Lots of adults are afraid of poetry, Joe Nutt believes. As a Midlands lad he loved going to the public library and had a magical first encounter with poetry at secondary school – the last time many people will ever read it. A former English teacher and Times Educational Supplement columnist who has written books about Shakespeare, Donne and Milton, he also spent many years in the business world, where he sensed apprehension and even hostility towards poetry. This book is meant as a gentle introduction, or reintroduction, to the joys of reading a poem for yourself.
The 22 chapters each focus on a particular poem, ranging in period and style from the stately metaphysical verse of Andrew Marvell to the rapid-fire performance rhythms of Hollie McNish. The pattern in these essays is to provide background on the poet and his or her milieu or style before moving into more explicit interpretation of the poem’s themes and techniques; the poem is then generally printed at the end of the chapter.*
I most appreciated the essays on poems I already knew and loved but gained extra insight into (“Blackberry-Picking” by Seamus Heaney and “The Darkling Thrush” by Thomas Hardy) or had never read before, even if I knew other things by the same poets (“The Bistro Styx” by Rita Dove and “The Sea and the Skylark” by Gerard Manley Hopkins). The Dove poem echoes the Demeter and Persephone myth as it describes a meeting between a mother and daughter in a Paris café. The mother worries she’s lost her daughter to Paris – and, what’s worse, to a kitschy gift shop and an artist for whom she works as a model. Meanwhile, Heaney, Hardy and Hopkins all reflect – in their various, subtle ways – on environmental and societal collapse and ask what hope we might find in the midst of despair.
Other themes that come through in the chosen poems include Englishness and countryside knowledge (E. Nesbit and Edward Thomas), love, war and death. Nutt points out the things to look out for, such as doubling of words or sounds, punctuation, and line length. His commentary is especially useful in the chapters on Donne, Wordsworth and Hopkins. In other chapters, though, he can get sidetracked by personal anecdotes or hang-ups like people not knowing the difference between rifles and shotguns (his main reason for objecting to Vicki Feaver’s “The Gun,” to which he devotes a whole chapter) or Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize. These felt like unnecessary asides and detracted from the central goal of celebrating poetry. One can praise the good without denigrating what one thinks bad, yes?
*Except for a few confusing cases where it’s not. Where’s Ted Hughes’s “Tractor”? If reproduction rights couldn’t be obtained, a different poem should have been chosen. Why does a chapter on Keats’s “The Eve of St. Agnes” quote just a few fragments from it in the text but then end with a passage from Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis (ditto with the excerpt from Donne that ends the chapter on Milton)? The particular Carol Ann Duffy and Robert Browning poems Nutt has chosen are TL; DR, while he errs to the other extreme by not quoting enough from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Paradise Lost, perhaps assuming too much audience familiarity. (I’ve never read either!)
So, overall, a bit of a mixed bag: probably better suited to those less familiar with poetry; and, oddly, often more successful for me in its generalizations than in its particulars:
if you once perceive that poetry operates on the edges of man’s knowledge and experience, that it represents in art a profoundly sincere attempt by individuals to grapple with the inexorable conditions of human life, then you are well on the way to becoming not just a reader of it but a fan.
The poet’s skill is in making us look at the world anew, through different, less tainted lenses.
A poem, however unique and strange, however pure and white the page it sits on, doesn’t enter your life unaccompanied. It comes surrounded by literary echoes and memories, loaded with the past. That’s why you get better at understanding [poems], why you enjoy them more, the more you read.
Poetry is so often parsimonious. It makes us work for our supper.
Rossetti deliberately avoids certainty throughout. I enjoy that in any poem. It makes you think.
There is really only one response to great poetry: an unqualified, appreciative ‘yes’.
- 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
- The Poetry Pharmacy by William Sieghart
- Why Poetry by Matthew Zapruder
(I have read and can recommend all of these. Padel’s explication of poetry is top-notch.)
The Point of Poetry was published by Unbound on March 21st (World Poetry Day). My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.
See below for where other reviews have appeared or will be appearing soon.
I like this reading with the seasons lark. It’s a shame that my library hold on Ali Smith’s Autumn didn’t come in until well after it turned to winter here in England, but I was intrigued by the sound of her post-Brexit seasonal quartet. Then, as if one winter anthology wasn’t enough, I tried another – this time a broader range of literature, history and travel writing.
Autumn by Ali Smith
Smith is attempting a sort of state-of-the-nation novel in four parts. Her two main characters are Daniel Gluck, a centenarian dying at a care home, and his former next-door neighbor, Elisabeth Demand, in her early thirties and still figuring out her path in life. The present world Elisabeth and her mother navigate is a true-to-life post-Brexit bureaucratic nightmare where people are building walls and hurling racist epithets – “news right now is like a flock of speeded-up sheep running off the side of a cliff.” Mostly the book is composed of flashbacks to wordplay-filled conversations between Elisabeth and Daniel when he used to babysit for her, as well as dreams/hallucinations Daniel is having on his deathbed. But there’s also a lot of seemingly irrelevant material about pop artist Pauline Boty and Christine Keeler.
This was most likely written very quickly in response to current events, and while some of Smith’s strengths benefit from immediacy – the nearly stream-of-consciousness style (no speech marks) and the jokey dialogue – I think I would have preferred a more circumspect, compressed narrative. In places this was too repetitive, and the seasonal theme felt neither here nor there. I’ll listen out for what the other books are like, but doubt I’ll bother reading them. Aspects of this are very similar to Number 11 by Jonathan Coe (the state-of-Britain remit, even the single mother hoping to appear on a reality show), but I much preferred his take. [Gorgeous cover, though – David Hockney’s Early November Tunnel (2006).]
Winter: A Book for the Season, edited by Felicity Trotman
This seasonal anthology contains a nice mixture of poetry, nature and travel pieces, and excerpts from longer works of fiction. Some favorite pieces were W.H. Hudson on the town birds of Bath in the late nineteenth century, Mark Twain on his determination to keep wearing his trademark white through the winter, a Hans Christian Andersen dialogue between a snowman who longs to be by the stove and the yard-dog that warns him away, and Richard Jefferies on those who go out to work on a winter morning. But I enjoyed the poetry the most. Trotman includes a wide range of celebrated poets, from Shakespeare and Keats to John Clare and Wordsworth. I particularly liked a more recent contribution from Carolyn King, “First Snow,” in which a cat imagines that a giant wallpaper stripper has produced the flakes.
All told, though, there are too many seventeenth-century and older pieces with archaic spellings, and a number of the history and travel extracts, in particular, feel overlong – with nearly 40 pages in total from Ernest Shackleton’s South. Especially given the thin pages and small type, this represents a tediously large chunk of the book. Shorter pieces increase the variety in an anthology and mean the book lends itself to being picked up and read a few stories at a time. This is one to keep on the coffee table each winter and dip into over several years rather than read straight through. (See my full review at The Bookbag.)
As it happens, I’ve now read five books titled Winter: besides the Wildlife Trusts anthology and the novel about Thomas Hardy, both of which I’ve already reviewed here, there’s also Rick Bass’s wonderful memoir of his first year in Montana and Adam Gopnik’s wide-ranging book about the season. But beyond those with the simple one-word title, there are a whole host of titles on my TBR containing the word “Winter”. Here’s the whole list!
Have you read any “Autumn” or “Winter” books this year?
My resolution to read just my own books for the summer largely fell by the wayside, but I did manage to get through another handful of print books from the shelves. Below I give brief write-ups of what I’ve finished lately and recall how these books came to be in my collection.
In Fond Remembrance of Me by Howard Norman: A strange, short book that blends memoir and Inuit legends. In 1977 Norman travelled to Churchill, Manitoba to transcribe an oral storyteller’s folktales. Most of these were about Noah coming into contact with the peoples of the far north and displeasing them by refusing to give over the exotic animals of his ark as food. Helen Tanizaki, a scholar in her late thirties who tried half-heartedly to hide the fact that she was dying of stomach cancer, was also there to translate stories into Japanese. It’s easy to see why she impressed Norman with her mystical stoicism. She was a keen birdwatcher, and declared she wanted to be reincarnated as a seabird. The portrait of Helen is compelling, but the book doesn’t hang together well, especially because the interspersed legends are so repetitive. [From my Amazon wish list last Christmas.]
An Anthology of Animal Poetry, ed. Kenneth A. Mason: This was assembled in 1940 by a 19-year-old, and it shows. The choices are obvious and old-fashioned; too many of the poems are long and insist on rhyming. However, I discovered some real gems. Three poems in a row are about skylarks – by Gerard Manley Hopkins, Wordsworth and Shelley – and they’re all brilliant, using the bird as an emblem of freedom. Shelley’s “To a Skylark,” in particular, I can’t believe I’ve never encountered before. Its 21 stanzas praise the bird’s pure joy and wonder how careworn humans might emulate it: “We look before and after, / And pine for what is not … Teach me half the gladness / That thy brain must know.” My vintage Pelican copy has ads for chocolate and cigarettes that made me laugh. [Bought from a secondhand bookstore in Tunbridge Wells for 10 pence.]
The Mistress’s Daughter by A.M. Homes: This grew out of a New Yorker article Homes published about meeting her biological parents in her early 30s. Her mother carried on an affair with her married boss, starting when she was just a teenager – Homes learned that she was the mistress’s daughter. This is the story of how her birth mother tried to get involved in her life, in a really rather stalker-ish way, and the occasional contact she had from her birth father. The blow-by-blow gets a little boring, especially when it’s Homes and her father only communicating via lawyers. Homes doesn’t really make much of a contribution to the literature of adoption, though this is a pleasant enough read. “I am an amalgam. I will always be something glued together, something slightly broken.” [Bought from a library book sale in America for $1.]
Summertime by Vanessa Lafaye: An enjoyable historical novel based on several true-life elements: a work camp of army veterans based at the Florida Keys, segregation and lynching, and a massive hurricane that hit in 1935. Main characters Missy and Henry are well drawn, but beyond them I thought Lafaye splits the perspective too far: I didn’t need to see through the eyes of lots of the veterans, the shopkeeper, or the policeman investigating the brutal beating of a local white woman. As for this crime, I knew whodunit pretty much right away, so there wasn’t any suspense regarding that plot point. However, Lafaye does do a great job of building tension in the novel’s final third as the storm approaches. The U.S. title (Under a Dark Summer Sky) is much better; “Summertime” evokes strangely rosy images and so is inappropriate. [I won a copy in a Goodreads giveaway.]
So Many Books, So Little Time: A Year of Passionate Reading by Sara Nelson: Nelson is forthright about what she likes and doesn’t like; she also ruefully reflects on the gap between what she meant to read and what she actually read in 2002. Her reading diary tells a lot about her personal life too: having a non-reading spouse and a novelist sister; memories of her late father; and the struggle to instill a love of reading into her young son. Inevitably a little dated as it engages with ‘It’ books of the time like A Million Little Pieces and Kitchen Confidential, the book has staying power because in each chapter Nelson broadens out from her discussion of one or more books to craft a thematic essay. This was meant to be my bedside book for the second half of the year, but I devoured it in less than seven weeks. It’s full of lines bibliophiles can relate to. [Free from The Book Thing of Baltimore.]
The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester: Tarquin Winot, the snobby Francophile who narrates Lanchester’s debut novel, has a voice reminiscent of Oliver in Julian Barnes’s Talking It Over and Love etc. His opinionated, verbose speech provides much of the book’s wit. “This is not a conventional cookbook,” the first line warns, but a foodie’s tribute to traditional English and French dishes that compose the best seasonal menus. As we travel with Tarquin from Portsmouth to Provence we learn more about this peculiar character through the memories dishes elicit: about his Irish nanny, his sculptor brother’s boarding school years, etc. Lanchester subtly introduces notes of doubt about the narrator’s reliability, until we have to wonder how much his tale resembles Perfume or The Talented Mr. Ripley. Deliciously clever and sinuous. [Bought from a London charity shop for 20 pence.]
I spent much of the summer bogged down in several very good but not particularly page-turning works of nonfiction. I’ll review those in due course.
Up next, though, are a few Booker Prize longlist mini-reviews in advance of the shortlist announcement on Tuesday.
In January lots of us tend to think about self-improvement for the New Year. Books can help! I’m resurrecting a post I first wrote as part of a series for Bookkaholic in April 2013 in hopes that those new to the concept of bibliotherapy will find it interesting.
I happen to believe – and I’m not the only one, not by a long shot – that a relationship with books can increase wellbeing. The right book at the right time can be a powerful thing, not just amusing and teaching, but also reassuring and even healing. Indeed, an ancient Greek library at Thebes bore an inscription on the lintel naming it a “Healing-Place for the Soul.”
The term “bibliotherapy,” from the Greek biblion (books) + therapeia (healing), was coined in 1916 by Samuel McChord Crothers (1857-1927). Crothers, a Unitarian minister and essayist, introduced the word in an Atlantic Monthly piece called “A Literary Clinic.” The use of books as a therapeutic tool then came to the forefront in America during the two world wars, when librarians received training in how to suggest helpful books to veterans recuperating in military hospitals. Massachusetts General Hospital had founded one of the first patients’ libraries, in 1844, and many other state institutions – particularly mental hospitals – had followed suit by the time of the First World War. Belief in the healing powers of reading was becoming more widespread; whereas once it had been assumed that only religious texts could edify, now it was clear that there could be benefits to secular reading too.
Read this for what ails you
Clinical bibliotherapy is still a popular strategy, often used in combination with other medical approaches to treat mental illness. Especially in the UK, where bibliotherapy is offered through official National Health Service (NHS) channels, library and health services work together to give readers access to books that may aid the healing process. Over half of England’s public library systems offer bibliotherapy programs, with a total of around 80 schemes documented as of 2006. NHS doctors will often write patients a ‘prescription’ for a recommended book to borrow at a local library. These books will usually fall under the umbrella of “self-help,” with a medical or mental health leaning: guides to overcoming depression, building self-confidence, dealing with stress, and so on.
Books can serve as one component of cognitive behavioral therapy, which aims to modify behavior through the identification of irrational thoughts and emotions. Bibliotherapy has also been shown to be an effective method of helping children and teenagers cope with problems: everything from parents’ divorce to the difficulties of growing up and resisting peer pressure. Overall, bibliotherapy is an appealing strategy for medical professionals to use with patients because it is low-cost and low-risk but disproportionately effective.
In addition to clinical bibliotherapy, libraries also support what is known as “creative bibliotherapy” – mining fiction and poetry for their healing powers. Library pamphlets and displays advertise their bibliotherapy services under names such as “Read Yourself Well” or “Reading and You,” with eclectic, unpredictable lists of those novels and poems that have proved to be inspiring or consoling. With all of these initiatives, the message is clear: books have the power to change lives by reminding ordinary, fragile people that they are not alone in their struggles.
The School of Life
London’s School of Life, founded by Alain de Botton, offers classes, psychotherapy sessions, secular ‘sermons,’ and a library of recommended reading tackle subjects such as job satisfaction, creativity, parenting, ethics, finances, and facing death with dignity. In addition, the School offers bibliotherapy sessions (one-on-one, for adults or children, or, alternatively, for couples) that can take place in person or online. A prospective reader fills out a reading history questionnaire before meeting the bibliotherapist, and can expect to walk away from the session with one instant book prescription. A full prescription of another 5-10 books arrives within a few days.
In 2011 The Guardian sent six of its writers on School of Life bibliotherapy sessions; their consensus seemed to be that, although the sessions produced some intriguing book recommendations, at £80 (or $123) each they were an unnecessarily expensive way of deciding what to read next – especially compared to asking a friend or skimming newspapers’ reviews of new books. Nonetheless, it is good to see bibliotherapy being taken seriously in a modern, non-medical context.
A consoling canon
You don’t need a doctor’s or bibliotherapist’s prescription to convince you that reading makes you feel better. It cheers you up, makes you take yourself less seriously, and gives you a peaceful space for thought. Even if there is no prospect of changing your situation, getting lost in a book at least allows you to temporarily forget your woes. In Comfort Found in Good Old Books (1911), a touching work he began writing just 10 days after his son’s sudden death, George Hamlin Fitch declared “it has been my constant aim to preach the doctrine of the importance of cultivating the habit of reading good books, as the chief resource in time of trouble and sickness.”
Indeed, as Rick Gekoski noted last year in an article entitled “Some of my worst friends are books,” literary types have always turned to reading to help them through grief. He cites the examples of Joan Didion coming to grips with her husband’s death in The Year of Magical Thinking, or John Sutherland facing up to his alcoholism in The Boy Who Loved Books. Gekoski admits to being “struck and surprised, both envious and a little chagrined, by how literary their frame of reference is. In the midst of the crisis…a major reflex is to turn, for consolation and understanding, to favorite and esteemed authors.” Literary critic Harold Bloom confirms that books can provide comfort; in The Western Canon he especially recommends William Wordsworth, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson as “great poets one can read when one is exhausted or even distraught, because in the best sense they console.”
Just as in a lifetime of reading you will develop your own set of personal classics, you are also likely to build up a canon of favorite books to consult in a crisis – books that you turn to again and again for hope, reassurance, or just some good laughs. For instance, in More Book Lust Nancy Pearl swears by Bill Bryson’s good-natured 1995 travel book about England, Notes from a Small Island: “This is the single best book I know of to give someone who is depressed, or in the hospital.” (With one caveat: beware, your hospitalized reader may well suffer a rupture or burst stitches from laughing.)
Just what you needed
There’s something magical about that serendipitous moment when a reader comes across just the right book at just the right time. Charlie D’Ambrosio confides that he approaches books with a quiet wish: “I hope in my secret heart someone, somewhere, mysteriously influenced and moved, has written exactly what I need” (his essay “Stray Influences” is collected in The Most Wonderful Books). Yet this is not the same as superstitiously expecting to open a book and find personalized advice. Believe it or not, this has been an accepted practice at various points in history. “Bibliomancy” means consulting a book at random to find prophetic help – usually the Bible, as in the case of St. Augustine and St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis’s first biographer, Thomas of Celano, wrote that “he humbly prayed that he might be shown, at his first opening the book, what would be most fitting for him to do” (in his First Life of St Francis of Assisi).
Perhaps meeting the right book is less like a logical formula and more like falling in love. You can’t really explain how it happened, but there’s no denying that it’s a perfect match. Nick Hornby likens this affair of the mind to a dietary prescription – echoing that medical tone bibliotherapy can often have: “sometimes your mind knows what it needs, just as your body knows when it’s time for some iron, or some protein” (in More Baths, Less Talking).
Entirely by happenstance, a book that recently meant a lot to me is one of the six inaugural School of Life titles, How to Stay Sane by psychotherapist Philippa Perry. Clearly and practically written, with helpful advice on how to develop wellbeing through self-observation, healthy relationships, optimism, and exercise, Perry’s book turned out to offer just what I needed.
I’ve been busy visiting family in the States but I’ll be back soon with a review of The Novel Cure from School of Life bibliotherapists Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin.