Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Poets' Corner, compiled by John Lithgow

Now, the term "the Poets' Corner" has a geographical meaning: it's the phrase used to describe a particular section of Westminster Abbey where a lot of poets, authors and artists are buried. You can read a bit about it at Wikipedia to get the sense of it. But it makes for a catchy title for an anthology of poetry, so I don't blame John Lithgow and/or his editors for picking it. (And yes, it's that John Lithgow, star of 3rd Rock from the Sun, bad guy in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, and voice of Lord Farquaad in the Shrek movies.)

I'm not sure if you can completely make out the subtitle to this one, but the book is called The Poets' Corner: The One-and-Only Poetry Book for the Whole Family, compiled by John Lithgow (who, you will recall, is not a professor, although he played one on TV). Let me say this about the subtitle: it's balderdash. Because Caroline Kennedy's A Family of Poems, which I reviewed on my personal blog a while back is decidedly for the whole family, as are a number of other anthologies for children. And the books put together by Garrison Keillor (Good Poems and Good Poems for Hard Times) are pretty much as capable of being shared with the family as Lithgow's book. Just so we're clear that I take issue with the phrase "one-and-only" here. The rest of the subtitle is fine.

If you were to read the table of contents, you would think that this 280-page book contained fifty poems, one each by fifty poets (organized alphabetically by author's last name: Matthew Arnold through William Butler Yeats). And while that sounds like the premise and is, in fact, what is on the accompanying CD - 50 poems, 1 each by the poets listed in the book - it is not all that is there.

Each poet is introduced in a family-friendly, sanitized kind of way by Lithgow's prose, and then the "featured" poem is introduced. What do I mean by sanitized? Well, Lord Byron is pretty much just referred to as racy, and Lewis Carroll is described as a kindly man who regretted that children had to grow up so quickly, when most people will tell you that he enjoyed the company of little girls and regretted that they had to grow up at all (and not for Peter Pan-like reasons, I think).

After each poem, Lithgow shares his personal response to the poem, including any personal connections he has (after "Birches" by Robert Frost, he shares an anecdote about hanging from a tree by a breaking rope when he was a child, for instance. In addition, for each poet, Lithgow provides a sidebar listing five other favorite poems by the poet (with the following exceptions: he lists only 4 additional poems for Byron and Pound, and lists 6 for Coleridge, Herrick and Shakespeare; he also includes lyrics from one song by Wm. S. Gilbert, who gets nothing more at all).

In addition to the Lithgow commentary and association, for many of the 50 poets, although certainly not all, a second poem is included. Not that you'd know that from the table of contents, although for the life of me I don't understand the omission. And not that you can readily figure it out from the index because there is no index (and yes, I am a curmudgeon, perhaps, but I resent the lack of indices, which ought to include one listing poems by title, and another listing poems by their first line, in my opinion). I can understand the decision to skip an index by author name because of the way the book's organized. There's no effort at chronology here, it's alphabetized by the poet's surname after all. But that's all the more reason that the second poems should have been listed under the poets' names in the table of contents. And yes, little things like this actually bother me in real life. (For example, the table of contents tells you that William Blake's "The Tyger" (from Songs of Experience) is there, but doesn't mention that its cohort from Songs of Experience, "The Lamb", is also included. It tells you that John Keats's "To Autumn" is in the book, but not that his poem "The Belle Dame Sans Merci" is there as well.)

From time to time, there are text boxes with additional information — a quote from the poet, perhaps, or a definition of a poetic form, or a link to someplace on the internet where you can hear the poet reading their own work. This is all welcome, helpful sort of stuff, I think, and I applaud the decision to include it.

What can I tell you about Lithgow's choices of poets and poems? Well, many of them are, for want of a better word, obvious, and cause me to think that Lithgow is fond of reading anthologies himself, since many of his choices are widely anthologized. Here's a sampling of what's there, most of which you've probably heard before, and many of which are in anthologies (including anthologies for children): "The Tyger" by William Blake, "We Real Cool" by Gwendolyn Brooks, Sonnet 43 ("How do I love thee?") by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, "Jabberwocky" by Lewis Carroll, "There is no Frigate like a Book" by Emily Dickinson, Pied Beauty by Gerard Manley Hopkins, "To Autumn" by John Keats, "The Owl and the Pussycat" by Edward Lear, "Annabel Lee" by Edgar Allan Poe, "To a Skylark" by Percy Bysshe Shelley, "The Emperor of Ice Cream" by Wallace Stevens, "Do not go gentle into that good night" by Dylan Thomas, "The Red Wheelbarrow" by W.C. Williams, "I wandered lonely as a cloud" by William Wordsworth, and "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" by W.B. Yeats.

And yet, it's clear to me that Lithgow simply chose to feature some of his favorite poems because of the occasional unexpected choice — such as the lyrics to "The Nightmare Song" by William S. Gilbert — and because of the decisions he made regarding "what to leave in, what to leave out".* He's included Allen Ginsberg, Hart Crane, Randall Jarrell, Ben Jonson, Philip Larkin, and Andrew Marvell. Don't get me wrong, all of them are excellent poets, but they are not nearly so widely anthologized as some of the others, nor are they as esteemed as some of the poets omitted: Robert Browning, say, or Ted Hughes or Sylvia Plath (although their estates are stingy with permissions, so perhaps that was the issue), or Tennyson or Pablo Neruda.

As I mentioned near the top of the post, the book is accompanied by a CD featuring readings of 50 poems, 1 per poet. The readings are each introduced by John Lithgow, who reads several of them himself (and takes on an increasingly obvious mock-English accent in the reading of the Gilbert lyrics). But he managed to get some "friends" to assist. They are Eileen Atkins, Jodie Foster, Gary Sinise, Glenn Close, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, Billy Connolly, Robert Sean Leonard, Lynn Redgrave, Sam Waterston, Kathy Bates, and Susan Sarandon. Let me just say that Billy Connolly's reading of "To a Mouse" by Robert Burns is spectacular, as is his version of "The Owl and the Pussycat" and, oh hell, everything else he reads. I'd probably like to listen to him read the phone book. I heart Billy Connolly and his voice. But I digress. Jodie Foster's readings are glorious, and so are Susan Sarandon's and Gary Sinise's and Morgan Freeman's and, well, if you think I'm going to list everyone, then you're close. There's an occasional track that's only so-so ("Annabel Lee" as read by Sam Waterston, for example) and the track where Kathy Bates gamely reads Gertrude Stein's "If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso" is actually quite tedious to listen to, but really, the CD is great. Only you should be warned that the CD is in MP3 format, which meant that my stereo balked at playing it, although yours might not. The computer had no such issue.

My final take on this book is that despite its maddening omissions in the table of contents and its failure to include useful indices, it's an excellent sort of anthology to pick up if you're looking for a smattering of popular poetry - and you're pretty much guaranteed to read and/or hear quite a few of the most popular poems in the English language with this book, so it's kind of a nice way to ease into the poetry waters, as it were.

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