Saturday, June 25, 2005

Bookmarks for June 2005

Well, since school got out, I've been doing a bit of reading despite being busy with family stuff. Here's a few thoughts on what I've looked at so far:

Ten Poems to Change Your Life by Roger Housden. I really like the idea for this book, but it is a bit too new age-y for me. Hodgsen has selected some fine pieces, well worth reading on their own. I suggest, should you read the book, that you read each poem, then its corresponding chapter, then the poem again before going on to the next chapter. The book is not really for self-help or devotional purposes, but it can work that way.

I once asked a friend, someone I consider very intelligent and centered, why he read so many self-help books. He said that now and then he got a nugget of helpful information or advice. When I said that it did not seem worth the trouble read so much for the mere possibility of a small amount that might be useful, he noted that reading them just made him feel a bit better about himself. Ten Poems to Change Your Life is the sort of book that one might read in just that way. It encourages, it seems, the reader to see life as a journey that takes us to places we might not be comfortable with, but if we hang in there, we might see something good in ourselves and others. It is not my cup of tea, but I read it while I was particularly down, and I have to admit I felt a bit affirmed...sort of.

Ashes by Philip Levine. I think I read this book sometime when I was in college, but I don't remember. I have read a couple Levine books and several poems here and there in anthologies and journals. I've always been struck by Levine's rather down to earth, honest, poetry that does not have to be overly gritty or earthy (but isn't afraid to be when necessary). His work demonstrates that the poetic is what is part of real life, not that poetry is an escape from the real world.

The very first poem, "Father," knocks one down. It opens: "The long lines of diesels/groan toward evening/carrying off the breath/of the living." One sees that the poem's quiet anger is earned well before the punch of the final short line, "Don't come back." By the time we reach the last poem, "Lost and Found," the reader senses not resignation or bitterness, but a belief that some sort of connection can exist even in pain. This is the sort of affirmation, I think, we need -- imagination grounded in the universe we must inhabit, hope in just walking forward.
Unseen Rain by Rumi (translated by John Moyne and Coleman Barks ). These are (mostly) quatrains written, as the translators note, during the middle part of Rumi's life, during and immediately after the deep friendship (is that the right phrase?) with Shams. The poems are certainly not like haiku, or even in the spirit of haiku, yet some of them do seem to read like haiku that just sits there saying little, expressing little. I don't mean that to be a criticism except that apparently, like haiku, one might need to be in a particular frame of mind to get out of the verses something more than the image or sentiment. That is not to say that the image or the well phrased sentiment isn't sufficient. I did find some pieces that were quite powerful, lines that helped me see why Rumi is so often quoted these days.

As an example of what I mean, let me give you the following: "I have lived on the lip/of insanity, wanting to know reasons,/knocking on a door. It opens./I've been knocking from the inside!" This little poem seems to contain a "message" (something I normally eschew). Yet I think there is something there worth noting, and perhaps something different to be gained or enjoyed if read in a different frame of mind.
John Coltrane by Bill Cole. Cole's book is part biography of the great sax player and part analysis of Coltrane's music and genius, particularly as a spiritual artist. Most of the discussion of Trane's music is way, way over my head, but I can see it benefitting serious students of music. I like best that Cole works to connect Trane's life, philosophy/religion, and jazz history. Thanks much to my daughter, Angela, for giving me this for Father's Day.

June has been a difficult month. But reading has been quite a solace for me. Here's to the joys of quiet and the pleasure of holding words in one's hands.