Featured Poem: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thursday this week is of course Valentine’s Day, so our featured poem really had to be a love poem. So here is arguably the best love poem in English, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18. For the geeks amongst you it is worth noting that this poem is also available in programming languages including ActionScript, which you can find here on Boing Boing.

Shakespeare, Sonnet 18

Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And Summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And oft’ is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d:
But thy eternal Summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wanderest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

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Links We Liked for 9 February 2008

Literary blogs seem to be taking over from the regular book review pages. In terms of the sheer number of books reviewed and the international audience available, print publications can’t compete. A recent piece at Vulpes Libris gives an excellent overview of how the amateurs and the professionals co-exist and asks ‘Book Bloggers: The Saviour of Small Publishers? The End of Decent Criticism? Or Unpaid Cheerleaders?’ (via Dovegreyreader). Another post at the OUP Blog looks at a different aspect of this: Should Book Authors Blog?

The excellent Lifehacker entreats us to read more ebooks and points at an article in ePublishersweekly giving 30 Benefits of Ebooks. My feelings are mixed about this, but one commenter on the Lifehacker post concludes that ebooks are ‘about as sensible as electronic socks’.

Earlier last week Andrew Saikali wrote an interesting piece for The Millions on films about writers and the writing process.

Meanwhile on Shrove Tuesday Samuel Pepys pondered an age-old question.

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Tales From the Land of ‘Day Book’

Kimberley Long is a former Reader volunteer currently teaching English in Japan. This is the first in a series of posts in which she will tell us about her experiences and her reading.

Konnichiwa to you all and welcome to my first post from Japan. I am currently working here as an assistant language teacher with the JET programme and not, luckily for me, NOVA, the other teaching in Japan scheme that recently went bust. I live in a smallish town called Beppu in Oita prefecture on Kyushu. Beppu is famous throughout Japan for its hot springs and is a bit of a tourist town. However this doesn’t exactly make us world famous. I work with senior high school kids, roughly sixth-form age in the UK. My school is currently the designated specialist English Language high school in the area, so I have the joy of working with some of the most linguistically talented youngsters Oita-ken has to offer. Some of them travel two hours every morning just to have the honour of attending the school. However I also work with the non-specialist classes in the school; teaching English to them can be highly amusing. The second year class I’ve affectionately termed the Nihilists because of their apparent apathy towards everything.

I decided to use my time away from home to expand my reading. New life and experiences I thought, so some new books too. I don’t usually take recommendations from other people, but this year I intend to read what is recommended, handed, or left to me. To begin this new era of reading I arrived in my apartment to find my predecessor had left me a shelf of varied reading material ranging from Bill Bryson, textbooks on childhood psychology and a biography of Sting. Only time will tell if I get round to reading that one. It was interesting to see what books she had decided to leave behind. I have since been told that her vast book collection was plundered by the other ALTs living here so I was witnessing it in a depleted form. But why had some books been taken but these left behind? Surely Bill Bryson is always worth a read, let alone a book with the intriguing title of ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’.

And with regards to the title of this post: Japanese comprises three forms of writing; hiragana, katakana, and kanji. This doesn’t make it easy but I’ve picked it up fairly quickly. Kanji is the form that you’ll most likely think of when you think of Japanese, all the pretty little picture words. Well Japan, or Nihon, has two kanji which can translate into ‘day’ and ‘book’. So what better place to think about reading than in a country with books in its name.

by Kimberley Long

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Featured Poem: John Clare’s ‘I am!’


John Clare is famously a poet of the rural working class and the Northamptonshire countryside, but he is also a well-known inmate of an insane asylum. This poem, reflecting on the poet’s life, his forgotten achievements and abandonment, was written at the the beginning of twenty years or so in the asylum.

I am!

I am! yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death’s oblivion lost;
And yet I am! and live with shadows tost

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
And e’en the dearest–that I loved the best–
Are strange–nay, rather stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smil’d or wept;
There to abide with my creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;
The grass below–above the vaulted sky.

–John Clare, written around 1845.

And if you thought that was good, take a look at the John Clare blog.

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Featured Poem: The Send-off

I spent most of Sunday riding on steam trains at the East Lancs Railway. There is something very appealing about the size and elemental power of mainline steam locomotives. They harness fire and water in ways that would have impressed Milton or Blake. Railway posters from the 1930s take pride in the scale, speed, and modernity of the venture. The famous ‘summer comes soonest’ poster for Southern Railway, showing a small boy looking up at the driver of a huge engine, was parodied "with apologies" by LNER, using an even smaller child and an engine with even larger wheels. These things were a status symbol then and in steam, 70-odd year-old museum pieces that they are, they are still glorious.

But while they can be beautiful and awe inspiring trains are also suggestive of loss and tragedy: the lovers parted on the platform, the cattle trucks heading for Dachau or Auschwitz, the soldiers off to war. Perhaps more than anywhere off a battlefield, the railway platform is where soft humanity and hard modernity meet. This poem by Wilfred Owen captures that idea of machines in service to humanity’s causes and the  fatal pact we sign with them: "Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and a lamp / Winked to the guard":

The Send-off

Down the close, darkening lanes they sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined the train with faces grimly gay.

Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray
As men’s are, dead.

Dull porters watched them, and a casual tramp
Stood staring hard,
Sorry to miss them from the upland camp.
Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and a lamp
Winked to the guard.

So secretly, like wrongs hushed-up, they went.
They were not ours:
We never heard to which front these were sent.

Nor there if they yet mock what women meant
Who gave them flowers.

Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild trainloads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back, silent, to still village wells
Up half-known roads.

by Wilfred Owen

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Links We Liked for 24 January, 2008

It’s been a difficult week for me so far, trying to finish off a book and start teaching again, with all that entails. On top of that Internet exile beckons while our house wiring is sorted out, but here are a few of my thoughts on the last few days.

It can hardly have escaped anyone’s notice that A.L. Kennedy’s book Day has won the Costa (formerly Whitbread) Prize. Praise for the novel has been effusive, but dissenting voices made themselves heard in the run-up to the judging.

Meanwhile Slate has been worrying about Vladimir Nabokov and his request that his final work be burned. Will his son do it? Nobody knows.

Ali Karim, in January Magazine has a feature on Cormac McCarthy and the arrival in the UK of a writer whose work has been lifted from (relative) obscurity by the Coen brothers’ film, No Country For Old Men. Karim does a great job of pulling the key articles together.

And for the book paraphernalia fetishists among you I would like to bring to your attention an entire blog dedicated to bookshelves. Is this a dream come true?

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Featured Poem: The Milestone by the Rabbit Burrow

We are celebrating National Rabbit Week here at The Reader and in honour of the occasion our featured poem this morning is Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Milestone by the Rabbit Burrow’, which is actually written from the point of view of a rabbit. Without wishing to disparage the whole tribe of lagomorpha, rabbits have simple worries. Still, as long as gin is allowed, who wouldn’t want to live ‘where no gins are’?

The Milestone by the Rabbit-Burrow

(On Yell’Ham Hill)

In my loamy nook
As I dig my hole
I observe men look
At a stone, and sigh
As they pass it by
To some far goal.

Something it says
To their glancing eyes
That must distress
The frail and lame,
And the strong of frame
Gladden or surprise.

Do signs on its face
Declare how far
Feet have to trace
Before they gain
Some blest champaign
Where no gins are?

–By Thomas Hardy

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Featured Anthology: Earth Shattering – Helen Dunmore

The final sections of the Earth Shattering, ‘Forces of Nature’ and ‘Natural Disasters’, combine poems that show the effects of global warming, climate change and question the accuracy of the expression ‘natural disaster’. The anthology ends, after covering man-made environmental disasters and so-called ‘acts of God’, with “planetary catastrophe and Eco-Armageddon.” However, this is not meant as a pessimistic conclusion but a reminder to us all, that as the world’s politicians and multi-national corporations arrange our reckless rush towards Eco-Armageddon, poetry is not a hopeless gesture but that in its detail, the force of each poem effects each reader’s determination for change and adds a voice to the collective call.

The last poem to feature from this anthology is Helen Dunmore‘s Ice coming. A poet, novelist, short-story and children’s writer, Helen Dunmore won the Orange Prize for fiction in 1996. She has written abundantly and successfully: in The Raw Garden she questions our notions of what’s really ‘natural’, the impact of human intervention on the landscape and genetic engineering; exploring our relationships with animals and our own animal nature in Bestiary in her latest collection, Glad of These Times, her poems “capture the fleetingness of life, its sweetness and intensity, the short time we have on earth and the pleasures of the earth, with death as the frame which sharpens everything and gives it shape.”

Ice coming
(after Doris Lessing)

First, the retreat of the bees
lifting, heavy with the final
pollen of gorse and garden,
lugging the weight of it, like coal sacks
heaped on lorry-backs
in the ice-cream clamour of August.

The retreat of bees, lifting
all at once from city gardens –
suddenly the roses are scentless
as cold probes like a tongue,
crawling through the warm crevices
of Kew and Stepney. The ice comes
slowly, slowly, not to frighten anyone.

Not to frighten anyone. But the Snowdon
valleys are muffled with avalanche,
the Thames freezes, the Promenade des Anglais
clinks with a thousand icicles, where palms
died in a night, and the sea
of Greece stares back like stone
at the ice-Gorgon, white as a sheet.

Ice squeaks and whines. Snow slams
like a door miles off, exploding a forest
to shards and matchsticks. The glacier
is strangest, grey as an elephant,
too big to be heard. Big-foot, Gorgon –
a little mythology
rustles before it is stilled.

So it goes. Ivy, mahonia, viburnum
lift their fossilised flowers
under six feet of ice, for the bees
that are gone. As for being human
it worked once, but for now
and the forseeable future
the conditions are wrong.

Helen Dunmore, 2007

(This poem is reproduced with permission from Earth Shattering (2007, Bloodaxe Books), edited by Neil Astley.)

Featured Anthology: Earth Shattering – Frances Horovitz

Today’s Earth Shattering poem comes from the section ‘The Great Web’, which takes its title from Denise Levertov‘s Web (included in this anthology). Levertov’s ‘great web’ that ‘moves through and connects all people and things, both human and inhuman’ is the metaphor that unites all the poems in this section,  evoking humanity’s interpendence and oneness with nature. The rhythym of daily life and the cyclical processes of nature are celebrated by some poets for their strength whereas others recognise lost or disappearing connections.

Frances Horovitz (1938-83) was an English poet, whose perception of the natural world that surrounds her and evocation of human relationships, has led to a remarkable “clarity, precision and attentiveness” in her poetry. This poem considers the amalgamation of spirits of the human and natural world, almost Buddhist or Taoist in its message. Living in the Cotswolds, Cumbria and the Welsh Marches, many of her poems were inspired by remote landscapes, which are revealed through “perfect rhythym and great delicacy”.

Rain – Birdoswald

I stand under a leafless tree
more still, in this mouse-pattering
thrum of rain,
thean cattle shifting in the field.
It is more dark than light.
A Chinese painter’s brush of deepening grey
moves in a subtle tide.

The beasts are darker islands now.
Wet-stained and silvered by the rain
they suffer night,
marooned as still as stone or tree.
We sense each other’s quiet.

Almost, death could come
inevitable, unstrange
as is this dusk and rain,
and I should be no more
myself, than raindrops
glimmering in last light
on black ash buds

or night beasts in a winter field.

Frances Horovitz, 1980

(This poem is reproduced with permission from Earth Shattering (2007, Bloodaxe Books), edited by Neil Astley.)

Featured Anthology: Earth Shattering – D. H. Lawrence

The third poem to feature from Earth Shattering is Snake by D. H. Lawrence. From the fifth section of our featured anthology, ‘Loss and Persistence’, this poem forms part of a collection that possess binary themes, some in celebration of the rapidly vanishing natural world and others in lamentation of what has been lost. There are also poems that recognise the glimmer of hope in perserverance of nature and in the effort of humans to recycle, to conserve and to implement environmental consideration.

Snake appeared in Lawrence’s 1923 collection Birds, Beasts and Flowers, which included some of his preeminent reflections on the “flux of life and the ‘otherness’ of the non-human world” and as this poem identifies, the downfalls of an ‘accursed human education’. These poems are an affirmation of the grandeur and the mystery of nature, of which the snake in this poem typifies: the snake is an ordinary (albeit probably poisonous) reptile, ‘yellow-brown slackness soft-bellied’, but at the same time it possess a mythical, godlike quality, one of the ‘lords’ of the ‘underworld’ embodying all the dark inexplicable forces of nature that are feared and neglected by humans.


A snake came to my water-trough
On a hot, hot day, and I in pyjamas for the heat,
To drink there.

In the deep, strange-scented shade of the great dark
carob tree
I came down the steps with my pitcher
And must wait, must stand and wait, for there he was
at the trough before me.

He reached down from a fissure in the earth-wall in
the gloom
And trailed his yellow-brown slackness soft-bellied
down, over the edge of the stone trough
And rested his throat upon the stone bottom,
And where the water had dripped from the tap, in a
small clearness,
He sipped with his straight mouth,
Softly drank through his straight gums, into his slack
long body,

Someone was before me at my water-trough,
And I, like a second comer, waiting.

He lifted his head from his drinking, as cattle do,
And looked at me vaguely, as drinking cattle do,
And flickered his two-forked tongue from his lips, and
mused a moment,
And stooped and drank a little more,
Being earth-brown, earth-golden from the burning
bowels of the earth
On the day of the Sicilian July, with Etna smoking.

The voice of my eduation said to me
He must be killed,
For in Sicily the black, black snakes are innocent, the
gold are venemous.

And voices in me said, If you were a man
You would take a stick and break him now, and finish
him off.

But must I confess how I liked him,
How glad I was he had come like a guest in quiet, to
drink at my water-trough
And depart peaceful, pacified, and thankless,
Into the burning bowels of this earth?

Was it cowardice, that I dared not kill him?
Was it perversity, that I longed to talk to him?
Was it humility, to feel so honoured?
I felt so honoured.

And yet those voices:
If you were not afraid, you would kill him!

And truly I was afraid, I was most afraid,
But even so, honoured still more
That he should seek my hospitality
From our the dark door of the secret earth.

He drank enough
And lifted his head, dreamily, as one who has drunken,
And flickered his tongue like a forked night on the air,
so black,
Seeming to lick his lips,
And looked around like a god, unseeing, intothe air,
And slowly turned his head,
And slowly, very slowly, as if thrice adream,
Proceeded to draw down his slow length curving round
And climb again the broken bank of my wall-face.

And as he put his head into that dreadful hole,
And as he slowly drew up, snake-easing his shoulders,
and entered farther,
A sort of horror, a sort of protest against his withdrawing
into that horrid black hole,
Deliberately going into the blackness, and slowly
drawing himself after,
Overcame me now his back was turned.

I looked round, I put down my pitcher,
I picked up a clumsy log
And threw it at the water-trough with a clatter.

I think it did not hit him,
But suddenly that part of him that was left behind
convulsed in undignified haste,
Writhed like lightning, and was gone
Into the black hole, the earth-lipped fissure in the
At which, in the intense still noon, I stared with fascination.

And immediately I regretted it.
I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!
I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human

And I thought of the albatross,
And I wished he would come back, my snake.

For he seemed to me again like a king,
Like a king in excile, uncrowned in the underworld,
Now due to be crowned again.

And so, I misssed my chance with one of the lords
Of life.
And I have something to expiate;
A pettiness.

D. H. Lawrence, 1923

(featured in Earth Shattering (2007, Bloodaxe Books), edited by Neil Astley.)