Thursday, December 31, 2009

Auld Lang Syne

I'm going to be talking about a poem by Robert Burns today. At midnight tonight (in all the various time zones), millions of people will sing some or all of "Auld lang syne". And most of them will have no clue that the words they sing are from Burns (at least in part), and many of them will have no idea what it means. By all means, send them this way, because here's the story in a lightly-edited reprise of a post I put up in late December of 2007:

It's New Year's Eve or, if you're Scots, Hogmanay, and both occasions are times for singing a traditional Scots tune with lyrics penned by Robert ("Rabbie") Burns in 1788, and likely based on a fragment of traditional song (tune unknown). (Attention, non-Scots: it's pronounced "old lang sign", not zein, just so you can annoy everyone you know by correcting them 'round midnight.)

First the poem (in its entirety), and then the explication:

Auld Lang Syne
by Robert Burns

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne?

  For auld lang syne, my dear,
  For auld lang syne,
  We'll tak a cup of kindness yet,
  For auld lang syne!

And surely ye'll be your pint-stowp,
And surely I'll be mine,
And we'll tak a cup o kindness yet,
For auld lang syne!


We twa hae run about the braes,
And pou'd the gowans fine,
But we've wander'd monie a weary fit,
Sin auld lang syne.


We twa hae paidl'd in the burn
Frae morning sun till dine,
But seas between us braid hae roar'd
Sin auld lang syne.


And there's a hand my trusty fiere,
And gie's a hand o thine,
And we'll tak a right guid-willie waught,
For auld lang syne.


auld lang syne - times gone by
be - pay for
pint-stowp - pint tankard
twa - two
braes - hills
pou'd - pulled
gowans - daisies
monie - many
fit - foot
paidl't - paddled
burn - stream
morning sun - noon
dine - dinner time
braid - broad
fiere - friend
guid-willie waught - goodwill drink

More about the poem

Burns didn't write the entire thing. The two verses that begin "We twa" are both entirely his writing; the rest of it is most likely his attempt to capture a much older song, and the phrase "auld lang syne", evocative as it is, is most definitely not his doing, but existed for at least 200 years before Burns's poem (and was used in poems by other Scots around the same time). In December of 1788, he sent the song to a friend, Mrs. Dunlop. Here's a sentence from that letter: "Light be the turf on the breast of the heaven-inspired poet who composed this glorious fragment! There is more of the fire of native genius in it than half-a-dozen of modern English Bacchanalians." He also said, "Apropos, is not the Scotch phrase Auld Lang syne exceedingly expressive? This old song and tune has often thrilled through my soul." And in a letter he wrote to James Johnson at the Scots Musical Museum in 1793, he said "The following song, an old song, of the olden times, and which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man's singing, is enough to recommend any air."

Now, Burns's protestations about it being an old song aren't dispositive on their own, because it was a popular convention at the time to claim to have "found" or "discovered" some old poems that one had written one's self. However, other versions of Auld Lang Syne exist, some of which predate Burns's poem, and they have some commonalities that seem to indicate that a half-forgotten song called Auld Lang Syne existed.

What it all means

From When Harry Met Sally:
Harry: What does this song mean? For my whole life I don't know what this song means. I mean, "Should old acquaintance be forgot". Does that mean we should forget old acquaintances, or does it mean if we happen to forget them we should remember them, which is not possible because we already forgot them?
Sally: Well, maybe it just means that we should remember that we forgot them or something. Anyway, it's about old friends.

Here's my take on it: Burns isn't posing a subjunctive hypothetical here, as in "What if old acquaintance is forgotten?" He's asking (or the traditional song is asking) whether we should forget our old acquaintance and days long ago, but it's rhetorical, and the answer is intended to be "no, of course not." The chorus makes it clear: we're still drinking to honor days gone by, and in doing so, we're remembering. The second verse makes it clear that everyone's in charge of buying their own drinks. The third and fourth verses by Burns talk about the long history between the drinkers and close in friendship. In the third verse, the speaker tells of their youth together, running about the hills, pulling daisies, and how many long miles (and, impliedly, years) have gone past. In the fourth verse, they clasp hands and drink a "guid-willie waught" or goodwill drink as a means of acknowledging one another.

Usually folks only sing the first verse and the chorus, but I've heard some versions in which a second verse is shared (usually the final verse). The final verse is usually translated, or arguably rewritten as:
And here's a hand, my trusted friend,
And here's a hand of thine
We'll take a cup of kindness yet
For auld lang syne.

If you want to see pronunciation guides and translation into English side-by-side, the folks at Wikipedia have set it up for you, with my usual caveat that sometimes, folks screw with Wikipedia so don't rely on it too hard.

And so, my friends, I will be remembering all of you this evening, whether I make it until midnight or not, and I will drink a cup to auld lang syne.

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Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Visit from Saint Nicholas

This evening, my kids and husband and I will be racing Santa to Arizona to spend the holidy with my parents and brother. Since I'm busy with last-minute packing and whatnot, I decided to reprise a post I wrote on December 21, 2007, because it's entirely appropriate for today. Although of course I re-edited it anyhow, because I cannot help myself.

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, there was no such thing as childhood. Oh sure, there were babies born, and young human animals who were expected to shape up and become sentient beings, but the idea of childhood as we know it did not exist. Nor did children's literature.

In an anthology edited by recent Poet Laureate Donald Hall called The Oxford Illustrated Book of American Children's Poems, I learned that there wasn't much in the way of American children's poetry for quite a long time. The poem that blew the doors open, although not off, was A Visit from Saint Nicholas, by Clement C. Moore, which was first published in 1823 without authorial attribution (which is a rather long-winded way of saying "anonymously", come to think of it).

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her ’kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap—
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below,
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;
"Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas, too.
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof—
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a pedlar just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled; his dimples, how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly
That shook, when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,
"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!"

The illustration above is called "Merry Old Santa Claus", and was a woodcut by Thomas Nast for Harper's Weekly in 1881. Santa here is not elfin, as in many prior illustrations, and appears far more mature than earlier versions. Nast is responsible for much of what we know about Santa that didn't come from Moore's poem: Santa's home being at the North Pole, for the inclusion of elves in the system, and for Santa being fat and bearded, among other things.

About Moore's poem (authorship of which has a slight asterisk to it, I should note, as some folks claim that one of his wife's relatives (Henry Livingston) may have written it): It is written in end-stopped rhymed couplets. Each line has four stressed beats to it, and it is in ternary form, meaning that it's written using triplets, or three-syllable feet. It is largely anapestic*, although sometimes instead of having two non-stressed syllables at the front of the line, it has only one.

I think of the unstressed syllables at the start of the poem as "pick-ups", which is what they'd be in music, and this poem would be in 12/8 time. If written out musically, there'd be a two beat pick-up to the start of the poem, which is, come to think of it, how I "see" this poem in my head. The first stressed beat of the poem is "night", and it would be the downbeat (or first beat) of the first full measure if this were written on a musical score. In lines like the third one, there'd be a one-beat rest between "mouse" on the previous line and "The" at the start of the third. This makes perfect sense to me, and hopefully isn't confusing the hell out of anyone else.

Images in particular that I adore in this poem, which are, I think, much better if looked at in isolation so that the rhythm of the poem doesn't catch you up and sweep you along:

1. "The moon, on the breast of the new-fallen snow,/Gave lustre of midday to objects below." Can't you just see the moonglow? I know I can.

2. "More rapid than eagles his coursers they came" I love the comparison of the tiny reindeer to eagles, with all their strength and nobility.

3. "As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,/When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;/So up to the house-top the coursers they flew" The image of leaves wooshing along in gale-force winds, then blowing almost straight skyward when they hit a stump or fence, and the idea of the velocity he manages to convey here are terrific. I think it helps that he's got a strong anapestic thumping beat driving the reading of the poem, which makes it difficult to conceive of stopping and lingering, really.

4. And then there's the physical description of Saint Nicholas. My favorite lines as a child were the ones about his merry dimples, rosy cheeks and cherry nose, but these days I like "He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,/And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;/A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,/And he looked like a pedlar just opening his pack." It's not how we picture Santa, since we always see him in a clean red fuzzy suit, but I love his sooty ashiness here.

*Anapest: a three-syllable poetic foot with two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed one: "titty-TUM" to quote Stephen Fry.

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Winter by William Shakespeare

It being Wednesday, it's time again for a bit of the Bard. I'm not 100% certain I'll manage a post next Wednesday, since we'll be travelling home from Arizona at that point, so this may be our last Wednesday with Shakespeare entry until 2010. We shall see.

Today's choice is in honor of it officially being winter now. Also because quite a lot of houses around here are hung with actual icicles, and not just Christmas lights that simulate them, since we had that mondo snow storm over the weekend. This poem is actually a song that Shakespeare wrote to end Love's Labour's Lost, one of the plays we looked at during Brush Up Your Shakespeare Month. The play ends with two songs - one called Summer, the other Winter. More on their meaning can be found in this post about the poetry within that play, although I've snagged some of my own commentary for use after the poem.

by William Shakespeare

When icicles hang by the wall
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail
And Tom bears logs into the hall
And milk comes frozen home in pail,
When blood is nipped and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl:
"Tu-whit, tu-whoo."
A merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel* the pot.

When all aloud the wind doth blow
And coughing drowns the parson's saw**
And birds sit brooding in the snow
And Marian's nose looks red and raw,
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,
Then nightly sings the staring owl:
"Tu-whit, tu-whoo."
A merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

*keel: cool
**saw: maxim or proverb, probably referring to a sermon

The song has the following structure: iambic tetrameter (four iambic feet per line, taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM), using the rhyme scheme of ABABCC, followed by a short "chorus" composed of bird noise followed by a rhymed couplet (in Shakespeare's time, "note" and "pot" rhymed, you see).

"Winter", when parsed, talks about the shepherd's cold hands, the need for firewood, how messy the roads are, and illness, all while Joan cools the pot. But it's also about matrimony. More specifically, it represents a kind of black humor about matrimony, as does the Summer song, since both songs are about cuckoldry. Here's why I say that:

A word about the significance of the birds:

Summer mentions cuckoos and Winter the horned owl. BOTH of those birds were associated with cuckoldry in Elizabethan times: the cuckoo because his name sounds a bit like the word "cuckold", and the horned owl because of the association between horns and cuckolds (a jealous husband was sometimes called a "horned owl"). Both birds can be symbols of either the trapped (the cuckolded husband) or the trapper (their unfaithful wives). The cuckoo's call taunts the married man, labelling him as a cuckold (also, cuckoos lay their eggs in other birds' nests, so a married man cannot be certain which "cuckoo" layed its "egg" in that man's "nest"); the owl cries "tu-whit" or "to it", a sort of sexual exhortation, and the bird's name was used to refer to prostitutes as well as to refer (in the "horned owl" variant) to a cuckolded husband. So both songs are about birds that are associated with cuckoldry, a common fear among men back in that time, and a common thing of which to make sport in comic plays. Especially a comic play that was set up to be a marriage play, but that ends with an indefinite situation in which the pairs are waiting for a year (or in the case of Don Armado, three years), with the men essentially on probation of sorts until they get together.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Last-minute gift ideas

Allow me to recommend the following books, all of which make outstanding gifts:

For the picture book crowd, any poetry fan and any person especially interested in peace & harmony: ALL THE WORLD by Liz Garton Scanlon, edited by Marla Frazee. You can read my review of it here, which features some lovely inside spreads. This is high on my list of books I'd like to see win a Caldecott next year, and has made it onto a raft of "best books of 2009" lists. (Not that I care about other people's lists, really, but I figured you ought to know I'm not alone in my adoration for this title.)

For the picture book crowd and/or their grandparents: ME WITH YOU by Kristy Dempsey, illustrated by Christopher Denise may be just the ticket. This quiet story in rhyme tells the tale of a wonderful day spent together, and how sometimes the best thing in life is spending time with a loved one. Here's my review.

Also for the picture book crowd:

CHICKEN DANCE by Tammi Sauer, illustrated by Dan Santat. Forget Click Clack Moo - typing cows have been played out, and dancing chickens are all the rage this year. Or should be. Marge and Lola will teach you how to shake your tailfeather, and Elvis Poultry will sing you to sleep awake. More info can be found in my review of this title.

MOUSE WAS MAD by Linda Urban, illustrated by Henry Cole. Ever been mad? Ever felt like you're in competition with your friends to be the best at something? Mouse knows exactly what both of those things are like, and it makes for one amusing tail - er, make that "tale." I reviewed this when it came out, and still enjoy looking through the pages at the wee mad mousie.

BELLA AND BEAN by Rebecca Kai Dotlich, illustrated by Aileen Leitjen. A charming tale of two friends who have very different takes on life, this one is a perfect gifts for any writers you know (picture book age or older), since it details exactly how challenging it can be to deal with a writer during one of their creative periods. I'm pretty sure I waxed eloquent in my review, which will give you a better idea of this book and its characters.

THE GREAT NURSERY RHYME DISASTER by David Conway, illustrated by Melanie Williamson is one of the funniest picture books I read all year. It's somewhat evocative of The Stinky Cheese Man, only I have to say I think it might be easier for the younger set to follow, given how the narrative is linked AND because it relies on simple nursery rhymes and songs. You can read more about it here.

Got boys?: One for the picture book AND middle-grade set: If you've got boys, then I highly recommend LEGO Star Wars: The Visual Dictionary, which has been a tremendous hit with boys from 1st through 6th grade (I tested it, as you can read in my review of the book, which included reader feedback from 's sons, who I called "Luke" and "Obi Wan" for purposes of the review.

For the middle-grade set:

THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z by Kate Messner is high on my list of recommended books. Not because Kate is a friend (although she is), but because this is the sort of book that sticks with you long after you've put it down. A perfect gift for an upper elementary or middle-school-aged girl, this book combines humor and pathos and friendship and just a hint of budding romance. You can read the rest of my thoughts on it in my review.

OPERATION YES by Sara Lewis Holmes is a great pick for middle-graders. It includes male and female characters and should appeal to readers of both genders: it takes place primarily in the school on a military base, and features a rather unusual (and wonderful) teacher, and a dilemma that the kids have to find a way out of on their own. Powerful, funny, engaging, thoughtful, and entertaining, just as you might expect if you've ever met the author (and I have) - she is all of those things and more.

THE THIRTEEN CLOCKS by James Thurber, illustrated by Marc Simont, foreword by Neil Gaiman is highly recommended for middle-grade fantasy lovers, and extraordinarily delicious as a read-aloud that works for the younger set as well. The wordplay and poetry and magic of this story is simply enchanting. You can read more about it - and how to find it - in my review.

For the YA fantasy reader:

Man, was this a banner year for YA fantasy or what? Here are a handful of the books I especially adored:
NEED by Carrie Jones is a must-buy for any teen fantasy lover who hasn't read it yet - especially since it is now available in paperback, and its sequel, CAPTIVATE, is hitting store shelves in a matter of weeks. Get it now, while you will still look prescient, before it blows up into a bestseller and then you'll just be a bandwagon-rider. (And yes, Carrie, I know you read this blog, and I am entirely serious on this point. And not because it will cause your agent to have to wear plaid flannel.) Better yet, give it along with a gift card or pre-order for CAPTIVATE. Your teen reader will thank you - I guarantee it. (Not in an "or I'll give you your money back" way, I'm afraid, but I am 99.44% certain that I am correct on this point.) You can read a review by an actual teen reader (my daughter M) here or my review.

There's no way you'll look prescient for this one, that ship having sailed out of the barn (mixed metaphors are complimentary here!), but if you've got a fantasy-loving teen who has not yet read it, SHIVER by Maggie Stiefvater is also high on my list of YA fantasy books this year. Its sequel, LINGER, is set to "drop" soon-ish, so consider giving SHIVER with a gift card or pre-order of the sequel, too. You can read my review of this book or, if you like, my daughter M's review.

PRINCESS OF THE MIDNIGHT BALL by Jessica Day George. I'm a sucker for fairy tale retellings when they're done well, and this one is done especially well. It's the story of the Twelve Dancing Princesses told from the point of view of a soldier/gardener named Galen, who is not only brave and loyal and true; he also knits. I did a far better job of describing this book in my review, but I really, really adored it. As in, "took it out of the library but then had to buy a copy because I loved it so much" adored it. So.

CHALICE by Robin McKinley is not for every teen fantasy reader, but it is for the thoughtful ones who don't mind investing some time and a bit of effort into reading a book. As I said in my review of this book, "if you can be quiet, and if you have a bit of patience - only a bit, you don't need a truckload - this book is magic." Also, it will make you crave bread and honey. Also-also, it's kinda sorta a retelling of Beauty and the Beast. But only kinda-sorta. And it made me cry after I finished reading it, because it was so terribly beautiful. As long as you know your reader, this might be just the thing they need (and it's now available in paperback!).

FAR FROM YOU by Lisa Schroeder makes a seasonally appropriate gift given that so much of it takes place in a snow storm. It's here with the fantasy books even though most of the book feels extremely real-world because it does include a somewhat supernatural sort of element. You can read my review from January or, if you'd prefer, you can get a teen's take on it with M's review.

For a particularly dark twist: go with DEVOURED by Amanda Marrone. Gorgeous cover, to be sure - and this read is one that will haunt you long after you've finished reading it. The main character goes to work at a theme park, horrifying enough in its own way, but as it turns out, this story has a Snow White sort of twist. Not only is the main character enlisted to dress up as Snow White for a particular attraction, but she is also subjected to the owners' hall of mirrors, which includes a particularly nasty sort of magic mirror. There are ghosts in this book as well, but the ghosts are actually far less scary than some of the actual humans with whom Megan must deal.

For fans of theatre, Shakespeare and YA fantasy: I actually have TWO titles to recommend:

EYES LIKE STARS by Lisa Mantchev is set in the magical Théâtre Illuminata, where our teenage protagonist, Bertie, lives alongside all the magical characters from all the plays ever written. She has a huge crush on Nate, a pirate from the case of The Little Mermaid, and a love-hate relationship with Ariel, the spirit from Shakespeare's The Tempest. And she has a past clouded in mystery, a future clouded in doubt and a present surrounded by mayhem. You can read my list-like not-review in this post from June.

Wondrous Strange by Leslie Livingston, which gets its title from the same act in Hamlet as does Mantchev's book, is also a theatre-based, Shakespearean-related YA fantasy that explores Arthurian and other British tales. It also features a teenage protagonist who is interested in a career in the theatre, who, it turns out, also has a mysterious past. The particular wrinkle in this one will knock your socks of, I think - you can read my review for more information, but no actual spoilers. This one is now available in paperback.

Historical fiction YA fans really ought to like: Mare's War by Tanita Davis. During a road trip with their rather ebulliant grandmother, two teen-age girls learn the story of what makes their grandmother tick. Do they gain increased understanding of and respect for their eccentric grandmother? Sure - as does the reader, who learns what it was like to be a "colored" woman during World War II, and what the treatment of women (and African-American women in particular) was like during that time, as well as learning about the contributions to the war that were made by women at a time when they were not fully integrated into the United States armed services. This one is an interesting blend of contemporary and historical fiction (contemporary road trip, historical story from grandmom), but the historical fiction very much puts you in the "now" - and it's interesting to trace the changes in Mare's diction and vocabulary as she polishes herself along with her Army boots.

For horror fans, humor fans and/or haiku afficianados, get one or both of these books: VAMPIRE HAIKU and/or ZOMBIE HAIKU by Ryan Mecum, both of which are just the right size for a stocking, as long as the stocking belongs to a teen or adult who is into black humor and the macabre. I reviewed VAMPIRE HAIKU here and at Guys Lit Wire. It tells the story of a vampire who came over on the Mayflower, and offers a clever reimagination of various events in United States history, all of which are vampire-related.

ZOMBIE HAIKU tells the story of a future zombie plague from two perspectives - that of a young man who begins as a normal poetry-writing guy and becomes a haiku-writing zombie (with disgustingly funny - and in some cases, plain disgusting - haiku to show for it) and that of a man who finds and reads the journal while himself morphing into a zombie. I reviewed it extremely briefly here and at greater length over at GLW.

For younger horror fans: The MONSTEROLOGIST: A Memoir in Rhyme by Bobbi Katz, illustrated by Adam McCauley, book design by Cynthia Wigginton, is the way to go. I wrote an extremely enthusiastic review of this book a while back, and I stand by this one. It's a guaranteed hit with anyone who enjoyed FRANKENSTEIN MAKES A SANDWICH and/or FRANKENSTEIN TAKES THE CAKE by Adam Rex, and really, who didn't enjoy those?

For fans of graphic novels, history buffs (esp. those interested in the Dust Bowl): My favorite this year, hands down, is THE STORM IN THE BARN by Matt Phelan. This graphic novel includes fantastic artwork, a quite literary story including references to the works of L. Frank Baum, and an attention to historic detail and the conventions of tall tales that will blow your mind. You can read my review here, or my other review at Guys Lit Wire.

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Quoteskimming - A Christmas Carol edition

As I've said before (and more than once), one of my all-time favorite stories of all time is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. I adore it for its redemption story, for its humor, for its curmudgeon of a main character, its moral and social consciousness, its messages and, on a different level, for quite a number of its lines.

Yesterday, as it turns out, was the anniversary of the first publication of A Christmas Carol, which first appeared in print on December 19, 1843. I only just learned from The Writer's Almanac that Dickens wrote the story beginning in late October of 1843 - that's right, less than two full months from start of writing to completion of publication. His prior novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, had been a commercial failure, and Dickens apparently believed he might be able to cash in with a heartwarming holiday tale. Now, I can't be certain how much money it earned him in his lifetime, but it's certainly sold bazillions of copies over the centuries.

Tonight, a few of my favorite lines from A Christmas Carol and from some of the movie versions of it, too.

The story opens with one of the best opening lines ever:

"Marley was dead, to begin with."

Dickens gets a bit too wordy with his explanation about precisely how dead Marley really and truly was, but parts of it - such as the "dead as a doornail" bit - are quite funny. This is usually edited a bit in performances, and one of the funniest versions of the opening is probably found in A Muppet Christmas Carol, wherein the Great Gonzo delivers the lines and explains to Rizzo the Rat why it's important.

"If I could work my will," said Scrooge indignantly, "Every idiot who goes about with 'Merry Christmas' on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart."

Ahahaha! How can you not love Scrooge for his curmudgeonly attitude? And who among us hasn't had a moment or two of a similar thought somewhere along the lines during the holidays - say, when waiting in a line, or in a hurry somewhere? I have a sneaking suspicion that one of the reasons people love the story is that even though none of us want to confess to having anything in common with the miserly, nasty, cold-hearted Scrooge, we all recognize a bit of ourselves in the old man nevertheless. He may not represent the best part of human nature, but much of his character represents aspects of human nature that resonates with the less-good parts in ourselves. And if old Scrooge, who is so much worse than us, can find redemption, then so must we all be able to. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

"I wear the chain I forged in life," replied the Ghost. "I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?" Scrooge trembled more and more. "Or would you know," pursued the Ghost, "the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago. You have laboured on it since. It is a ponderous chain!"

I have a sincere fondness for quite a few of the lines that belong to Marley's ghost, in no small part because I once played the role of Marley in a high school version of the play. And perhaps one of my most favorite bits is this response to Scrooge's attempt at a compliment, when he calls Marley a good man of business:

"Business!" cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business."

I love the Muppets' version of the story, called, fittingly enough, A Muppet Christmas Carol, which uses the two old guys as "Marley and Marley". I love how they comment on what is, essentially, Dickens's own dialogue:

Jacob Marley: Why do you doubt your senses?

Ebenezer Scrooge: Because a little thing can affect them. A slight disorder of the stomach can make them cheat. You may be a bit of undigested beef, a blob of mustard, a crumb of cheese. Yes. There's more gravy than of grave about you.

Robert Marley: More gravy than of grave?

Jacob Marley: What a terrible pun. Where'd you get those jokes?

Robert Marley: Leave comedy to the bears, Ebenezer.

I can't tell you why it is I so love these next lines, but I do:

"Who, and what are you?" Scrooge demanded. "I am the Ghost of Christmas Past." "Long Past?" inquired Scrooge: observant of its dwarfish stature. "No. Your past."

I guess because it's the introduction to the first of the visiting spirits?

From the movie Scrooged starring Bill Murray, this bit from Frank Cross's past really cracks me up every time. The lines are said by his father, played by his real-life brother, Brian Doyle-Murray:

"All day long I listen to people give me excuses why they can't work. My legs hurt. My back aches. I'm only four. The sooner he learns life isn't handed to him on a silver platter, the better."

Among the socially conscious lines in the story that I like are quite a few of the exchanges involving the Ghost of Christmas Present, who explains that some of the men of the cloth and other leaders are acting on their own (and are possibly mistaken):

"There are some upon this earth of yours," returned the Spirit, "who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us."

This particular spirit also parrots Scrooge's own words back to him when Scrooge shows concern over Tiny Tim's fate (the lines about decreasing the surplus population), and he also has the great explanation of the dangers of poverty and ignorance, which I've quoted before, but which bear repeating:

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

"Spirit! are they yours?" Scrooge could say no more.

"They are Man’s," said the Spirit, looking down upon them. "And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!" cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. "Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And bide the end!"

And I do love Scrooge's declaration, even if it's a bit moralistic:

"I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!"

Sing it, Ebenezer, sing it loud!

Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.

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Friday, December 18, 2009

Holiday Dinner To-Do List -- an original poem

I thought about posting Ezra Pound's poem, "Ancient Music", here today, but it's still under copyright. Plus, it might make you think I was in a horrible state of mind, since his poem (which I find hilariously funny) is a parody of the first-known polyphonic song written in English, Sumer is icumen in, which starts "Sumer is icumen in, lhude sing cuccu". Pound's poem begins "Winter is icumen in, lhude sing goddam". Heh.

Instead, I though I'd do something helpful for those of you who are hosting Christmas dinner at your houses, and post an original poem:

Holiday Dinner To-Do List
by Kelly R. Fineman

Begin your preparations five days ahead.
Defrost the silver,
Polish the turkey until it gleams.
Iron the table,
Fold the extra leaves into the tablecloth.
Four days ahead, shop.
Remember pie; forget salad – it is better left too late.
Start the oven two days before,
neverminding a day has been skipped.
Develop the cranberry sauce;
Combine the gravy giblets;
Finish the pie, but not whip the cream.
If stuffing the turkey, stale the bread.
Put rings on the glasses, lay knives to guard the plates.
One day before, store the casseroles:
Peel them into the fridge for safekeeping.
Remember salad.
On the holiday itself, baste the white wine.
Preheat the turkey. Stuff the oven.
Baste the potatoes; mash the salad;
Reheat the conversation; enjoy the side dishes.
After the meal: Brew the whipped cream.
Beat the coffee into stiff peaks with a bit of sugar.
Remember the rolls, unbake them.
Clear the guests, wash the table, wait for next year.

I can't tell you how many times the rolls have been either forgotten or burned in my family's history, whether at my grandmother's, mother's or my own table. The button below will take you to today's roundup over at Susan Taylor Brown's blog:

Enjoy your day and any remaining holiday preparations you may have!

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Blow, blow thou winter wind from As You Like It

Time again for a bit of the Bard. This morning my windchimes were tinkling merrily in the chill December breeze and, although it's not official yet, it certainly feels like Winter. What could be more fitting than one of Shakespeare's songs? This one is from As You Like It, Act II, scene 7, and is given to Lord Amiens, one of Duke Senior's company who sings to the exiled Duke and his friends just after Orlando brings his servant, Adam, to join the company. Orlando and Adam have just expressed their gratitude for the kind reception by Duke Senior (despite Orlando's rather rude intrusion in the first place) and for sharing what food he has with them. The song (by negative implication) praises their gratitude, and also indirectly reminds the audience that the group are in exile in the wilds because of the ingratitude and malice of Duke Senior's brother. As You Like It is one of the plays I covered during Brush Up Your Shakespeare Month, and you can read a shortish summary of the play here.

In the following song, Shakespeare compares the harsh, "rude" winter wind to man's ingratitude and to turning one's back on a friend, both of which are seen as far worse than the biting wind.

Blow, blow, thou winter wind
by William Shakespeare

Blow, blow, thou winter wind,
Thou art not so unkind
As man's ingratitude;
Thy tooth is not so keen,
Because thou art not seen,
Although thy breath be rude.
Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly:
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:
Then, heigh-ho, the holly!
This life is most jolly.

Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky,
That does not bite so nigh
As benefits forgot:
Though thou the waters warp,
Thy sting is not so sharp
As friend remembered not.
Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly:
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:
Then, heigh-ho, the holly!
This life is most jolly.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

If On a Winter's Night . . .

Thus far, I've had a quiet morning at home alone, the buzzer on the dryer just now notwithstanding. Soon, though, I must fling myself into the outer world, to the world of post offices and shops and the like. And since there is cloud-filtered sun today, I don't mind in the slightest that I didn't get some of the shopping chores done on Sunday, when it was ark-building weather here, although I rather wish I'd gotten more accomplished yesterday, when it was all the way sunny.

Speaking of today's sun, I am reminded yet again of one of my favorite Dickinson poems, which begins "The morns are meeker than they were", since the sun at this time of year is so very lovely, but it is indeed meeker – it has a watery quality to it, and in the late afternoon it has a golden quality that I associate with Tuscany, despite only having been there once (and some years ago now). Turns out that Miss Dickinson and I aren't alone in giving thought to the way autumn and early winter sun looks.

In his latest album, Sting has penned lyrics to a lovely tune by Johann Sebastian Bach and come up with "You Only Cross My Mind in Winter", which has a haunting quality to it. The specific piece of music from which he borrowed is the Sarabande from Bach's Sixth Cello Suite, to which Sting has crafted ghost-story lyrics:

You Only Cross My Mind in Winter
by Sting

Always this winter child,
December sun sits low against the sky,
Cold light on frozen fi elds,
The cattle in their stable lowing.

When two walked this winter road,
Ten thousand miles seemed nothing to us then,
One walks with heavy tread,
The space between their footsteps slowing.

All day the snow did fall,
What’s left of the day is close drawn in,
I speak your name as if you’d answer me,
But the silence of the snow is deafening.

How well do I recall our arguments,
Our logic holds no debts or recompense,
Philosophy and faith were ghosts
That we would chase until
The gates of heaven were broken.

But something makes me turn, I don’t know,
To see another’s footsteps there in the snow;
I smile to myself and then I wonder why it is
You only cross my mind in winter.

Is that not haunting and gorgeous? You have GOT to hear it with the tune. Oh. Thank you, kind sir from YouTube: you've posted the music as accompaniment to gorgeous photos of Salamanca in the snow:

Sting's new CD, If On a Winter's Night . . . , has been on near-continuous loop for me for weeks now. The songs are an interesting mix – lots of lullabyes as well as some Christmas-themed music, but none of it is happy-happy-Father-Christmas music, and according to the liner notes, that's entirely on purpose:

Like many people, I have an ambivalent attitude towards the celebration of Christmas. For many, it is a period of intense loneliness and alienation. I specifically avoided the jolly, almost triumphalist, strain in many of the Christian carols. I make a musical reference to “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” only as a dramatic counterpoint to the words in “Soul Cake”, for example. This was a song sung at Halloween by children who go from door to door asking for pennies and “soul cakes” (the latter not originally intended for the living). I was also keen to avoid the domestic cosiness of many of the secular songs, recognizing that, for many, Winter is a time of darkness and introspection.
. . .
Walking amid the snows of Winter, or sitting entranced in a darkened room gazing at the firelight, usually evokes in me a mood of reflection, a mood that can be at times philosophical, at others wildly irrational; I find myself haunted by memories. For Winter is the season of ghosts; and ghosts, if they can be said to reside anywhere, reside here in this season of frosts and in these long hours of darkness. We must treat with them calmly and civilly, before the snows melt and the cycle of the seasons begins once more.

The title of the work, If On a Winter's Night . . . , is a reference to a novel written by Italo Calvino and translated into the English under the title If On a Winter's Night a Traveller,, which sounds intriguing - the odd-numbered chapters are excerpts from a book that the main character is trying to read; the even-numbered are written in second-person and narrate the mc's life. I'm probably oversimplifying, but hey - I haven't read the book. Yet.

In If On a Winter's Night . . . , the CD, I am especially fond of "You Only Cross My Mind in Winter", "Cold Song" and "Lullabye for an Anxious Child", and "Hurdy-Gurdy Man" is growing on me, sad though it is, but there is much to love about this entire project, especially if you fall into one of the following categories:
1. music geek with an interest in music history (Purcell, Bach and Schubert anyone?);
2. Sting fan – especially if you liked Songs from the Labyrinth (and I sure did);
3. introspective Winter person (those who are prone to thoughtfulness at this time of year – and I'm not talking "oh, what a thoughtful gift" thoughtfulness here – more of the "this sort of year always has me assessing life and its meaning" sort of thoughtful);
4. folks who aren't particularly interested in Christian or Santa celebrations of the season, which isn't limited to pagans and Wiccans, although I rather suspect both those groups will find much to love in this CD.

Despite having just said that folks who aren't particularly interested in Christian or Santa-based celebrations of the season will love this, I have to say also that many folks who ARE into Christian and Santa celebrations will like it for the album's quieter, more introspective moments and because you simply won't find music on this CD elsewhere. It's not full of songs that are playing in heavy rotation in 20 versions on the radio - no "Santa Baby" here. In fact, the only song you might here using the same tune elsewhere is "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming", which is a particular favorite Christmas carol of mine, although it's one of my least-favorite tracks on this CD because there's a spoken part that on occasion strikes me as cheesy (although at other times I don't mind it –it's a mood thing). This CD has no "Deck the Halls" or anything in that vein, no "Here we come a-wassailing" (although "Soul Cake" has some echoes of the words from that song in it), no "Angels We Have Heard on High", although "Gabriel's Song" does have a gloria in it.

I bought and downloaded my copy of this CD from iTunes, and I can tell you that I regret doing so – although, I have to add that because I did so, I got a bonus track, "Bethlehem Down", which is not on the CD/DVD pack, which has, instead, "Blake's Cradle Song" as a bonus. The reason I regret it is that I really want to be able to hold the CD package and hug it and pet it and call it George, and frankly, having just ascertained that I can see a DVD and have a different bonus track, I believe I've just talked myself into buying the package at the store despite already owning most of the tunes. Because hey! Video footage and a different bonus track = justification.

If you are buying only one CD of seasonally themed music this year, this is my recommendation, particularly if you fit any of the above-listed categories.

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Sunday, December 13, 2009


hope you're hungry for quotes today, because man, do I have a good assortment - and a couple are quite long.

On the importance of books First up, a little something I skimmed from Jeannine Atkins, who put up an excellent post discussing comments made by Sherman Alexie when she heard him speak last weekend. He was talking about why he feels it's important to keep books available in print form, but I like this quote whether in or out of context.

People sometimes need to hold books as if totems that may change their lives.

Isn't that the truth? Speaking of books (and aren't we usually?), here's a bit taken from a thoughtful rant posted by Anindita Basu Sempere earlier this week, in which she was discussing one of the key issues she sees with book challenges such as the ongoing one in Kentucky, where books by Laurie Halse Anderson () and Jo Knowles () have been removed from high school classrooms and not put back:

What judges of literature don't realize is that in making a decision for another, they are removing all possibility for others to become independent thinkers, individuals who can read and articulate what they believe. The purpose of a critique is not to say whether a work should or should not exist, but how it could be made more effective and how the person conducting the critique can also learn to create.

A romance novel is escapist. A YA novel deals with adolescent, not adult, concerns. They are what they are, and they can be written in thousands of ways.

The purpose of reading is also manifold: for enjoyment, for entertainment, for illumination, for escape, for understanding, for empathy, for insight, for knowledge. But it's for the reader to learn how to read, and therefore to think, critically, and for the writer to also learn how to read and then to read widely because there are lessons to be learned from both "good" and "bad" literature.

Amen, sister. Not that Anindita said any of the challenged books were "bad" literature, but I like her point - even if they were, and had little literary merit on their own (think of the enjoyable-but-not-exactly-heavy-lifting Gossip Girls series, for instance, which are fun reads -- ooh, candy! -- but not on a par with, say, Winter Girls or Jumping Off Swings for complex ideas and amazingly well-crafted sentences) - where was I? Right - even if they had little literary merit on their own, they would belong in a high school classroom to help kids hone their own critical reading skills.

On immersing oneself in one's writing. The other day, Christy Lenzi posted this lovely quote from Gustave Flaubert, which I believe she skimmed from someone else. I particularly like how it celebrates that feeling one gets when really "into" the writing process, and in such swoon-worthy terms to boot:

It is a delicious thing to write, to be no longer yourself but to move in an entire universe of your own creating. Today, for instance, as man and woman, both lover and mistress, I rode in a forest on an autumn afternoon under the yellow leaves, and I was also the horses, the leaves, the wind, the words my people uttered, even the red sun that made them almost close their love-drowned eyes.

On writing for children. Roald Dahl wrote an article for The Writer back in the 70s that was reprinted in the September 2009 issue. Part of the article talks about what he thinks children like in books, and I can say for certain that my inner child still likes all the stuff on his list.
I believe that the writer for children . . . must like simple tricks and jokes and riddles and other childish things. He must be unconventional and inventive. He must have a really first-class plot. He must know what enthralls children and what bores them. They love being spooked. They love suspense. They love action. They love ghosts. The love the finding of treasure. They love chocolates and toys and money. They love magic. They love being made to giggle. They love seeing the villain meet a grisly death. They love a hero and they love the hero to be a winner. . . They like stories that contain a threat. "D'you know what I feel like?" said the big crocodile to the smaller one. "I feel like having myself a nice plump juicy child for my lunch." They love that sort of thing.

What else do they love?

New inventions. Unorthodox methods. Eccentricity. Secret information. The list is long.

On poetry. A few weeks ago, I purchased the new book, Robert Frost: Speaking on Campus: Excerpts from His Talks, 1949-1962, edited by Edward Connery Lathem. Frost tended to speak in a folksy, somewhat rambling sort of way, but always he made his point, digressions or no. Despite the length of this particular quote, it's nowhere near the length of the full excerpt given in the book, and I've also added ellipses where I've made further edits.

In answering the question "What philosophy has poetry, for a time like this?", Frost began his answer as follows:
And of course the first thing to say about that, all times have been troubled, haven't they? I was looking at Matthew Arnold, and there's nothing but the trouble of that time through his poetry.
. . .
Well, the answer is that I don't believe poetry has any philosophy for offer. To make a kind of poetic allegory or myth – Platonic sort of myth – let me put it this way: God sent into the world three things – just three, great things; the greatest things. Two of them were beliefs, and one of them was unbelief.

And one of the beliefs call itself a "belief" and uses that word for itself all the time: true religion. (Though, it always has second breaths. It'll say, "Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief." Unbelief goes with it, in true religion.) And the other belief, that doesn't always know it's only a belief, is science.

[Discussion of how religion and science are both beliefs - religion knows it, science doesn't always remember that it is a belief that all things can be explained]

And the third thing that God sent into the world, like a goddess or something, is the unbelief called "philosophy" – which is never its true self and never good when it isn't doubting, when it isn't pruning and trimming and combing the dead hair out of the two beliefs – like combing a dog, combing dogs.

[Discussion as to how philosophy, religion and science interact among themselves.]

Now, after I've said that and given you a chance to look it over, I wonder if you're wondering where I say poetry would come in. Well, it doesn't come in anywhere there. It doesn't match with those things at all.

It plays around over the surface of all those things, just the same as you do. . . .

See, all I think of in Socrates was the negative side. I heard a fine old man say the other day, "Well, I don't like you to use the words 'the negative side.'" Said, "I don't think it's nice to thing about negative things."

But the negative is the cleansing. It's Socrates' demons that told him "no" and nothing else – never told him "yes" once; always told him "no." And that's what he was there for, to disturb the boys with "no," on the street corner – Alcibiades and the rest of 'em. That's why they gave him poison, in the end. The town couldn't stand him.

Now, poetry comes in like this. I don't want the word "philosophy" for it at all; I don't. I want the word "wisdom" – little scraps of wisdom, little flashes of insight, just the same as you get every day among people. . . . I often think a poem is nothing but a momentary stay against confusion. It's got something in it that's like that, that holds the moment for you, anyway – stops the confusion.

And now, some writing time, where I shall hope for some "little scraps of wisdom, little flashes of insight" - something to hold the moment and stop the confusion.

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Friday, December 11, 2009

Not to Keep by Robert Frost

More U.S. troops are being deployed. Again. And the stories of soldiers who have done multiple tours on active duty continue to mount, as do the stories of soldiers injured and killed while on active duty. And with the holidays coming, deployment must be much more difficult for families to endure - all those husbands, wives, children, parents, and siblings left home to worry weigh on my mind. So when I was trolling about for something to post today and I saw this war poem by Robert Frost, which appeared in The Yale Review in November of 1917, I had to share it.

It's an early poem of his, but includes the story-telling quality that imbues some of his more mature poems, as well as a cynicism that most Frost readers will recognize - here closer to the surface than it sometimes is allowed to come, for as he matured as a poet, his ability to write on multiple levels improved as well.

ETA: Kevin Slattery () commented that the poem didn't display particularly well when viewed on his "Friends" page. If you're having the same issue, I hope you'll click on through and read it on my page.

Not to Keep
by Robert Frost

They sent him back to her. The letter came
Saying . . . And she could have him. And before
She could be sure there was no hidden ill
Under the formal writing, he was in her sight,
Living. They gave him back to her alive—
How else? They are not known to send the dead—
And not disfigured visibly. His face?
His hands? She had to look, and ask,
“What was it, dear?” And she had given all
And still she had all — they had — they the lucky!
Wasn’t she glad now? Everything seemed won,
And all the rest for them permissible ease.
She had to ask, “What was it, dear?”

Yet not enough. A bullet through and through,
High in the breast. Nothing but what good care
And medicine and rest, and you a week,
Can cure me of to go again.” The same
Grim giving to do over for them both.
She dared no more than ask him with her eyes
How was it with him for a second trial.
And with his eyes he asked her not to ask.
They had given him back to her, but not to keep.

The poem is written in iambic meter, meaning that the lines are composed of two-syllable "feet" composed of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one (taDUM). The vast majority of the lines are written in pentameter, meaning there are five iambic feet per line, but there are lines in sextameter (6), tetrameter (4) and, both obvious and interesting, monometer (1 foot), which is what the single word "Enough" at the start of the second stanza constitutes.

For any of you who are curious about the line "And still she had all — they had — they the lucky!", which has eleven syllables and ends with a "feminine" or unaccented syllable, you should know that the occasional "feminine" ending does not take a piece out of iambic meter, but is acceptable and part of a time-honored tradition. Consider, for instance, that most famous of questions posed by Hamlet: "To be or not to be, that is the question."

As always, you can reach the rest of today's Poetry Friday posts around the interweb by clicking on the green button:

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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Hair ball - an original poem

Today, a short original poem written using the fibonacci form (dubbed the "Fib" by Greg Pincus, who has written quite a bit in and about that particular form). It was one of five that I wrote as part of a weekly writing challenge assigned to me by Angela DeGroot a few weeks back. I'm sure most cat owners will find the topic familiar.

Hair Ball
by Kelly R. Fineman

hair ball.
Hork hork hork.
What a squicky noise.
Cleanup needed in upstairs hall!

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Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Sonnet 53 by William Shakespeare

First the poem, then the rest:

Sonnet 53
by William Shakespeare

What is your substance*, whereof are you made,
That millions of strange shadows on you tend?
Since every one hath, every one, one shade,
And you, but one, can every shadow lend.
Describe Adonis, and the counterfeit
Is poorly imitated after you;
On Helen's cheek all art of beauty set,
And you in Grecian tires** are painted new.
Speak of the spring and foison*** of the year:
The one doth shadow of your beauty show,
The other as your bounty doth appear;
And you in every blessèd shape we know.
  In all external grace you have some part,
  But you like none, none you, for constant heart.

*substance: essence
**tires: a sort of Greek headdress
***foison: rich or bountiful harvest (a 14th-century word already languishing in Shakespeare's time, btw)

The short take on form and interpretation

It's a Shakespearean sonnet, of course, in iambic pentameter with the following rhyme scheme: ABABCDCDEFEFGG. The "turn" or volta occurs in the ninth line, when Shakespeare stops praising the beloved's beauty through comparisons with Adonis and Helen of Troy and starts praising the beloved's beauty through comparison to the beauty of spring and the abundance of the harvest. Throughout the poem, Shakespeare intimates that beauty found in others and in nature is a reflection of the beloved. The final couplet "turns" further still in asserting that while the beloved may be compared to other externally beautiful things, nobody matches the beloved for "constant heart."

I have to say in all honesty that, while this poem is usually considered one of the love poems in the Fair Youth sequence, it could as easily be read as praise of God. I mean, you've got a beloved whose beauty is unrivalled and can be widely shared in all things. The beauty of spring is a mere echo of the beloved's beauty, and the harvest appears as the beloved's bounty - "And you in every blessèd shape we know." I'm not saying that's how it was intended, but I am saying that I think it could be read in such a way. I'm willing to be proved wrong, if you've got an alternate position.

The longer take on interpretation

1. The first four lines.

I think this poem is lovely when read as-is, but I think the actual understanding of the poem is greatly aided by understanding the Elizabethan interest in Neoplatonism*, whence much of Shakespeare's language and imagery for this poem is drawn. The word "substance" refers to the essence or spirit of the person in question. The reference to shadows is a reference to a reflection or image, and not to the beloved's actual reflection.

*Neoplatonism is a term ascribed to groups who claim to follow the teachings of Plato, but who often interpret his teachings in a different way than he himself might have done - usually, by focusing as much on the teachings of Petrarch and/or a guy named Plotonius as on the words of Plato.

That said, Oscar Wilde evidently thought that this poem might have been addressed to an actor, and that the reference to "shadows" was to the roles played by the actor on the stage, a theory which one might bolster through reference to Shakespeare's Macbeth, Act V, sc. 5, in which he writes "Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage." Still others believe that Shakespeare's reference to shadows and shades is indicative that the beloved "fair youth" was away, leaving the Bard with only a portrait and/or other reminders.

The reference to a shade, in any case, is a reference to an actual shadow cast by light, yet it has a potential double meaning of a spirit or ghost, as well as a possibility of meaning something that casts all the things around it into shadow. The playfulness of this particular term, which has a possible triple or quadruple interpretation within this particular poem, is tremendous, although not at all easy to catch unless you're willing (as I'm doing here) to break the poem down bit by bit.

The contrast between shadow and substance here is also a playful sort of notion. He's contrasting the tangible with the intangible, the original with copies, the real with the unreal. It's a very broad concept, and masterfully managed through the words chosen, although since some of the meanings are obscured, it's not as evident on the surface just how very many complimentary and contradictory concepts he's playing with simultaneously.

The second quatrain.
The next four lines discuss Adonis and Helen, and claim that the beloved is at least as lovely as the most famous of beautiful males and females, and that anyone trying to paint a portrait of either Adonis or Helen would end up with a portrait of the beloved - albeit in the case of Adonis, a poor approximation of the beloved, and in the case of Helen, the beloved would be wearing Greek headgear.

The line "On Helen's cheek all the art of beauty set" has a double meaning: On the one hand, he's saying "paint Helen" and on the other hand, he's intimating that Helen has been a "painted woman", one who wears cosmetics and enhances her beauty through artifice, whereas the beloved is so beautiful that he is painted new - probably without having to perform the Elizabethan equivalent of airbrushing or photoshopping.

The third quatrain.

The third quatrain, which extends the Platonic conceit to nature. (The term "conceit" here means "an extended metaphor", and has nothing to do with being conceited.) In this part of the poem, Shakespeare says that if the beloved is the ideal of what beauty ought to be, then anywhere beauty can be found springs from that ideal. He therefore compares the beloved to spring and harvest, finding the beloved more beautiful than what nature produces, and seeing reminders of the beloved in all things during the harvest.

The closing couplet.

In the final couplet, Shakespeare goes further still, saying that anything beautiful in the world echoes the beauty of the beloved, but that the beloved is singular in the constancy of his heart.

Or does he? I've seen it argued that perhaps Shakespeare is instead saying that the beloved likes nobody else at all, and is not a "constant heart". This is based on the idea that sonnets placed earlier in the collection (40-42) express betrayal. However, looking at the sonnets that lead up to and closely succeed this one, I have to say that I believe Shakespeare still had on his flatterer's hat when he wrote this poem and that he intended for it to be read as serious praise (although it would not be unlike him to have a purposeful double meaning that cut the other way, believing it to be his own private joke - the man engaged in double entendres and puns as readily as most of us breathe, and I can easily credit him with sneaking a double meaning in here.

Another school of thought holds that it was common for poets to encourage their "betters" to behave properly by writing of them as if they were already doing so. Under that construction, it would mean that Shakespeare was crediting the beloved with constancy and faithfulness in hopes that it would bolster the beloved's resolve to be constant and faithful.

I figure that no matter how you slice it, this is one beautiful and interesting poem.

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Monday, December 07, 2009

A pair of poetry book reviews

As many of you already know, I'm the organizer for the poetry category for this year's CYBILS Awards; I'm also a first-round panelist, and as such, I've been reading, reading, reading poetry collections for several weeks. There were quite a lot of nominations in the poetry category this year - quite a lot for poetry, that is - with 36 titles nominated and eligible for consideration.

I've already posted about some of them earlier in the year, and I won't be posting about all of them here, but here are a pair I found I wanted to talk about for various reasons:

1. THE HOUSE by J. Patrick Lewis, illustrated by Roberto Innocenti. This was the title I nominated for the CYBILS this year, so as you might expect, I like this book. The cover has it right: Roberto Innocenti gets top billing because, for this particular collection, he drew the pictures first, and Pat Lewis wrote a quatrain to introduce the book, and for each of the images. The pictures can be understood without the poems, and vice-versa, as the book opens in 1900 with a dilapidated old house, then proceeds through a century of time, during which we see the changes to the house and its surrounding land.

The house and its inhabitants and the events in their lives are brought to life by the quatrains, which are written from the house's perspective - the one "constant" in the book, although it's clear from the paintings that change comes even to the house itself. Lewis uses iambic pentameter throughout the book, but cleverly switches up the rhyme schemes in his quatrains, using rhymed couplets (AABB), alternating rhyme (ABAB) and envelope rhyme (ABBA). The final poem in the book consists of a quatrain followed by an additional rhymed couplet, giving the book the feel of an extremely elongated sonnet.

Here's the text from the year 1944, along with the image of the house that accompanies it:

Whose war is this that lasts a thousand suns?
Relief born of fatigue describes the mood
Of partisan and peasant gratitude
For valor and a respite from the guns.

The passage of time is in many ways more evident in the poems than in the pictures, since Innocenti uses the same color palette for so much of the clothing, and since, being in a rural setting, the people are rather pastorally attired for most of the book, so that changed in decade are not particularly distinguishable if one looks only at their garb.

2. THE CUCKOO'S HAIKU: And Other Birding Poems by Michael J. Rosen, illustrated by Stan Fellows, is a beauty of a book. The simplicity of the haiku form allows plenty of space in which to appreciate the beauty of the imagery created by Rosen's words, and the pages are a combination of bird book, nature journal, and verse.

I am not normally one for quoting publisher press copy in my reviews, but seriously, the Candlewick people completely nailed it with their single-sentence summation: "A joyful primer on the pleasures of bird-watching merges haiku, notes for identifying species, and exquisite watercolor illustrations."

What both of these collections have in common: Both use a simple poetic form throughout. Lewis uses rhymed quatrains, which, next to rhymed couplets, are one of the simplest of the rhymed forms in which to work. (That is not to say that working in any rhyme scheme is particularly simple, but as these things go, quatrains are easier than, say, sonnets or sestinas or villanelles.) Rosen uses haiku, adhering to the 5-7-5 formulation of haiku throughout the book. Both of these forms are considered "easy" by readers and by most teachers, who often have their classes write using these forms. In point of fact, there's nothing particularly easy about either form, both of which, when properly done, require quite a bit of thought and effort in order to make them into something that stands up to reading and re-reading - a brilliant, polished little gem, as it were, that manages to look effortless in its simplicity, but is, in fact, more difficult to do well than one might expect.

Both of the poets in the collections I'm discussing today are masters at what they do. Lewis's quatrains are evocative and in many ways complex, despite the "simplicity" of the form. Here's the entry from 1936, written in envelope rhyme (ABBA):

Today begins a seasonal event:
We wage the timeless "battle of the wheat"
To scythe and winnow, knowing that defeat
Will harrow hope and harvest discontent.

It's not just the advanced vocabulary here (scythe, winnow, harrow, discontent) that makes this quatrain rich; it's also the beginning alliteration in the last line - three H words - and the assonance in the last two lines - all those lovely long O's "winnow, knowing" and "harrow hope", which go along with all the Ws in three lines of the text: "We, wage, wheat, winnow, knowing, will, harrow". Complicated, tricksy stuff, yet it isn't obvious (I don't think) until I point at it and say hey! looky here! (except, perhaps for the Hs, which seem more stand-outish to me).

Here's an example of what an inside spread in The Cuckoo's Haiku looks like:

Rosen's use of imagery shows complete mastery of the haiku form. One of the early poems in the book is about the Eastern bluebird (whose pages can be viewed at Amazon using the "Look Inside" option, btw). The haiku reads:

on a staff of wires
blue notes inked from April skies
truly, spring's first song

First, Rosen's haiku has all the elements required for the form: nature imagery, a kigo, or seasonal word - here, two of them, really, "April" and "spring" - and the 5-7-5 syllable count that is taught to school children in English-speaking countries (although adult writers within the form typically interpret it as short-long-short with a maximum of 5-7-5 as the syllable count, resulting sometimes in shorter lines).

Even without seeing the lovely watercolor image accompanying the text, one pictures blue birds perched on telephone or electrical wires. Rosen has cleverly created a second layer of meaning here, however: not only does the last line reference song, but there are auditory layers of meaning in the first two lines as well - a staff of wires could be (and is) a pole that holds up wires, but it is also a musical staff - shown in the accompanying image as five wires stretched between posts, like the five lines of a musical staff. In the middle line, the reference to "blue notes" not only gives us a visual - the birds are perched on the wires, resembling musical notes on a musical staff - but also an auditory reference, for who among us is not familiar with the phrase "singing the blues"? Clever stuff, and the sort of thing that requires much thought and effort on the part of the poet, although it's not always consciously processed by the reader.

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Sunday, December 06, 2009


The quote in the icon over at LiveJournal reads "What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure." It's one of the assured opinions of eighteenth-century author and pundit, Dr. Samuel Johnson.

On getting started, here's one from Jack London that I've read before, and that always cracks me up: "You can't wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club."

I've been thinking about story again lately, and working on a bit of a new project that may or may not be going somewhere. If it does, I'll share, but until then, mum's the word (or, if you are preparing for New Year's Eve already, perhaps "Mumm's the word"). It's not surprising, therefore that this quote from Alice Munro posted on 's blog last week caught my eye:

A story is not like a road to follow, it's more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows.

And finally, Neil Gaiman shared a short personal anecdote about the writing process, which I think most working writers will appreciate, and possibly for a variety of reasons. I know I appreciated it for its honesty, and for the underlying message that even experienced, well-published authors still struggle, and that perseverance pays off:

I finished a short story - technically, I suppose, a novelette, as it's 10,000 words - that I've been working on for much of the year. For most of that time, even through to the end of the first draft, a couple of weeks ago, I was convinced it was never going to work, would be a stunted, crippled little thing that was doomed to disappoint me. I knew it was missing something. What that something was occurred to me last week, exhausted after a yoga session in Boston, as my mind blanked, and later I wrote two short paragraphs in my notebook. Those paragraphs percolated and began to breathe, and I put them in and the story shifted, subtly, around them. The second draft took wing, and I found I was clear enough in my mind about what the story was that taking out things that weren't part of the story and putting in things that were was now easy, and the more I did it the better the story got, and now I'm happier with it than I've been with anything I've written for well over a year. It's called "The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains..." and it is not exactly a happy story.

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Friday, December 04, 2009

A Family Thanksgiving - an original poem

Today, an original poem for Poetry Friday. As I mentioned yesterday, this poem is a villanelle. For an explanation of the form (and a template if you are so inclined), you can check out yesterday's post.

I wrote this poem because Liz Scanlon roped me into it over a month ago, along with the rest of us who wrote sonnets together last year. The challenge was not simply to write any villanelle, but to use the words thanksgiving and friends in the first and third lines. I wrote mine during the ramp-up to Thanksgiving, and I couldn't help overhearing various and sundry people (some strangers, some friends) kvetch about how much they didn't want to go to their in-laws again, or how they hated a particular relative who always ____________(fill in the blank – examples include: drinks too much, starts a fight, shows up late, doesn't help cook and/or clean-up, tries to help cook and/or clean-up but gets in the way, and more).

This is what I came up with, and for some reason, it came out in the voice of a 13-year old boy. Who can say why?

A Family Thanksgiving
by Kelly Ramsdell Fineman

Thanksgiving is "the day that never ends":
At least that's what my parents always say.
I wish that I could spend the day with friends.

My mom, freaked-out cook that she is, expends
Her energy by panicking all day.
Thanksgiving is a day that never ends.

My stupid cousin's here. He always bends
My arm behind my back; he claims it's "play".
I wish that I could spend my day with friends.

My dad fights with his father, which offends
My grandmother, who hollers in dismay.
Thanksgiving is a day that never ends.

There's so much food, the table nearly bends.
My brother elbows me out of his way.
I wish that I could spend my day with friends.

Before dessert, the pumpkin pie upends,
My favorite part of this dumb holiday.
Thanksgiving is a day that never ends
I wish that I could spend my day with friends.

You can find the other villanelles here:

Tanita Davis
Sara Lewis Holmes
Andromeda Jazmon
Laura Purdie Salas
Liz Garton Scanlon
Tricia Stohr-Hunt

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Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Villanelle

Come tomorrow, I'll be posting an original villanelle here along with six of my poetry friends, the same crowd who worked on a crown of sonnets last year. I blame Liz Scanlon for finally making me tackle this form again - it's one that thwarted my prior efforts, which involved two that I never finished and one that I finished, but will never share because, well, it sucks. But I digress.

Today I thought maybe I'd post about what a villanelle is. It's a nineteen-line poetic form that relies on a specific end rhyme pattern and also requires you to reuse two lines of text. A lot.

History of the form

The form is a song-based form that entered the English language in the mid- to late 1800s, had a brief bit of popularity (usually written in iambic tetrameter at that time, although there is no particular required meter for villanelles), then faded into disuse for about 40 or so years until the 20th century, when it regained popularity with folks like Dylan Thomas, creator of perhaps the most famous of all villanelles, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, and later with Sylvia Plath in poems such as Mad Girl's Love Song, and still later with people like Theodore Roethke and Elizabeth Bishop, whose One Art is nearly as well-known as Thomas's poem. I'm also a big fan of Wendy Cope's Some Rules, which includes this closing couplet: "Stop, if the car is going 'clunk.'/Don't answer e-mails when you're drunk." Most (but not all) twentieth-century poets opted to write their villanelles in iambic pentameter, which is what I used in the one you'll see tomorrow, although other of my sister poets have used different meter here and there.

Discussion of the form

The villanelle uses two recurring lines and features six stanzas - 5 containing three lines each in a sandwich-like rhyme scheme (ABA) and the sixth having four lines (ABAA).

The first and third lines of the poem are used as the last two lines of the poem, plus each of them is used twice more in the middle of the poem as ending lines to three-line stanzas.

The first and third lines must rhyme.

The words that end the middle lines of the stanzas are supposed to rhyme with one another.

This results in a rhyme scheme of AbA' abA abA' abA abA' abAA', where A is the first line of the poem, A' is the third, a are lines that rhyme with the first and third lines, and B stands in for the middle lines, which all rhyme with one another.

Here are the first three stanzas of Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, so you can see how this works in practice:

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

by Dylan Thomas

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

In this example, "Do not go gentle into that good night" is A, "Rage, rage against the dying of the light" is A', the first lines of the second and third stanzas get a designation of a and the middle lines ending in "day", "they" and "bay" all rhyme with one another, savvy?

The final stanza of Dylan Thomas's poem is as follows:

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

See how the recurring lines are put together as the last two lines of the poem?

Advice on how to write a villanelle

This is one of those forms where repetition can quickly become tedious if you've chosen bad first and third lines, and also one of those forms where you have specific requirements to follow, so it's best to write the template down the side of the page, like so:







And then, it's best to fill in that closing couplet first. I'm not saying it's what Dylan Thomas did, since I don't know that for certain, but if he had, the first words written for his villanelle would have been "Do not go gentle into that good night./Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

Once you've got your couplet down, fill in your template with all the As and A's, like so:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Once you've got that set, start filling in the blanks, being sure to use the relevant rhyme scheme. You should know, by the way, that some modern poets use slant rhyme and/or feel free to alter their repeating lines a bit by, say, using homophones (e.g., hear/here, red/read) or by replacing some of the words in the middle of the line. In One Art, for instance, Elizabeth Bishop alters her first line - "The art of losing isn't hard to master" - to "the art of losing's not too hard to master" in the final stanza. And her third line goes through these variations:

Stanza 1: "to be lost that their loss is no disaster."
Stanza 3: "to travel. None of these will bring disaster."
Stanza 5: "I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster."
Stanza 6: "though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

The villanelle I'll be sharing tomorrow is nowhere near as fine as the ones I've provided links for you to view, but it is the first working villanelle I've written.

Peace out.

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