“Dream Song 14” by John Berryman

Marking the birthday of a poet whom I’ve just recently discovered, here’s Berryman’s famous reading of “Dream Song 14,” recorded in a pub in Dublin in 1967. (Full text here.)

Autumn Book Haul

It’s that time of year again: our local library’s semi-annual book sale just passed and as usual, I came away with a huge stack of books. Here’s a quick list of them: do let me know if you’ve read any of them and what you thought!

  • Murder in the Cathedral by T. S. Eliot – Eliot’s famous verse drama about the 1170 assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket of Canterbury.
  • World’s Fair by E. L. Doctorow – A semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story set in Depression-era New York. I’ve heard lots of good things about Doctorow, but I’ve never read him, so I’m looking forward to this.
  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy – The story of a father and son trying to survive in post-apocalyptic America. I’ve heard very high praise for this book and for McCarthy, so I’m looking forward to this too (dark as it sounds).
  • John Keats: Selected Poetry and Letters edited by Richard Harter Fogle – A very old (1969) but very nice edition of Keats’s poems and letters (most of them to family members and John Hamilton Reynolds). Admittedly, part of this book is rendered redundant by my fifth purchase, which was . . .
  • The Complete Poems of Keats and Shelley – I was able to find almost no publication information about this book, not even so much as the editor’s name. It’s just a big green book of Keats (and Shelley).
  • Canaan and The Orchards of Syon by Geoffrey Hill – Two books of poetry from a poet who is famous for being hard to understand. Wish me luck.
  • Seventeenth Century Poetry edited by Hugh Kenner – In case I haven’t mentioned it before, I am a huge fan of the Metaphysical Poets, so I was excited to find this collection, which is brim-full of poems by Donne, Marvell, and Herbert, as well as poets I haven’t read before like Abraham Cowley and Thomas Traherne.
  • The Three Theban Plays by Sophocles (translated by Robert Fagles) – This is a collection of three plays by Sophocles: Antigone, Oedipus the King, and Oedipus at Colonus. I can see this being useful for future school/reading projects.
  • The Norton Anthology of Poetry, Shorter Fourth Edition edited by Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter, and Jon Stallworthy – I picked this up with just a quick glance at the table of contents, but when I got it home, I realized how much great stuff there is in here: besides staples like Shakespeare, Eliot, the Romantics, etc., there are dozens of poets unknown to me, as well a few unexpected selections, like Bob Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather” and W. S. Gilbert’s “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General.” There’s even a poem from Li-Young Lee, one of my favorite contemporary poets. Plus, where my other big poetry anthologies are a little lacking in poems by Donne, this one more than gives him his due.🙂

Are Song Lyrics Poems?

Dylan at a concert in New York state, 1963. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Dylan at a concert in New York state, 1963. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Along with much of the rest of the world, I woke up Thursday morning to the news that Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” While I’m not sure if Dylan would have been my first choice for the award, I nevertheless agree with his fans that he is a great songwriter, one who even deserves to be called a poet.

But is that really true? Can song lyrics actually be considered poems or are they something else entirely?

I suppose it all depends on how you define the word “poem.” I’m afraid mine is not a very learned definition, but as far as I know, a poem is a piece of writing that is meant to speak directly to the imagination through the use of metaphor, imagery, simile, sound effects, and similar devices. Where fiction depends on narrative for its power and nonfiction on hard facts and logical arguments, poetry relies on the words themselves—their meanings, sounds, and rhythms—to make an impression on the reader’s mind.

Taking that view of it, I think some song lyrics can be considered poetry. As long as there’s that direct appeal to imagination, helped out by purposeful word choices, I see no reason why a song can’t be recognized as literary art.

Now, some have argued that Dylan’s lyrics aren’t really poetry because they lose some of their power when his music and his voice are subtracted. But does that mean that they’re not poetry, or just that they’re not the best poetry in the world? Whether the music is there or not, you’re still left with the imagery, the wordplay, the metaphors, and the rhymes, even if these find their fullest expression when set to music. Granted, reading Dylan’s lyrics is a completely different experience from listening to him sing them. But then again, as the author of this piece points out, reading a play is a completely different experience from seeing the same play acted out on a stage, yet no one questions drama’s place in the literary world.

For the record, I’m not saying that Dylan specifically deserves the Nobel Prize. I don’t think I know his work well enough to judge whether it reaches that level of skill. My point is merely that, if approached correctly, the lyrics even to pop songs can take on a literary dimension and be enjoyed both as poetry and as music.

Really, the whole point of writing this post was so I could start a conversation. Do you think songwriters are poets? Do you think Dylan deserved the Nobel? Are you so unhip that when I said “Dylan,” you thought of Dylan Thomas? Let me know in the comments.

Bookish Links — September 2016

Photo by Lukas H

Photo by Lukas H

Book Review: The Fellowship: the Literary Lives of the Inklings

Authors: Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski

Year of First Publication: 2015

Year of Publication for This Edition: 2016

Number of Pages: 644

Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

Genre: Nonfiction

Sub-Genres: Biography, Literary Criticism

Exciting things are happening in the world of the Inklings. Once a bit of esoterica for fantasy fans, this small club of Oxonian friends and writers is coming further into the public eye all the time as new generations discover their stories for the first time and scholars shed new light on their lives and works. So what better time could there be to publish a new book on the four men who made all of it possible?

The Fellowship is just such a book: a joint biography of the four authors—J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield—who made up the four cornerstones of the Inklings. Of course, these weren’t the only great writers in the club, nor were the other members’ contributions to the club’s success negligible. But scholars and readers generally agree that without these four, there would be no Inklings to write about.

The Eagle and Child, one of the two Oxford pubs where several of The Inklings' meetings were held.

The Eagle and Child pub in Oxford, one of the Inklings’ usual hang-outs. Image by M Perel.

I’m sure that most, if not all, of you already know the Inklings backwards and forwards. But in case you’re late to the party, the Inklings was an Oxford-based writing club that met regularly from 1932 to about 1963. According to C. S. Lewis, one of the club’s founders, only two things were required to become a member: “a tendency to write, and Christianity.”* (There was also the unstated rule that all members must be male.) At the club’s meetings, which usually took place in one of Oxford’s many pubs, members would read aloud from their works-in-progress—often fantasy fiction, but really anything was fair game—and then the other members would critique their work. There was a lot of talking, a lot of debating, and a lot of beer.

Inklings fan that I am, I had very high hopes for this biography, but a few concerns as well. For instance, would Williams and Barfield fade into the background as the authors focused on the more famous pair of Lewis and Tolkien? Would they soft-pedal Williams’s—um—idiosyncrasies so as to make him more palatable to the average reader/average Christian? Worse, would they soft-pedal the Inklings’ manifestly Christian worldview in an effort to appeal to secular audiences?

As it turns out, there was never any need to worry: the Zaleskis have written a wonderful biography, one that I think captures both the essence of the group and the characters of each of the main members. While the Inklings were united by their common faith** and their shared love of stories, each was a complex and fascinating person in his own right, independent of any of his interactions with the group. Still, never once in this book was one person’s story drowned out by another’s, or by the story of the collective: instead, the stories of these four men are blended together in a way that helps us appreciate them both as individuals and as four examples of the same type of “creature,” namely an Inkling.

Of course, I would have been happy just with the biographical information on “the Core Four,” but The Fellowship is more than straightforward biography. It’s just as much about the spirit behind the group and the forces that shaped it as it is about the members. Besides the Inklings themselves, we also get insight into the world they lived in: the art that influenced them, the triumphs and controversies that colored their professional lives, and the marks that war, politics, and modernization left on them and their work. Even the city of Oxford itself becomes a sort of character in the story, with its rich history becoming yet another influence on the group. This book actually inspired me to read Owen Barfield’s 1928 book on philosophy and language Poetic Diction. Early in the book, Barfield describes what he calls “joint-stock poetry,” poems that come from a group of related writers (maybe a cabal of friends or students of the same master) and that carry with them the unique imprint of that group. I think the Zaleskis did an excellent job of capturing the “joint-stock” quality of the Inklings’ work and tracing how that ethos came to be—the loves, longings, and beliefs that made the Inklings what they were.

In any biography, there’s always the question of how true to life the narrative really is. Especially where figures as well-known and beloved as J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis are concerned, the authors might be tempted to apply some whitewash, to paint their subjects as the wonderful little angels that so many of their fans expect them to be. So I was a little surprised to see the Zaleskis write as bluntly as they did about, for instance, the question of whether young Lewis had an affair with a much-older, married woman (They’re pretty well-convinced that he did.) or about Tolkien’s views on marriage and gender (common enough for his own day but scandalously old-fashioned in ours). They didn’t even shy away from Williams’s extramarital affairs. Mind you, none of these gory details are shared in a gossipy or malicious way. All that’s intended by it, I think, is to show these four men as they actually were. I appreciate that kind of honesty, especially from biographers.

I can’t tell you how sad I was to finish the nineteenth chapter of this book and find that the sizable chunk of paper still in my right hand was mostly indices and notes, not more story. The Fellowship is a wonderful book, both for Inklings fans and for those looking to get acquainted with this fascinating group of authors. I look forward to  revisiting it many times in the future.

* quoted on page 238 of The Fellowship.

** Common up to a point that is. The Inklings are actually a fascinating example of the diversity of religious opinion that can exist even among close friends. Lewis, for instance, was an Anglican convert, “not especially ‘high,’ nor especially ‘low,’ nor especially anything else” (Mere Christianity, Preface), while his friend J. R. R. Tolkien was a devout Catholic who attended Mass daily, received the Eucharist at least once a day, and showed an extraordinary devotion to the Virgin Mary. Barfield, coming from an agnostic family, embraced a sort of Christian-like mysticism as a young man, which he combined with the teachings of the Austrian occultist Rudolf Steiner, the founder of anthroposophy. Barfield was baptized into the Anglican Church in 1949, but he continued to believe in, write about, and teach anthroposophy for the rest of his life. And then there was Charles Williams, a high church Anglican who nevertheless maintained a deep interest in (obsession with?) the occult, even becoming a member of the Rosicrucian offshoot group the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. He also held an array of beliefs regarding salvation, marriage, and Christian brotherhood which, if they aren’t heretical, are at least very, very weird.

Bookish Links—August 2016

Photo by Jez Timms.

Photo by Jez Timms.

A Poem for the Weekend

Father Gerard {PD-1923}

Father Gerard [PD-1923]

Because what are weekends for if not for reading beautiful poems?

“As kingfishers catch fire”

by Gerard Manley Hopkins

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
WhĂĄt I dĂł is me: for that I came.

I say mĂłre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thĂĄt keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.


Next Sunday: ‘Inspector Lewis,’ Starring Charles Williams

You may remember last Fall, there was a slight brouhaha among Inklings fans online when the British detective series Lewis aired an episode centering around a murdered Charles Williams expert and a shadowy cabal reminiscent of Williams’s own Companions of Co-inherence. The episode, whose premiere coincided with the publication of Grevel Lindop’s long-awaited biography of Williams, was titled “Magnum Opus” and appeared as part of Lewis‘s ninth season. The series airs in the US as well on PBS (where its called Inspector Lewis instead), but because of some odd scheduling, the numbering for the seasons is a bit off. So what was Season 9 for the Brits is Season 8 for us.

I mention this because Season 8 of Inspector Lewis premieres tomorrow on PBS. “Magnum Opus” is the second episode in the season, which means if you want to see it, next Sunday, August 14 is your chance.

The episode will also be available to stream from PBS’s website, though I haven’t been able to find out how long it will be there. It is also only available to people within the US.

I’m afraid I haven’t been keeping up with Inspector Lewis so far, but for a chance to spot a few Inklings references, I might have to start.🙂

HT: Murder! ‘Orrible Murder!

A Lost J. R. R. Tolkien Interview Will Air This Saturday

Great news! Almost fifty years after it was recorded, a BBC interview with J. R. R. Tolkien is finally going to be broadcast.

According to The Tolkien Society, the interview was recorded in 1968 as part of a BBC documentary titled Tolkien in Oxford. In the end, only a small portion of the interview appeared in the documentary and the rest was thought to be lost, until the film’s producer, Leslie Megahey, found a copy of it on a video tape. He then combed the BBC archives for the original recording, which is set to be aired on BBC Radio 4 this Saturday, August 6, at 8:00 PM GMT.

If you’re not in the UK or not near a radio, you can listen to the program online: Radio 4 posts all of their programs on their website soon after they air and usually keeps them there for thirty days, if not longer. When the Tolkien interview does become available, it will be posted to this page.

Bookish Links—July 2016

Photo by Sanwal Deen.

Photo by Sanwal Deen.

  • Just before the great Elie Wiesel passed away earlier this month, the magazine Tablet posted this essay about Wiesel’s little-known articles for the Yiddish newspaper The Forverts, articles in which he describes, among other things, his first impressions of the American west and his first trip to Disneyland. (HT: The Paris Review.)

“Summer Storm” by Dana Gioia

Here in southern Louisiana, we’ve been experiencing blistering heat (85° on a good day), periodically interrupted by short but fierce thunderstorms. Naturally, I’ve been thinking of Dana Gioia’s poem “Summer Storm.” I only discovered Gioia recently, but I’m quickly falling in love with his work. Below is a video of Gioia reading the poem, which you can also read for yourself at this link.

The Western Canon Reading List

One of Gustave Doré's brilliant illustration for The Divine Comedy. This one is called "Crystalline Heaven." (Via Wikiart.)

One of Gustave DorĂ©’s brilliant illustrations for The Divine Comedy. This one is called “Crystalline Heaven.” (Via Wikiart.)

If you follow Brenton Dickieson’s blog A Pilgrim in Narnia (which you certainly should), you’ve probably heard about his project in which he aims to read through the Western canon. Looking for a list of canonical books to work from, Brenton turned to Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. From it, he compiled a list of all of the works that Bloom presents throughout the book as examples of what the canon is, how it works, and why it is important. You can read more about how this list was compiled here.

But wait, what is the Western canon? Which books are in it? I doubt if anyone knows for sure. For as long as anyone can remember, there’s been much disagreement between academics, authors, and readers as to which books should be part of the canon and which should not. Some wonder if we should even have a canon at all. But whatever we as individuals think of the canon, one thing’s for sure: the impact these books have had on the culture and on history is immeasurable. These are the books that the whole world has been talking about for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years . . . and we all just walked in in the middle of the conversation.

For those reasons, I’ve decided to give the list a shot myself, although unlike Brenton, I don’t plan to set a date by which I expect to finish. Brenton is giving himself nine years to read the whole list through—I’d like to finish in five or six years, but at the moment, twenty seems like a more realistic number.😉

Here’s the complete list:

Foundational Work (Theocratic Age)

  • Homer
    • The Iliad (Greek, 8th BCE)
    • The Odyssey (Greek, 8th BCE)
  • Virgil, The Aeneid (Latin, 29-19 BCE)
  • The Bible

Late Medieval and Renaissance (Aristocratic Age)

  • Dante Alighieri, Comedia/The Divine Comedy (Italian, 1308-1320)
  • Chaucer, Canterbury Tales (English, 1475)
  • Shakespeare
    • Love’s Labour’s Lost (English, 1597)
    • Hamlet (English, 1603)
    • Othello (English, 1604)
    • King Lear (English, 1606)
    • Macbeth (English, 1611)
  • Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote (Spanish, 1605)
  • MoliĂšre, The Misanthrope (French, 1666)
  • John Milton, Paradise Lost (English, 1667)
  • James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson (English, 1791)
  • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust (German, 1772-1790)

19th Century+

  • William Wordsworth
    • “The Ruined Cottage” (English, 1800)
    • “Tintern Abbey” (English, 1798)
  • Jane Austen, Persuasion (English, 1818)
  • Walt Whitman
    • Leaves of Grass (English, 1855)
    • “Song of Myself” (English, 1855)
  • Emily Dickinson, The Poems of Emily Dickinson (English, 1800s)
  • Charles Dickens, Bleak House (English, 1852-1853)
  • George Eliot, Middlemarch (English, 1874)
  • Henrik Ibsen, Peer Gynt (Norwegian, 1876)
  • Leo Tolstoy, Hadji Murad (Russian, 1896-1904)
  • Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time (a.k.a. Remembrance of Things Past) (1913)
  • James Joyce, Ulysses (English, 1922)
  • Virginia Woolf
    • Orlando (English, 1928)
    • A Room of One’s Own (English, 1929)
  • Franz Kafka, The Blue Octavo Notebooks (German, 1917-1919)
  • Jorge Luis Borges, The Garden of Forking Paths (Spanish, 1941)
  • Pablo Neruda, Canto General (Spanish, 1938-1950)
  • Samuel Beckett
    • Endgame (English, 1957)
    • Murphy (English, 1938)
    • Waiting for Godot (English, 1953)

I’ve read three of these works already (Hamlet, Macbeth, and “Tintern Abbey”) and I’m halfway through with another (The Aeneid). So, I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

In the meantime, have you read any of these books? Are you planning to tackle this list too? Let me know in the comments.