Reading Diary: Jan. 14-21

Nicholas Nickleby, by Charles Dickens: The classic tale of a young man’s attempts to make his own way in the world and care for his family against the machinations of his nasty, money-lending uncle. This might be the Platonic Ideal of the Dickens Novel: it’s got everything you expect, including comic poor people, tragic poor people, mean rich people, benevolent rich people, and some great London street scenes. (I wrote a bit more about it here.)

Midnight Chicken (and Other Recipes Worth Living For), by Ella Risbridger: I’ve been following Risbridger’s writing, and life, for years. She’s got a hell of a story. This is a cookbook, but also a memoir, beautifully illustrated, and containing the kind of recipes that it’s perfectly easy to follow if you’re a little bit drunk. It’s aspirational in a completely achievable, you-do-you sort of way; there are allusions to Laurie Lee and Laurie Colwin, The Railway Children and The Secret Garden. Lovely.

What Is This Thing Called Love, by Kim Addonizio: I’m freshly obsessed with poetry at the moment and I hope it lasts. Addonizio’s is sexy, smoky, bluesy. The final poem in this collection, “Kisses”, in which she imagines every kiss she’s ever received imprinted on her body, is worth the price of admission on its own, I think. (You can read it for free here if you need convincing.)

Currently reading: 

The Night Tiger, by Yansze Choo (out in February), and Selected Poems 1950-2012, by Adrienne Rich.

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15 thoughts on “Reading Diary: Jan. 14-21

      • FWIW, the best poetry book I’ve read (and I’ll be honest, that isn’t saying much), and the one I keep coming back to, is the Selected Poems of E.E. Cummings, edited by Kennedy (NOT the Collected Poems – that’s the whole lot, and he wrote a colossal amount, much of it very forgettable).

        For me, Cummings hits the ideal blend of timeless themes and novel realisations, careful formalism and wild freedom, magnetic propulsive sound (a lot of his poems that seem puzzling on the page make sense when read out loud) and intricate meaning, cynicism and romantic mysticism. I haven’t encountered another poet quite like him (which is my usual objection to poetry – that it’s nice enough, but mostly interchangeable, the conventional expressed conventionally) – although having said that I’ve recently been dipping into some Donne for the first time and some similarities with Cummings are clear.

        Also, just on the practical side, he’s a hugely varied poet, wandering from social criticism jeremiads to love poems, from cubist experiments to classical sonnets. So it’s easier to get lost in his poems than it is with poets who seem to just repeat their themes again and again.

        I think it’s a great shame that for many people he’s been remembered just as ‘that silly guy who couldn’t use punctuation’, as his talents were far broader than that. I know some people look down on him for being rather heart-on-sleeve, lacking the proper ironic distance, and writing a lot about sex and love and death and childhood and politics and other primary-colour topics; but he does it so well!

        The one issue I do have with him is that I disagree with him about almost everything. He was, unfortunately, a misanthropic, anti-intellectual right-libertarian, and that collection has an entire section for poems about french prostitutes (not to be confused with his sex poems and his love poems). But even that is charming in a way – there’s nothing worse than opening a book of poetry and finding yourself reflected on every page. With Cummings, sure, he’s infuriating, but magnetically so – I may be diametrically opposed to him on a lot of political issues, yet even a poem like “F is for Foetus” (a rhythmically furious excoriation of FDR) can’t be called dull…

        …anyway, sorry for the tangent!

      • I read a bit of cummings when I was younger, and he really worked for me – I wasn’t aware of his political leanings, which was obviously a good thing at the time. I rather suspect they would put me off now; in fact, in memory, some of the stuff he writes about women is a bit saccharine, so it’s likely I’d notice more frustrating things now. Interesting that you’re noticing similarities with Donne – presumably that’s in a thematic, not a stylistic, sense? (Though Donne is playful, so perhaps there are formal echoes, too…)

      • I’m no expert on Donne, but actually I did see some similarities in style! Things like intentionally awkward inversions in word order, typographical tricks (such bracketing words off to create multiple readings), the use of indefinite pronouns as though they were nouns (“and makes one little room an everywhere”, etc), the use of negation and the creation of new, elevated vocabulary, the use of strikingly odd images. I read a few poems by Donne and suddenly a lot of Cummings’ odd quirks started to look like homages… I made a note here for some reason of the lines:

        “This Exstasie doth unperplex
        (We said) and tell us what we love”

        …which, “doth” aside, is so Cummings…

        Cummings is often very saccharine. He sort of alternates between bitter cynicism and rose-tinted romanticism, sometimes within one poem. Certainly there are poems that could be regarded as patronising to women, and others that could be seen as insulting (“the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls are unbeautiful, and have comfortable minds” and all that…); but honestly, I think that’s just a reflection of his broader conflict between misanthropy and idealism in his views toward all humans.

    • I really like her stuff. I’m reading it quite slowly – giving myself permission to underline, reread, consider – and still racing through it. Her pre-’60s stuff is by far my least favourite, because it’s that kind of mannered, clever Frost/Lowell style that doesn’t do much for me, but everything from about 1970 onwards is superb so far.

  1. Interested to hear your thoughts on Adrienne Rich! I’m not a huge fan of all her collections, but the poems in The Dream of a Common Language are excellent.

    • It’s not bad – but I’m getting a lot pickier, suddenly, and although I can’t find fault with it in a general sense, there are distinctly parts where the writing gets a bit clichéd or loses tension.

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