Put down the poem and nobody gets hurt

Many years ago, over one particularly painful ‘family’ dinner, I challenged my idiot brother to a competition. To say I’m competitive would be like saying the Hulk has some anger issues. Plus, I had been watching a lot of Kenny vs. Spenny, which, when combined with my inherent thirst for supremity and the tension of a family meal, resulted in the perfect storm. Luckily, Idiot-Bra shared my unquenchable hunger for bragging rights, and is also also an idiot, so he willingly accepted the terms of my diabolical challenge, despite it being obviously and gloriously beyond his abilities. 

The challenge: memorize Poe’s The Raven in its entirety. The winner’s reward would be winning (duh), with the bonus pleasure of seeing the loser march up and down our street wearing a sandwich board emblazoned with whatever humiliating phrase the winner chose.

My sandwich board Humiliation will be meaner.

You’re probably wondering what humiliating phrase I chose after a smug and victorious recitiation of Poe’s eighteen-stanza masterpiece of trochaic octameter (thank you, Wikipedia). Alas, said recitation has never happened – yet. The challenge is still open, since no deadline was set, and six years on, with eleven stanzas under my belt and only seven more to go, I am gleefully contemplating the long-awaited reward to my sporradic bouts of maniacal memorization.

What does this have to do with anything? This is the first of several posts about what I’ve been reading while playing hermit in Helheim. And first up is POETRY! Apparently, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea (wha???), but then, a lot of people are crazy. Me? Also crazy, but damn, I do love me some poetry.

The first is Penguin’s Poems by Heart, selected by Laura Barber

Normally, I’m not a huge fan of trite little poetry anthologies in convenient pocket-size format, but I am a Penguin UK whore. (I will literally buy anything they publish. Anything.). And then I do have a bit of a thing for committing large and ultimately useless chunks of poetry to memory, even without the promise of sibling humiliation as a reward, so this seemed like a wise purchase. This collection promises to include poetry I will want to “remember and love for ever”…we’ll see about that.

Well, it was quite good, actually. This lovely little miniature book has everything you’d expect, all the good classics to impress your friends, smarm your way through dinner parties, and put hostile high school teachers in their place. Shakespeare, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Dickinson, Blake, Kipling… the list goes on, all the usual names that appear in these kinds of anthologies, but instead of being annoyed at finding so many of the familiar and the expected, I found it handy to have them all in one place, like a primer for the aspriring intelligentsia. Also, these poems aren’t just famous, they’re brilliant. (I think sometimes people how amazing the classics are when everyone’s off looking for the next wanky new poet to free verse his/her way onto the literary scene.)

Happily, there were a few surprises. I was pleased to find a few of Lewis Carroll’s verses, as well as pieces by Ted Hughes, William Carlos Williams, and D. H. Lawrence. The poem that I was most surprised to see included was Siegfried Sassoon’s “Everyone Sang” – that’s not a poem I immediately associate with memorization (which is ostensibly the purpose of this anthology), but when I turned the page and found it there I was as delighted as old Lady Grantham seeing a perfect floral display. The last poem in the book, just waiting to be rediscovered – I can’t think of a better poem to end such a wonderful and handy collection than Sassoon’s beautiful and mysterious expression of joyous hope, startlingly contrasted with those foreboding final lines. If you haven’t read it in a while, I recommend seeking it out. Or you could buy this book, natch!

So that’s the good dealt with. The bad? Entirely English poetry, not even a translation of anything by non-English poets. Not surprising, but it seems a bit narrow-minded, doesn’t it? Still, this is really just meant to be either an intro to the classics or a handy-dandy reference to the ‘best’ poems (which of the two it is depends on your amount of previous exposure to English poetry, I suppose). All in all, no more and no less than it promises to be.

Plus, cute cover – I love the illustrations!

Rating: (I’m not judging the poems themselves, cuz whoa, would that be arrogant – who am I to judge the canon of the Western world, right? – so this is just regarding Barber’s selection) Hmmm…I’m going to be generous and give this anthology 4 out of 5 brooding Romantic poets.

He can probably recite lots of poems. Meee-ow.

(Yeah, you’re welcome for that one.)

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