Friday, June 13, 2008

Reader's Diary #366- Jason Schinder (Editor): The Poem I Turn To

A few months ago I got an email asking if I would like a review copy of The Poem I Turn To: Actors and Directors Present Poetry That Inspires Them. Published by Sourcebooks, Inc, I wasn't sure why they were offering it to me (I've gotten a few review copies from other publishers sent to me before, but I've signed up to receive those). Anyway, I agreed and eventually it arrived.

My initial reservation with the book was the star-gazing. Actors are, of course, human and entitled to their opinions just as anyone else. But, when they endorse products, causes, or people that they have no expertise in whatsoever, I just don't get it. Then, I don't blame them as much as the chumps who follow them blindly. Would reading The Poem I Turn To make me one of them? No, "anyone lived in a little how town" was a great poem before Carrie Fisher pointed it out.

And once I thought about it, I was being unfair. They weren't hawking shampoo or barbecue sauce, they were simply discussing the poems that inspire, influence, and comfort them. I do appreciate acting. It's an art as much as poetry is. Not that impressionist painters can sing opera, or ballet dancers can sculpt a bust of David, but one would expect that being at least involved in some artistic field gives them an understanding of the power of art.

Of course, when the book arrived and I saw it was hardcover and had a cd included, that helped!

The Poem I Turn To is a great anthology. It has lots of classic poems like Shakespeare's "Sonnet 30," William Blake's "The Tyger" and Ezra Pound's "In a Station at the Metro." I love revisiting these poems. I read somewhere once that it takes numerous readings of a poem to appreciate and understand it. I used to read my poetry books that way: read a poem, then read it again, and then a third time. It was taking me forever and taking the fun out of it. I then decided to mark ones that caught my eye the first time around and revisit them later. In the case of classic poems, there's really no need. They pop up in so many anthologies that I end up revisiting and rereading them all the time. No wonder they're so well loved. Whoever said familiarity breeds contempt wasn't talking about poetry. It was interesting to see how many actors picked poems that they had to memorize in school. I didn't have to memorize poetry in school (though I know most of "In Flanders Fields" from Remembrance Day assemblies), and there's a definite shift away from rote memorization and such practices. But obviously it worked for them (or maybe they were brainwashed!); they revisited the poems so often that the meaning, the rhythm, and images not only became clearer, but stuck with them. I still think there must be a way to have students revisit poems without making it such a task.

The Poem I Turn To also had a few poets that I was unfamiliar with: Oriah Mountain Dreamer, James Wright, and most interesting, Nakasak. I'm told that Nakasak was an Inuk from the early 1900s who helped the U.S. Navy find a suitable airbase right here in Iqaluit (then Frobisher Bay). How have I lived here this long and not heard of him? And what an odd book to discover him.

by Nakasak

There is a tribe of invisible men
who move around us like shadows – have you felt them?
They have bodies like ours and live just like us,
using the same kind of weapons and tools.
You can see their tracks in the snow sometimes
and even their igloos
but never the invisible men themselves.
They cannot be seen except when they die
for then they become visible.

It once happened that a human woman
married one of the invisible men.
He was a good husband in every way:
He went out hunting and brought her food,
and they could talk together like any other couple.
But the wife could not bear the thought
that she did not know what the man she married looked like.
One day when they were both at home
she was so overcome with curiosity to see him
that she stabbed with a knife where she knew he was sitting.
And her desire was fulfilled:
Before her eyes a handsome young man fell to the floor.
but he was cold and dead, and too late
she realized what she had done,
and sobbed her heart out.

When the invisible men heard about this murder
they came out of their igloos to take revenge.
Their bows were seen moving through the air
and the bow strings stretching as they aimed their arrows.
The human stood there helplessly
for they had no idea what to do or how to fight
because they could not see their assailants.
But the invisible men had a code of honor
that forbade them to attack opponents
who could not defend themselves,
so they did not let their arrows fly,
and nothing happened; there was no battle after all
and everyone went back to their ordinary lives.

One issue I have with the book is the occasional actor that didn't bother to write why or how the poems inspired them. Sadly, this was usually the more recognizable names: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jane Fonda, Steve Buscemi and a few others. I understand that Shinder needed a few actors more recognizable than Bob Balaban and Lili Taylor but at least those took the time to discuss why the poem had a personal importance. Without that, the collection would have had nothing to offer over your average beginner anthology.

As for the cd, it's okay. Though a lot of people stress (with a near fanaticism) that poems have to be heard, not read, I prefer reading them. I find it more personal. I am getting into the listening aspect a little more, but the cd for The Poem I Turn To isn't a convincing case. While Paul Guilfoyle does a great job with "To His Coy Mistress," actually paying attention to the mood of the poem and having fun with it, others affect a sombre, near robotic tone that has all the emotion of a lost sock. How can someone suck the fun from William Carlos Williams' s "Danse Russe"? Ask Michael Lally.

Still, discovering such poems as Meghan O'Rourke's "Inventing a Horse" and Donald Hall's "My Son, My Executioner" as well as the opportunity to revisit old favourites, made this collection great. It's one I'll turn to.

My Son, My Executioner
by Donald Hall

My son, my executioner,
I take you in my arms,
Quiet and small and just astir,
And whom my body warms

(Read the rest here.)


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the introduction to those two poets, John.

Funny how celebrity both endorses and repels. I'm with your on initial scepticism but the book does sound interesting, and sound is correct. I'll probably pick up the audible version. I read most poetry silently myself so it's a treat to hear it read or recited outloud.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

While being chosen by actors shouldn't be cause to validate a poem, of course, neither should it be cause to dismiss it. An interesting concept, though.

John Mutford said...

Carrie: Don't thank me, thank Matthew Maher (who also does a great job on the cd) for the Nakasak poem, and Kathleen Glynn for the Donald Hall poem. As far as I know the cd is only available packaged alongside the book, though if you looked maybe there are mp3s available somewhere. Also, only 30 of the 80 poems in the book are found on the cd.

Barbara: They could do a whole series of similar projects: Photographs and the Rock Stars Who Love Them. Do you think Thom Yorke is into Annie Liebowitz?

Barbara Bruederlin said...

I wouldn't be at all surprised, alhtough he likely favours someone a little more obscure.

Josette said...

This is definitely a great book! I don't really own any good book of poems, so this anthology's pretty valuable to me. :) I got to know a lot of new poems too. Anyway, here's my review of it!