online. They’ll even collect the books. It sounds goods. Unfortunately I’ve lost the name of that company – does it ring a bell with anyone? They are UK based.