BOOK REVIEW: Poems to See By ed. by Julian Peters

Poems to See by: A Comic Artist Interprets Great PoetryPoems to See by: A Comic Artist Interprets Great Poetry by Julian Peters
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Available March 31, 2020

Amazon page

This anthology of twenty-four classic poems is set apart by the artwork used to convey the illustrator / anthologist’s view of each poem. The poets are all virtuosos, including: Dickinson, Angelou, Cummings, Langston Hughes, Auden, Seamus Heaney, Wordsworth, Shelley, Yeats, Poe, and Eliot. The poems are sometimes, but not always, among the most anthologized of the respective poet’s work. I would say that most poetry readers will probably find something that they haven’t read, but – even if not – it’s worth re-reading them as you enjoy the artwork.

The illustrator, Julian Peters, makes a bold decision to use the widest variety of artistic styles in an attempt to more aptly capture the tone of each poem. I recently reviewed a similar book, Chris Riddell’s “Poems to Live Your Life By,” and that book used a consistent style through out (which isn’t to say that tone and reality / surrealism didn’t change.) I’m not an artist, and don’t really have a vocabulary to describe the various artistic styles employed, but will attempt to give one some insight. There is the obvious shift between monochrome and color strips, but even within each of those categories there is great variation. Some monochrome strips were mostly gray, while others were exclusively black-and-white. Color works ranged from shocking dayglo to subdued pastels to dominant single color (e.g. blue) pics. Various poems were represented by a modern comic book style art, an old fashion comic strip approach, those which looked like paintings, those that were highly realistic, those that were surreal, those that were retro-chic, and even one [for Maya Angelou’s “Caged Bird”] that was in a quilt-like style.

I enjoyed this work tremendously. Most of the poems were short works, single pagers, and the fact that I’d read possibly all of them before wasn’t a problem because these are the kind of poems that should be revisited. Only the postscript poem, Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was of substantial length.

I’d highly recommend this book for poetry readers, particularly those interested in are of imagery and how it’s conveyed and perceived.

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BOOK REVIEW: Poems to Live Your Life By selected & illustrated by Chris Riddell

Poems to Live Your Life ByPoems to Live Your Life By by Chris Riddell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This is an anthology of forty-eight poems arranged into eight life-related topical areas. The connective theme is poems that the editor, Chris Riddell, found to contain valuable life lessons. The span runs from Rumi to poets of the present day. It’s a nice selection in that it includes not only old and new (thus varied styles of verse,) but also greater and lesser known poems and poets. [That’s not to say that any of the poets are unknowns, but some of the oldies are remembered through the ages more than others, and some of the newer individuals are better known for other activities – e.g. Neil Gaiman (novelist / storyteller,) Leonard Cohen (recording artist,) and Riddell, himself (graphic artist.)] There are several much anthologized inclusions that almost any poetry reader will have read, including: Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18” and the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy from Hamlet, Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” and Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night.” However, there are many lesser known gems as well, many by masters of poetry such as Seamus Heaney, Christina Rossetti, and Philip Larkin.

The eight topical areas are: Musings, Youth, Family, Love, Imaginings, Nature, War, and Endings. Most of the sections contain five or six poems, though — tellingly — Love contains the most at twelve and War the least at three.

While Riddell not only selected the poems and include a couple of his own, he also illustrates the book. There are beautiful line drawings throughout that offer insight into Riddell’s interpretation of each poem.

I enjoyed this anthology. As I said, it’s a beautiful selection of poems, and the artwork is skillfully done as well. I’d highly recommend this book for poetry readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: Modern British Poetry ed. by Louis Untermeyer

Modern British PoetryModern British Poetry by Louis Untermeyer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page (not the same edition)

 

This is an anthology of 183 poems written by 77 British authors. Given the title, “Modern British Poetry,” the first thing that should be stated is that the original work came out around 1920, and so the bulk of these poems are from the 19th century. That may fit perfectly with your classification of modern poetry, but if you’re looking for present-day poets, this isn’t the book you’re after.

However, the good news is that you might still find some unexpected treasures. Often collections of public domain poetry like this gather poems that are ubiquitous and which are probably already on the shelves of most poetry readers in various collections and anthologies. But of the almost 80 poets included, only a handful will be household names for a general reader—particularly if you aren’t from the UK and thus didn’t get exposed to the more obscure British poets. Of course, there are a number who have stood the test of time: Thomas Hardy, Robert Louis Stevenson, Oscar Wilde, A.E. Housman, William Butler Yeats, Rudyard Kipling, G.K. Chesterton, Alfred Noyes, D.H. Lawrence, Edith Sitwell, and Robert Graves spring to mind. Furthermore, the poems chosen aren’t a straightforward “greatest hits” list. (e.g. “If” isn’t among the four Rudyard Kipling entries.)

As one might expect of a 230 page anthology that contains 183 poems (plus author bios and the occasional footnote), the poems selected are brief. In a few cases, excerpts from longer works are included, but for the most part these are poems that fit comfortably on a single page. This is great for someone trying to get a feel for the various poets and for those who enjoy more compact works over epic poems—which, if we’re being honest, is most of us.

The anthologist, Louis Untermeyer, includes brief bios for each of the poets in front of their entries in the anthology. Generally, each included poet has between one and four poems. While the poems are organized by poet, the poets seem to be organized chronologically (at least as near as I can tell; it begins with Thomas Hardy [1840 – 1928] and ends with Robert Graves [1895 – 1985.])

I read a Kindle version of this work and found it to be far better organized than most of these public domain compilations. It not only had an index that would take one to individual poems or poet bios, but it also contained a hyperlinked index. Unfortunately, I obtained the book some time ago and I couldn’t find the same edition when I looked for it while doing the review. Most of the Kindle editions now seem to bundle Untermeyer’s “Modern American Poetry” with his “Modern British Poetry” but the edition I had was just the British poets.

I recommend this book for poetry readers. In addition to having some exemplary short form poetry from both well-known and forgotten poets, it happens to contain the first poem I ever memorized in it—a powerful little poem by John McCrae entitled “In Flanders Fields” (if you don’t know it, read it; it’s war poetry at its finest.)

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BOOK REVIEW: Futureland by Walter Mosley

FuturelandFutureland by Walter Mosley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

As suggested by the subtitle, this is a collection of nine short stories about a dystopian world. What makes it a particularly intriguing read is that the stories take place in one world, and the events all exist within a greater context that could qualify the book as a loosely plotted novel had the writer not defined it as a story collection.

Some characters recur in different stories. For the most part the recurring characters are cameo appearances (e.g. Folio Johnson, a detective and the lead in one story, commiserates at a bar in another). However, the character of Ptolemy “Popo” Bent is a critical character in both the first and penultimate chapters.

Race and politics aren’t subtle in this book. Given the [sad] proclivity of American readers to only read / enjoy politically charged works with which they agree (unless the book in question is making fun of the opposition), it’s safe to say that—on the whole–those at the left-end of the political spectrum will find this book more palatable and on-point and those to the right-end will find it unbelievable and overbearing in its message.

Having said that, I’m of the persuasion that finds Mosley’s dystopian vision strains credulity, and yet I thoroughly enjoyed this collection of stories. This book’s dystopia is characterized by global domination by a corporation and a religion called the “Infochurch,” both led by the same man. The corporate control of the world storyline is a little hard to swallow. A monopoly can’t enslave people (or even enforce its monopoly status) unless it has a monopoly on force, and it’s hard to imagine a path by which a private business gets the people to give them a monopoly on force. That being said, Mosley’s stories are engrossing, creative, and readable.

The nine stories are as follows:

1.) Whispers in the Dark (6 Chapters): A man makes the ultimate sacrifice to help nurture a brilliant child’s special gift.

2.) The Greatest (9 Chapters): A female boxer becomes the world champion while seeking to help her father, whose addition to a drug called Pulse has left him in dire health. (The father’s story, Voices, appears later in the collection.)

3.) Dr. Kismet (4 Chapters): The man who is, for all intents and purposes, Emperor of the World tries to co-opt the co-chair of the 6th Radical Congress—a leading member of his opposition.

4.) Angel’s Island (5 Chapters): A hacker, sent to prison for Antisocial Behavior, has a device called a snake-pack installed that can control him by administration of drugs and shocks. But the ultimate hacker might not be the most easily controlled using technology.

5.) Electric Eye (4 Chapters): Folio Johnson, a private eye with an electronic eye, is hired to find out why young International Socialists are dropping dead left and right. Johnson learns that any hardware, even his eye, can be hacked.

6.) Voices (8 Chapters): Professor Jones, father of the female boxer from The Greatest, undergoes a transplant of neural matter to repair damage from his Pulse addition. After having dreams and memories that are not his own, Jones discovers that his treatment is not all that it seemed.

7.) Little Brother (3 Chapters): Frendon Blythe is on trial before a computer that acts as both judge and prosecutor. He pleads his own case, and finds he was a pawn.

8.) En Masse (12 Chapters): A worker gets sent to a new division only to find that it’s nothing like his previous divisions. Instead of strict rules, GEE-PRO-9 has no rules. He wonders if it might be a test by the management. It turns out that it is a test–just not of the type he imagined.

9.) The Nig in Me (6 Chapters): After a plot to destroy certain races backfires, a surviving man finds himself missing those with whom he was closest.

There’re no stinkers among these stories. They are all intriguing and readable, but a few of them stood out as being particularly good. These were: Whispers in the Dark, Angel’s Island, Voices, and En Masse.

I’d recommend this for readers of soft science fiction.

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BOOK REVIEW: Rashōmon and Other Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

Rashomon and Other Stories (Tuttle Classics)Rashomon and Other Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Six stories make up this brief collection. All six are intriguing, well-written, and shine a light onto the dark side of mankind. The works of Akutagawa collected herein are all morality tales, but aren’t written in a moralistic tone. In fact, it’s not clear that the author wishes to convey lessons on virtue and vice as he’s intrigued with the instant at which an ordinary person turns bad. That instant, and the inflamed passions that often inspire it, is a prevailing theme throughout most of this small anthology. Akutagawa beats AMC by the better part of a century in showing us how bad breaks.

The first story is entitled In a Grove. This is a murder mystery in which we are given conflicting accounts of a man’s murder through the process of the investigation of the act. The final account that we are offered is that of the victim himself–as presented by a psychic medium. [Only two of these stories contain supernatural elements–this one and the last. Most of the collection involves realist premises. One must remember that Akutagawa was writing in the early part of the 20th century, and scientific rationality hadn’t yet gotten as strong a hold as it does today.] In this case, the use of a psychic is really just a plot device to give the reader insight into a truth which couldn’t otherwise be revealed. Having heard the perspectives of the murder and the dead man’s wife, one is left with questions owing to the self-serving nature of those statements. Of course, the final section reveals a twist–that I won’t spoil.

The second story is the title story, Rashōmon. The title is the name of a gate in Kyōto, the largest gate of Kyōto, in fact. However, Kyōto has fallen on hard times, and our protagonist is a newly masterless samurai who has sought the gate’s shelter from the rain. There, he contemplates whether he should take up a life of crime, which seems to be his only means of survival in the current economy given his skill set. The gate has become a repository for the corpses that are amassing as victims of the hard times accumulate. Within the gate, he finds an old hag who loots bodies for a living. His interaction with the old woman helps him to decide his own destiny.

The third story is called Yam Gruel. While “yam gruel” (or anything with the word gruel in it) might not sound appealing given today’s usage, a fact one must know is that during the time of the story it was a highly-prized and rare dish. The story follows a milquetoast administrator who leads a rather pathetic life in which he has but one ambition, to eat his fill of yam gruel. As a member of the samurai class, he’s invited to an Imperial banquet each year. However, because of his low status and the high-value of yam gruel, he never gets more than a taste. One year he openly bemoans the fact that he never gets his fill. A powerful samurai overhears this complaint, and it puts a seed of mischief in his mind. While this tale isn’t about breaking bad, it is about inflamed passions.

The fourth story sticks out as different from the others. While the bulk of the stories center on that moment at which a more-or-less good person goes bad, The Martyr tells us about a protagonist that never goes bad, despite having every right to. This might seem like a sea change in theme, but in reality it’s just another way of shining a light on the dark seed that resides in people. Only this time it does it by way of contrast. All of the other characters are deeply flawed, and we see that most vividly when contrasted against the one who always behaves virtuously. In this case, that virtuous character is Lorenzo, a novice monk who is accused of a severe breach of good conduct. Lorenzo becomes an outcast and a vagrant due to these allegations. Yet, despite all this, he acts heroically–even to assist those who’ve betrayed him.

In the fifth story we revisit the theme of breaking bad. In Kesa and Morito we are presented with two regret-filled accounts of the instant at which an adulterous couple decides to kill the husband of the woman involved in the affair. Each member of the cheating couple thinks that the other desperately wants the killing to go forward. In reality, both consider it a foolish decision driven by a brief moment of passion. This is another tale about letting one’s passions get out of control.

The final work is a retelling of the story of a monk named Hanazō who decides to prank his fellow monks because they chide him about his huge nose. Hanazō sets up a sign that says a dragon will appear from the local lake at a certain time and day to fly up into the heavens. The joke doesn’t turn out at all as the monk intended. I won’t go into the moral of the story to avoid giving too much away, but suffice it to say there is a moral.

I highly recommend this collection. As I’ve suggested, the collection isn’t just a disparate collection of tales, but has an integrating theme. Akutagawa was truly one of the masters of the short story. He wrote 150 stories before dying at the age of 35 in a suicidal drug overdose.

For those who like to see how literature is portrayed in, below one can watch the film version of Rashōmon.

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BOOK REVIEW: 101 Great American Poems ed. The American Poetry and Literacy Project

101 Great American Poems101 Great American Poems by The American Poetry and Literacy Project

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

This is a collection of 101 poems by 39 different American poets. It begins with a poem by Anne Bradstreet in the 17th century and proceeds through to a work by W.H. Auden of the 20th century. In between are many poets that one would expect, such as Poe, Whitman, Dickinson, Sandburg, and Cummings. There are others that might be unexpected such as Abraham Lincoln, Herman Melville, and Stephen Crane. While the poems aren’t all jingoistic in nature, there is a recurring theme of celebration of America.

Most of the poems in this tiny anthology will be familiar to poetry readers. This is a $1 Kindle e-book of a Dover Thrift Edition, and so one won’t find living poets represented, or poems that tap into the zeitgeist du jour— at the risk of mixing loan words. However, most of these poems deserve to be read and reread.

A few of my favorites are below with title, author, and a fragment.

The Builders by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Nothing useless is, or low;
Each thing in its place is best;
And what seems but idle show
Strengthens and supports the rest.

The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,

O Captain! My Captain! by Walt Whitman
O Captain! my captain! our fearful trip is done,
the ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,

I’m nobody! Who are you? by Emily Dickenson
I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us–don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know

The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus
“Give my your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,…

Solitude by Ella Wheeler Wilcox
Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone

War is Kind by Stephen Crane
Do no weep, maiden, for war is kind

Sence You Wend Away by James Weldon Johnson
Seems lak to me de stars don’t shine so bright,

Sympathy by Paul Laurence Dunbar
I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;

Fire and Ice by Robert Frost
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire

The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Chicago by Carl Sandburg
They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.

Fog by Carl Sandburg
The fog comes
on little cat feet.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird by Wallace Stevens
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird;

The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams
so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

The Love Songs of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,

First Fig by Edna St. Vincent Millay
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends–
it gives a lovely light.

Ars Poetica by Archibald Macleish
A poem should not mean
But be

I, Too by Langston Hughes
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,

Little Old Letter by Langston Hughes
You don’t need no gun nor knife–
A little old letter
Can take a person’s life.

Nothing struck me as conspicuously absent from this collection, but I’d be curious what poems people feel should (or shouldn’t) be in such a collection.

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