Wednesday, April 30, 2008

"Deep Sorriness Atonement Song" by Glyn Maxwell

As my final poetry post for April, here is Glyn Maxwell's "Deep Sorriness Atonement Song." For anyone who has ever screwed up, this is the perfect poem to send to the person your slighted (perhaps with a gift, depending on the severity of the mistake). In it, Maxwell apologizes for missing an appointment by listing a number of historic mistakes and misjudgments but always concluding the stanza with the assertion that he is sorrier than any of those other people who messed up.

What makes "Deep Sorriness Atonement Song" particularly delightful is that it contains a number of references, which range from the obvious (Adolf Hitler, Napoleon) to the more obscure. Although a number of these are a little hard to figure out, this site includes a discussion board where people can post their interpretations and pieces of trivia to help you fill in the blanks. All in all, while this poem may not completely work if you send it to someone who isn't a poetry fan or does not have at least a passing knowledge of history and literature, it could come in handy in certain situations. At the very least, it might elicit a chuckle or distract the person you give it to as he or she goes on a mad Wikipedia/ Google hunt to figure out some of the odder references.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

"Managing the Common Herd" by Julia O'Callaghan

I will be the first to admit that I have some anger management issues. Although I try to keep my rage bottled up inside, sometimes it comes pouring out. It is during those times that Julie O'Callaghan's "Managing the Common Herd: Two Approaches for Senior Management" comes in very handy. It offers two ways of dealing with employees: the iron-fist approach, which involves stern discipline, and the more humane approach, which calls for a more interpersonal means of workplace negotiation.

While the poem is about dealing with employees, its ideas can apply to a multitude of situations. For instance, thinking about this poem definitely helps when working with students. It is very easy to have a jaded outlook on today's youth and to believe that "people are naturally lazy... These people need punishment." However, as the second part of the poem suggests, giving encouragement and showing people that they are valued are incredibly important and will yield more results than mere tyranny.

When a student is running late to class or asks for an extension for a paper, I am sometimes tempted to go with "Theory X." Part of my brain tells me that I should do my best Incredible Hulk impression or use my "don't screw with me or I'll cut you look" (I've been told that it is scary to be on the receiving end of that). However, nine times out of ten, I'll usually take a breath and attempt to figure out what, if anything, is going on in this student's life. While my bs detector sometimes fails me, I would much rather err on the side of being too nice once in a while than going completely ballistic with students. After all, "they're human too."

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Spring Reading

Although the semester is starting to come to a close, I have an absurd amount of reading and research to do for school. Even after I am done grading papers and finals, I should (at least in theory) work on reading books for my dissertation. However, I've also noticed an influx of books that I really want to read for fun, so my dissertation work may just have to share time with some light reading.

The first one that I am excited about is Touch Me, I'm Sick: The 52 Creepiest Love Songs You've Ever Heard by Tom Reynolds. As a fan of Reynolds's first book about bad songs (I Hate Myself and Want to Die), I am looking forward to reading this one. Since it just came out, it is currently on my nightstand, and I have started reading it. So far, I've read about songs like "Every Breath You Take" by the Police and "Invisible" by Clay Aiken (both of which are in the "stalker song" category). While it isn't as great as Reynolds's first book, I'm hoping that it picks up in the second section. I will try to post a review in the next week or so.

Also on my "To Be Read" pile is a book I just bought today called Secret Lives of Great Authors. As the title suggests, this book is about little-known. facts of classic authors such as the Brontes, Walt Whitman, and Richard Wright. The English teacher in me is looking forward to reading this book. Even though I probably wouldn't want to share some of these facts with high school students, it is nice to have the option. I haven't started it yet, but the fact that the cover says "Lord Byron: Real-Life Don Juan or Man-Slut?" pretty much guarantees that it will be an interesting read. I know that I shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but come on - that's a pretty cool cover (and the term "man-slut" amuses more than I can say).

Finally, I am eagerly awaiting David Sedaris's fantastically titled When You're Engulfed in Flames. Although I don't love every single essay Sedaris has ever done, I do like the majority of them. His "SantaLand Diaries" got me through many a Christmas when I worked various retail jobs during the holidays (the worst was when I sold makeup at the mall). Also, the theatre nerd in me adores "Front Row Center with Thaddeus Bristol," which offers some very harsh (but funny) critiques of Christmas plays presented by fictional schools. All in all, I hope that When You're Engulfed in Flames is as great as the title suggests. An added bonus for this book is that the cover will probably dissuade people from bothering me on the subway.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

“Worship” by Bill Brown

Before I begin discussing this poem, I must admit some bias. Bill Brown was my professor and is probably one of the most influential teachers I have had. In fact, probably part of the reason I write this blog (in addition to the inherent human need to write) is due to my reintroduction to the joys of writing I had from working with him. That said, he’s also an excellent poet, as evidenced by “Worship.”

“Worship” is one of my favorite free verse poems. It makes great use of diction and poetic elements (such as repetition and alliteration), but that isn’t the basis of its appeal. What I particularly like is how it discusses the possibility of going back to simplicity and a sense of idealism after years of cynicism (which gives this pessimist some hope). Although I can’t imagine living without my laptop, it is a nice thought that I can someday kick my intense internet and email addiction and embrace an uncomplicated existence.

Besides calling back a simpler, less complicated time, this poem addresses the rituals we do out of “simple human need,” which makes quite a bit a sense when you stop and think about it. How often do we do things because we get some sort of comfort from them? However, the poem isn’t simply talking about the little pleasures of life; instead, it also addresses the importance of “needful work,” an appealing idea if there ever was one. Rather than worrying about all of the things society tells us we should be doing, “Worship” reminds us to focus on the things that are essential for body and spirit.

Prof. Brown’s latest collection of poems is Late Winter.

Monday, April 21, 2008

"The Concord Hymn" by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Although living in Boston has some downsides, particularly for a person who does not like sports, one of the great benefits is the variety of events this place has to offer. Today is Patriots' Day, a holiday exclusive to Massachusetts and Maine. It apparently has to do with "the shot heard round the world" and the start of the American Revolution. If you've never heard of it, don't feel bad - I had no idea it existed until I moved to Boston.

In honor of Patriots' Day, I thought it might be nice to examine Emerson's "Concord Hymn," a poem he wrote for the dedication of the monument that commemorates the start of the American Revolution. Although Emerson is known for Transcendentalist philosophy and essays such as "Self-Reliance," he was also quite the poet.

"Concord Hymn" by Ralph Waldo Emerson

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag in April's breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

The foe long since in silence slept;
Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.

On this green bank, by this soft stream,
We set to-day a votive stone;
That memory may their deed redeem,
When, like our sires, our sons are gone.

Spirit that made those heroes dare
To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
The shaft we raise to them and thee.

In addition to writing poetry, Emerson made significant contributions to defining American poetry in general. Rather than focusing on the heroic deeds of the past and mimicking European poetry styles, Emerson wanted American poetry to write about the ordinary and use new, inventive styles. Unsurprisingly, he was also one of the first champions of Walt Whitman.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Book Recommendation: Then She Found Me

When I worked at the bookstore, one of my “Staff Recommendations” was Elinor Lipman’s novel Then She Found Me. As far as I know, no one bought the book, which is a shame because it is very good.

It is the story of April Epner, the adopted daughter of two Holocaust survivors whose ordinary life as a high school Latin teacher is interrupted by Bernice Graves, her birth mother. Bernice, who was a teenager when she gave April up for adoption, wants to establish a connection with her daughter but initially seems to lack the finesse and maturity necessary for a real relationship. Between telling April that her birth father is John F. Kennedy and attempting to set April up on blind dates, Bernice’s disruptive presence does not fit into April’s orderly existence. However, the two of them try to forge some sort of understanding.

Although the plot seems simple, Lipman’s handling of it is surprisingly deft. She ably weaves in the complications of being the child of Holocaust survivors without getting mired down in gravitas. Even though the story is from April’s perspective, Lipman is able to evoke sympathy for Bernice, no small feat considering Bernice’s penchant for lying and her sometimes selfish behavior. Finally, while she manages to incorporate a love interest for April, she never forgets that the story is, at its heart, about the relationship between a mother and daughter.

All in all, Then She Found Me is a good read that also invites reflection about relationships in general and parent-child relationships in particular. Despite its Lifetime "movie of the week" vibe, Lipman manages to balance the characters' angst and frustration with wit and humor and prevents the story from veering off into becoming too maudlin or sentimental.

By the way, the story was apparently made into a movie, starring Bette Middler, Colin Firth, and Helen Hunt, and the book was reissued with the cover shown. I haven't seen the movie, but judging from the trailer, I do know that they made some considerable changes to the plot (I'm more than a little horrified).

Thursday, April 17, 2008

"if everything happens that can't be done"

Although there are definite downsides to being a graduate student (lots of academic writing, a steady stream of criticism, and little money), one of the great things is being able to attend various lectures in academia. Today, rather than grade all of my undergraduate students' papers, I decided to attend a lecture given by Robert Pinsky, the former poet laureate of the United States and the founder of the Favorite Poem Project.

After the lecture, I started thinking about my favorite poems and poets. They change according to mood, and they range from Walt Whitman's "O Captain! My Captain!" (despite knowing that the movie is cloying and manipulative, my cynical heart is a sucker for this scene from Dead Poets Society) to Langston Hughes's "I, Too, Sing America" to Dorothy Parker's "Resume." However, perhaps my favorite poem of all time, and one that I consistently enjoy, is e. e. cummings's "if everything happens that can't be done."

cummings's was an interesting and eclectic poet, writer, and artist. Although some scholars criticize him for never transcending his gimmicky use of capitalization, he is actually much more complex than many people realize. His life saw a considerable amount of tragedy, yet he was able to write some incredible love poems (one of my favorite English teachers once commented that cummings is one of greatest [and most underestimated] love poets of all time).

"if everything happens that can't be done" is a return to the Romantic idea of feeling and emotion over books and facts. It is a poem that focuses on the sheer exhilaration of being in love, and it is undeniably giddier than Cope's "The Orange." Even though it acknowledges that love can be a "high that does nothing but fall," it still makes love sound inviting.

In addition to cummings's considerable prowess as a love poet, he also has some very trenchant satiric and political poems. "i sing of olaf glad and big" is one of his most provocative pieces. Although part of me really wanted to teach it when I was teaching high school English, I figured that discretion might be the better part of valor (read it and find out why I always talked myself out of teaching it).

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Hopeful (and Deranged) World of Spam Email

Recently, I’ve had an influx of Spam with my email. Although my account dutifully (and pretty accurately) separates the Spam from my actual email, I am still amazed when I see dozens upon dozens of offers for gift cards and satellite dishes when I open my email each morning. On one hand, it is very annoying; the fact that I received over 100 Spam emails over the course of a few hours shows how out of control it is. However, I also can’t help but be amused by the world as presented in Spam.

This is a world for the unabashedly hopeful (or the abjectly stupid). Money in the form of retail gift cards, unsecured loans, and unclaimed tax returns is plentiful. According to Spam, the bald can grow hair, the pudgy can lose weight, and the horribly depressed and under medicated masses can easily get discounted mood enhancers. Scholarships and federal grants are just waiting to be claimed, and a new and rewarding job in message therapy or medical transcription is just around the corner. Lately, Spam has also started advertising websites where singles can meet other single people. Who knew that so many young, attractive singles were just waiting for me to click on a link and make their dreams come true?

What is really frightening about Spam is that, viewed from a certain perspective, it represents a gross parody of the American Dream. With absolutely no effort, it is possible to get money, a career, a relationship, or some sort of surgical enhancement in order to make life perfect, at least until the next problem comes along. Yet, while I have never had the desire to send money to a displaced Nigerian exile, Spam (when not taken seriously or opened) can be a source of great entertainment.

Saturday, April 12, 2008


As of right now (10:52 am), I have entered 236 books into my library at LibraryThing. I've worked on this project for the past two days, and it has led me to some disconcerting realizations:

1. I have a freakishly large number of Cliffs Notes/ Monarch Notes/ Spark Notes. I don't recall buying most of them, and some of these books are not even for classics I had to read for school. I'm starting to think that these books multiply (like bunnies) when I'm not at home.

2. I seriously need to read more fiction. Out of the books I've entered, only 25 of them are fictional. What's more, most of these 25 are either classics or are children's literature/ young adult literature I'm reading for school.

3. Due to my rather eclectic collection of books, the recommendations I get from LibraryThing are not always the most helpful (or accurate). For instance, LibraryThing has recommended that I read more Cliffs Notes. I know that this isn't LibraryThing's fault - it only knows that I tell it. However, this makes me think I should expand my horizons. (My BookMooch recommendations are similarly screwy - since I mooched a Gossip Girl book [it was for a research project - stop making fun of me!], it now suggests that I need every Gossip Girl book ever published).

I'm not done entering books, so it is possible (if not probable) that my reading situation will not be so bleak after all. Unfortunately, I think I have another stash of Cliffs Notes to enter.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

LibraryThing: My Newest Web Obsession

Lately, because of school and the upcoming dissertation, I've been acquiring books at an alarming rate. Since I have books all over my apartment, I have been trying to figure out a way of categorize them so that I can find the ones I need when I need them. As I was online this evening, I stumbled across a link to LibraryThing, a (sort of) free site that lets you create a profile, enter books, and categorize them using tags. It allows you to enter up to 200 books for free, and then, for a fairly reasonable price ($10 per year or $25 for a lifetime membership). Although this is not going to be particularly quick (due to the number of books I have), it is a nice way of being able to organize my books. Best of all, I can make notes and tags, which will help me (in theory) when I'm doing my research. I know that this doesn't really solve my physical organization problem, but it is a start. I also keep telling myself that I will rearrange my bookcases when school gets out, but let's not kid ourselves...

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

"The World is a Beautiful Place" by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Now that I have two happy, inspirational, and/ or romantic poems out of the way, here is another to help balance the sweetness and light. Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “The World is a Beautiful Place” is perhaps one of the most honest poems I have ever encountered. Ferlinghetti, who co-founded the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, points out something that most people never think about: even when things are going perfectly well for one person, someone else is undoubtedly suffering. It also underscores the idea of things can change (usually for the worse) in an instant.

What is particularly striking is Ferlinghetti’s juxtaposition of images. The ending litany of all the things that the world is the best place for almost makes you forget about the poem’s darker undertones. Reading the poem out loud, the rhythm and cadence changes and becomes more melodic, at least until “the smiling mortician” comes in at the very end.

So what do you think? Is it horribly pessimistic? Is it a realistic depiction of life? Should we just take a Prozac and get over it?

ETA (on September 11, 2008): I decided to revisit the poem in a new post.

ETA (on March 21, 2009): I posted another short discussion on this poem in conjunction to Browning's "Pippa Passes."

Monday, April 7, 2008

Longfellow's "A Psalm of Life"

It never ceases to surprise me how one little thing can completely set the tone for the rest of the day. In addition to the fact that Opening Day is tomorrow at Fenway, which makes the T an even more trying experience than usual, April just seems to be a bad month for people. I have several colleagues at school who are having an unusually bad day, so I figured that a little moral sustenance (in poetry form) might be in order.

Today's poem is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "A Psalm of Life." Although many in academia now scorn Longfellow's poetry as being too didactic, precise, and artificial, he was considered quite a celebrity in his time. The founding member of the Fireside Poets, his work was very popular in the United States. He was also the first American poet to have the distinction of being buried in Poet's Corner in London's Westminster's Abbey.

When I was in high school, this was one of my favorite poems. In college, I had a professor who made fun of Longfellow on a regular basis (I still can't read the first few lines of "The Song of Hiawatha" without laughing); I also became considerably more cynical. As a result, I distanced myself from all things Longfellow. Although I haven't completely reacquainted myself with all of his works, I still find myself drawn to "A Psalm of Life." It is still one of the best poems to help makes things look a little brighter during times of spiritual or mental exhaustion.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Quick Recommendation: The McSweeney's Joke Book of Book Jokes

Yesterday, I stumbled upon The McSweeney's Joke Book of Book Jokes at the bookstore. Although I tend to be leery of joke books (bad memories from 3rd and 4th grades), I usually enjoy reading the posts at McSweeney's Internet Tendency, and $12.95 later, I was reading this book on the subway and quickly discovering that this was not a book filled with knock-knock jokes or really bad puns. Instead, it is a book of humorous retellings and reimaginings of literary works. For instance, it includes a stump speech by presidential candidate Jane Eyre. It also has a fabulous confrontation between Dateline: To Catch a Predator's Chris Hansen and Humbert Humbert, the main character from Lolita.

In other words, this is a joke book for the literary set. However, despite the writers' unending fascination with James Joyce, not all of the scenarios involve classical books. One of my favorite essays is entitled "Winnie-the-Pooh is My Coworker" (click on the title to read it at the McSweeney's site). The writers also use other childhood books such as Charlotte's Web, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (written from Jenna Bush's perspective), and the Hardy Boys series.

Although the essays are sometimes inconsistent in quality, this book provided a pleasant diversion and has the added bonus of making you use that knowledge you learned in English class. Go forth, read, and enjoy "Lady Macbeth on Ambien."

Friday, April 4, 2008

"The Orange"

The poem for this week is “The Orange” by Wendy Cope. To read the poem, go here.

Have you read it? Good. Just be warned – I had students who hated this poem. The main question that came up was: “What does an orange have to do with anything?” These students, who were in high school, had a rather extravagant view of love. Raised on a steady diet of The O.C. and romantic comedies, they believed that romance meant slow motion montages and meet-cutes. The poor orange just could not compete.

However, I still have a soft spot for Cope’s “The Orange.” Not everyone can jet off to Paris to meet under the Eiffel Tower or kiss on top of a Ferris wheel in the middle of a carnival. Furthermore, even if people could do these things, romantic escapades are not usually indicative of true love. It is easy to get swept away in the moment when flying first class to a weekend rendezvous. It is harder to uphold this illusion when going to work on Monday morning.

This leads us to “The Orange.” It is about love and romance and how they can make even the simplest of things more enjoyable. The speaker even notes that she (or he) finds happiness in ordinary things, such as walking in the park. Consequently, even the most commonplace objects, like an enormous orange, take on a new quality. The part of the poem that completely wins me over is the ending – a simple “I love you. I’m glad I exist.” It isn’t an overly elaborate declaration, but sometimes simple is indeed better. I would much rather hear this than “You had me from ‘hello’” or (shudder) "Jack, this is where we first met!"

Have you got a favorite poem to share? Please feel free to post in the comments section!

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Deal Breakers: Books

Earlier this week, the New York Times Sunday Book Review published an article about books that were deal breakers when it comes to relationships. I must admit that I had never considered a book to be a deal breaker before.

The article is interesting, but the true entertainment comes from reading responses in the accompanying blog. As I write this, the NYT blog has 300+ responses ranging from anything by Mitch Albom (who wrote Tuesdays with Morrie) to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code to James Joyce’s Ulysses. A number of people also cited not reading as a deal breaker while others complained that judging people by what they read (or don’t read) is snobbery.

If anything, this idea is very thought provoking. Like music, which can be very personal, books are not simply objects in and of themselves. Instead, this article suggests that the books we read are a reflection of our ideas and values. While this may be true to a certain extent, it is a little scary to think that we are all judged by these books. As several posts pointed out, some very intelligent people read light books for fun or to get a break from more serious fare. Whenever I ride the subway, I am intrigued by the books people read. While I see people who study their law torts and read diligently from their copies of War and Peace, I can’t help but admire those who have no qualms with publicly reading a book with a really embarrassing title and cover (often found on self-help books and romance novels).

For me, I suppose that the real deal breaker might be not reading at all, if for no other reason then we would probably run out of things to talk about after the first few dates. Granted, I might be a little freaked out if a guy I was dating said that he loved Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series or read only manga. However, at least that would give us a lot to argue about.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

April is National Poetry Month

For most people, the month of April has a number of hallmarks: baseball season starts, taxes are due, and the weather in most places gets even weirder than usual (I'm from the south, where April usually means tornado season). In addition to all of this, April is also National Poetry Month. As a former English teacher and English lit major, I happen to love poetry. I know that many people do not share this sentiment. However, since April is National Poetry Month, I thought it would be fitting to dedicate a blog (or two) a week to some of my favorite poems. I'm planning on posting the first one on Friday (4/4).

For more information on National Poetry Month, visit