National Poetry Month 2015!

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I almost forgot that April is National Poetry Month! I’ll be posting a bit more frequently this month because, in addition to my usual reviews, I’ll be sharing some poems that have caught my eye. I always have a small amount of anxiety about sharing poetry because I’m afraid I’ll forget about one of my favorites and then feel guilty for having neglected it. Maybe I’ll start a running list to get ready for next year. (Ah, who am I kidding? I’d probably lost the list!)

I’m starting with a stanza from a riddle written by Lewis Carroll. It’s one of my favorite stanzas of poetry; I remember reading it for the first time, ages ago, and being blown away by the fact that there was such a thing as a poetic equation. I haven’t even tried to solve the riddle yet (in fact, I may have only read it all the way through once); I’ve just always loved the neatness of these four lines:

Yet what are all such gaieties to me
Whose thoughts are full of indices and surds?
x2 + 7x + 53
= 11 / 3.

Review: Honeyvoiced by Jordi Alonso

Honeyvoiced by Jordi Alonso. XOXOX Press. 140 pp.

Honeyvoiced by Jordi Alonso. XOXOX Press. 140 pp.

Honeyvoiced is a collection of poetry inspired by Sappho’s fragments. They’re not direct translations, though; as the author explains in his introduction, “My hope was to create not a translation, but, a rewriting of Sappho, where her fragments would be stitched into my words, giving them strength and reaching for something both lovely and new.”

I love the idea of stitching someone else’s work throughout your own and creating a richly textured tapestry, and that concept works quite well for this poet. The poems in this collection are brief, some no longer than a few lines, so it’s a great book to keep on hand and dip into whenever you’ve got a spare moment. That’s not to say that it’s trivial, though; some of these poems say more in a few lines than others say in a few stanzas. Alonso chooses and uses his words carefully; he shows economy in his language while still managing to make it feel rich.

In Fragment 21, he writes,

Not of wars, politics, or dispassionate gods,

but of lust, love, home, beach, bread,

of the present,

sing to us.

The beauty of this collection lies in its dedication to just those things, a list of sensory elements that are easy to overlook but are…well…elemental when you stop and think about them. I enjoyed reading these poems; from Fragment 20, striking in its simplicity, to the rough, burning jealousy of Fragment 31 and the sweet longing of Fragment 192, this is a collection full of beautiful moments.

Visit Jordi online here.

Happy Poem In Your Pocket Day!

Today is Poem in Your Pocket Day. It’s pretty self-explanatory, but in case you’re interested, there’s more info here, along with some printable pocket-sized poems.

Which poem did I choose? Funny you should ask! Here it is:

Today

by Billy Collins

If ever there were a spring day so perfect,
so uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze
that it made you want to throw
open all the windows in the house
and unlatch the door to the canary’s cage,
indeed, rip the little door from its jamb,
a day when the cool brick paths
and the garden bursting with peonies
seemed so etched in sunlight
that you felt like taking
a hammer to the glass paperweight
on the living room end table,
releasing the inhabitants
from their snow-covered cottage
so they could walk out,
holding hands and squinting
into this larger dome of blue and white,
well, today is just that kind of day.

National Poetry Month: Selection #5

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Last year, I read and reviewed a collection of poetry by Taylor Mali. As a former teacher, I could relate to many of his poems, but this one was by far my favorite. (I later discovered that it’s also one of his most popular poems.) I’ve posted the text of the poem below, but there’s a rather good illustrated version on the Zen Pencils Tumblr. It’s a little aggressive for my tastes — as is the poem at times — but I enjoy the overall theme enough to share it anyway.

What Teachers Make

by Taylor Mali

He says the problem with teachers is
What’s a kid going to learn
from someone who decided his best option in life
was to become a teacher?

He reminds the other dinner guests that it’s true
what they say about teachers:
Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.
I decide to bite my tongue instead of his
and resist the temptation to remind the dinner guests
that it’s also true what they say about lawyers.
Because we’re eating, after all, and this is polite conversation.

I mean, you’re a teacher, Taylor.
Be honest. What do you make?

And I wish he hadn’t done that— asked me to be honest—
because, you see, I have this policy about honesty and ass-­‐kicking:
if you ask for it, then I have to let you have it.
You want to know what I make?
I make kids work harder than they ever thought they could.
I can make a C+ feel like a Congressional Medal of Honor
and an A-­‐ feel like a slap in the face.
How dare you waste my time
with anything less than your very best.

I make kids sit through 40 minutes of study hall
in absolute silence. No, you may not work in groups.
No, you may not ask a question.
Why won’t I let you go to the bathroom?
Because you’re bored.
And you don’t really have to go to the bathroom, do you?

I make parents tremble in fear when I call home:
Hi. This is Mr. Mali. I hope I haven’t called at a bad time,
I just wanted to talk to you about something your son said today.
To the biggest bully in the grade, he said,
“Leave the kid alone. I still cry sometimes, don’t you?
It’s no big deal.”
And that was noblest act of courage I have ever seen.

I make parents see their children for who they are
and what they can be.

You want to know what I make? I make kids wonder,
I make them question.
I make them criticize.
I make them apologize and mean it.
I make them write.
I make them read, read, read.
I make them spell definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful
over and over and over again until they will never misspell
either one of those words again.
I make them show all their work in math
and hide it on their final drafts in English.
I make them understand that if you’ve got this,
then you follow this,
and if someone ever tries to judge you
by what you make, you give them this.

Here, let me break it down for you, so you know what I say is true:
Teachers make a goddamn difference! Now what about you?

National Poetry Month: Selection #4

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It’s that time again. Time for another of my favorite poems. I could choose half of the poems from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or Through the Looking-Glass, because their rhythms are familiar and beloved to me after decades of re-reads, but for today I’ll go with this deliciously nonsensical one. It’s titleless, but it’s evidence read by the White Rabbit in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, in case you’d like to find it for yourself.

They told me you had been to her,
And mentioned me to him:
She gave me a good character,
But said I could not swim.

He sent them word I had not gone
(We know it to be true):
If she should push the matter on,
What would become of you?

I gave her one, they gave him two,
You gave us three or more;
They all returned from him to you,
Though they were mine before.

If I or she should chance to be
Involved in this affair,
He trusts to you to set them free,
Exactly as we were.

My notion was that you had been
(Before she had this fit)
An obstacle that came between
Him, and ourselves, and it,

Don’t let him know she liked them best,
For this must ever be
A secret, kept from all the rest,
Between yourself and me.

National Poetry Month: Selection #3

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This poem breaks my heart every time I read it. Although I know I can’t (and shouldn’t), I still wish I could protect my son from all the painful, frightening things that life will bring his way. This is the part that fills my eyes with tears no matter how many times I read it:

She is doing nothing,
She never did anything harder.

It takes strength to let our children out of our arms.

For Julia, In the Deep Water

by John M. Morris

The instructor we hire
because she does not love you
Leads you into the deep water,
The deep end
Where the water is darker—
Her open, encouraging arms
That never get nearer
Are merciless for your sake.

You will dream this water always
Where nothing draws nearer,
Wasting your valuable breath
You will scream for your mother—
Only your mother is drowning
Forever in the thin air
Down at the deep end.
She is doing nothing,
She never did anything harder.
And I am beside her.

I am beside her in this imagination.
We are waiting
Where the water is darker.
You are over your head,
Screaming, you are learning
Your way toward us,
You are learning how
In the helpless water
It is with our skill
We live in what kills us.

National Poetry Month: Selection #2

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As April is National Poetry Month, I’ll be featuring a few poems I enjoy. Some of my favorite poems (like Prufrock) are a bit too long, so you’ll be seeing some of my favorite shorter poems. Here is today’s poem, a wonderful choice for all you polite — yet introverted — souls.

Politeness

by A.A. Milne

If people ask me,
I always tell them:
“Quite well, thank you, I’m very glad to say.”
If people ask me,
I always answer,
“Quite well, thank you, how are you to-day?”
I always answer,
I always tell them,
If they ask me
Politely…..
BUT SOMETIMES

I wish

That they wouldn’t.

Review: Aimless Love by Billy Collins

Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems by Billy Collins. Random House. 288 pp.

Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems by Billy Collins. Random House. 288 pp.

From the two-term Poet Laureate of the United States Billy Collins comes his first compilation of new and selected poems in twelve years. Aimless Love combines new poems with selections from four previous books—Nine Horses, The Trouble with Poetry, Ballistics, and Horoscopes for the Dead. Collins’s unmistakable voice, which brings together plain speech with imaginative surprise, is clearly heard with every word, reminding us how he has managed to enrich the tapestry of contemporary poetry and greatly expand its audience. His work is featured in top literary magazines such as The New Yorker, Poetry, and The Atlantic, and he sells out reading venues all across the country. Appearing regularly in The Best American Poetry series, his poems appeal to readers and live audiences far and wide and have been translated into more than a dozen languages. By turns playful, ironic, and serious, Collins’s poetry captures the nuances of everyday life while leading the reader into zones of inspired wonder. In the poet’s own words, he hopes that his poems “begin in Kansas and end in Oz.” Touching on the themes of love, loss, joy, and poetry itself, these poems showcase the best work of this “poet of plenitude, irony, and Augustan grace” (The New Yorker).


I’m ashamed to say that I hadn’t had much experience with Billy Collins’s work before starting this collection. (I’m not very well versed in poetry, especially that of the twenty-first century. But I’m working on it.) I’d come across a poem of his here and there in anthologies but hadn’t picked up a collection of his work yet. And — like many books I’ve been reading lately — I’m disappointed in myself for taking so long to read this one. Aimless Love is a great place to start because it includes Collins’s old poems as well as new. It was a great sampler for me, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

Collins’s poetry reminds me of the time I stood in St. Paul’s Cathedral: the world seemed so big, and as a result I felt small and insignificant, but it was overwhelming in the best possible way. I felt connected to the world around me, a small cog in a complex mechanism. (And I’m not Catholic. This may have been a sort of architectural revelation.) There are things that we all experience, and there are aspects of life unique to each of us, and good poetry (good writing of any kind, really) finds a way to bridge the gap between people until we remember that we are all part of the same underlying human experience.

All in all: Collins writes poems that are easily accessible to the reluctant reader but well-crafted enough to be admired by lovers of the written word. An excellent collection, one that would make a great gift. (I received a digital review copy but plan to purchase a print edition so I can underline my favorite lines and pencil in some marginalia.)

Review: Poems That Make Grown Men Cry, edited by Anthony and Ben Holden

PoemsThatMakeGrownMenCry

Poems That Make Grown Men Cry, edited by Anthony & Ben Holden. Simon & Schuster. 336 pp.

Grown men don’t cry.

But in this fascinating anthology, one hundred men—distinguished in literature and film, science and architecture, theater and human rights—confess to being moved to tears by poems that continue to haunt them. Representing twenty nationalities and ranging in age from their early 20s to their late 80s, the majority are public figures not prone to crying. Here they admit to breaking down when ambushed by great art, often in words as powerful as the poems themselves.

Their selections include classics by visionaries such as Walt Whitman, W.H Auden, and Philip Larkin, as well as contemporary works by masters including Billy Collins, Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, and poets who span the globe from Pablo Neruda to Rabindranath Tagore.

Seventy-five percent of the selected poems were written in the twentieth century, with more than a dozen by women including Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Bishop, and Gwendolyn Brooks. Their themes range from love in its many guises, through mortality and loss, to the beauty and variety of nature. Three men have suffered the pain of losing a child; others are moved to tears by the exquisite way a poet captures, in Alexander Pope’s famous phrase, “what oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d.

From J.J. Abrams to John le Carré, Salman Rushdie to Jonathan Franzen, Daniel Radcliffe to Nick Cave, Billy Collins to Stephen Fry, Stanley Tucci to Colin Firth, and Seamus Heaney to Christopher Hitchens, this collection delivers private insight into the souls of men whose writing, acting, and thinking are admired around the world.


You don’t have to say it: I am fully aware that I am not a man. Also, I’m an embarrassingly easy crier and will shed a tear at the drop of a hat. (I’ve recently taken to speed-reading through sad scenes in books because otherwise I’d have to tag far too many reviews with “Made Me Cry.”) So what made me request this one from Edelweiss? Basically, I figured that this had to be a collection of damn good poems in order to move so many eminent men so deeply. Also, the range of contributors seemed pretty broad, and it included a lot of my favorites. I’m always interested in finding out if my tastes match the tastes of the writers/performers/etc. I admire.

The editors allowed each contributor to include a brief piece explaining why he chose his particular poem. I found it particularly interesting when two men chose the same poem for different reasons, which happened more than once. After the poem, there’s a brief bio on the selector. Although I recognized most of the names, there were a few I didn’t, and I found this feature helpful.

The poetry itself comes from various time periods and languages, though most were written in English in the last 100-150 years. Some are beautiful but not particularly emotional, some seemed chosen for strictly personal reasons (and therefore felt a bit distant for me), and some left me pacing the floors of my home while sobbing.

Some of the poems didn’t make me cry, but they opened my eyes to a new poet and a style that I admired (I’ve included links when I could find them): Abioseh Nicol’s “The Meaning of Africa,” chosen by James Earl Jones, with its sweeping descriptions; Elizabeth Bishop’s powerfully evocative “Crusoe in England,” chosen by Andrew Solomon; Philip Larkin’s terrifying “Aubade,” chosen by William Sieghart; and — one I’d read previously and forgotten about — Bukowski’s “Eulogy to a Hell of a Dame,” chosen by Mike Leigh.

Other poems’ messages moved me: Consantine P. Cavafy’s “Ithaka,” chosen by Walter Salles, and Derek Walcott’s “Love After Love,” chosen by Tom Hiddleston.

Poems that hit me the hardest — the ones that made me out-and-out cry — were the ones about family, whether having/losing a parent (Tony Harrison’s “Long Distance II,” chosen by Daniel Radcliffe) or being one (John N. Morris’s “For Julia, In the Deep Water,” chosen by Tobias Wolff; Victoria Redel’s “Bedecked,” chosen by Billy Collins; and Rabindranath Tagore’s “Those Who Are Near Me Do Not Know,” chosen by Chris Cooper).

All in all: There’s something for everyone in here. Buy a stack of copies and gift them!

Review of Poets Translate Poets & Guest Post: On Translation by Jordi Alonso

Poets Translate Poets ed. by Paula Deitz. Syracuse University Press. 448 pp.

Poets Translate Poets ed. by Paula Deitz. Syracuse University Press. 448 pp.

Poets Translate Poets is an collection of work previously published by The Hudson Review. It features poems by eighty-three poets, translated by sixty writers into modern English from twenty-four original languages. The poems run the gamut in terms of subject and form, and they’re a great sampling of different translators’ styles that provide a wide-ranging look at just what can be done with the English language.

Reading this collection provides a glimpse into themes from different eras and cultures. It’s also a great springboard if you’re looking for a new poet to read; between the original poets and the translators, you’re bound to find someone you enjoy. It wasn’t an overall favorite of mine, though: I found a couple of poems and poets worth looking into further, but overall, I’m not sure if I’d recommend this anthology. It may be worth reading once, but I wouldn’t purchase it as a gift for a poetry-enjoying friend. (That honor remains reserved for Harold Bloom’s The Best Poems of the English Language.)

The introduction, though, presents some excellent food for thought. When a poet translates someone else’s work, how closely must he adhere to the original? Furthermore, once a poem has been translated, to whom does it belong? Is the English-language translation to be considered a poem by the original author, a work by the translator, or some combination of the two? Mark Jarman’s inquisitive and thought-provoking introduction raises these questions, and I enjoyed them so much that I needed to find someone to discuss them with. My translation skills are virtually nonexistent, and I wanted to talk to someone who’d had hands-on experience with the process.

Enter Jordi Alonso. Here’s a bit about Jordi:

Jordi Alonso is an English and Creative-Writing major at Kenyon College. He works at The Kenyon Review managing their presence on social media and reading the slush pile. His poems have appeared in Pegasus, The Volta, and other journals. His first manuscript, a re-imagining of the work of Sappho, is under consideration at a small publishing house in Ohio. When he’s not writing or reading, he cooks, reads, bakes, teaches himself obscure European languages and dreams of living in Mytilini, Greece, or Paris.

Follow him on Twitter @jordialonso91 

And now I pass the figurative microphone over to him:
(Thanks, Jordi, for taking the time to put together some excellent ideas about the relationship between translation and etymology.)


Poets have been translating and adapting other poets’ work for as long as poetry has existed. The act of translation demands close reading on the part of the poet so that his or her audience might hear another language’s sounds and ideas through their own tongue. Close reading, though, does not imply absolute fidelity to the source text, and, as Catullus and Robert Lowell have shown through Carmen LI and the book-length project Imitations, respectively, “unfaithful” poets have much to offer.

Recently, after having completed my own translation of Pablo Neruda’s seminal 1959 collection Cien sonetos de amor (One hundred sonnets of love) and making much slower headway on my other two proposed translation projects Ovid’s Heroides in blank verse, and Pierre Louÿs‘ Chansons de Bilitis in a sort of regularized free verse,  I began to wonder how the languages that a poet or translator has mastered affect his personal philosophy of translation. These views run the gamut from the oft-quoted maxim that poetry cannot be translated by virtue of its being poetry, to Ezra Pound’s dictum that a translator should “make it new.” That is to say, a well-translated poem is as much an artful object as its original. The word poetry ultimately comes to English from the Greek ποιέω meaning “I make”, “I create”, and “I make my own” among other things.

These linguistic musings led me to start thinking in Spanish. I was translating Neruda, after all. The Spanish and French verbs  have a common ancestor in the Latin verb for to translate meaning, quite literally, “to lead across:” trans + duco. English, on the other hand, takes a different etymological route to express the same idea: I translate. This word’s ancestry shares, at least in part, some heritage with Latin and its daughter languages: the trans is there, but here’s where it gets interesting. The main part of the verb to translate in English is the second syllable of the verb: -late. Where does that come from? In the mid 1500s, according to my copy of the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, we English speakers did not yet translate; we traduced, like they do in Spanish and French. The irregular Latin verb fero has many meanings, but its principal meaning is to carry. The past participle of fero is latum, which I will loosely translate as having been carried.

Is there a fundamental difference between the attitudes towards translation given the translator’s first language, or the language from which he or she is translating? In Latin, Spanish and French, one leads across, whereas in English one’s translation has been carried across tongues.  What ideas and motives would Catullus have had when leading Sappho across the cold chasm of language and death onto the warm life and sand of the Lavinian shore? Would Chaucer have shared Catullus’ mindset when adapting Boccacio for his Boece and Knight’s Tale? John Dryden, when working on his Aeneid, said that he was writing his Vergil “in words such as he would probably have written if he were living and an Englishman”. My hypothesis is that English translators and poets generally feel more free to adapt and truncate source material to, as Pound said, “make it their own” because of the passive history of our word for changing the language in which a literary object was originally made.

Among Edward FitzGerald’s first publications was Six Dramas of Calderon, which in 1853 began paving the way for his masterpiece, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. FitzGerald’s idiosyncratic approach to translation was very much like Pound’s would be some years later. He was inspired by a text and sought fit words to put his own stamp on it and make it into an English beauty. FitzGerald epitomizes the etymologically English way of translating, which he called “transmogrification”. It is what Lowell did with his Imitations, and personally, what I’m doing with lines from Sappho, that is, creating a new text that has the potential to stand on its own, when picked up by a reader, and yet having a link, whether weak or strong, to the previous text with which it dialogues.

Are we, as poets and translators into and out of English, given a freer rein over the process of translation ipso facto that the word itself does not hold us with as much agency as it does our Roman, Spanish, and French compatriots? Do you have other theories on translation?

Let me know in the comments.