Today is National Poetry Day in the UK, and there could be no better primer for reluctant poetry readers than William Sieghart’s The Poetry Pharmacy. Consider it the verse equivalent of Berthoud and Elderkin’s The Novel Cure: an accessible and inspirational guide that suggests the right piece at the right time to help heal a particular emotional condition.
Sieghart, a former chairman of the Arts Council Lottery Panel, founded the Forward Prizes for Poetry in 1992 and National Poetry Day itself in 1994. He’s active in supporting public libraries and charities, but he’s also dedicated to giving personal poetry prescriptions, and has taken his Poetry Pharmacy idea to literary festivals, newspapers and radio programs.
Under five broad headings, this short book covers everything from Anxiety and Convalescence to Heartbreak and Regret. I most appreciated the discussion of slightly more existential states, such as Feelings of Unreality, for which Sieghart prescribes a passage from John Burnside’s “Of Gravity and Light,” about the grounding Buddhist monks find in menial tasks. Pay attention to life’s everyday duties, the poem teaches, and higher insights will come.
I also particularly enjoyed Julia Darling’s “Chemotherapy”—
I never thought that life could get this small,
that I would care so much about a cup,
the taste of tea, the texture of a shawl,
and whether or not I should get up.
and “Although the wind” by Izumi Shikibu:
Although the wind
blows terribly here,
the moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks
of this ruined house.
Sieghart has chosen a great variety of poems in terms of time period and register. Rumi and Hafez share space with Wendy Cope and Maya Angelou. Of the 56 poems, I’d estimate that at least three-quarters are from the twentieth century or later. At times the selections are fairly obvious or clichéd (especially “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep” for Bereavement), and the choice of short poems or excerpts seems to pander to short attention spans. So populist is the approach that Sieghart warns Keats is the hardest of all. I also thought there should have been a strict one poem per poet rule; several get two or even three entries.
If put in the right hands, though, this book will be an ideal introduction to the breadth of poetry out there. It would be a perfect Christmas present for the person in your life who always says they wish they could appreciate poetry but just don’t know where to start or how to understand it. Readers of a certain age may get the most out of the book, as a frequently recurring message is that it’s never too late to change one’s life and grow in positive ways.
“What people need more than comfort is to be given a different perspective on their inner turmoil. They need to reframe their narrative in a way that leaves room for happiness and gratitude,” Sieghart writes. Poetry is a perfect way to look slantwise at truth (to paraphrase Emily Dickinson) and change your perceptions about life. If you’re new to poetry, pick this up at once; if you’re an old hand, maybe buy it for someone else and have a quick glance through to discover a new poet or two.
My thanks to Particular Books for the free copy for review.
Do you turn to poetry when you’re struggling with life? Does it help?
Books I’ve read and enjoyed:
- The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner
- 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem by Ruth Padel
- The Poem and the Journey and 60 Poems to Read Along the Way by Ruth Padel
Currently reading: Why Poetry by Matthew Zapruder
On the TBR:
- Poetry Will Save Your Life: A Memoir by Jill Bialosky
- How to Read a Poem by Molly Peacock
I haven’t had much chance to explore 2017’s offerings yet. Although I technically have access to loads of pre-release titles through NetGalley and Edelweiss, the books in front of me and, of course, the ones I’m reading on assignment tend to take priority. Much as I’d like to be ahead of the trend, I’ve only read five 2017 titles, three of which I can recommend. Two of these happen to be poetry books; the third is a wonderful bereavement-themed memoir.
Whereas by Stephen Dunn
“A Card from Me to Me,” the prefatory poem, sets the tone, as the poet wishes himself a happy 75th birthday and marvels at “the strangeness, the immensity, of what I have / and have had and every small thing that against the odds continues to be.” Much of what follows is about life and death, success and failure, and what we learn from it all. For example, writing about a funeral: “at such moments / everyone is an amateur of feelings.”
I especially liked “Unnatural,” with its meditation on nature vs. artifice, “Let’s Say,” and “Nothing Personal,” about an author killing off a character (or is that God killing off the narrator?). These are very lucid poems, reading like complete sentences and thorough trains of thought, with memorable alliteration and vocabulary. I’d read more from Dunn.
Releases February 21st.
The Analyst by Molly Peacock
Peacock wrote this in tribute to her longtime psychoanalyst, Joan Workman Stein, who practiced in New York City until she suffered a stroke in 2012. This collection contains a rich mixture of autobiographical reflection and translations. The form and style vary from poem to poem, but I was always struck by the imagery, often drawn from the culinary and art worlds – everything from marinara sauce and a skinned rabbit to paper dolls and methods of expressing gratitude in French. I presumed the entire book would be about Stein, but instead the poems about her pre- and post-stroke life share space with ones about Peacock’s own life, from childhood onward. Having enjoyed The Paper Garden, the author’s biography of eighteenth-century artist Mary Delany, I was especially tickled to see several poems that mention collage and other paper arts, such as “Authors.”
“Mandala in the Making,” the final poem, meditates on the contrast between the drive to make art and the essential impermanence of life: “When they’re done, // they’ll brush it all away. You can’t believe it. / Nothing stays (including the memory you’ve lost). / What lasts?”
I was really impressed with this collection and will be searching out Peacock’s previous poetry books as well.
Releases January 3rd.
Traveling with Ghosts: A Memoir by Shannon Leone Fowler
“This is a story about finding love and learning to live with loss. But mostly, it’s a story about all the places in between.” In August 2002, Fowler was traveling in Thailand with her fiancé Sean. They were embracing in shallow water outside their cabana when Fowler felt something brush past her thigh. The highly toxic box jellyfish stung Sean on his leg, and by the time she brought help he was already dead, though clinic staff went through the motions of trying to resuscitate him.
This memoir concentrates on the four and a half months that followed Sean’s death, a time that Fowler filled with constant travel through Eastern Europe – “a place where the endings [in folk tales as well as in real life] were rarely happy, but the stories were told just the same.” She had a compulsion to keep moving, as if Sean’s death was something she could outrun; she sought out risky places, going to Bosnia and then to Tel Aviv to visit the Israeli girls who helped her deal with the practicalities of Sean’s death.
Fowler toggles between her blithe trips with Sean in the few years they had together, her somber travels after his death, and the immediate aftermath of his death. Each short section is headed by the date and place, but the constant time shifts are meant to be disorienting and reflect how traumatic memories linger. Your average memoir might have brought things up to the present day by showing how the author learned and grew from the experience. This is not your average memoir. It delves into the thick of the grief and stays there. It doesn’t give easy answers about how to get over things or suggest life will later be perfect, just in a different way. It’s honest and unusual and has stayed with me. Highly recommended.
(Note: The author is the daughter of novelist Karen Joy Fowler.)
Releases February 21st.
Two more 2017 books are on my reading stack:
- I’m halfway through Bleaker House by Nell Stevens, a memoir about her failed attempt to write her debut novel during several months of isolation on Bleaker Island in the Falklands. It’s weird but funny, and I think any writer will relate to the feelings of loneliness and a lack of confidence. I’ll be reviewing it for Nudge. (Releases March 14th.)
- I’ll be reviewing The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti for The Bookbag sometime before its March 28th release.
Have you sampled any 2017 books yet?
Who knew Elizabeth Gilbert had it in her? I’ve read and loved all of her nonfiction (e.g. Big Magic), but my experience of her fiction was a different matter: Stern Men is simply atrocious. I’m so glad I took a chance on this 2013 novel anyway. Many friends had lauded it, and for good reason. It’s a warm, playful doorstopper of a book, telling the long and eventful story of Alma Whittaker, a fictional nineteenth-century botanist whose staid life in her father’s Philadelphia home unexpectedly opens outward through marriage, an adventure in Tahiti, and a brush with the theories of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace.
The novel’s voice feels utterly natural, and though Gilbert must have done huge amounts of research about everything from bryophytes to Tahitian customs, nowhere does the level of historical detail feel overwhelming. There are truly terrific characters, including mystical orchid illustrator Ambrose Pike, perky missionary Reverend Welles, and a charismatic Polynesian leader named Tomorrow Morning.
We see multiple sides of Alma herself, like her enthusiasm for mosses and her sexual yearning. For a short time in her girlhood she’s part of a charming female trio with her adopted sister Prudence and their flighty friend Retta. I loved how Gilbert pins down these three very different characters through pithy (and sometimes appropriately botanical) descriptions: “Prudence’s nose was a little blossom; Alma’s was a growing yam,” while Retta is “a perfect little basin of foolishness and distraction.”
Gilbert also captures the delight of scientific discovery and the fecundity of nature in a couple of lush passages that are worth quoting in full:
(Looking at mosses on boulders) Alma put the magnifying lens to her eye and looked again. Now the miniature forest below her gaze sprang into majestic detail. She felt her breath catch. This was a stupefying kingdom. This was the Amazon jungle as seen from the back of a harpy eagle. She rode her eye above the surprising landscape, following its paths in every direction. Here were rich, abundant valleys filled with tiny trees of braided mermaid hair and minuscule, tangled vines. Here were barely visible tributaries running through that jungle, and here was a miniature ocean in a depression in the center of the boulder where all the water pooled.
The cave was not merely mossy; it throbbed with moss. It was not merely green; it was frantically green. It was so bright in its verdure that the color nearly spoke, as though—smashing through the world of sight—it wanted to migrate into the world of sound. The moss was a thick, living pelt, transforming every rock surface into a mythical, sleeping beast.
Best of all, the novel kept surprising me. Every chapter and part took a new direction I never would have predicted. Like The Goldfinch, this is a big, rich novel I can imagine rereading.
One of my favorite parts of reviewing (e.g. for Kirkus and BookBrowse) is choosing “readalikes” that pick up on the themes or tone of the book in question. I’ve picked four for The Signature of All Things:
Lab Girl, Hope Jahren: An enthusiastic, wide-ranging memoir of being a woman in science. There’s even some moss! This was a really interesting one for me to be reading at the same time as the Gilbert novel. (See Naomi’s review at Consumed by Ink.)
The Paper Garden, Molly Peacock: This biography of Mary Delany, an eighteenth-century botanical illustrator, examines the options for women’s lives at that time and celebrates the way Delany beat the odds by seeking a career of her own in her seventies.