Sunday, June 15, 2014

My 2013-2014 Poetry Activity

It's been more than a year since I updated this blog, but believe it or not, I am still reading and thinking about poetry every day.  Here's what I have been reading in the last year or so:

It took me months and months, but I finally read every poem in the Faber Book of Children's Verse.  On the whole I would classify this anthology as "a stinker."  Any poems in here that I did enjoy (Lewis Carroll, etc.), I had already read in other collections.  The rest was hard to penetrate, either because it was referencing ancient British historical events which were very boring to this American reader, or because of the use of antiquated language (olde english? Gaelic?) that went over my head.

I'm not sure how an anthology with chapter headings such as "Kings, Queens and Heroes", "Magic", "Witches, Charms and Spells" and "Marvels and Riddles" could be so dull, but it was.  I feel sorry for any child who had this collection as their only introduction to poetry growing up.  Zzzzz.  I am not keeping this book!

The one exception was a great poem called "Etiquette" by Sir W.S. Gilbert (of Gilbert & Sullivan fame).  In the poem, two gentlemen are stranded on a desert island, but they have not been introduced, so they refuse to talk to each other.  A bit of digging revealed that Sir Gilbert has a book of verse called "The Bab Ballads" which sounds so up my alley that I just ordered a copy.  If the rest of that collection is as enjoyable as "Etiquette" than I believe my reading of The Faber Book of Children's Verse will not have been in vain.

Last May, Greg took Claire and I to the Goodwill "Bins" in Portland, OR.  Claire bought a stack of VHS tapes and I bought a few books, including The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson, which was going for $1.00 if I remember correctly.  

When Maurice Sendak died a few years ago, I remember reading a bunch of interviews with him, and in one he mentioned that he loved Emily Dickinson's work.  A few months ago I finally pulled this book out of my "READ ME" box and started reading a few of her poems each morning, before I write.

I would say about 1 in 50 really connects with me, and makes me actually feel something.  I suspect that ratio is more due to my own lack of sophistication and intelligence, rather than Ms. Dickinson's.  Anyway, I read her poetry on the toilet, so I'm pretty sure that's exactly how she wanted her work to be experienced.  :P

Three years after discovering his work, I still think that Ogden Nash is the greatest poet that ever lived.   I have dutifully been keeping an eye out for any of his collections at used book stores, flea markets, etc.  In the last year or so, I have come across three:

1) Bed Riddance: A Posy for the Indisposed with illustrations by Milton Glaser, published in 1969.  This is a collection of his poems all about health problems, going to the doctor, insomnia, etc. etc. etc.

AUGH, this book is so great it makes me want to tear my hair out!  Why doesn't stuff like this exist anymore???  You have a whole book of hilarious rhyming poetry, loaded with wit and wordplay.  Then you get Milton Glaser at the height of his Push-Pin fame to make wonderful, thoughtful illustrations which are interspersed every ten pages or so.  

And this wasn't some highfalutin, snobby poetry book.  It was meant for mass consumption.  You'd buy this book for your friend who was recuperating from surgery.  Something to lighten his mood.

It's so frustrating to me that poetry took the same path of "fine art" in the 1950s and became more abstract and inaccessible.  If you try to talk about poetry with most people now, in 2014, they're like "Poetry? Ugh!" because their only frame of reference is non-ryhming, formless dribble that is only decipherable by the poet who wrote it.  I read a Best American Poetry collection from within the last ten years, and if that's literally the best poetry has to offer these days, then I may just never read another poem written after 1971, the year Ogden Nash died.

2) Every One But Thee And Me with illustrations by John Alcorn, published in 1962.  These little books, with their charming illustrations awaken something deep inside me.  It's a feeling that says "This is exactly the kind of work I want to produce."  If I wasn't already 1400 pages down my cartooning path, I might seriously consider spending all of my creative time trying to master this art form.  I'm still working at it in my spare time (very... slowly...) but I am spending a lot of time these days thinking about ways to incorporate my love of (THIS) poetry into my comics work.  I need to believe that poetry could be made relevant and accessible to the general public again.  

Anyway, I'll get off my soap box, but Alcorn's illustrations are extremely charming and the poems couldn't be better.  My head spins when I start imagining a volume like this produced today.  There are so many great illustrators I would love to see approach work like this.  If only there were more top-notch poets!

3) Ogden Nash's Zoo with illustrations by Etienne Delessert, published in 1986.  This one is inferior, mostly because of Delessert's illustrations which feel much too stiff and serious for such light whimsical verse.  I still bought it just so I could have all of Nash's animal poems under one spine, but it's almost painful to read with these illustrations.

The shark poem on the right reads:
How many Scientists have written
The shark is gentle as a kitten?
Yet this I know about the shark:
His bite is worser than his bark.
Really???  That's the illustration you'd draw for that poem???  Or the illustrator you'd hire???  Ugh.

Anyway, as I have pointed out on this blog, I knew absolutely nothing whatsoever about poetry when I started reading and writing it in 2008.  (Which is another thing: why don't schools teach poetry any more???)  I am having a lot of fun exploring this uncharted creative territory and each time I find a new poet whose work I admire, it feels like discovering buried treasure.  Onwards!