Mark Doty is a highly accomplished contemporary poet, but there’s a distinct lack of pretension in his work. His poems suggest a mind that is always surprised and elated by life’s experiences. And he invites us to appreciate life with him. Here’s a 2009 reading at Cornell University:
For this week’s Friday Favorite, I am featuring a poet from my home state of Oklahoma, John Berryman. Berryman is best known for “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet” and The Dream Songs. And having a great beard.
I’m kidding about the beard.
Berryman seems to me as elusive as his characters from The Dream Songs, Henry and Mr. Bones. Many critics consider these characters Berryman’s alter-egos. I can see the argument, but I don’t know that I’m sold. I don’t know that I have many clear answers about Berryman. The mystery is something that attracts me to his work.
Berryman’s poems are structured similarly to sonnets and have an easy-going lyrical flow. His poems are very different than what his contemporaries produced. He wrote book-length lyrical series surrounding recurring characters while others wrote short, ironic satire or confessional poetry.
Here’s a video in which he discusses some elements of his poetry then reads “Life, Friends, is Boring” from The Dream Songs:
Gwendolyn Brooks’ list of awards and fellowships inspire awe. Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (now called U.S. Poet Laureate), Poet Laureate for the State of Illinois are a few, but she’s more than just a decorated poet.
I first encountered Gwendolyn Brooks the way that many young English majors do, in an anthology of American literature. I first read her most well-known poem, “We Real Cool,” but I couldn’t stop with the brief survey class offered; I read more. A few favorites include: “The Lovers of the Poor,” “The Mother,” “The Bean Eaters.”
Brooks inspires and challenges me, both poetically and personally. I hope she does the same for you.
Instead of my usual list of quotes, I offer just one. “Poetry is life distilled.” What better definition is there?
E.E. Cummings was born October 14, 1894 in Cambridge, MA. He was a prolific writer of poetry, prose, plays, and essays.
When I was in high school, many of the my fellow students only knew him as “that poet who doesn’t use capital letters.” Non-standard capitalization is a feature in many poems, but it’s incorrect to say he avoids capital letters. He just uses them sparingly, a technique which highlights the importance of certain words or phrases.
He covers many topics in his 2900+ poems–nature, politics, religion, sex, etc. His poems often challenge traditional forms, though formless would not be an apt description.
He has long been among my favorite poets. Reading him repeatedly has taught me (and continues to teach me) much about diction, form, syntax, rhythm, imagery. You know…all that poetic stuff.
Here is a website that has compiled a few poems for your reading pleasure.
And here are a few lines I like from various poems:
For whatever we lose(like a you or a me) / it’s always ourselves we find in the sea
somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond / any experience,your eyes have their silence:
I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing / than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance
i like my body when it is with your / body. It is so quite a new thing.
pity this busy monster,manunkind, / not. Progress is a comfortable disease:
my father moved through dooms of love / through sames of am through haves of give, / singing each morning out of each night
I have two young children, which means some days include me reading more children’s books than adult books. Thank God for Dr. Seuss. Most kid lit is awful for adults, but I enjoy reading Dr. Seuss’ limerick filled books. The fun stories, easy cadence, and unique illustrations engage both adult reader and child listener.
There’s also something about the nostalgia of reading books to my children that were read to me when I was their age. They deserve their classic status.
I think that many people overlook the wisdom contained in these works. “A person’s a person no matter how small” from Horton Hears a Who is only one example.
Too bad my children aren’t as motivated to eat what we serve them as much as they would be if we served green eggs and ham.
I’ve enjoyed the work of Billy Collins for several years now, probably beginning with Sailing Around the Room (2001). I like what I assume most people like about his poetry: it’s often humorous. But it’s not cheap humor. His work shows great attention to detail and an impressive knowledge base. You may well laugh at surface level humor, but don’t ignore references to classic literature and his command of traditional forms. Billy Collins served two terms as U.S. Poet Laureate, an honor he well deserves.
Here are a few YouTube reading videos. Enjoy
“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.
“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.”
The above passage is from Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22 and is only one example of Heller’s distinctive tone and style. Heller is an author who is difficult describe, so I’ll just give more quotes from Catch-22, and you can decide for yourself whether he’s worth your time.
“Havermeyer was a lead bombardier who never missed. Yossarian was a lead bombardier who had been demoted because he no longer gave a damn whether he missed or not. He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt, and his only mission each time he went up was to come down alive.”
“This time Milo had gone too far. Bombing his own men and planes was more than even the most phlegmatic observer could stomach, and it looked like the end for him. … Milo was all washed up until he opened his books to the public and disclosed the tremendous profit he had made. “
“There was no established procedure for evasive action. All you needed was fear and Yossarian had plenty of that. “
I first read Kurt Vonnegut a couple years into college, probably 2003. We had already invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, and I was becoming cynical about American politics. A friend suggested I read Vonnegut’s World War II novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, but I came across a free copy of Cat’s Cradle first. A few pages into Cat’s Cradle I knew that I would read everything I could written by this dark but hilarious figure. I only have a couple novels left.
Kurt Vonnegut taught me about humor. So many of his books show us the terrible side of humanity, the side that firebombs a city just to try out a new weapon, but they are always funny. He shows us that the best way to talk about the things that no one wants to talk about is through humor. Often I’ve read a line in a Vonnegut novel that made me laugh aloud but immediately filled me with guilt for laughing. It’s that sort of uncomfortable, challenging experience that makes him worth reading. He’s an author who tells us the truth, even when we aren’t ready for it.
A few quotes:
“Maturity is a bitter disappointment for which no remedy exists, unless laughter could be said to remedy anything.”
“True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.”
“I say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit. I am then asked if I know of any artists who pulled that off. I reply, ‘The Beatles did’.”
“1492. As children we were taught to memorize this year with pride and joy as the year people began living full and imaginative lives on the continent of North America. Actually, people had been living full and imaginative lives on the continent of North America for hundreds of years before that. 1492 was simply the year sea pirates began to rob, cheat, and kill them.”