Sunday, February 24, 2008


Another Sunday, another episode of quoteskimming; this time, it's the "baby steps" edition.

The movie What About Bob?, starring Bill Murray as a needy, panphobic patient named Bob and Richard Dreyfuss as his frazzled therapist, Dr. Leo Marvin, came out in 1991. In it, Dr. Marvin tries to help Bob overcome some of his many phobias by encouraging him to take baby steps. Bob takes him literally, and takes his very small baby steps in a variety of places. By taking baby steps, Bob eventually manages to not only get out of his own home (a major accomplishment), but to stalk Dr. Marvin and his family to their vacation destination, where Bob annoys the good doctor to the point of murder, but endears himself to Dr. Marvin's family.

I'm not suggesting that any of you should use your baby steps to stalk others, just that the movie makes an excellent metaphor for writers, who can, with small steps, accomplish big achievements, and can free themselves to try things they might not otherwise have considered.

From the script of What About Bob (Dr. Marvin is holding a copy of his book up so Bob can see the title):

Baby Steps.

It means setting small, reasonable
goals for yourself. One day at a
time, one tiny step at a time -- do-
able, accomplishable goals.

Baby steps.

When you leave this office, don't
think about everything you have to
do to get out of the building, just
deal with getting out of the room.
When you reach the hall, just deal
with the hall. And so forth. Baby

"Baby steps out the door"

Excellent quotes can be found in unlikely places. Here's one from the stop-motion animated Christmas special, Santa Claus is Comin' to Town. The chorus lyrics are:

Put one foot in front of the other
And soon you'll be walkin' 'cross the floor
Put one foot in front of the other
And soon you'll be walkin' out the door.

I believe Kris Kringle (voiced by Mickey Rooney) is on to something here: if you don't start, you can't make progress or finish; if you don't finish the first draft, you can't make it to revisions; if you do start that research, you might find the perfect bit of inspiration; if you do start that draft, it might become the bestselling picture book of 2012; if you do keep slogging through the boggy middle of your draft, you will find the upward path to the end of the book, and later on, you'll be able to do the exercises necessarily to tone that project's abs.

As Jane Austen said in Emma,
"Why not seize the pleasure at once? How often is happiness destroyed by preparation, foolish preparation?"

Baby steps, board the bus.

In the February 2008 issue of Writer's Digest magazine, Bill O'Hanlon has an article entitled "Baby Steps," which formed the inspiration for this post. O'Hanlon has written a book on writing called Write is a Verb: Sit Down. Start Writing. No Excuses. I've not read the book, but the title itself makes good advice.

Baby steps to four o'clock.

I may not have read his book, but I highly commend O'Hanlon's article, "Baby Steps: Stop obsessing about writing a book. Instead, spend 15 minutes writing one page, five times a week for a year." Again, the title and subtitle say it all, although in fairness, the subtitle reads a bit like you're supposed to be writing the same page over and over again, and I think that's not the goal. And I'm not sure that his stated plan, whereby you're to write a detailed outline of your project before you start writing your page a day, would work for a lot of writers I know. But I digress.

The section of the article I liked best was entitled "Small Increments," and the following paragraph is quoteskimmed from it:

The most common strategy to get yourself to write when you're not writing is to commit to small amounts of time. Choose five or 15 minutes. You can write more if you want. But you must write at least that amount of time per writing session. Writing begets writing, and not writing begets not writing. If you can trick yourself into writing a little, that trickle often creates a bigger flow.

"Try your baby steps."

Or, in the words of writer Stephen King:

"Stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position."

And finally, a little something from Jack London about getting started:

"You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club."

Friday, February 22, 2008

On poetry readings — a Poetry Friday post

Later, once I have pictures, I'll update you on the actual reading I did last night for the Mad Poets Society. But this Poetry Friday post is all about poetry readings: what to expect if you attend one, what to do to prepare for one, and some general tips on what to do when you're reading.

What to Expect if You Attend a Poetry Reading

Expect, of course, to hear poetry. Really famous poets like Billy Collins and Ted Kooser and Robert Pinsky usually get to read for an hour or more all by themselves, typically with a bit of patter in between poems. Many local readings have two or more people read as featured readers, sometimes but not always followed by an "open reading." More on the open reading later.

Featured readers are usually introduced by the host/emcee, and are welcomed to the podium with applause. Laughing at funny poems is not only allowed but encouraged. "Oohs" and "aahs" and "murmur-murmurs" are also permitted if the poet says something particularly clever or moving or enlightening. But no talking to neighbors and for Pete's sake, no cell phones. At the end of the poet's reading, applause is again in order.

About the open reading: it means just that; it's open to anyone who's interested in reading. Typically, anyone present can sign up when they get there and then share one or two original poems. Some places allow as many as three, but often it's a two-poem limit. If you've written some poems, you may want to take a few along to share, and then pick the one or two that you feel like reading at the time. People will clap when you're done, and some of them will probably come up to you and say nice things. Poets understand how hard the writing and sharing is, and tend to be a very welcoming, encouraging audience.

What to Do to Prepare for One

To prepare to be a featured reader:

As a starting point, you will usually be told for how long you're expected to read. Select enough poems to fill the time.

There's no fixed manner of deciding what to read. Perhaps you want to vet some new material. Maybe you want to choose a theme. Pick a few poems that you know are knock-outs (from prior readings). Be sure to open and close with strong selections.

Practice reading your poems aloud. Time each one individually and write its time on the bottom of the page.

Try to find a sensible order for things. If you're reading from a single-theme collection or body of work (as Minna and I did for part of our readings last night), group them together.

Be prepared to introduce some of your poems, or to explain a transition or inspiration — it makes for a smoother reading than saying "This next poem is called (insert poem title)" before every single poem.

You can always deduct from your folder, but it's very hard to add to it. And poems you've written and memorized should be printed and brought along anyhow, since memory sometimes decides to skiv off when you need it most.

To prepare for an open reading:

Print out a few poems and put them in a folder. A 10-cent paper folder will do, but really, it keeps your stuff together and it looks mildly polished. Not everyone will have a folder, though - some folks just turn up with a folded piece of paper. Take more than two poems; take three to five, at least. Why?

Well, then you can pick which poem(s) to share when you get there, as the spirit moves you. If three people have already read poems about armadillos, you may want to table your armadillo poem for another day. If, as in the reading I was at last night, Minna Duchovnay read a poem about Adam naming the animals and (as one of the poets for the open reading did) you have a poem about the creation of odd things like the kumquat, you might choose to share that naming poem as a tie-in.

General Tips for Reading Your Poetry in Public

Dan Maguire, who is a most excellent poet and public speaker, taught a poetry seminar two years back. Dan gave this helpful pointer about reading in public: When you're introduced, move to the poetry with alacrity. If possible, get there while folks are still clapping. (The more well-known you are, the longer and more heartily they will clap when you're introduced, but in all cases it's nice to arrive at the podium feeling welcomed by applause and not feeling like you've outlasted your welcome.)

The usual rules of public speaking apply. Make eye contact. Pace your reading. Project your voice (but for heaven's sake, don't bellow unless it's for effect; actually, the same goes for dropping your voice too low). An occasional hand gesture can be very effective, but only if it's thought out and sensibly done. You don't want to extend your arm only to not be quite sure what to do with it next.

If you get emotional over the content of one of your poems, take a breath and keep going. No need to apologize, either, unless you're simply falling apart in general and not just caught up in your text. If you've had an emotional moment while reading, pause after the conclusion of the poem, gather yourself together, take a deep breath and move on. If, however, it's the entire experience that has overwhelmed you, then when you reach the end of the poem, simply say "thank you," and sit down.

The benefits of reading poetry in front of a group: Most readings (featured or open) are not critiques, although sometimes people will make specific comments that can help you tweak something. More often, just reading it aloud to a group of people will make you notice your language in a way that you didn't when you read it at home, and you'll see places for tweaking on your own, as I did last night when I found an unnecessary "the" in a poem that I'd never ever noticed before; I had thought poem was as lean as it could be, but I was mistaken.

Another key benefit of reading in public is that you will feel like a "real" poet. And there's a sense of camaraderie among poets that is a good thing, just as there is (sometimes) a slight sense of competition as well. Whether the competition thing is good or bad can differ, but for most people, I think it's a positive. Value judgments as to the merits, value, or worth of certain poems are inevitable, and you can get a decent sense of where you stand in the immediate poetic hierarchy. Folks of all skill levels participate in open readings in particular, and you'll be part of a wide array of subject matter, use of language, form, and adroitness (in writing and speaking). There's something inspiring in hearing someone who completely blows you away and finding yourself to be less-skilled than that person in that poem, just as there is in hearing someone read something that you find to be pretty abominable, and knowing that you did better than that.

Local poetry groups abound throughout the country. Many can be found through postings at local bookstores and libraries. Some involve critique circles as well as readings. Finding one place to read poetry often assists you in finding many, many more, as poets tend to free-associate with more than one particular group, and tend to free associate with subsets of the poetic community in general. So whether you're looking to hear some poetry or to read it, getting to one reading, critique meeting or writing seminar will usually patch you into the local poetry grid.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

A Kitten Tale by Eric Rohmann

I have a confession to make. I went out looking for this book after reading this most excellent review over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Jules and Eisha really know their picture books (and other books as well), and the colorful kitty artwork really called to me.

The book did not disappoint. The kitties in the book are red, blue, yellow and brown and not black, white, or simply stripey in a realistic tabby kind of way, and that is one of the things that makes me love them. That, and the fluidity and simplicity of the lines with which they are drawn. Oh, and, of course, the story itself, which is about four little kittens who enjoy playing indoors and outdoors in the autumn leaves. Three of the kittens are very nervous about the impending snow, but one little kitty "can't wait." The intrepid kitty leads the way for his siblings to find a new way to enjoy themselves.

Kids will respond to the underlying story here, about fear of new things and new places and new situations. (Cue Wayne and Garth in the first Wayne's World movie: "We fear change.") And maybe, like the intrepid kitty, the next time they are faced with something new they will say "I can't wait." Or at least they'll be willing to have a look and give things a try, like the other three kittens (no lost mittens, by the by).

For more views of the playful artwork inside A Kitten Tale, please check out this other post over at 7-Imp, which features not one, not two, not three, but FOUR of the pictures of the four little kittens. (My need for full disclosure compels me to add that in the first image from the book, only three of the kittens appear.)

See you tomorrow after my poetry reading tonight.

Sunday, February 17, 2008


Welcome to the dead writers' edition of quoteskimming. Usually I mix things up a bit, but as I found so many quotes from 18th century writers this week, including quite a long one from Miss Austen, I decided to go with a theme.

On writing

First up, the author of Gulliver's Travels and A Modest Proposal, Jonathan Swift (1667-1745):

"Proper words in proper places, make the true definition of a style."

Next, Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), one of whose quotes is in today's icon. Among other things, Johnson created the first great Dictionary of the English Language, which can be downloaded for free from the folks at Google Books. Johnson was also a writer who regularly contributed to periodicals at the time, including The Rambler and The Idler, as well as writing a well-known novella referred to as Rasselas (actually, "The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia"). Here's one of the many things he had to say about writing:

"No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money."

On research

Keeping with Dr. Johnson for a moment:

"A man will turn over half a library to make one book."

So true, or so it seems to me with the amount of research I've done for the Jane Project thus far (with more to go). Including, as it turns out, research on Dr. Johnson, to whom Jane Austen referred as "my dear Dr. Johnson."

On revision

From Jane herself, who corresponded with her niece, Anna Lefroy, herself writing a novel. Anna never completed her novel, and destroyed it after her aunt's death, but she did retain the letters her Aunt Jane sent her with advice on writing and revision. Anna had sent some of her pages to Jane, who was offering advice. Part of Anna's story didn't meet with Jane's insistence on realism. Thus, although her brother (Anna's father) had actually done something in real life, it didn't stand to reason that Anna could include it in her book, and Jane was a stickler for things such as distances when discussing travel, etc.:

My Corrections have not been more important than before;— here & there, we have thought the sense might be expressed in fewer words— and I have scratched out Sir Tho: from walking with the other Men to the Stables &c the very day after his breaking his arm— for though I find your Papa did walk out immediately after his arm was set, I think it can be so little usual as to appear unnatural in a book —& it does not seem to be material that Sir Tho: shoud go with them. —Lyme will not do. Lyme is towards 40 miles distance from Dawlish & would not be talked of there.—I have put Starcross indeed.—If you prefer Exeter, that must be always safe.—I have also scratched out the Introduction between Lord P. & his Brother, & Mr Griffin. A Country Surgeon (dont tell Mr C. Lyford) would not be introduced to Men of their rank. . . .

Yes—Russel Square is a very proper distance from Berkeley St—We are reading the last book.—They must be
two days going from Dawlish to Bath; They are nearly 100 miles apart.

We finished it last night . . . And we think you had better not leave England. Let the Portmans (characters in Anna's novel) go to Ireland, but as you know nothing of the Manners there, you had better not go with them. You will be in danger of giving false representations. Stick to Bath & the Foresters. There you will be quite at home.— Your Aunt C. does not like desultory novels, & is rather fearful your will be too much so, that there will be too frequent a change from one set of people to antoher, & that circumstances will be sometimes introduced of apparent consequence, which will lead to nothing. —It will not be so great an objection to
me, if it does. I allow much more Latitude than She does—& think Nature & Spirit cover many sins of a wandering story—and People in general do not care so much about it —for your comfort. . . .I do not see that the language sinks. Pray go on.

For those of you in the process of revising, I hope you've enjoyed this bit of advice from Jane, but the most important part is those last three words: "Pray go on."

To catch more advice from Jane (and to be excessively diverted), do remember to watch the second installment of Pride & Prejudice on Masterpiece tonight at 9 p.m. on your local PBS stations (not sure if that's 8 CT, so do check listings!)

Friday, February 15, 2008

A Poetry Friday post for the birds

As many of you will recall, I've decided that this year, I'm going to participate in The Great Backyard Bird Count. Details can be found in my post from January 30th. And guess what? The GBBC starts today! And runs until Monday!

Naturally, I went to my local Wild Birds Unlimited and purchased a brand new "Cranberry Fare", a cylindrical mass of dried fruits and nutmeats that the neighborhood woodpeckers all come and sample. And then I got to thinking about bird poems, what with it being Poetry Friday and all. I considered posting someting from Feathers by Eileen Spinelli. Perhaps her poem about woodpeckers:

Wake Up
by Eileen Spinelli

No rooster to wake us.
We're not on a farm.
But we have our very own
feathered alarm.
It drums before breakfast
on shingle and pole.
I think there's some rooster
in woodpecker's soul.

But no, I didn't want to limit it to the birds in my yard. So, maybe something from The Company of Crows: A Book of Poems by Marilyn Singer that deals with bird watching:

Beak or mind,
Heart or wings,
Crow watchers all see
  different things.
Nest or sky,
Flock or few,
Watching crows have
  their own point of view.

But then I got to thinking that perhaps crows, although familiar to most folks, are a bit dark as subject matter goes. (Punny, yes?) And what if someone only wants a short bird poem?

So I opened my copy of If Not for the Cat, my favorite Prelutsky book ever, and picked one of his riddle-ish haikus:

I, the hoverer,
Sip the nasturtium's nectar
And sing with my wings.

It's about a hummingbird, as you'd clearly see if you had the book and opened it up, since Ted Rand's illustrations are genius. But alas, I could find no web image to share with you, so you'll just have to use your imagination. Or get to the library. Or something. And hummingbirds are many places - my aunt sees them in New Hampshire, my in-laws see them in New Jersey, and my mother sees them in the desert of Arizona. But usually, I don't see them at all. Maybe because they are small and fast, or because I am inattentive.

What I do notice, when I see them, are cardinals. The girls are all lovely and olive-colored with just a hint of plummy red. But the boys, particularly in season, are scarlet. Which reminded me of CYBILS nominee Today at the Bluebird Cafe by Deborah Ruddell, illustrated by Joan Rankin, which even mentions yesterday's holiday:

The Cardinal
by Deborah Ruddell

Stoplights and cherries
and roses and berries,
a ruby, a wagon,
a flame from a dragon;
a sunset Brazilian,
the tip of his tail,
the cap on his head:

And then it dawned on me that maybe, just maybe, what I was really wanting wasn't a poem about ordinary birds and birdwatching, but about GREAT birds, for the Great Backyard Bird Watch. So I turned to the lovely new book of poems someone sent me as a gift, the latest book by Julie Larios and Julie Paschkis called Imaginary Menagerie: A Book of Curious Creatures. (Thanks, J!) And being in the mood for a change from all that lovely rhyme (what is it about birds that makes folks want to rhyme?), I decided to share with you a poem called "Thunderbird", which is accompanied by an illustration that looks very much like an Alaskan totem image.

by Julie Larios

Do you hear the thunder crack?
Do you hear it rumble?
Here he comes!
His wings
beat the old drums.
Cedar scented,
he carries the wind
in his bent beak.
Whale hunter.
Great Tlingit chief.

I highly commend this book to poetry lovers and art lovers alike, as well as folks who like folktales (i.e., pretty much every elementary school librarian I know), as it covers mythical creatures like mermaids, dragons, centaurs, trolls, sea serpents, and hobgoblins, as well as gargoyles, the firebird, cockatrice, the sphinx, will o' the wisp, the naga and the phoenix. And the aforementioned Thunderbird, as well. The artwork is absolutely phenomenal, as you'd expect from Julie Paschkis, and even the endpapers in this book are a thing of beauty - a tone-on-tone production featuring all the images from inside the book, and matched inside the front and back covers so as to be mirror images. The same image is available as a coloring/activity sheet as part of the free downloadable teacher's guide at the Harcourt website. Go. See. Print. Color. Buy the book.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Piano Starts Here

I've got a book review that I've been saving just for today. You see, back on January 30th, I read the review of a particular book over at 7-Imp, and I simply had to go and seek it out. At first, I couldn't find it, but then I did. And I've been waiting almost a whole week to review it, just so I could participate in my first-ever Nonfiction Monday, something conceived by the lovely and talented Anastasia Suen.

Today, I'm talking about a picture book biography by Robert Andrew Parker called Piano Starts Here: The Young Art Tatum.

I'm jazzed about this book because, like Tatum, I really, really wanted to play the piano when I was a kid. And so I begged and got lessons and spent years and years learning and playing. (I still play, although it's been years since my last lessons.) Tatum, on the other hand, learned to play by ear, which is something I could never do. And he was a bit of a prodigy, which is something I never was.

Parker's illustrations inside the book are just as gorgeous as the cover I put up there for you, nice and big. And Parker chose to tell Tatum's story as a first-person narrative, told in present tense. In general, I would not advise anyone to tell a story in first-person, present tense because it can sound overly simplistic, and make the teller sound dull. It doesn't usually allow for nuance, and it can read like a baby book. And, in fact, the first couple of pages read that way, as Parker presents us a picture of Tatum's mother, and then father, accompanied by text that reads very simply (e.g., "This is my mother.").

But Parker manages to make the first-person, present tense work, and work well, as he moves through the book, adding different colors and notes to the simple sentences that start the book, introducing (if you will) the "theme" of the story: Tatum's family. Tatum's family factors large throughout the text, largely because they were so supportive of Tatum, a vision-impaired child who made up for his diminished sight with his wonderful ears and musical skills.

Here's a sample of the text (from further into the book) that demonstrates what a master Parker is with imagery and with words:

When I am at the piano, I close my eyes. I play clouds of notes, rivers of notes, notes that sound like skylarks singing and leaves rustling, like rain on a rooftop. I forget that my eyes aren't good. I have everything I need.

Bravo to Mr. Parker for his wonderful text and pictures, accompanied by a huge thanks for introducing children to Art Tatum, whose CD "Piano Starts Here", is still available in stores, and includes his trademark Humoresque, Tiger Rag, and a number of pieces that were recorded live and showcase his blisteringly fast fingerwork.

For more reviews, see Jules over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast (who also has another piece of artwork from inside the book!) and the review I found at Proper Noun, which rightly points out that this book is as much about overcoming disability as it is about jazz. This book would pair nicely with one that I reviewed last January, Dizzy by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Sean Qualls, which tells the story of Dizzy Gillespie, who overcame an abusive childhood to become one of the jazz greats. Another good companion text if you're interested in a study unit (personally or for school) would be Jazz A•B•Z• by Wynton Marsalis, illustrated by Paul Rogers, which gives a number of biographies in poetry.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

On description

Jenn Hubbard talked about description in her blog post on Ground Hog's Day. I should so have included this last week, but I, um, forgot. Jenn is one of those folks who tends to write less description than she sometimes needs, or so she says in her post. While I commend her entire post to writers everywhere (and her entire blog, for that matter), here's the line that stood out for me as a writer: "Description should not only be evocative; it should matter somehow to the characterization, theme, or plot."

Writing is . . .

If you're my friend Liz Garton Scanlon, you would replace the dots with sports metaphors. Liz co-blogged with the lovely Sara Lewis Holmes for a week in January, with their joint focus being on the physicality of writing. While I still don't think that writing comes from parts of my body that are not my brain, there's much to love about those ladies and their posts, and about Liz's Olympic effort in this post. I've been adding a bit of yoga into my days lately, in part based on the inspiration I got from Liz and fellow sports-nut, Sara, so it's probably not surprising which of Liz's metaphors really resonates with me (althoug the skiing is pretty boss, too):

Writing as Yoga

Practice: verb

To do something repeatedly in order to improve performance; to do something as an established custom or habit.

Meet the mat like you meet a blank page – as part of a never-ending practice. You work toward balance; strength; epiphany. The abolishment of fear and ego. Realizing the harmony of body, mind and spirit (or idea, language and story). You work to connect the single self to the whole wide world.

This requires endless patience.
And practice…

On Book Proposals

I may have posted this one before, but (a) I'm too lazy to check and (b) it's still a great quote, if you're in the process of working on a proposal (or even a synopsis).

"[A] good proposal tells a story and is most effective when written as a short story, a little narrative tale of perhaps ten to twenty pages double spaced."
From Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction – and Get It Published! by Susan Rabiner and Al Fortunato.

From Jane

In a letter to her sister dated 11 June 1799, Jane Austen was having quite a bit of fun — lots of silly digressions and funny comments. Eventually, she added this sentence, which, ganked out of context, works in other situations as well (as when one is having one of "those" sorts of writing days, or one can't seem to focus well):

"I do not know what is the matter with me today, but I cannot write quietly; I am always wandering away into some exclamation or other."

A gentle reminder to be on the lookout for the start of Pride and Prejudice tonight on your local PBS station. We will not see these particular "looks" tonight (nor will we see Colin in a wet shirt tonight), but in order to really appreciate them, one must watch from the start and build up lots of sexual tension.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Shakespeare's Sonnet 73 -- a Poetry Friday poast

Among other things (Jane-related books and articles, friends' manuscripts for critiques, and the occasional new book), I've been reading Bill Bryson's book, Shakespeare: The World as Stage. And the other day I watched the movie Twelfth Night, featuring Gandhi Ben Kingsley as Feste, Imogen Stubbs as Viola and Toby Stephens as Duke Orsino. (S came in part-way through and said "Oh, is this based on She's the Man?" Um, yeah. Or maybe the other way around?) Ever since then, I've been singing "When that I was and a little tiny boy" (or, The Rain, it Raineth Every Day) off and on. But I digress.

And yet it's not a true digression, for all of the bits I just related contribute to explain why I've selected one of Shakespeare's sonnets for today. Master poet, master playwright, creator of words, inventor of myriad characters of delight, Shakespeare really knew his way around a sentence. The particular form of sonnet he used followed this rhyme scheme: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. As in most sonnets, the first eight lines set up the poem. Line nine of any sonnet typically contains the volta, or the "turn", where the sonnet moves to a different vantage point (could move inward or outward, or on to a related topic, or flip the poem on its head). And Shakespeare generally employs a turn in his ninth lines as well, and then does one better, because that rhymed couplet left by itself at the end is usually an extra serving of cream that gives the poem still further resonance. In this poem, however, I find there is no real turn until the closing couplet, although I can also see a bit of a shift once you hit lines 11 and 12. See where you think the poem "turns" as you read Sonnet LXXIII.

Sonnet 73
by William Shakespeare

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see'st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Broken down in the crassest of ways, the speaker here spends four lines comparing himself to a tree in winter, another four comparing himself to twilight (with night encroaching), and yet another four in comparing himself to a dying fire, with an overt reference to a death-bed in line 11. The final couplet is, to me, the real volta here, where Shakespeare ceases to speak of "me" and shifts to "thou", and the topic shifts from metaphors for death and aging to a direct address about love and parting. Despite a fairly bleak opening, I find hope in this poem because of its last lines, which speak of love strengthening and which can, I believe, be read in a carpe diem* kind of way.

Many folks read the poem literally as one intended to be "spoken" by an older person to someone much younger, and I have to say I think that's an entirely fair reading. The poem can also be read as being about the speaker's creative life: his work was once compared to the singing of sweet birds, but now is diminished; his star is fading; his creative powers are nearly used up. I have to say that while that second interpretation is one that's very popular with the "write a bullshit essay for school" crowd, I don't believe for moment that Shakespeare intended for the poem to be about his art, even though one can freely analyze it that way and likely get an A on the essay in doing so.

No, my take is that Shakespeare was most likely feeling neglected or a bit unappreciated by a lover and was trying to gain their sympathy (or heap coals upon them) by invoking thoughts of his death. It's all very melodramatic and over the top, and similar to what a lot of teenagers might do (even though Shakespeare was probably in his twenties or thirties when this was written), yet it rings true in a way that making these about Shakespeare's death or dying art do not. First, there's his age to consider - he was not an old man when he wrote this sonnet. Second, there's his art to take into account: he was still growing and writing and succeeding. In either case, personal experience/autobiography seem out of the question. Unless, of course, you believe, as I do, that Will was trying to manipulate someone by preying on their emotions.

Sonnet 73 is part of a quartet of sonnets that deal with aspects of death, and are usually read together. The quarter is composed of sonnets 71-74, and most folks read them as an older man (most believe Shakespeare himself) considering his own mortality, and writing poems for a young male friend he leaves behind him. Why male? Beats me. There's nothing in the poems overtly indicative that such is the case, although references to the other person facing public scrutiny might be taken that way (and many scholars believe that it was Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton and Shakespeare's patron, to whom these poems were addressed). It seems to me far more likely that these lines were written by Shakespeare in order to manipulate a woman he knew, or else written for Southampton so that he could share them with a mistress in order to try to make her feel sorry for him. Or perhaps to try to get Elizabeth I to pardon him for schtupping one of her ladies-in-waiting without her permission or for backing Essex's rebellion against the Queen.

Sonnet 71 takes a pious martyr-like tone and urges the surviving loved one not to mourn overly much, because it's not the dying person's desire to see him/her unhappy, nor does the speaker want the survivor to be "mocked" for their sentimental mourning: "I'm just thinking of you, dear; I would never want you to be unhappy. When I'm dead." Sonnet 72 reads like a dejected, almost petulant, lover, speaking of how unworthy he is of love and undeserving of praise, and exhorting the survivor (after his death), not to heap praise on the speaker because it would be a lie: "I'm a mutt, a mongrel, unworthy even of being kicked". Sonnet 73 you've just read, and Sonnet 74 talks about how the dead speaker's body may decay, but his spirit will live on with the loved one he addresses, as memorialized in the lines of his poem: "Don't be sad. Even when I'm dead and my body is being devoured by worms, probably because I've been knifed, and I'm unworthy of being remembered by you, you'll have this sonnet about me being dead to remember me by." (Sorry for the overly long description of Sonnet 74, but really, the lines about worms and being knifed and how base the writer is were too good not to mention.)

* seize the day

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Playful Little Penguins by Tony Mitton

Long-time readers of this blog know that I adore the work of British poet, Tony Mitton. You may recall me mentioning this book during my interview with Tony Mitton last summer. Originally released in the UK with title Perky Little Penguins, it was brought to the US market with the altered title Playful Little Penguins. While I bemoaned the change as not exactly necessary (as did the folks at Kirkus), I can assure you that the rhymes in this book are tight and, for want of a better word, playful, and that the bright illustrations by Guy Parker-Rees are happy-happy-happy.

The poem is structured in a sort of verse and chorus style. Hence, one "verse" reads: "Playful little penguins/coming out today/looking for their furry friends/ . . . Here they are— hooray!" The verses describe the actions that the penguins take: Throughout the book, the penguins slide and scoot and try to cheer up a baby seal who has been separated from her mother. But the "choruses" are where the emotional payoffs are, in my opinion. They not only sum up, but they state or imply emotion as well. Here's the first "chorus" in the book: "Playful little penguins/in the wintry weather—/that's how penguins like to move,/waddling 'round together." (Togetherness is a big thing for these penguins, and playfulness implies happiness as well, to my thinking.) And here is the very last "chorus" in the book, after the penguins have entertained the seal cub and accomplished their task of distracting her and making her happy until her mother turns up:

Sleepy little penguins
in a happy huddle—
that's how penguins like to rest,
in a cozy cuddle!

Happy sigh. The penguins are drowsy and happy and cozied up together. I expect that most children, upon hitting that last page, with its images of penguins huddled in pairs and groups, will smile broadly, and then say "AGAIN!" And well they should.

Fans of rhyme will love this one for its metric beat, which is based on accented beats per line as opposed to syllable counts: two stressed beats per line, the same formula in "verses" and "choruses". And yet, the what I'm calling the "choruses" has a slightly different feel to it somehow. Perhaps it's that the "choruses" are usually presented together on one page, while the verses are spread across pages, but I think there's something about the "chorus"-feeling parts that requires a slighly slower reading pace when reading it aloud. And this book cries out to be read aloud.

I'd advise folks with young children to get their hands on Tony Mitton's penguins. Whether you choose the Playful or Perky version is up to you.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

A poem for Super Tuesday

Here in the U.S., we've begun the process of selecting our next President. And today, nearly half of the states in the country will be holding primary elections, in which members of political parties (and sometimes independents, as well) select the candidate they'd most like to represent their party when the general election rolls around in November.

I thought it fitting to mark the day with a poem by Emily Dickinson. Emily didn't give her poems titles (or numbers), but they have been collected up and assigned numbers, and are traditionally called by their first line. Here, then, is number 73, "Who never lost, are unprepared":

Who never lost, are unprepared
A Coronet to find!
Who never thirsted
Flagon, and Cooling Tamarind!

Who never climbed the weary league —
Can such a foot explore
The purple territories
On Pizarro's shore?

How many Legions overcome —
The Emperor will say?
How many Colors taken
On Revolution Day?

How many Bullets bearest?
Hast Thou the Royal scar?
Angels! Write "Promoted"
On this Soldier's brow!

History and some analysis:

The above poem was written circa 1859, and was first published in 1891. Dickinson was a proponent of the idea that experiencing negative things (e.g., loss, thirst) made appreciation of the positive things (e.g., success, something to drink) possible, and/or richer. It can be read as meaning that one can still triumph after loss, or that one can ultimately triumph after death. Perhaps the "Soldier" is simply a person leading a good life. Perhaps this poem is just one more of Emily's works that asks or seeks to answer the questions "is there meaning to suffering and death? is there the possibility of transcendence?"

But I think it not only possible, but likely, that Emily's poem has something to do with the events of 1859, and with John Brown's actions at Harper's Ferry. In October of 1859, John Brown, an abolitionist, led a group of men to seize the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry. His long-term goal was to distribute the weapons to freed and escaped slaves throughout the Appalachians, and to set up a revolutionary force ready to declare war on the slave states of the American South.

Brown and his men managed to hold off the local militia at first through their taking of hostages and use of weapons. When the U.S. military arrived (under the command of General Robert E. Lee), they punched holes through the armory walls and fired. Brown lost two of his sons, with eye witnesses saying that he felt the dying pulse of one of his sons with one hand while weilding a rifle in the other, all the while commanding his men. Brown was captured and, later, hanged. He remains one of the most controversial figures of the 19th century — hero to some, "misguided fanatic" (or so President Lincoln called him), or villain to others.

I'm not saying that Emily was an abolitionist, per se, but that she seems to have disliked slavery, and she is certainly known to have friends among the abolitionist movement (although it is likely that she was opposed to extremes within the movement). Only a few years later, Emily became a lifelong friend and correspondent with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a reformer whose sermons she had read before she ever met him. Higginson, a minister, was one of the Secret Six who plotted John Brown's actions at Harper's Ferry; he later volunteered to fight in the Civil War, and eventually commanded the first troop of African-American soldiers.

Thus, it's likely that Emily is commenting on the plight of people like John Brown's sons, who died in pursuit of a noble cause. She's looking for purpose and reason for their deaths, and for transcendence for them as well. Then again, I could be wrong.

Sunday, February 03, 2008


When I was at ALA, I scored a paperback copy of How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines by Thomas C. Foster. I've only read a bit of the book thus far, but I can tell you that thus far, the subtitle is not a lie. The chapters are short. They are written conversationally. And they are full of pithy advice and sentences, some of which are oversimplifications, but most of which are useful in any case.

On poetry
Foster's fourth chapter is entitled "If It's Square, It's a Sonnet". He goes on to explain that he doesn't bother teaching much of anything but sonnets (fie on Mr. Foster, fie!), because unless you're a poet or really into poetry, it's kind of pointless. (A thousand times fie! Which would, I suppose, be fie thousand. But I digress.) He notes that a sonnet contains 14 lines, and is usually in iambic pentameter (10 syllables per line), which means that it's roughly as high as it is wide on the page. And then he says this:

I think people who read poems for enjoyment should always read the poem first, without a formal or stylistic care in the world. They should not begin by counting lines, or looking at line endings to find the rhyme scheme, if any, just as I think people should read novels without peeking at the ending: just enjoy the experience. After you've had your first pleasure, though, one of the additional pleasures is seeing how the poet worked that magic on you. There are many ways a poem can charm the reader: choice of images, music of the language, idea content, cleverness or wordplay. And at least some part of the answer, if that magic came in a sonnet, is form.

Huzzah! for Mr. Foster after all. And his further explication of what a sonnet is and what it can accomplish is equally good. He closes his chapter by noting that "Sonnets are . . . short poems that take far more time [to write], because everything has to be perfect, than long ones. We owe it to poets, I think, to notice that they've gone to this trouble, as well as to ourselves, to understand the nature of the thing we're reading. When you start to read a poem, then, look at the shape."

On writing compelling biography or nonfiction

I recently read a 2003 New York Times interview with Laura Hillenbrand, the author of the acclaimed bestseller, Seabiscuit. Here are some bits from the interview. The first bit is her explanation as to how she made the book feel alive and contemporary.

I think the secret to bringing immediacy to any nonfiction story is to ferret out every detail that is there to be found, so that the reader feels like an eyewitness. To do this, I consulted a very broad range of sources, from record books to living witnesses, and everything in between. I studied every film and photograph that I could find, and acquired complete newspapers and magazines from the period and read them cover to cover so I could put myself in the mindset of the men and women of the era. I researched what things cost, what books and movies were popular, what the weather was on a particular day, anything that might help me stand in the shoes of an average American of the Depression era. I was very fortunate in that Seabiscuit was covered very heavily in the press and followed by millions of people, so there was a lot to be found.

Hillenbrand was asked whether any "artful nonfiction" had an influence on her method of storytelling, but her answer really goes to her philosophy of writing nonfiction, and to her use of novelistic devices.

My goal as an historian is to make nonfiction read as smoothly as fiction while adhering very strictly to fact. I read a lot of nonfiction, and have certainly been influenced by such superb historians as Bruce Catton and David McCullough, but the writers who have had the greatest impact on me have been novelists. Michael Shaara's masterpiece "The Killer Angels," an historic novel about Gettysburg, has had a tremendous influence on my writing. Tolstoy has also been a wonderful teacher, namely "War and Peace" and "Anna Karenina." Other writers I read over and over again, and try to emulate, include Austen, Wharton, Fitzgerald and Hemingway.

On re-reading books (or, perhaps, on writing novels?)

When I find a book I really and truly love, I tend to be a re-reader. I believe that will be the subject of tomorrow's blog post, in fact. For today, I'll stick with quoting a bit from another, far more famous re-reader: Jane Austen, in a letter to her sister, Cassandra, dated Feb. 8-9, 1807, referring to a novel by Sarah Burney:

"We are reading Clarentine, & are surprised to find how foolish it is. I remember liking it much less on a 2d reading than at the 1st & it does not bear a 3d at all. It is full of unnatural conduct & forced difficulties, without striking merit of any kind."

Don't forget that Masterpiece Theatre is airing Miss Austen Regrets at 9 p.m. on most PBS stations tonight. And try not to laugh (as I did) at the name of the lovely younger girl pictured here in the role of Fanny Austen Knight. (And no, Fanny isn't the name I found funny - it's her real name, Imogen Poots, that cracked me up. I am so very immature.)

Friday, February 01, 2008

(Music and) Lyrics by Sting - a Poetry Friday post

First off, I should note that I set out to write a Poetry Friday post related to it being National Wear Red Day here in the U.S. (an initiative designed to raise awareness of heart health issues that causes everyone to wander about looking like a Target employee). And I'll get there, I promise. Just stick with me for a few minutes.

The post title came to mind because I've been watching the movie Music and Lyrics repeatedly since it's in heavy rotation on HBO and I love-love-love the movie, which holds up extremely well to repeat viewings. Some of you (I'm looking at you, Christy, Liz and Colleen!) may recall that I said I was going to purchase Sting's latest book, Lyrics, back in October. And I bought it. And I read it. And I enjoyed it. And I totally forgot to blog about it, which is odd because due to some lucky happenstance involving a coupon plus a percentage off, I got the book for dirt cheap, which would've been worth mentioning on its own. But I digress.

First, the technical stuff. This book is really well-made. The white hardcover is covered with a gold-hued replica of Sting's handwritten lyrics. On the front, "Message in a Bottle" and "King of Pain"; on the back, bits from "Roxanne", complete with doodles. And covering the hardcover is a tan vellum that allows those bits to peek through a bit. The book contains a foreword and the lyrics from the first Police album, Outlandos D'Amour through Sting's solo, Sacred Love. It has two indices - one by first line, one by song title; the song title stuff includes copyright info, which is cool, but should have added the album titles, I'm thinking. Also in the book? Photographs, as one might expect. And here and there, some clarification from Sting.

You can read the complete foreword over at the Barnes & Nbble site (and probably elsewhere as well). What Sting notes first is that separating lyrics from their music can be a dicey thing, as they are mutually dependent beings.

The two, lyrics and music, have always been mutually dependent, in much the same way as a mannequin and a set of clothes are dependent on each other; separate them, and what remains is a naked dummy and a pile of cloth. . . . I have set out my compositions in the sequence they were wrritten and provided a little background when I thought it might be illuminating. My wares have neither been sorted nor dressed in clothes that do not belong to them; indeed, they have been shorn of the very garments that gave them their shape in the first place. No doubt some of them will perish in the cold cruelty of this new environment, and yet others may prove more resilient and become perhaps more beautiful in their naked state.

As one might expect, a song like "De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da" does not hold up well. Others, such as "You Still Touch Me" and "The Wild Wild Sea" seem richer to me having read them without the music playing. And some of my favorites are, as I expected them to be, fantastic when read as text. One that I played in near-continuous loop when The Soul Cages came out was "Why Should I Cry for You?", which is a spectacular song, and the lyrics, read alone, are heart-breaking. I recommend this book highly for Sting fans.

But they lyrics I'm putting up as today's poem are from the following album, Ten Summoner's Tales, which came out in 1992.

Shape of My Heart
by Sting

He deals the cards as a meditation
And those he plays never suspect
He doesn't play for the money he wins
He don't play for respect

He deals the cards to find the answer
The sacred geometry of chance
The hidden law of a probable outcome
The numbers lead a dance

I know that the spades are the swords of a soldier
I know that the clubs are weapons of war
I know that diamonds mean money for this art
But that's not the shape of my heart

He may play the jack of diamonds
He may lay the queen of spades
He may conceal a king in his hand
While the memory of it fades

I know that the spades are the swords of a soldier
I know that the clubs are weapons of war
I know that diamonds mean money for this art
But that's not the shape of my heart

And if I told you that I loved you
You'd maybe think there's something wrong
I'm not a man of too many faces
The mask I wear is one

Well, those who speak know nothin'
And find out to their cost
Like those who curse their luck in too many places
And those who fear are lost

I know that the spades are the swords of a soldier
I know that the clubs are weapons of war
I know that diamonds mean money for this art
But that's not the shape of my heart
That's not the shape, the shape of my heart
That's not the shape, the shape of my heart

Structurally: the verses are rhymed ABCB, the chorus is in couplets (with slant rhyme between soldier and war). Tarot afficianados will recognize the source of the chorus's lines. In Tarot, spades are swords (which correspond to "air" and represent intellect), clubs are wands (which correspond to "fire" and represent work/career), diamonds are coins/pentacles (which correspond to "earth" and represent material concerns like wealth and goods), and hears are cups (which correspond to "water" and represent emotion).

The cards of a regular deck are related to the minor archana in Tarot. They can be used to play card games, of course, but they can also be used for personal meditation, with meanings attributed to various cards. "Jack of diamonds" signifies patience; "queen of spades" signifies vulnerability. The kings of diamonds, clubs and spades have positive meanings: contentment, foresight and victory, respectively; the king of hearts is known as the "suicide king", and represents the throwing away of oneself for selfish or worthless causes. Whether Sting considered these meanings in selecting the specific cards referenced is doubtful, since the book contains a note stating that he went for a walk and came back with the whole thing written in his head; still, fun to ponder/add on there, I think.

To watch the video, which contains the haunting tune that accompanies this poem: