One book leads to another

March 11th, 2014

How do you decide what to read? This question came up at a lunch with friends recently, and once the subject started rolling around in my head I began finding other writers who had things to say about it. One friend sent me a link to this article from Brainpickings with excerpts from an essay by Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, and at a book sale I found Robertson Davies’ The Merry Heart, a collection of pieces on reading and writing. Brodsky’s essay talks about developing an educated taste as a means to help choose what to read. On the other hand, Davies, while certainly well-educated, acknowledges in his that he read “wanderingly, capriciously, following [his] own nose.”

Davies’ approach is pretty much how I read, much of the time. I’ll follow an interesting lead, and then one book leads to another. Last November, American poet, fiction writer and essayist Thomas Lynch gave a lecture in Winnipeg, and recommended reading Seamus Heaney. I began with Human Chain, Heaney’s last book, and ended up reading certain poems over and over. I also found Lazy Bastardism, a collection of essays by Carmine Starnino, which a friend had recently read. Both books happened to mention the name of Helen Vendler, the American critic, whom I knew almost nothing about. So I found one of her books, and through it have been introduced to poems I’d never read before by Plath, Keats, and others. And after reading Starnino’s essay on Robyn Sarah, I began reading her poetry and essays, too.

In following these associative trails, I find myself agreeing with both approaches to reading. Brodsky does make an important point in saying that unless readers find a way to educate their literary tastes, choosing what to read is simply too overwhelming. This is especially true if you want to move out of your habitual reading paths, which is where other people’s recommendations are helpful. On the other hand, Davies’ point is also true: it’s often the case that you don’t find books so much as they find you.


January 28th, 2014

Normally I read for the sake of the overall narrative or argument, but now and then I have to stop to enjoy and admire a particular passage. Certain sentences are so evocative they’ve stayed in my head for years.

A friend recently sent me an essay called “The Problem of Reading” by photographer and writer Moyra Davey. Among others, she quotes Virginia Woolf on how to read. Davey says:

[Woolf] claims the best way to understand what a novelist is doing is not to read but to write: recall a scene from your life that has struck you in some way, she suggests, and put it to paper. See how easily the feelings you meant to transmit evade you. Now turn from your muddle … and read the opening pages of Austen, Defoe, or Hardy, and you will be in no doubt as to their mastery, each conjuring up a world uncommonly vivid and unique.

Read the rest of this entry »

A treasury for the English-speaking world: the gift of John Mason Neale

November 17th, 2013

The church I attend sings a lot of hymns translated by John Mason Neale (1818-1866). That probably says something about the type of hymns we tend to sing, but it also says a lot about how prolific he was as a translator, and how much the English-speaking church owes him.

The current Anglican hymnal, Common Praise, for instance, has no less than 25 texts translated by Neale. (Hymns Ancient and Modern had many more than that, judging by a brief glance at its index.) The old red Anglican hymnal, which my church still uses, has twenty. Over half of these are hymns marking seasons of the church year: Advent, Lent, and especially Easter. Hymnal: a Worship Book, used by Mennonite churches, has only eight, but one of those is “O Come, O come Emmanuel,” one of the essential Advent hymns.

One result of the 16th-century Reformation was that Protestant churches began using vernacular languages in church liturgy instead of Latin. This was a good thing on the whole, but some things were lost in the process. A great wealth of ancient hymns “henceforth became as a sealed book and as a dead letter,” as Neale regretfully put it. He did his best to remedy that, translating over two hundred Latin and Greek hymns from the early centuries of Christianity.

I would guess that many people sing these hymns without realizing just how old they are. “O Sons and daughters” is relatively new, written in the 16th century, but “That Eastertide with joy was bright” dates back all the way to the 4th century. Thanks to these translations, English-speakers have access to hymns spanning over sixteen hundred years.

Every era of church history has had its own “brand” of hymody, with its own particular emphases and its resulting strengths and weaknesses. The greater the variety of hymns we can sing, the greater the breadth of language and imagery that can inform and enrich our faith.

[The title of this post borrows a phrase from Exploring the Mennonite Hymnal: Handbook (Faith and Life Press, 1983, now out of print), p. 59]

The art of looking and writing

January 2nd, 2013

How do you write about another art form? Can you really convey the visual in words?

Poets use language to evoke a visual image for the reader all the time.  But somehow, writing in response to another art form has always seemed a little problematic to me. I was not sure why one would do it. If the reader has not seen the work of art you’re writing about, how is the writing meaningful to them?

Ekphrasis (the term used to denote writing that responds to another art form) is an old practice. The Chicago School of Media Theory’s glossary says this about its origins:

Initially, ekphrasis was a rhetorical term like many others taught to Greek students. Teachers of rhetoric taught ekphrasis as a way of bringing the experience of an object to a listener or reader through highly detailed descriptive writing. …  The student of ekphrasis was encouraged to lend their attention not only to the qualities immediately available in an object, but to make efforts to embody qualities beyond the physical aspects of the work they were observing.

In contemporary practice the meaning of ekphrasis is stretched further, becoming a sort of conversation with a visual work, and eventually leading toward a poem that goes beyond the original image. Read the rest of this entry »

Farewell TWB

November 3rd, 2012

As many book-lovers know by now, the Toronto Women’s Bookstore will close at the end of this month, after 39 years in business. It’s a familiar story by now: competition from e-books, online shopping, and the big stores that can offer deep discounts. Another entry in the long list of independent bookstores that have closed. I can name a few from every city I’ve lived in.

There used to be women’s bookstores in many cities across Canada. Winnipeg had one, called Bold Print. Hamilton had one; so did a dozen other cities. Now, according to Quill & Quire, there’s only one left: the Northern Woman’s Bookstore in Thunder Bay.

Now that these stores are gone, what’s taking their place? It’s possible to buy almost any book online now, even the hard-to-find titles that women’s bookstores specialized in, but aside from Amazon’s sometimes annoying “Customers who bought this also bought…” how do people find the right book in the first place? Are other groups and places filling the role of community resource that TWB and similar stores sought to be?

There was a farewell event in Toronto on October 30, and a satellite event in Winnipeg on the same night. The Winnipeg event, organized by Ariel Gordon, happened at McNally Robinson Booksellers. Twenty-six of us read that evening, and although we were all sorry about the reason for the event, we thoroughly enjoyed the varied richness of poetry and fiction we heard. And were grateful, all of us, to have an independent bookstore that works so hard to support local writers and their books.

The practice of writing

October 5th, 2012

“I think I’ll have to buy this,” I said to my son, holding out The Complete Journals of L.M. Montgomery. “Of course you will,” he said, knowing how many books by and about Montgomery line the bookshelves at home. I had already read all five volumes of her Selected Journals, compiled by the same editors, Mary Henley Rubio and Elizabeth Waterston. The entries in those earlier volumes were selected to emphasize Montgomery’s life as a writer, omitting many entries describing her moods, her everyday activities, and her favorite landscapes.

Yet, even though many journal entries don’t relate directly to the development of her writing career, they often feel as if she is practicing. She may have simply been trying to express her enchantment with a beautiful scene, but she does it in what seems like a consciously literary way, in sentences like these: “The sea was an expanse of silvery gray. Afar I saw the purple slopes of New London scarfed in silvery hazes” (p. 24, entry for Thursday, April 10, 1890).

As vivid as these passages are, I prefer the accounts of everyday events: visits with friends, conflicts at school, outings to the seashore, etc. They’re written in a lively style, with a great deal of wit— sometimes lightly mocking, sometimes tart and sarcastic. (There are many gloomy passages, too, detailing Montgomery’s loneliness and depression, but I haven’t gotten to those yet.)

Montgomery started a journal to record what she thought worth recording. It became a place where she could vent her feelings and say things she couldn’t say anywhere else. But the practice of writing a journal was, for her, also an important part of the discipline of writing.

A literature of our own

June 8th, 2012

At the Symposium on Manitoba Writing last month I was reminded of how, for a certain generation of writers, prairie literature was something they had to invent for themselves.

That got me thinking about books I’d read growing up. I don’t think I ever felt the same absence of literature that spoke my language. This is partly because of my age: by the time I began reading and writing poetry seriously, there was lots out there by prairie writers, probably much more than I realized at the time.

It was in the fiction I read in elementary school that I noticed differences between my world and the world of books. I read a lot of British books about girls in boarding schools, where they wore uniforms and only saw their parents during holidays, and a lot of books set in the eastern U.S., where schools had cafeterias and leaves turned red in the fall.

But then there was a series of books by Margaret Epp that I read and re-read: Prairie Princess, The Princess and the Pelican, and The Princess Rides a Panther. They are out of print now; written in the ’60s and ’70s, they were later reissued under different titles (Sarah and the Magic Twenty-Fifth, Sarah and the Pelican, Sarah and the Lost Friendship). The main character, ten-year-old Sarah Naomi Scott, lives on a Saskatchewan farm in the 1920s and attends a one-room school. Maybe it was the setting that made such a strong connection, and the fact that I, too, was about ten when I first read the books. I grew up in town, not on the farm, and my school had at least two classes for each grade. But those one-room schools still operated through the ’50s when my mother was a girl, and on my grandparents’ farm were relics of the horse-drawn wagon and the “bunk,” an enclosed vehicle on sleigh runners, in which she and her siblings travelled to school.

For that combination of reasons, I think, I loved those books and identified with Sarah Scott. It also helped that Margaret Epp, although not a relative as far as I know, actually lived in a nearby town. It was exciting to know that Real Writers came from small-town Saskatchewan, too.

Jay Macpherson

April 5th, 2012

Another Canadian poet has died recently: Jay Macpherson passed away on March 24. She was, according to Quill and Quire, one of “Canada’s finest— and arguably most underappreciated— poets.”

Reading an assessment like that always makes me want to find out more. I knew of Jay Macpherson, very peripherally (she contributed some hymn translations for the joint Anglican-United Church Hymnal [1971]) but was not aware that she was a woman (her first name was Jean) or that she had won a Governor General’s Award in 1957 for The Boatman, her third book and her best-known work. Another of her books, Welcoming Disaster, is available in a combined volume with The Boatman, titled Poems Twice Told, from Oxford University Press. She also wrote a non-fiction work on mythology for young people.

Macpherson was strongly influenced by Northrop Frye, resulting in a poetry that made use of “myth as a source of universal poetic meaning,” to quote my high school poetry text. That same textbook also calls her poetry “gnomic and difficult”— not exactly encouraging for students. The publisher’s description of The Boatman is much more inviting: “an intricate sequence of short epigrammatic poems – in which there are echoes of ballads, carols, nursery rhymes, and hymns – that bear a whole cosmos of the poet’s invention, constructed from Biblical and classical allusions.” The few poems of hers that I have read so far are compelling for their pithiness, their skilful use of form, and their resonant language.

You can read several of Jay Macpherson’s poems here, and another in the Quill and Quire article linked above.

Discoveries: Colleen Thibaudeau

February 21st, 2012

Colleen Thibaudeau’s obituary in the Feb. 9 Globe and Mail was intriguing in a couple of ways. For one thing, I had never heard her name before. This in itself is nothing new; even in the relatively small world of Canadian poetry I do encounter well-established poets I’ve never heard of. Having belatedly discovered Thibaudeau, I wanted to read her work, especially after reading, in the Canadian Encyclopedia, how her poetry celebrates “the extraordinary nature of ordinary life by combining the everyday with the otherworldly.”

Brick Books does still have some of Thibaudeau’s books in print, but otherwise her work is not easy to find. I found almost none of her poetry online, except for an excerpt in the obituary, and this one featured as Poem of the Month on the Parliamentary Poet Laureate site. And Winnipeg’s public libraries don’t have any of her books. All I found was the anthology Un Dozen: Thirteen Canadian Poets, edited by Judith Fitzgerald, which contains four pages of Thibaudeau’s poems. This small sampling is enough to make me want to find more of her work, even if it takes a bit of looking.

The other intriguing thing about Thibaudeau is that she did a master’s thesis on contemporary Canadian poetry— in 1949. I would not have expected Canadian poetry, especially contemporary poetry, to be a subject for study back then; I more or less assumed that Canadians still saw “real” literature as coming from elsewhere. Maybe that’s not entirely true… in any case, there would have been no shortage of  material to study: P.K. Page, Irving Layton, Earle Birney, A.M. Klein, Dorothy Livesay, and Elizabeth Brewster (among many others) were all writing in the ’40s. A.J.M.Smith‘s landmark anthology The Book of Canadian Poetry was published in 1943, and Ralph Gustafson’s Anthology of Canadian Poetry in 1942. Periodicals like Contemporary Verse had recently been established. It sounds like it was an exciting time to be reading and writing poetry in Canada.

Objects and memory

January 24th, 2012

There are certain small objects packed away in a box in the attic, or tucked into the back of a desk drawer, that I will probably never get rid of, and this poem by Sharon Olds shows brilliantly the reason why. In “Toth Farry” (the spelling borrowed from a note her child once wrote to the tooth fairy) she writes of finding her children’s baby teeth after many years “in the back of the charm box, in a sack.” The poem is delightful to read for its language alone: Olds’ precise description of the teeth, now falling into shards, and her comparing them to utensils like shovel and adz.

But what struck me most was these lines:

…and the colors go from
salt, to bone, to pee on snow, to
sun on pond-ice embedded with twigs
and chipped-off skate blade. One cuspid
is like the tail of an ivory chough
on my grandmother’s whatnot in a gravure on my mother’s
bureau in my father’s house in my head…

That one baby tooth brings forth a whole chain of associations, linked images that come to mind faster than you can describe them.

Reading these lines made me think of my own baby teeth, and of my sons’, and how very tiny those teeth look once they come out. And it reminded me of why the things in my own treasure-box are still there.