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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