Archive for the ‘literature’ Category

Sunday Poetry: Lines on the Poet’s Turning Forty, by Ian Frazier

Sunday, June 6th, 2010

Lines on the Poet’s Turning Forty

I.

And so, at last, I am turning forty,
In just a couple of days.
The big four-oh.
Yes, that is soon to be my age.
(And not fifty-eight. No way. That Wikipedia is a bunch of liars.)
Nope, not any other age, just forty.
What other age could someone born in 1969 (and not 1951)
Possibly be?
(And please do not listen to my ex-wife, that sad, bitter woman in her late fifties.)
What does it feel like, old bones?
Yes, I have lost a step or two in the hundred-metre dash.
I accept these changes.
But if a guy says in a published poem that he is forty,
As I am doing here,
It’s obvious that must be the age that he is,
Officially.

II.

Cattail down blows from the swamp like smoke,
Ice bares its teeth on the surface of the mud puddles.
It is fall—but not for me in any metaphorical sense,
Because forty, while not technically all that young, is hardly like “the autumn of life” or anything;
And also because Natalie Portman, the famous actress,
Is in love with me. And why not?
After all, there is not that much difference, age-wise,
Between a person who I guess is in her mid-to-late twenties
And a person who is only just turning forty,
I.e., me.

III.

You walk across the room carrying a bouquet of phlox in your hand
(“You” being Natalie Portman, the famous actress)
As a present for me on my upcoming fortieth birthday.
Come sit beside me, my dear,
And I will tell you about my previous thirty-nine,
Except for the year when I was in sixth grade,
Which is a total blank.
I do remember fifth grade, when we had Mrs. Erwin,
And seventh grade, when we moved to the new junior-high building;
But when I try to remember sixth—nothing.
Let us not mourn what is lost.
Sixth grade was probably not that great.
Now, and on into the serious years that lie ahead,
You and I will have each other.

IV.

An alert reader may point out
That we did not move to the new junior-high building during the 1981-82 school year
(As would fit with my being in seventh grade and having been born in 1969)
But eighteen years earlier, in the school year of 1963-64.
This is baloney!
Whoever says such statements is wrong.
I think that when it comes to the details of my own life
My own word should be trusted over that of some random reader,
Thank you!

V.

Unfortunately, because of this business
About when we did or didn’t move to the new junior-high building,
Natalie Portman’s suspicions somehow were raised,
And she had a completely unnecessary “background check” run on me,
And then left me for Shia LaBeouf,
Who is hot right now.

VI.

This poem is becoming a disaster.
It happens sometimes—
I get into a poem, and the thing goes haywire,
And I don’t know how to get out.
According to some nitpicker at the Ohio Department of Education,
Mrs. Roberta Erwin retired and left teaching entirely in 1967,
Two years before my birth.
Thus, the argument goes,
She could not have taught me fifth grade,
As I claimed in Canto III.

VII.

Look, I am turning forty, all right?
Let’s just leave it at that.
Critics and people in the media who would ruin a celebration with this kind of “gotcha” behavior make me sick.
If you still doubt me,
Please be assured that this magazine has a rigorous policy of fact checking,
And all the information in this poem has been checked,
And directly verified with me.

VIII.

Well, it’s going to be great being forty.
I am looking forward to it.
There are plenty of other beautiful actresses around;
I may also try out for the forty-and-over division
On the National Professional Rodeo Association tour.
Recently someone asked me if I remembered when the name
Of Idlewild Airport in New York City
Was changed to J.F.K. International.
“Of course not,” I replied.
“That was long before my time.
Back then I had not even been born.”

– by Ian Frazier
_______________________________________________________

Here’s your bonus for all those hours spent reading “Dover Beach” and Shakespearean sonnets and Auden and “To His Coy Mistress” – as if the pleasure of reading those great works were not enough. On top of all that poetic pleasure comes something like this dollop of whipped cream.

This is, obviously, not a serious poem, and anyone who wants to set aside his or her humor and dissect the traces of the author’s genuine feelings about aging ought to be stripped naked, wrapped in rough tweed, and planted on a hard seat in a stifling lecture hall to listen to stuffy professors discuss deconstruction of literature in a monotone. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but just don’t do it, or be prepared to suffer the consequences.

All that said, part of the fun is catching the whiffs of the poetical that Frazier feeds us. If you read the poem aloud, you can hear faint echos of the real poems you have read and enjoyed. When you hear him admit he’s lost “a step or two in the hundred-metre dash,” the back of your mind turns to “To an Athlete Dying Young”. The references to nature and non-metaphorical fall might remind you of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 –

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 . . .

When he admonishes us to ignore his lost 6th grade with “Let us not mourn what is lost”, perhaps Dylan Thomas’ majestic voice reading his “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” came to mind.

Or not.

If your poetry reading enriches your experience in enjoying a pleasure like Ian Frazier’s poem, it’s a bonus. You don’t need to catch every allusion to enjoy the humor, and there’s no sense in pressuring yourself to track down every clever reference.

(This poem was originally published in the New Yorker, and you can buy Ian Frazier’s books here, or at your favorite independent bookseller.)

Sunday Poetry: Buckingham Palace, by A.A. Milne

Sunday, March 21st, 2010

Buckingham Palace

They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace -
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
Alice is marrying one of the guard.
“A soldier’s life is terrible hard,”
Says Alice.

They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace -
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
We saw a guard in a sentry-box.
“One of the sergeants looks after their socks,”
Says Alice.

They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace -
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
We looked for the King, but he never came.
“Well, God take care of him, all the same,”
Says Alice.

They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace -
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
They’ve great big parties inside the grounds.
“I wouldn’t be King for a hundred pounds,”
Says Alice.

They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace -
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
A face looked out, but it wasn’t the King’s.
“He’s much too busy a-signing things,”
Says Alice.

They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace -
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
“Do you think the King knows all about me?”
“Sure to, dear, but it’s time for tea,”
Says Alice.

– by A.A. Milne
___________________________________________________

Today is National Children’s Poetry Day, and this one brings to mind the faces of my children smiling and reciting this poem nestled on the couch with my wife. The repeated lines and dependable rhythm allowed them to “catch on” at an early age, and enjoy the music of the words. In fact, this one was often sung in our home, and two wonderful readers were born.

If you have a child in your life, please take some time to read to him or her. Just as exercise in the back yard helps children strengthen and develop coordination, sitting next to an adult reading helps children grow intellectually and develop appreciation of the written word.

Poetry does not need to be about serious topics to be important.

Sunday Poetry: September, The First Day Of School, by Howard Nemerov

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

September, The First Day Of School
I
My child and I hold hands on the way to school,
And when I leave him at the first-grade door
He cries a little but is brave; he does
Let go. My selfish tears remind me how
I cried before that door a life ago.
I may have had a hard time letting go.

Each fall the children must endure together
What every child also endures alone:
Learning the alphabet, the integers,
Three dozen bits and pieces of a stuff
So arbitrary, so peremptory,
That worlds invisible and visible

Bow down before it, as in Joseph’s dream
The sheaves bowed down and then the stars bowed down
Before the dreaming of a little boy.
That dream got him such hatred of his brothers
As cost the greater part of life to mend,
And yet great kindness came of it in the end.

II
A school is where they grind the grain of thought,
And grind the children who must mind the thought.
It may be those two grindings are but one,
As from the alphabet come Shakespeare’s Plays,
As from the integers comes Euler’s Law,
As from the whole, inseparably, the lives,

The shrunken lives that have not been set free
By law or by poetic phantasy.
But may they be. My child has disappeared
Behind the schoolroom door. And should I live
To see his coming forth, a life away,
I know my hope, but do not know its form

Nor hope to know it. May the fathers he finds
Among his teachers have a care of him
More than his father could. How that will look
I do not know, I do not need to know.
Even our tears belong to ritual.
But may great kindness come of it in the end.

– by Howard Nemerov
___________________________________________

This is one of those frustrating poems to write about, where I cannot force myself to focus on the meter or the poetic technique, because I’m closest to the subject. Forgive me for a moment, then, while I focus on the thought instead of the poem.

Nemerov captures so much of what my parenting experience has been in this poem. You are given this little bundle to take care of – immobile to the point you can lay it on a pad on the table while you drink a cup of coffee and read the paper, dependent to the point that it would starve if you didn’t feed it, and ignorant to the point that the pet dog has a vastly superior vocabulary.

Then everything changes.

I’m particularly wowed by the final two lines. “Even our tears belong to ritual.” It is a ritual, isn’t it, that we wind up taking our children to schools – society demands that we act out this strange act, leaving our children to others to teach? (Homeschoolers aside.) We do this to our children, as our parents did it to us, and it is a truly horrid ripping, no matter how we prepare ourselves and how convinced we are that we have the best school and the most excited child. It is a societal ritual, where all parents symbolically surrender their children to society, and all children accept that they will need to face the challenges of institutions without the protective gaze of their parents. All lives are changed on the threshold of schools.

And the final line is not a prediction; it is a plaintive prayer. “But may great kindness come of it in the end.” Nemerov was a teacher – a professor at Washington University, a few miles from my childhood home. He knew education and academia, and he does not offer an unconvincing declaration like “This is for the best”, or “Education will expand their worlds”, or even “They’ll increase their earning power if they make the right choices”. He doesn’t even attempt prosaic persuasion – instead, he joins those of us who have abandoned our children to society in a prayer that some greater kindness, some happier outcome, will follow from the tears of division on the schoolhouse steps.

Sunday Poetry: Dover Beach, by Matthew Arnold

Sunday, February 14th, 2010

Dover Beach

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the A gaean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

– by Matthew Arnold
________________________________________________

If you’re looking for a great love poem to read to your Valentine today, go check out my sweet old etcetera, by ee cummings, or Tin Wedding Whistle, by Ogden Nash (a personal favorite), or Older Love, by Jim Harrison. This one probably won’t get you where you want to be.

Matthew Arnold may have been the most morose lover of all time. Scholars believe that he wrote this poem on his honeymoon – one pictures him wandering in after a walk on the beach, his new wife swept up in the romantic seaside, and he starts moaning about his loss of faith, his sadness and human misery. I bet he slept on the couch that night.

But, to give Mr. Arnold a more sympathetic ear, Dover Beach truly is a wonderful love poem. It’s not all hearts and flowers in the real world, and the poet shares the feeling that the world lies “before us like a land of dreams,/So various, so beautiful, so new”, but he knows that the world is really not as joyful as those in the throes of love may feel. He’s not blinded by his love, though he obviously feels those impulses.

“Ah, love, let us be true/to one another . . .” What a brilliant line break! Let us be true – Matthew Arnold cuts through the illusions and wants to share what he feels in complete honesty. He could have written a “roses are red” verse, but he insists on being true to his lover. He knows it’s a harsh world, and they will face pain and strife in their future, but he wants to go through it with his lover.

That’s pretty sweet, if you think about it.

Decorating with Books

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

Books have lost their prominent position in my life.

Books continue to fill shelves throughout my house, they crowd my nightstand, and a trip to the bookstore is an expensive outing, but the ones on the shelves are decorations, the ones on my nightstand are a 2 minute distraction before sleep, and my purchases are mere good intentions. I don’t read books anymore.

Of course, that is a bit of an exaggeration. I read the informative parts of cookbooks, and a new book on brewing will be devoured in days. I browse poetry books to give me something to write about on Sundays. But I cannot recall the last time I picked up a meaty work of fiction and read myself into a new world.

Last week, a younger friend told me she had finished reading “A Soldier of the Great War“, possibly my favorite novel. She loved it. I was flattered she had invested the time to read such a lengthy book on my recommendation, but, internally, it struck me that I had read the book more than a decade ago, and, if she were to ask me for a recommendation from the vast store of great books written in the past 5 years, I would be a dry well. I was a little jealous of the reading experience she had just been through. I don’t really read books anymore.

I read lots of other things, and a lot of it has real quality. Much of the blog world amounts to an elaborate melding of created personae, real world events and selected fiction. Real creativity can be found on the pages of Frighteningly Uncommon Sense, Observant Bystander, and most of the other blogs on the left side of this page. There’s a lot more going on than meets the eye.

But it’s not a substitute for really sinking into a great novel. I want to spend the time inside a character’s skin, and experience life in a way I haven’t yet imagined. I want to ride on a raft down the Mississippi; I want to be honestly human in World War II; I want to pursue Fermina until she deems me worthy.

Over the next several months, I may miss a few more blog posts, and I might fall behind on Facebook updates. I hope to be a bit more absent. I’ve got plenty of decorations to choose from in this house.

Sunday Poetry: At The Smithville Methodist Church, by Stephen Dunn

Sunday, February 7th, 2010

At The Smithville Methodist Church

It was supposed to be Arts & Crafts for a week,
but when she came home
with the “Jesus Saves” button, we knew what art
was up, what ancient craft.

She liked her little friends. She liked the songs
they sang when they weren’t
twisting and folding paper into dolls.
What could be so bad?

Jesus had been a good man, and putting faith
in good men was what
we had to do to stay this side of cynicism,
that other sadness.

OK, we said, One week. But when she came home
singing “Jesus loves me,
the Bible tells me so,” it was time to talk.
Could we say Jesus

doesn’t love you? Could I tell her the Bible
is a great book certain people use
to make you feel bad? We sent her back
without a word.

It had been so long since we believed, so long
since we needed Jesus
as our nemesis and friend, that we thought he was
sufficiently dead,

that our children would think of him like Lincoln
or Thomas Jefferson.
Soon it became clear to us: you can’t teach disbelief
to a child,

only wonderful stories, and we hadn’t a story
nearly as good.
On parents’ night there were the Arts & Crafts
all spread out

like appetizers. Then we took our seats
in the church
and the children sang a song about the Ark,
and Hallelujah

and one in which they had to jump up and down
for Jesus.
I can’t remember ever feeling so uncertain
about what’s comic, what’s serious.

Evolution is magical but devoid of heroes.
You can’t say to your child
“Evolution loves you.” The story stinks
of extinction and nothing

exciting happens for centuries. I didn’t have
a wonderful story for my child
and she was beaming. All the way home in the car
she sang the songs,

occasionally standing up for Jesus.
There was nothing to do
but drive, ride it out, sing along
in silence.

– by Stephen Dunn

____________________________________________

I had never noticed Stephen Dunn until a librarian friend recommended his work. I’ve now read a selection of his work, and he manages to make poetry out of ordinary life, without resorting to folksy wisdom or tying things up in a package.

I try, when I write about contemporary poets, to encourage you to purchase their books from independent booksellers, and you should certainly consider doing so if you want to swim a little deeper in Dunn’s works than you will find online. This time, though, in recognition of how I learned about this poet, I’ve ordered the books online through the library, and I will pick them up at my local branch in a few days, to enjoy for free.

Sunday Poetry: Birds on the Family Tree, by R. May Evans

Sunday, January 10th, 2010

Birds on the Family Tree

The women in my family are birds,
chirping crisply to communicate,
flitting here and there on a constant quest
for what catches only our shining eyes.

Ever alert, we may startle at any hint of danger
unless you mean to molest our nest – then we peck
with a fury that deters even the noblest birds of prey.

We grind down our problems to a palpable size,
worrying them in our stomach like stones.
(When we think no one’s watching,
you should hear the music we pour from our throats.)

– By R. May Evans
__________________________________________________

Imagery carries this poem, jumping from metaphor to simile and back, finally, to metaphor. The author, R. May Evans, is a local “artist, writer, activist, feminist, and all-round complex person with Asperger’s syndrome,” so it should come as no surprise that her poetry manages to be challenging yet seemingly naive, deeply personal yet approachable, and accessible but somehow distant.

In “Birds on the Family Tree”, Evans takes a fairly mundane image of ancestral women as birds and pushes it a little further. The first stanza presents introduces the central theme that the women in her family are bird-like, and communicate like birds on a tree. Nothing particularly novel about the presentation or the concept; women as birds is a common, almost universal image in literature and in common language (cute chicks, etc.).

In the second stanza, she introduces danger and strength. Easily startled suggests that they are nervous, while their willingness to take on birds of prey demonstrates that they have the courage to face the challenges of life, particularly when they threaten that which they hold dear. But why are the birds of prey, threatening nests, “noble”? Evans’ work choice indicates a distance from societal norms – the women in her family are willing to fiercely attack what the rest of society deems “noble”, as women throughout history have forced change.

The third stanza is particularly tricky. Her metaphor of women as birds encompasses a simile within it. They are birds, and their problems are “like” stones, grinding in a bird’s gizzard. The metaphor has achieved sufficient reality in the voice of the speaker that it is capable of including its own artifice.

The final two lines return to metaphor – the “music” should not be read to mean only literal music. But why is it only when they think others are not listening that they produce their “music”? The irony is that the poet is producing her own form of music, and publishing it for others to listen to. To be enjoyed, music and poetry must be heard.

You may purchase Truth, Love, Blood and Bones, the volume which includes this poem, from Qoop in either a saddle stitched hard copy for $17.38 or as an ebook to be downloaded in .pdf format for $7.00. It’s raw, emotional stuff – I probably chose the “safest” poem in the collection to write about. You should definitely venture into the world of R. May Evans if you care about helping young artists keep producing challenging work.

Sunday Poetry: Pioneers! O Pioneers!, by Walt Whitman

Sunday, December 13th, 2009

Pioneers! O Pioneers!

COME my tan-faced children,
Follow well in order, get your weapons ready,
Have you your pistols? have you your sharp-edged axes?
Pioneers! O pioneers!

For we cannot tarry here,
We must march my darlings, we must bear the brunt of danger,
We the youthful sinewy races, all the rest on us depend,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

O you youths, Western youths,
So impatient, full of action, full of manly pride and friendship,
Plain I see you Western youths, see you tramping with the foremost,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Have the elder races halted?
Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied over there beyond the seas?
We take up the task eternal, and the burden and the lesson,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

All the past we leave behind,
We debouch upon a newer mightier world, varied world,
Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the march,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

We detachments steady throwing,
Down the edges, through the passes, up the mountains steep,
Conquering, holding, daring, venturing as we go the unknown ways,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

We primeval forests felling,
We the rivers stemming, vexing we and piercing deep the mines within,
We the surface broad surveying, we the virgin soil upheaving,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Colorado men are we,
From the peaks gigantic, from the great sierras and the high plateaus,
From the mine and from the gully, from the hunting trail we come,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

From Nebraska, from Arkansas,
Central inland race are we, from Missouri, with the continental blood intervein’d,
All the hands of comrades clasping, all the Southern, all the Northern,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

O resistless restless race!
O beloved race in all! O my breast aches with tender love for all!
O I mourn and yet exult, I am rapt with love for all,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Raise the mighty mother mistress,
Waving high the delicate mistress, over all the starry mistress, (bend your heads all,)
Raise the fang’d and warlike mistress, stern, impassive, weapon’d mistress,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

See my children, resolute children,
By those swarms upon our rear we must never yield or falter,
Ages back in ghostly millions frowning there behind us urging,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

On and on the compact ranks,
With accessions ever waiting, with the places of the dead quickly fill’d,
Through the battle, through defeat, moving yet and never stopping,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

O to die advancing on!
Are there some of us to droop and die? has the hour come?
Then upon the march we fittest die, soon and sure the gap is fill’d.
Pioneers! O pioneers!

All the pulses of the world,
Falling in they beat for us, with the Western movement beat,
Holding single or together, steady moving to the front, all for us,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Life’s involv’d and varied pageants,
All the forms and shows, all the workmen at their work,
All the seamen and the landsmen, all the masters with their slaves,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

All the hapless silent lovers,
All the prisoners in the prisons, all the righteous and the wicked,
All the joyous, all the sorrowing, all the living, all the dying,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

I too with my soul and body,
We, a curious trio, picking, wandering on our way,
Through these shores amid the shadows, with the apparitions pressing,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Lo, the darting bowling orb!
Lo, the brother orbs around, all the clustering suns and planets,
All the dazzling days, all the mystic nights with dreams,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

These are of us, they are with us,
All for primal needed work, while the followers there in embryo wait behind,
We to-day’s procession heading, we the route for travel clearing,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

O you daughters of the West!
O you young and elder daughters! O you mothers and you wives!
Never must you be divided, in our ranks you move united,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Minstrels latent on the prairies!
(Shrouded bards of other lands, you may rest, you have done your work,)
Soon I hear you coming warbling, soon you rise and tramp amid us,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Not for delectations sweet,
Not the cushion and the slipper, not the peaceful and the studious,
Not the riches safe and palling, not for us the tame enjoyment,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Do the feasters gluttonous feast?
Do the corpulent sleepers sleep? have they lock’d and bolted doors?
Still be ours the diet hard, and the blanket on the ground,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Has the night descended?
Was the road of late so toilsome? did we stop discouraged nodding on our way?
Yet a passing hour I yield you in your tracks to pause oblivious,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Till with sound of trumpet,
Far, far off the daybreak call-hark! how loud and clear I hear it wind,
Swift! to the head of the army!-swift! spring to your places,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

- by Walt Whitman
___________________________________________

You’ve heard snippets of this poem, read by William Geer (Grandpa on The Waltons), on TV commercials selling Levi’s jeans. It’s brilliant, and I’m sure Whitman is smiling at the audacity.

Like most of Whitman’s poems, “Pioneers! O Pioneers” suffers horribly in dissection. There’s no point in discussing the rhythm or the rhyme; the rhythm is too natural, and there is no rhyme. Instead of those, we have straight passion – Whitman’s words are like bricks thrown at the glass building of complacency.

Whitman is more than rebellion – Whitman is purity of love and self. Whitman calls upon our better side – a celebration of our nation, not a competition of factions. He allows all their due – he mentions Missouri fondly, and describes enough of America to know he is singing of all America.

If you don’t have a copy of Leaves of Grass, the volume that Whitman published to the astonishment of all and the horror of some, go buy a copy; it is one of the basic texts of American literature.

Sunday Poetry: Epic, by Patrick Kavanagh

Sunday, October 11th, 2009

Epic

I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided, who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting “Damn your soul!”
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel -
“Here is the march along these iron stones.”
That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was more important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.

– by Patrick Kavanagh
______________________________________________________

How could a property dispute over a small bit of rocky soil compare to the Trojan War, or the gathering storm clouds of World War II? It is absurd to suggest such a thing, just as it is absurd to attach the grandiose title “Epic” to a 14 line sonnet. A shirtless man shouting at his neighbor on some insignificant plot in Ireland does not compare in any rational way to the clashing of god and city-states on the plains of Troy, nor the horror of World War II.

When I first read this poem, I accepted it at face value – the speaker is claiming that in some ways, the McCabe clan shouting at the Duffy clan is the literary equivalent of the Trojan War, and has greater import to local participants than wars across water. And, while the abduction of Helen is a greater event than a disagreement over land ownership, and Helen’s face is more likely to launch a thousand ships while McCabe’s stripped torso, a lengthy family feud could certainly provide the basis for great literature.

Now, I wonder whether Kavanagh was being more ironic than I thought. His “epic” is 14 lines – an unrhymed sonnet with roughed-up scansion. And the closing words – gods make their own importance. Are those Homer’s words, or are they the speaker’s? If Homer’s, are we to believe that McCabe is the equal to Apollo, who shot arrows at the Greeks from the walls of Troy? It’s difficult for a contemporary monotheist to accept that gods are active in the land dispute. Or are those words from the speaker, and Homer is a god for having taken a tribal dispute and crafting it into one of the most important works of literature.

Either way, it is a wonderful poem, and makes us ponder the important events that pass us by without heralding every day.

Happy Birthday, Libraries

Wednesday, July 1st, 2009

Ben Franklin started up the first lending library on this date back in 1731. The concept, initially based on subscriptions, caught on, and now we are blessed with an amazing network of knowledge that can bring all kinds of intellectual property to your door.

Most of us just use the library as a quiet place to go browse and pick up a book or CD that we don’t feel like purchasing. That’s a huge enough service, but if you look around even a typical branch, you’ll notice a lot more going on. Computers are waiting to help bridge the digital divide. Meeting rooms are hosting community organizations. Posters are advertising a series of free lectures on all kinds of topics. One local library is a nationally known center for genealogy. You can get audiobooks for your iPod. If you talk to a librarian, you’ll see that their profession is obsessed with coming up with new ways to help meet informational needs you never knew you had.

Have you ever tried inter-library loan? It’s incredible – if a book exists out there, but it’s too obscure to find a home in the local libraries, the library will hunt it down and get it to you, still for free. I recently wanted a couple books on a topic I was researching, and within a couple weeks, they were waiting for me at my neighborhood branch.

When I was a kid, I used to haunt the stacks at the Natural Bridge branch of the St. Louis County Library (which I learned moments ago has relocated). Throughout my life, libraries have always been a welcoming place to hang out, read, study, or just browse. We’re all fortunate that Benjamin Franklin, nearly 300 years ago, had a brainstorm about how he and a group of his friends could get access to the books they wanted to settle their arguments.