Coming Soon to a Blog Near You: Reading Ireland Month 2017


Greetings, readers! A quick programming note: starting next week, I’ll be participating in Reading Ireland Month, also known as Begorrathon. What is Reading Ireland Month, you ask? It’s a yearly blog event hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Niall from The Fluff Is Raging. Basically, it’s a whole month of people blogging about Irish books, movies, music, food, and anything else they can think of. I happen to love Irish literature, which is why for the entire month of March, I’ll be blogging only about books by Irish authors.

I’m planning to stick mostly to twentieth century literature this year. A few of the books I plan to review:

  • Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
  • Death of a Naturalist by Seamus Heaney
  • Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane

And I might have a few other articles in store too. Feel free to join in! All of the details are up at Cathy’s blog.

Birthday Books

I had a birthday recently. I don’t like to name the exact date online because identity theft, but what I can tell you is that it has passed and I got some books as a result of it. Here’s the list:

1: Hammer Is the Prayer: Selected Poems by Christian Wiman

Wiman is one of those authors who I kept hearing about but never bothered to read. I hope I can someday be absolved of this grave literary sin, because Wiman, it turns out, is brilliant. In a lecture of his that I once listened to, he stressed the sense of wonder that he believes poetry should embody, as well as the musicality with which that wonder should be expressed. If the poems I’ve read so far are any indication, he certainly practices what he preaches.

2: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

I pretty much grew up with the Greek and Roman myths. I never cared as much for the Norse myths. But, Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite writers, and he certainly has a knack for mythical writing, so if anyone can change my mind, he can.

3: Selected Poems: 1968-2014 by Paul Muldoon

Once again, here’s an author about whom I’ve heard much but from whom I’ve read little. Personally, I’ve always been a little intimidated by Muldoon’s work—so much of it seemed so obscure and opaque to me—but I’ve been looking to step a bit out of my comfort zone where poetry is concerned, so we’ll see where this takes me.

4: The View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman

This is a collection of some of Gaiman’s nonfiction writing: essays, book introductions, speeches (including the famous “Make Good Art” speech), and even the liner notes from a few rock albums. Having read some of these pieces where they were originally published (such as the hilarious title essay, about Gaiman attending the Oscars in 2010 and being banished to, well, the cheap seats), I already suspect this book is going to be brilliant.

That’s all for now. Anyone here read any of these? Let me know what you thought in the comments.

Poems for Valentine’s Day

Image by Joanna Kosinska.

Image by Joanna Kosinska.

Around this time last year, I published a list of 10 of my favorite love poems. That post got such a good response from you guys that I decided I’d do another list this year. Without my really planning it that way, last year’s list skewed a little more heavily toward older poetry, whereas this one skews a little more toward modern poetry. Hopefully, they’ll make good complements to each other.

1: “A Birthday” by Christina Rossetti

A classic of classics: short, sweet, and beautiful as only Christina Rossetti can do.

2: “I am in love, hence free to live” by Vera Pavlova

My metaphorical hat is off to Suzannah Rowntree for introducing me to this poet and this poem. In case you’ve never heard of her, Vera Pavlova is a contemporary Russian poet and one of the bestselling authors in Russia. Her poems tend to follow a pattern similar to this one: brief but passionate, and often dealing with love or relationships.

3: “To Hold” by Li-Young Lee

Lee is another of my favorite contemporary poets. Here, he does what all the good poets do: takes something very ordinary and mundane—in this case, the ritual of making a bed—and lets us see it in a new and beautiful way.

4: “The Good Morrow” by John Donne

And speaking of looking at things in a new way, Donne—in true Metaphysical fashion—here appeals to the worlds of history, science, and global exploration to communicate the depths of his love.

5: “The Underground” by Seamus Heaney

Inspired by a honeymoon trip, a Greek myth, and his wife’s ruined coat, this has quickly become one of my favorite poems from my favorite poet.

6: “Variation on the Word Sleep” by Margaret Atwood

Christopher Adamson mentioned this one in the comments of my last Valentine’s Day post and I’m so glad he did. I think it pairs especially well with the Heaney poem because, while it doesn’t reference any specific myth, it does take on the atmosphere of a mythical underworld, similar to “The Underground.”

7: “Poetry” by Don Paterson

As the (largely) self-taught owner of a middling book blog, I’m usually not inclined to make dogmatic statements about literature. But I will be dogmatic and say that Don Paterson is one of the greatest living poets in the world. This sonnet—a love poem about writing love poetry—helps prove it, I think.

8: “Adam’s Curse” by W. B. Yeats

I tried to keep the tone of this list relatively light, but it’s actually quite difficult to find love poems that aren’t sad. This one, for instance, has a mournful attitude, but Yeats wears it so well I thought I’d include this poem anyway.

9: “Near the Wall of a House” by Yehuda Amichai

One of the reasons why I love Amichai’s work is because much of it is so beautiful and profound while using simple, unadorned language. “Near the Wall of a House” is one of those poems, talking about love and transcendence while still giving us a grounding in what’s familiar.

10: “Marriage of Many Years” by Dana Gioia

Another poet who knows how to make words count is Dana Gioia. Here, he writes about how love progresses past the limits of language.

That’s all for now. Let me know what you think of any or all of these in the comments and feel free to chime in with your favorite love poems.

Book Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Author: Neil Gaiman

Year of First Publication: 2013

Year of Publication for This Edition: 2014

Number of Pages: 178

Publisher: William Morrow

Genre: Fiction

Sub-Genres: Fantasy, magical realism

Find it on Amazon.

This is one of those books that I bought and then stuck in my bedroom somewhere, never to be seen again until several months later when I finally decided to read it. I have no idea what took me so long. I mean, I had read Gaiman’s short stories before, so I knew him to be more than capable of creating mind-bending fantasy worlds, or a real-world story teeming with dread, or a very simple story that nevertheless breaks your heart. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when he did all three at once.

It’s difficult to summarize The Ocean at the End of the Lane without giving away too much, but I’ll try: a man goes back to his hometown in Sussex, England for a funeral (whose funeral we never learn, nor do we ever hear the man’s name). While he’s there, he visits his old neighborhood and begins to reminisce about the things that happened there the year he turned seven. He recalls Lettie Hempstock, a little girl who lived up the lane from him with her mother and grandmother and whose backyard, she claimed, had an ocean in it. Following a sudden death on the lane, this nameless little boy’s once-peaceful home is invaded by monsters that only Lettie and her family know how to tame.

To put it bluntly, this book is beautiful. Strange and unsettling too, as all the good fantasies are, but beautiful nonetheless. I think my friend got it right when he said that Gaiman has written neither a children’s story nor an adult’s story, but rather a myth: something that can be enjoyed on many different levels and by anyone.

There are, you might say, a lot of gaps in this book. A lot of unknowns. We know that there’s something different about Lettie and the rest of the Hempstock women, but we’re never really told what it is. We know that the creatures that Lettie calls to or chases away have to come from someplace, but we never find out where. Heck, we don’t even find out what most of these characters’ names are. On the one hand, this can be a little disorienting: most of us are used to stories where everything is wrapped up neatly by the end. On the other hand, though, I think the unknowns are part of what give this book its appeal. They keep you curious. They keep you grasping to learn more. You become, like the protagonist, the wonder-struck child trying to make sense of things that are new and strange. That’s what this book gives you: a taste of the wonder that so many of us, unfortunately, leave behind in childhood.

In my quest to conquer the “To-Be-Read” list, I don’t often reread books. For this one, though, I’ll have to make an exception. It’s a beautiful book, a wise book, and above all, a true book. It took me much too long to get here, but I’m glad I finally did.

How about you all? What did you think of The Ocean at the End of the Lane? Which of Gaiman’s books should I read next? Let me know in the comments.

Bookish Links — January 2017

Image by Clem Onojeghuo.

Image by Clem Onojeghuo.

And last but not least, Tom Hillman from Alas, Not Me found this awesome video of John Hurt (may he rest in peace) reciting Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” for Charlie Rose.

Christmas Books

It occurred to me some time around the beginning of the month that I really should have written a post listing all of the books I got last Christmas. I thought January might be too late to post something Christmas-related, but a quick look around the blogosphere confirmed that there are still plenty of people posting their Christmas lists late. So without further ado, here’s mine.

1: The Complete English Poems by John Donne

Ah, John. The world would be such a boring place without him. Donne is one of my favorite poets, if not my favorite, for which reason this book has rarely left my side since December. I love it.

2: The Complete Poems by Christina Rossetti

I’ve been taking an interest lately in both the Rossetti family and the Pre-Raphaelite movement, so it’s nice to have all of Rossetti’s poems in one volume, instead of the anthologies and the Project Gutenberg ebooks I’m used to reading her out of. This book definitely makes it easier to appreciate what a prolific author she was too: 880 pages before footnotes!

3: Collected Poems by Ruth Pitter

Today, Ruth Pitter is probably best known as one of C. S. Lewis’s more frequent pen pals. In her own day, though, she was one of the most popular poets in England. In the little bit of her work that I’ve read so far, she almost reminds me of Rossetti, with her straightforward language and her strict meters. Like her friend Lewis, she also captures a sense of longing or “Joy” that few are capable of expressing. Books of her poetry are pretty rare on this side of the Atlantic, so I consider myself lucky to have gotten one.

4: The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy L. Sayers

Sayers is another writer on the periphery of the Inklings that I’ve been interested to know more about. She’s most famous for her mystery novels and her work as a translator, but she was also an essayist, writing on everything from language and education to feminism and theology. This particular book contains a series of essays on art and how human creativity reflects and interacts with the Divine. It comes highly recommended by a friend, so it should be a fantastic read.

That’s all for now. Tell me, what books did you get for Christmas? Have you read any of these? Let me know in the comments.

Book Review: Rain

Rain on pavement

Image by Giulia Marotta.

Author: Don Paterson

Year of First Publication: 2009

Year of Publication for This Edition: 2011

Number of Pages: 61

Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

Genre: Poetry

Sub-Genres: Contemporary poetry

Find it on Amazon here.

really wanted to like this book. Especially since I believed this author was going to turn out to be one of my new favorite poets. I was taken in immediately by his technical brilliance, by the way he crafts his poems and makes these awe-inspiring, mind-bending little devices out of words. By the time I reached the end, though, I wasn’t nearly so excited.

In case you’re unfamiliar with him, Don Paterson is a Scottish poet and the author of eight books of verse, of which Rain is his sixth. I first discovered him thanks to this video by BookTuber Cinzia DuBois, in which she reads his poem “Fit” out of his latest book, 40 Sonnets. You could have called it love at first sight/listen: I then began looking up Paterson’s poems elsewhere, but the Poetry Foundation and the Scottish Poetry Library will only get you so far. I bought Rain because 40 Sonnets hasn’t been published in the US at the time and I didn’t want to wait to get it from a British seller.

What first attracted me to Paterson’s work was his style and language, seeming perfectly modern without avoiding form, rhyme, meter, and all of the other devices that we usually associate with older poetry. The little bit of his work that I had read prior to this collection was enough on its own to convince me that Paterson is an absolute master of poetic form. On that point, Rain is fantastic: Paterson uses a wide range of forms in this collection, everything from sonnets to the Japanese renku, and even some less traditional forms—for instance, his poem “Unfold,” a tribute to the late Japanese origami master Akira Yoshizawa which consists of a single blank page.

There are some truly beautiful things in his book. “The Rain at Sea” never ceases to amaze me, nor does “The Lie,” “Miguel,” or “Why Do You Stay Up So Late?” “The Bowl-Maker,” a version of the Greek poet C. P. Cavafy, is one of my new favorite poems, and “Motive,” I’m happy to tell you, uses metaphor to explore the mystery of love in such a way as would do John Donne proud.

But . . .

While Paterson is a brilliant poet, I can’t say that I especially enjoyed Rain overall. This had mostly to do with the bleak, materialistic worldview presented in the collection.

One thing that you’ll notice very quickly is that this is a dark book: among other topics, its poems deal primarily with illness, lost love, and death. In the midst of his lamentations, you can feel Paterson straining to make sense of what seems senseless, to form an answer to the question, “Why do things like this happen?” And Paterson’s answer is there is no answer. The universe is meaningless, directionless, accidental. He summed it up more succinctly in the final lines of “Rain,” the last poem in the collection:

forget the ink, the milk, the blood—
all was washed clean with the flood
we rose up from the falling waters
the fallen rain’s own sons and daughters

and none of this, none of this matters.

As you can probably guess by now, I disagree: I actually do think that there’s an order and meaning to the universe. I even believe there’s such a thing as transcendent reality. And I think the best poetry—the best art, really—reflects that reality. I’m not saying that all poets need be religious, but they do have to have something of an “impulse towards the transcendent,” as Seamus Heaney called it. Paterson, it seems, is drawn to the transcendent, or at least to the idea of transcendence, but refuses to believe it exists. In his search for meaning, he has turned up empty and only has himself and his art to fall back on. For me, these kinds of poems just aren’t enough.

So in the end, Rain was sort of a let down. It had something of what I like in poetry: perfect word choices, biting wit, stunning imagery. But the one thing it lacked just so happened to be the main thing that I go to poetry for in the first place: a conviction of some greater meaning beyond the material world, and especially beyond myself.

Book Review: The Rossettis in Wonderland

Author: Dinah Roe

Year of Publication: 2011

Number of Pages: 412

Publisher: Haus Publishing Ltd.

Genre: Nonfiction

Sub-Genres: Biography

The entire Rossetti clan (minus Gabriele) in an 1863 photo taken by Lewis Carroll. From left to right: Christina, Gabriel, Frances, William, and Maria.

The entire Rossetti clan (minus Gabriele) in an 1863 photo taken by Lewis Carroll. From left to right: Christina, Gabriel, Frances, William, and Maria.

As you might have guessed by now from my profile picture or my list of “Blogs I Follow,” I sort of have a thing for Pre-Raphaelite art. I’m also a fan of the poetry of Christina Rossetti. So you can imagine my surprise when it finally dawned on me a few years ago that one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was the brother of the famous poetess. Not only that, but the two of them also came from an entire family of artists and writers. This was one family that I had to know more about, so I was excited to read The Rossettis in Wonderland, a biography of the family by university lecturer and Pre-Raphaelite scholar Dinah Roe.

The book begins with Gabriele Rossetti, an Italian-born professor and poet. After being forced to leave Italy during a time of political crisis, Rossetti started a new life in London, where he met and married Frances Polidori. The firstborn Rossetti child, Maria, ultimately found her calling first as a governess and then as a nun, though she would also write literary criticism and religious works. The next-oldest Gabriel—raised in the firm belief that he was the genius of the family—achieved fame both as a poet and as a painter, becoming one of foremost artists of his time. His brother William, though he wouldn’t become a known artist himself, nevertheless influenced the Victorian art world through his work as a critic. And lastly, there was Christina, once in the running to become the Poet Laureate of Great Britain and still considered today to be one of the greatest poets in English history.

As you can see, this story has rather a big cast. As in the case of Philip and Carol Zaleski’s The Fellowship, which I reviewed in September, this book has to operate on two levels: on the one hand, it’s concerned with the lives of individuals and on the other hand, with the life of a group. Fortunately, Roe does a good job of capturing both ends of the spectrum, the unique individuality of each family member and the collective spirit of the family at large.

The title page of Christina Rossetti's 1862 poetry collection Goblin Market, illustrated by Gabriel Rossetti.

The title page of Christina Rossetti’s 1862 poetry collection Goblin Market, illustrated by Gabriel Rossetti.

I also appreciated the insight and the objectivity Roe brought to her representations of each person. In reading and writing about the past, it’s always important to view people’s thoughts and actions in the context of their own lives rather than in light of how similar actions or beliefs might be interpreted today. One example of where this matters is Christina Rossetti’s faith. As most of her readers probably know, Christina was a devout Christian, an Anglo-Catholic whose faith informed much of her writing. It would be easy for a modern biographer to dismiss Christina’s religious zeal as just another example of the Victorians and their superstitious ways, or to portray it, as some have, as an impediment to her artistic and intellectual development. Roe, on the other hand, tries to understand Christina’s faith in light of what it meant to her, and not what it means to more recent spectators. She also points out how, far from stifling Christina, the Anglican church—and especially the “Tractarian” sect to which she belonged—encouraged education and intellectual accomplishment among its members, including women. I like that Roe took the time to point out just what a serious thing religion was for Christina, and how it shaped and inspired her work as a poet.

For a person interested in any or all of the Rossettis, or in the Pre-Raphaelite movement, this is definitely a book that I would recommend. Still, there were a few glitches here and there:

First off, this book could have greatly benefited from the help of a careful editor. It’s not as if there are typos on every page, but where there are typos, they’re noticeable. For instance, there are a few places where Gabriele Rossetti’s name is misspelled as Gabriel, leading the reader to think that a passage about the father is really about his son. There are also a few places where Roe repeats herself, presenting information that she first introduced a few pages earlier as if this is the first time the reader is hearing it. Altogether, it made the reading experience less smooth than it could have been.

Second, I didn’t care for all of the speculation on the author’s part. There were points where she would suggest a number of things that a specific person might have been thinking or feeling at a certain moment, without pointing to any letters or diaries that backed her up. It felt like Roe was trying to create an emotional connection between the reader and her subjects in these moments, but it didn’t quite work. At least, not for me. Mostly, it just slowed the book down, I thought. Overall, though, it’s still a great biography, and heavily footnoted with a long bibliography in the back. Not all biographers take the time to add footnotes and bibliographies these days, so I was glad she did.

That about wraps it up for me. Do let me know in the comments if you’ve read this book, what you thought about it, and if you can recommend any other interesting books on the Rossettis or the Pre-Raphaelites.

All images are from Wikimedia Commons.

Favorite Books of 2016

Image by Syd Wachs. Because most of the books on this list are ebooks anyway.

Image by Syd Wachs. Because most of the books on this list are ebooks anyway.

Two-and-a-half years after starting this site, I figure it’s time I get my blogging act together and start a regular, end-of-the-year wrap-up series. I’m afraid I can’t provide you with a grand total of books I read in 2016, A) because I wasn’t keeping track and B) because whatever the final tally is, I’m sure it will be embarrassingly puny next to those of my fellow bloggers. I read slowly, OK? And I tend to linger over books once I finish them—reading and rereading particular parts, and that sort of thing.

Without further ado, here are a few of the books that I enjoyed the most this past year.

Favorite Fiction

The majority of my reading this year was either nonfiction or poetry, which left very little room for fiction, but all in all, I have to say my favorite fiction is a toss-up between “White Nights” by Fyodor Dostoevsky (review) and Dubliners by James Joyce (review). After hearing so many horror stories about how difficult Joyce’s work can be, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoying most of these stories, even though I know that Dubliners is the easy one and he only gets more complicated from there. That’s on top of Joyce’s sublime prose, which should be the envy of every writer worth his salt.

Similar to Dubliners, “White Nights” was my first real encounter with a classic author about whom I had heard much but from whom I had read little. This bittersweet little novella then encouraged me to go and read more of Dostoevsky’s short fiction, with the intention of working my way up to the novels. Who knows? Maybe in 2017, I’ll be able to review some of the really interesting books, like Crime and Punishment.

Favorite Play

This was the year I finally read Macbeth and oh my goodness, what took me so long? This is one of my favorite books of all time, not just of this year, and I would love to explore it in more depth in the future.

Favorite Nonfiction

This is tough: I’m stuck between a book about the Inklings and one by an Inkling. I think my favorite nonfiction will end up being The Fellowship by Philip and Carol Zaleski (review) just because I love biographies, and this happens to be one of the better ones I’ve read in a while. Although, I would like to give honorable mention to C. S. Lewis’s The Four Loves, which is some of his finest work (in my opinion), as well as being terribly underrated.

Favorite Poetry

I read a lot of great poetry this year, but I think the collection that stands out to me the most is Seamus Heaney’s Field Work. It was a little slow-going, since I kept stopping to look up words like “omphalos” and “retiarius.” But luckily, Heaney’s poems are more than worth whatever work it takes to understand them: often considered one of his best books, this is certainly some of the most beautiful poetry I’ve ever read from Heaney, as well as some of his most intensely lyrical work. I’ll probably write a full review of Field Work sometime later this year. I also have the four collections that came before it, so maybe I’ll review them all in order.

That’s it for me. What are your favorite books that you read in 2016? Let me know in the comments!

Bookish Links — December 2016

Image by Markus Spiske

Image by Markus Spiske

  • Of the 2017 releases that have already been announced, I’m especially looking forward to Czeslaw Milosz’s dystopian science fiction novel, written in the 1970’s and coming out in English for the first time next month.

And lastly, here’s a recording that Neil Gaiman made earlier this month of himself reading Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.” A sort of early Christmas present, it was. (HT: Open Culture)

Literary Rediscoveries of 2016

About this time last year, I brought you a list of previously-unknown or lost works that were found/published in 2015. With such geniuses as Dylan Thomas, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Charlotte Brontë on that list, I was afraid this year’s installment would seem a little lackluster by comparison.

No danger of that.

So, in the order that these pieces were found or published, here are 13 old works that the world got a new look at in 2016.

1: “New York to San Fran” (et. al.) by Allen Ginsberg

This poem, published for the first time in the February 2016 issue of Poetry magazine, is taken from a new Ginsberg collection titled Wait till I’m Dead: Uncollected Poems. It’s actually just one of over 100 of Ginsberg’s poems that, over the years, either were lost or never published in the first place, and are now seeing the light of day once more thanks to this collection.

2 & 3: “The Shadow Man” and “Noel” by J. R. R. Tolkien

For the second year in a row, Tolkien makes it onto the “Rediscovered Works” list, this time with a pair of poems published in a school magazine in 1936. (It appears the initial discovery was actually made in 2013 by Tolkien scholars Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull, but for some reason, the press didn’t catch wind of it until February of this year.) Of these two poems, only “The Shadow Man,” an early version of what would later become the poem “Shadow-Bride,” was previously known to exist. “Noel,” a retelling of the story of Christ’s birth, was a completely unexpected find, even to the Tolkien experts. No word yet on when or where these poems will be reprinted, but for now, you can read “The Shadow Man” here.

4: Recordings of Robert Frost reading his poetry


Frost in or around 1910.

In March of this year, PennSound, the University of Pennsylvania’s online archive for poetry recordings by poets, announced the release of twenty-one unpublished recordings of Frost’s poetry. The recordings were made at Columbia University between 1933 and 1934 and include, among other poems, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “Birches,” “Mending Wall,” and “On the Heart’s Beginning to Cloud the Mind,” which Frost composed in place of an acceptance speech after he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1937.

5: A letter Walt Whitman wrote for a Union soldier

This isn’t so much a “literary work,” but it provides an interesting glimpse into Whitman’s life: during the Civil War, Whitman was known to visit Union army hospitals, where he would hand out food and sometimes money to the patients. He also wrote letters for those who were too badly hurt to do it themselves, or, in the case of this letter, for those who were illiterate. This previously-unknown letter, discovered in the National Archives by a volunteer archivist, was written for a Private Robert Jabo to send to his wife and six children. A brief P.S. at the end mentions that the letter was written by Whitman, and several Whitman experts have authenticated the handwriting. It’s the real deal!

6: Aeneid, Book VI translated by Seamus Heaney

For years, Heaney, a lifelong lover of Latin poetry, had been planning to translate the sixth book of Virgil’s Aeneid and publish it as a standalone work. He even had a finished manuscript of the translation ready for his editor when he died suddenly in 2013. That manuscript was then discovered in 2015 on one of Heaney’s old computers by his daughter Catherine, who published it in March of this year. This story becomes even more amazing and slightly eerie when you find out that Book VI of the Aeneid is about Aeneas going to the underworld to speak with his dead father.

7: Then Come Back: The Lost Neruda by Pablo Neruda (translated by Forrest Gander)

On the same day that Heaney’s Aeneid translation was published in the US, we also got this book of poems by the great Chilean master, including twenty poems being published for the first time in English. It seems that some archivists at the Pablo Neruda Foundation in Chile discovered these poems while sorting some of the late author’s papers. The non-profit publisher Copper Canyon Press then went to Kickstarter to raise the necessary $50,000 to get this book in print, where they raised more than twice that amount.

8: “Seven People Dancing” by Langston Hughes

Hughes in 1936. Photo by Carl van Vechten.

Hughes in 1936. Photo by Carl van Vechten.

This short story, written around 1961 and never published, was found in Yale University’s collection of Hughes’s papers by Arnold Rampersand, Hughes’s biographer. Hughes was experimenting with modernist prose in the sixties and this story is one such experiment. The story was published in the June 6 issue of The New Yorker, but you can also read it here at The New Yorker‘s website.

9: The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots by Beatrix Potter

This story, concerning a little black cat who likes sling her shotgun over her shoulder and go hunting, was first written around 1914. 100 years later in 2014, a reference to the story in some of Beatrix Potter’s letters led Jo Hanks, the children’s editor at Penguin Random House, to go looking through the archive of Potter’s papers at the Victoria and Albert Museum, where she found three drafts of this story. The finished book, illustrated by Quentin Blake, was published this September.


Wells, in an undated photograph.

10: “The Haunted Ceiling” by H. G. Wells

Remember Andrew Gulli? The magazine editor who, last year, found and published a previously-unseen short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald? He and his magazine The Strand are back again, this time with an unpublished short story by the science fiction master H. G. Wells. “The Haunted Ceiling,” the story of a man whose study is haunted by a young woman’s ghost, was discovered at the University of Illinois, which hosts a huge archive of Wells’s papers. The story was published in the October-January issue of The Strand.

11: “Poem” by A. A. Milne

Though today he’s known almost exclusively as the author of the wonderful Winnie-the-Pooh books, Milne wrote across multiple genres, including drama, crime fiction, and poetry. This particular poem was written in 1918 to be read at a fundraiser for the Tank Corps Prisoners of War Fund. Appropriately, it’s a propaganda piece extolling the virtues of Britain’s brand new tanks and their role in the First World War.

12: The oldest known audiobook, Joseph Conrad’s “Typhoon”


Conrad in 1916.

Recorded by England’s Royal National Institute for Blind People in about 1935, this set of four shellac discs is believed to be the oldest full-length audiobook in existence. Its discovery was announced in November by Matthew Rubery, a literature professor at London’s Queen Mary University. Rubery was researching the history of audiobooks when he was contacted by a record collector in Canada saying he had acquired a copy of the “Typhoon” audiobook. Shellac records are infamously delicate, so it’s amazing that the entire set has survived this long. You can also listen to a portion of this long-lost book here.

13: A lot of documents belonging to a lot of authors

In 2014, Mary Innes-Kerr, Duchess of Roxburghe, passed away, leaving the enormous library she inherited from her father to Cambridge University’s Trinity College. Besides gaining more than 7,000 new books, the university also received a cache of letters and other papers belong to famous authors that the Duchess’s father and grandfather had collected over the years, many of them previously unknown. I haven’t been able to find the full list of goodies yet, but the BBC reports that among the papers Duchess Roxburghe owned were a letter from Charles Dickens (squirreled away in a first edition copy of Hard Times), a copy of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray with an inscription from Wilde, and a letter that Henry James wrote to the duchess’s grandfather, in response to a fan letter he wrote to him. So, all in all, a pretty impressive lot.

Let me know in the comments if I missed anything and Happy New Year!

All images are from Wikimedia Commons.

What Makes a Poem “Good”: a Completely Unbiased Investigation

Here’s something that’s been languishing in my drafts for a while that I almost forgot about. Enjoy.

Image by Jazmin Quaynor.

Image by Jazmin Quaynor.

If you’ve spent any amount of time around BookTube, you probably know already who Jen Campbell is. In case you don’t, she’s an author, poet, and book blogger based in the UK. Some weeks ago, she posted a video in which she posed this question to her viewers: “What makes a poem ‘good’?” It’s an interesting question, one that can be answered in a number of ways. Today, I thought I’d give my own personal answer and talk about a few of the things that, for me, make a poem worth reading.

Of course, one of the best things about poetry is how varied it is. Poems come in all shapes, sizes, and forms, and poets themselves have a near-infinite store of techniques available to them to make their poems do exactly what they want them to do. When you meet a poem, you have to take it on its own terms, so to speak. All this to say that what I’m about to write is not a checklist that I apply to every poem I read to find out whether it’s “good” or not. Rather, these are just a few of the things that have stood out to me most in my reading and that have encouraged me to dig further into poetry.

OK, enough preambling, let’s get to the post:

I’m sure you know the old cliché quote, attributed to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which says that poetry is “the best words in their best order.” I’ve always liked that quote because for me, one of the best things about poetry is getting to see an author use language in such a way that you feel as though no other arrangement of words in the world could express exactly what he or she was trying to say. That’s a defining feature of poetry, after all: the precision of the language. In prose, words are chosen primarily for their dictionary definition, and sometimes for their connotations. In poetry, though, words are chosen for their definition, connotation, sound, and sometimes even history. All of these elements have to mesh perfectly with what the poet is trying to say.

Father Gerard {PD-1923}

Fr. Hopkins // Image via Wikimedia Commons [PD-1923]

For instance, one poet who showed amazing skill at choosing words was Gerard Manley Hopkins. In his poetry, the sounds of the words and the overall meaning of the poem are so closely entwined that you can’t really have one without the other. The sound of the poem helps you understand what it means. (A really good example of this is “As Kingfishers Catch Fire.”)

Jen’s video also included a portion of a conversation she had with fellow poet Alex MacDonald who said that one of the “great joys” of reading is finding your own thoughts expressed better than you could have done. Though I by no means restrict myself to poems expressing only the thoughts and emotions that I’ve experienced personally—and I don’t think anyone else should either—there’s nothing like finding a poem that feels like it was written with you in mind. Whether it’s a few especially insightful lines or a work that captures a particular mood or frame of mind, there are times when it helps to see your own thoughts printed out on paper. If nothing else, it gives you the sense that you’re not alone, that what you’re experiencing has been endured by others before you.

On the other hand, sometimes the thing that makes a poem worth reading is not what you and the speaker have in common, but what you don’t have in common. Sounds strange? It probably is, but bear with me.

I’ve always loved the Metaphysical Poets, and one of the main reasons why I love them is because they make me think in unusual ways. The same metaphors that caused Sam Johnson and John Dryden to write them off as poetasters were fascinating to me. If I can steal a quote from Seamus Heaney, a new metaphor is a new opportunity to see the same old things for the first time. I like that feeling of seeing old things as if they’re new to me.

And if I had to name it, I think that’s one of my main reasons for reading poetry: it gives me the chance to experience something new, or something old in a new way, by getting another’s perspective. It’s not just elaborate metaphors or metaphysical conceits that do the trick: it’s practically any poem that can make me understand (in however small a measure) the way in which the author sees the world.


Image via Wikimedia Commons. [PD-1923]

I’ll take for an example one poet whom I’ve been reading a lot of lately: Emily Dickinson. When I first began reading her work, I was intrigued and slightly mystified by phrases like “I dwell in Possibility” or “One need not be a chamber to be haunted.” Time and again, the passages in Dickinson’s poetry that most strike me are almost always the ones where she proves that her mind works nothing like mine. And that, of course, is the whole point: by seeing her thoughts laid out in black and white, I’m able to take a break from my own—to get a glimpse of a world that’s been remade simply by viewing it from a different perspective. I think poets are at their best when they can make you feel and think in ways you may never have arrived at on your own.

I could go on, but this post is too long already. Hopefully, I’ve given you some idea of why I love poetry so much, and have maybe even inspired you to read some poetry yourself.

Who else here likes poetry? Why do you like it? What tricks or traits will keep you coming back to a certain poet or poem? Let me know in the comments.