Irony?

Title: Why Poetry Sucks:
An Anthology of Humorous Experimental Canadian Poetry in English Written by Canadians for Canadians (or American Bodysnatchers) in the Early Years of the 21st Century with an Overly Long and Not That Clever Subtitle the Publisher Rightly Refused to Put on the Cover
Editors: Ryan Fitzpatrick & Jonathan Ball
Genre: Poetry
Pages: 293
Rating: 1 of 5

Isn’t that subtitle hilarious? Let me point out that the reason it is humorous is that it is significantly longer than a normal subtitle, thus subverting your expectations of what a subtitle should be. Additionally, see with what genius the editors have introduced a subtle tone of self-mockery by acknowledging that the publisher was right to refuse to include it in full on the book’s cover. Only true artists could have used something as banal as a subtitle to craft such delicious poetic irony.

…and that (with a few more academic buzzwords) is more-or-less what it’s like to read this book. The editors’ answer to “Why poetry sucks” is that it is perceived as being too deadly serious. To combat this perception they take us on a tour of experimental “poetry” they deem humorous, explaining exactly why it’s funny. For example:

Cabri’s poems provoke laughter at the place where the materiality of language meets its social construction, by estranging language from its “natural” usage to abstract it to a point where it might ironically do a better job of describing social/political/economic realities. (p. 81)

You know that’s going to be funny stuff! The “poetry” itself is as pretentious as it comes: replacing all the nouns and most of the verbs in a paragraph with the word needle, taking random facebook statuses and attributing them to various poets, posting a meme about experimental poetry and then presenting the resulting comments as experimental poetry, seeing how many puns you can make on an obscenity in a short paragraph, etc.

In my opinion, this whole book is the prime example of why we Philistines think that (pretentious) poetry sucks. Irony?

Catch-up Mini Reviews

It’s been a little bit longer than usual between posts as I’ve been furiously reading to rack up entries in the local library’s summer reading prize drawing (can’t let my kiddos show me up!). Here are five of the most recent (out of 22 over the last 2 months):

Monster Hunter International (Monster Hunters International Book 1) by [Correia, Larry]Title: Monster Hunter International
Author: Larry Correia
Genre: Gun Nut Enthusiast Wish Fulfillment
Pages: 715
Rating: 2.5 of 5

I enjoy Dracula and Cthulhu mythos stories, so I figured why not try out this pulp action-spinoff of the Lovecraftian and Gothic tales. While some of the monster lore and overall plot was fun, I give it a “meh” overall.

I think that the intended audience is the we-distrust-the-government-and-LOVE-guns crowd, and while that describes some of my friends, it’s not me. For me, the frequent doting  listing of gun models and specs and the breathless descriptions of firing said guns were absurdly over the top. And these guys would rather just blast away at the monsters with silver bullets (no matter how ineffectual it repeatedly proves to be) than actually try to come up with anything clever. Add to this some ham-handed foreshadowing, sprinkle in some poor word usage and factual errors (e.g. compulsive instead of convulsive, Peloponnesian War instead of Trojan War), and I probably won’t be continuing this series…I’ll stick with Warhammer 40K for my absurdly violent pulp needs.

Title: The Annotated Hunting of the Snark
Author: Lewis Carroll (annotations by Martin Gardner)
Genre: Nonsense Narrative Poem + Pretentious Commentary
Pages: 196
Rating: 4 of 5

I love the nonsense poem Jaberwocky, so I’m not sure how I didn’t know about Carroll’s full-length narrative poem that is very much in the same vein. The poem itself is a lot of fun (if a bit grim) and worthy of a 5 out of 5 rating. However, for the most part the annotations/commentary add very little enjoyment unless you are utterly obsessed with the poem. The one lengthy section of commentary that I really enjoyed was an extended satirical “analysis” of the poem that is clearly making fun of  people who (like our main annotator) pompously try to impose deep, complex meaning on the nonsense.

The Warden - Chronicles of Barsetshire, Book 1 audiobook cover artTitle: The Warden
(Chronicles of Barsetshire – Book 1)
Author: Anthony Trollope
Genre: Classic Fiction
Pages: 240
Rating: 3.5 of 5

I am using this book for my 19th Century Classic category over at the Back to the Classics challenge. My brother-in-law, who is also a pastor, recommended the Barchester series as a humorous take on church politics (with a warning that this first book wasn’t quite as good as the others).

Trollope perfectly captures the earnestness, good intentions, greed, pettiness, and arrogance that swirl together to generate church politics. His characters, squabbling over how a charitable institution should be run, are quirky but believable, and he gets in some good jabs at the press and national politics along the way.

I take issue with the pervading theme that time-honored abuses of the system for personal gain should be allowed to continue so long as they are not really hurting anyone. After all, attempts to reform will only make things worse for everyone…just look at that troublemaker Charles Dickens! That said, there was enough cleverness in here that I’ll probably give the next Barchester book a shot at some point.

Title: The Swordbearer
Author: Glen Cook
Genre: Dark Fantasy
Pages: 256
Rating: 3 of 5

I read this more out of curiosity than because I expected a good book. It’s one of Glen Cook’s first fantasy books (maybe the first?), and we all know how rough an author’s early works can be. This stand-alone novel feels like three parts Elric of Melniboné, one part Lord of the Rings, and one part semi-original stuff that would later be cannibalized and reused in the much better Black Company stories.

The characters are so flat and numerous as to be difficult to keep track of, and there is frequent info-dumping, but I’ve read much worse first attempts. If you’ve ever read and enjoyed the Elric books, this is worth a read… if the whole book being an “I feel like a pawn of this evil soul-devouring sword” mope-fest grates on your nerves you might want to give it a miss.

The Fall of Arthur by [Tolkien, J.R.R.]Title: The Fall of Arthur
Author: J. R. R. Tolkien (Christopher Tolkien, Editor)
Genre: Epic Poem Fragment + Page-count Padding Commentary
Pages: 233
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This is just another Christopher Tolkien publication of a fragment from his father’s work padded out to book length with commentary. As always, the narrative poem fragment is well-written and interesting (as long as you have some interest in Arthuriana), but it is even shorter than usual (cutting off well before the actual battle in which Mordred dies and Arthur maybe-dies). Christopher’s notes are much better organized than usual, but still overlong. The tracing of various versions of the fall of Arthur through medieval literature is probably the most interesting part of his contribution. Unless you are the kind of fan who has to have every published fragment by J. R. R. Tolkien, this isn’t worth buying…just borrow it from the library, read the poem fragment, and skim the notes to see if any of the sections sound interesting to you.

Heroism, Greed, & Betrayal

Title: The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrun
Authors: J. R. R. Tolkien
Editor/Commentator: Christopher Tolkien
Genre: Narrative Poetry (plus tedious commentary)
Pages: 377
Rating: 4.5 of 5

J. R. R. Tolkien’s description of Norse poetry is that it “aims at seizing a situation, striking a blow that will be remembered, illuminating a moment with a flash of lightning…” In this retelling of the tragic Volsung/Rhinegold legends Tolkien’s terse, alliterative poetry does just that. He interweaves strands from The Poetic Edda, The Prose Edda, The Volsung Saga, and The Nibelungenlied, smoothing out discrepancies while adding a few elements of his own invention.

Tolkien’s most interesting innovation is providing Sigurd the dragon-slayer with a “special function.” For all of Tolkien’s insistence that he prefers the pagan, pre-Christian version of the story, he gives Sigurd some elements of a Messianic/Christ character that are not present in the original:

If in the day of Doom
one deathless stand
who death hath tasted
and dies no more
the serpent-slayer
seed of Odin
then all shall not end
nor earth perish.

(cf.And I will put enmity between thee [the serpent/Satan] and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3:15) and “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil.” (1 John 3:8b) and “I [Jesus] am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.” (Revelation 1:18))

The copious explanatory notes by Christopher Tolkien are an oddly organized jumble that cover plot, vocabulary, use and alteration of sources, and possible historical origins of the legends. If you are already acquainted with the Volsung stories these notes can be a bit tedious and repetitive, but they contain some interesting elements and may be of help to someone new to the Volsung legends.

Despite Christopher’s rambling notes, this is one of my favorite books. This tragic tale of heroism, greed, and betrayal illuminated by the flashing lightning of Tolkien’s poetry takes the reader on an intense journey back to the heroic age.

Restoration

Happy Resurrection Sunday! I hope you enjoy my attempt at blank verse poetry. I wrote this for Easter one year after reading Paradise Lost.

Perfection reigned in Eden’s beauty new.
The man and woman lived in blissful love,
At peace with God, in fellowship divine.
One rule alone they had, a test of faith:
To trust the loving heart of God and live
Or doubting eat and thus give birth to death.

The tempter sowed the seeds of doom-filled doubt:
“True love would not forbid a thing so fair.
This wondrous fruit will make you just like God
Who holds you back from glory, not from death.”
Deceived and proud they ate, defying God
And bringing death upon the human race

And so death reigned o’er Adam’s sinful race
Until the coming of the Lord of Life.
Though God the Son He laid aside His crown,
Came as a servant to this broken world.
He felt its sorrows, wept in grief and pain,
Faced all temptations, yet he did not sin.

As both eternal God and Son of Man
He paid man’s debt in infinite degree.
His guiltless soul was charged with all man’s sins,
And, suffering the Father’s wrath, he died.
Now all was finished; sin was overcome
And death defeated as he rose again.

For those in Christ the fear of death is gone.
Their faith in Him comes ringing down the years:
“In Adam all men die; in Christ they live.”
“For me to live is Christ, to die is gain.”
“Although they kill us, they do us no harm.”
“One short sleep past we wake eternally.”

One day the blessed hope will come to pass:
The time of restoration of all things
When Jesus Christ returns the dead are raised,
The earth made new, the Kingdom come at last!
No pain, no grief, no death forevermore,
And so shall we be always with the Lord.

– By Joel E. Mitchell

Christmas Reflection

 

El-Gibbor: The Mighty God
Will rule the earth with an iron rod
The Son of Man, worthy of praise
Dominion receives from the Ancient of Days
The Word was God, Creator of all
The Word became flesh, helpless and small
Born in humility, swaddled in cloth
A newborn infant asleep in a trough
The gift so great no words can tell
God with us: Emmanuel

by Joel E. Mitchell
(References: Isaiah 9:6-7, Psalm 2:7-9, Daniel 7:13-14, John 1:1-3, John 1:14, Luke 2:4-12, 2 Corinthians 9:15, Matthew 1:22-23)

Back to the Classics Wrap-up

Since I just finished my final book for the Back to the Classics 2018 challenge, it’s time for the big wrap-up. A huge thank you to Karen @ Books and Chocolate for putting this together and hosting it. It provides great incentive to include at least a dozen classics in the year’s reading. I read a book for each of the twelve categories, so I get three entries in the final prize drawing. My books for each category were:

A 19th Century Classic: Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow by Jerome K. Jerome – This collection of humorous essays is a must-read for fans of wry humor (as long as you don’t mind wading through a lot of maudlin sentimentality that may or may not be intended humorously).

A 20th Century Classic: Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann – This modern retelling of the Faust legend explores the connection between genius and madness, but by the end I found it overblown and pretentious.

A Classic by a Woman Author: Silas Marner by George Eliot – I greatly enjoyed this “reclamation” story which is something along the lines of a non-supernatural version of Dickens’ Christmas Carol (Dickens loved it and wrote  her a “fan letter”).

A Classic in Translation: The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas – I know I’m in the minority, but I didn’t care for this classic tale of revenge.

A Children’s Classic: The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame – I will be recommending this charming little book to my children.

A Classic Crime Story: The Grifters by Jim Thompson – Thompson provides the fairly standard downward-slide-into-tragedy that you expect from this kind of crime noir but with some creepy oedipal stuff in the mix. Well written, but a bit too sleazy for my taste.

A Classic Travel or Journey Narrative: The Canterbury Tales – In spite of the (to me) unfunny obsession with adultery & misogyny, Chaucer is witty and adept at painting memorable characters.

A Classic with a Single-word Title: Nostromo by Joseph Conrad – Conrad displays his trademark bleakness here. Personally, I think it packed more impact in the much shorter Heart of Darkness than in this 400+ page depressing book.

A Classic with a Color in the Title: Black No More by George S. Schuyler – This biting satire is by turns hilarious and grim as the author explores an alternate US in which a medical procedure can turn black people into white people.

A Classic by an Author That’s New to You: Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier – I wouldn’t necessarily say that I liked this book, but the atmosphere and characterization were superb.

A Classic That Scares You: The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway – I hated Hemingway in high school, but decided to be brave and give him another shot. I didn’t hate it this time, but he’s still not my cup of tea.

Re-read a Favorite Classic: The Poetic Edda by Anonymous – Who wouldn’t want to read about cross-dressing Thor, Loki getting in an insult contest with the rest of the gods, and the final showdown at Ragnarok?

And there you have it! (If I happen to win the drawing you can contact me Here.)

The Granddaddy of Epic Poetry

Title: Gilgamesh: A New English Version
Author: Unknown
“Translator”: Stephen Mitchell
Genre: Ancient Narrative Poetry
Pages: 292
Rating: 4 of 5

Last year I read a version of the Gilgamesh Epic by Herbert Mason that amounted to a heavily edited retelling. I found it disappointing because there was no way of knowing the actual extent of the author’s editing and personal interpretation (a review of that version can be found here).

The main text of this version was similarly functional (thought-for-thought rather than word-for-word), as Stephen Mitchell is working off other people’s word-for-word English translations rather than consulting the ancient languages himself. However, he is careful to note where his text becomes especially interpretive. In copious endnotes he carefully cites which specific versions of the epic he is working off in a given section and provides a woodenly literal translation of difficult passage where he resorted to heavy paraphrasing or speculation. To me, this made all the difference in the world…I now feel like I have read a valid translation of Gilgamesh, not just some scholar’s “here’s what I think you should get out of this” paraphrase.

Along with translation notes, Mitchell offers commentary on the cultural setting, comparison to stories found in Genesis, and similar background. I question some of his interpretations at this point, but found much of it to be helpful as well.

If you’re not the kind of person who is into scholarly footnotes, I think that this is still a great version for reading the poem itself. You get a feel for the broad Gilgamesh tradition (including some of the bemusing and inconsistent bits “smoothed out” [i.e. omitted] by Mason) and Mitchell’s phrasing captures the great emotional depth in the timeless friendship and loss of Gilgamesh and Enkidu in a way that doesn’t come across well in a woodenly literal translations. Don’t expect a happy story. Mitchell aptly refers to this as “the epic of the fear of death,” and to me its despair over human mortality offers a sobering contrast to the “living hope” found in Christianity.

**Addendum: I forgot to mention that in the lengthy introduction Mitchell practically tells the whole story of the poem mixed in with his cultural commentary, so depending on your preferences you may want to read the poem and then come back to the introduction (or skip it entirely since a lot of the most important info is repeated in the endnotes in more concise form).

Resurrection Roundelay

But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. – Acts 2:24

Bound I was to sin enthralling,
Death eternal in wait lying.
I am saved from wrath appalling;
Jesus’ death my freedom buying.
Walls of Hades shaking, falling,
Christ victorious! Death is dying!

I am saved from wrath appalling;
Jesus’ death my freedom buying.
Enemies, his body mauling,
Left him in a cold tomb lying.
Walls of Hades shaking, falling,
Christ victorious! Death is dying!

Enemies, his body mauling,
Left him in a cold tomb lying.
Vain Death’s bars and Death’s inwalling;
God the Son their pow’r defying.
Walls of Hades shaking, falling,
Christ Victorious! Death is dying!

Vain Death’s bars and Death’s inwalling;
God the Son their pow’r defying.
Listen to the Savior calling:
Grace, eternal life supplying.
Walls of Hades shaking, falling,
Christ Victorious! Death is dying!
(by Joel E. Mitchell)

…and bonus links to The Victor and He Holds the Keys as sung by Steve Green.

Bawdy Tales from the 14th Century

Title: The Canterbury Tales
Author: Geoffrey Chaucer
Genre: Classic Narrative Poetry
Pages: 492 (not counting Modern English translation)
Rating: 4 of 5

I had a hard time deciding how I felt about this book (and what to rate it). I mean, it’s one of the classic English texts composed with obvious skill and having huge historical interest…but having 80-90% of the stories center around adultery and (frequently disavowed) misogyny got pretty old (though it did allow Chaucer to show how different kinds of people dealt with the same subject matter).

I decided to read this in the original Middle English since the Barnes & Noble edition I read has facing pages with the original text and a Modern non-rhyming translation. I had to look over at the Modern English translation about 1-5 times per page, but it was worth the effort to experience the original rhyme scheme and turn of phrase. In spite of the (to me) unfunny obsession with adultery & misogyny, Chaucer is witty and adept at painting memorable characters. Human nature doesn’t change, and many of Chaucer’s characters are recognizable and believable in spite of the passage of 600+ years (and most of the cultural differences were nicely explained in footnotes). Overall, I’m glad to have read this for a look into late 14th century culture and the experience of reading some of the earliest English literature.

Also, this is my entry for the Classic Travel or Journey category over at the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Gods & Heroes

Title: The Poetic Edda
Translator: Lee Hollander
Genre: (mostly Narrative) Poetry
Pages: 357
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Ever since being exposed to tales of Thor, Loki, Odin, Sigurd, Fafnir, Brunhilde, and so forth in My Bookhouse children’s books, I’ve enjoyed Norse Mythology. When I started trying to find the original (or at least oldest recorded) versions of the stories, I discovered that Norse prose is pretty dull in translation…then I discovered the far more interesting Norse poetry, and this book collects the best of it. This is my “Reread a Favorite Classic” entry over at the Back to the Classics Challenge 2018.

This poetry covers subject matter ranging from Norse cosmology to squabbles among the gods to the Volsung stories (Sigurd the dragon slayer, Brynhilde, the Rhinegold, etc.). I found some of the didactic poems a bit tedious, though some did give interesting insight into Viking culture (the Hávamál is basically a Viking book of Proverbs). The narrative lays in all their humor, heroism, tragedy, and brutality more than made up for any tedious bits…and who doesn’t want to read about cross-dressing Thor (Thrymskvida), Loki getting in an insult contest with the rest of the gods (Lokasenna), and the final showdown at Ragnarok (Völuspá)?

Lee Hollander’s translation is a challenging, but enjoyable read. He gives priority to maintaining the original meter and alliteration, which may mean that his rendering is a bit more functional (thought-for-thought) than formal (word-for-word). Personally, I prefer this approach in translated ancient poetry as long as the translator isn’t changing the intent/meaning of the original poet. It was written in a certain meter and/or alliteration and/or rhyme scheme and that is how I would like to read it!

The rhythm and alliteration take some getting used to, some of the words used in the translation are archaic, and the poets sometimes assume that you already know the basic story (especially in the bits about the Volsungs), but it is well worth the effort. There is so much more passion, sorrow, and artistry in the poetry than the plain prose versions.