Helen of Marlowe's Blog

Work In Progress: on poetry and fiction

Posted in Literature by helenofmarlowe on March 16, 2014

When people learn that I taught English literature, they sometimes ask my favorite poets, or my favorite novels or novelists or short-story writers.

Usually the question throws me.  The first thing that comes to mind is whatever I happen to be reading at the moment.  So here is my effort to give that question some thought.

OK, POETS  You know, to be ready.

I love Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.  Might that be my favorite poem?  I can’t say that, but I can say I love the poem.  The opening lines

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me

resonate with me, so much that often, in the evening, as I am gathering up my garden tools, these first lines run through my head and heart.

Robert Frost — the narrative poems, especially.  The Witch of Coos is wonderful.  Home Burial is worth reading over and over, year after year after year. 

Samuel Taylor Coleridge — especially The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Some of my favorite lines in that one are

The moving Moon went up the sky.
And nowhere did abide;
Softly she was going up,
And a star or two beside-

Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ode to a Skylark

Hail to thee, blithe Spirit! . . .

Billy Collins.  I especially love to hear him reading his own poems.  The way he reads, so un-dramatic. He makes the words stand or fall on their own strength.  No dramatic support from the poet.

Edgar Allen Poe, especially Annabel Lee (considered by critics to be inferior) and The Raven

Robert Browning’s Home Thoughts, From Abroad

That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!

The fluting song of the wood thrush is, indeed, the musical sound that I look forward to every summer.  The towee comes in a close second.

And Browning’s   Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister

And His Last Duchess

And Fra Lippo Lippi

NOVELS, thinking of the classics. 

Middlemarch, by George Eliot.   I read this every few years.

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorn

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte

The Awakening, by Kate Chopin

Howards End, by E.M. Forster.

And E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops,  A Room With a View

Contemporary writers

My new favorite is A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles.  A remarkable novel about a young count who is exiled to life in a hotel, by a Bolshevik tribunal.

I like Ann Patchett, especially  Bel Canto, Run, and The Magician’s Assistant

One contemporary novel that had a lasting effect on me was The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell.  I highly recommend that one to just about anyone.  Also, its sequal,  Children of God

I like almost anything by Barbara Kingsolver, especially  Prodigal Summer and Poisonwood Bible.  I have not yet learned to love her latest, Lacuna.  I may try again later, with that one. Some critics have said it’s her best work.  Update: February 2014.  Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior is now perhaps my favorite.  it appeals to me on so many levels: my interest in environmental issues, my connection to nature, and the strength of her characters; even the antagonists, the characters who stand in the way and fight the good, are presented as real people with life histories that lead them to where they are, and who have real and even sympathetic reasons for taking unsympathetic stands.  You can disagree with them, but you can’t wish them harm.  Her main character lives in an America that is foreign to any experience I’ve even known, and yet she rings true and comes to life as a friend you don’t want to leave when you turn the last page.

And of course there is Marilynne Robinson’s Home.  As the few  readers of my blog will know, I have a separate, whole ‘nother entry about Home.  It speaks to me.

I’m not a big fan of short stories. I like to be drawn into long novels. If I like the places a story takes me, then I want to stay there a while. But a few short stories come to mind that I’d recommend to just about anyone.

There’s Sarah Orne Jewett‘s The White Heron.

And there is James Agee‘s  A Mother’s Tale, a beast fable told by a mother cow to her son and daughter:

The calf ran up the hill as fast as he could and stopped sharp. “Mama!” he cried, all out of breath. “What is
it! What are they doing ‘! Where are they going!”
Other spring calves came galloping too.
They all were looking up at her and awaiting her explanation, but she looked out over their excited eyes. As
she watched the mysterious and majestic thing they had never seen before, her own eyes became even more
than ordinarily still, and during the considerable moment before she answered, she scarcely heard their urgent
questioning.
Far out along the autumn plain, beneath the sloping light, an immense drove of cattle moved eastward.
They went at a walk, not very fast, but faster than they could imaginably enjoy.   …

And a top favorite, The Daughters of the Late Colonel, a 1922 short story by Katherine Mansfield.

I will come back to this, probably many times, as I continue to read and to find more literature to love.  As I remember old favorites and discover new ones.  More to come, and while I think further on this, I’d welcome comments about your favorites in literature.

Then how do you live the rest of your life?

Posted in fiction, Friends & families by helenofmarlowe on February 10, 2011

“Say you do something terrible. And it’s done. And you can’t change it. Then how do you live the rest of your life?”

“All I can tell you is what Papa would say. He’d say repent, and then– you can put it aside, more or less, and go on. You’ve probably heard him say that as often as I have.”

“More often.”

Jack Boughton has come home again, after a twenty-year mute absence.

Robert Frost once wrote, Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you. Could that quote have been on Marilynne Robinson’s mind when she titled her novel Home?

Early on, in Home, The Rev. Boughton says to his now middle-aged son, "I just never knew another child who didn't feel at home in the house where he was born."

“Then how do you live the rest of your life?”

Is that a question most of us ask ourselves, or only a few of us?

Maybe only some of us need to?

When I read the passage above, I am reminded of a gathering of friends several years ago — or if not friends, then at least friendly acquaintances, since the gathering was too large to encompass my definition of friend. One of the women in the group had occasion to say “I’m not a bad person.” What occasioned that remark? I don’t recall. She is an elderly widow, Cuban born but here most of her life, a wealthy and beautiful woman, or would be to those (few?) who can look at a seventy year old woman and see beauty.

And I recall thinking, What must it feel like to be able to say that? I know little of her long life, but I felt envy. For her being able to say that.

Jack Boughton is the most haunting literary character I have ever known. Yes, I know Hamlet and Hedda Gabbler and Holden Caulfield, but they don't keep me up at night. I don't wake up wondering how Hamlet felt in his home as a child.

I think of Jack, about whom "so little in his childhood and youth could be mentioned without discomfort."

Jack's father will not know why Jack has come home. The reader learns after Jack's hopes wither away. We understand his utter sadness when he says to Glory,

"I was clutching at straws coming to Gilead. No doubt about that. I've had some experience with them. Straws."

The Rev. Boughton  is mystified by this unhappy son.  He says to Jack, " ... I feel as though you haven't had a good life.'

Jack laughed, "Oh. Well, I'm sorry about that too."

"You misunderstand me. I mean your life has never seemed to have any real joy in it. I'm afraid you've never had much in the way of happiness."

"Oh. I see. Well, I've been happy from time to time. Things are a little difficult now .."

"Yes, because you wouldn't be here otherwise. That's all right. I just never knew another child who didn't feel at home in the house where he was born...."

And yet the child Jack did not feel at home, and still he does not.

Glory often "saw that wary look of his, caution with no certainty of the nature of the threat, and with no notion at all of possible refuge. He realized he did not please his father, did not know how to please his father. He would probably have liked to believe he had done something wrong, so that he could at least orient himself a little, but she had told him a terrible thing, that he had done nothing to offend."  His father had found fault with him anyway.

She regretted telling Jack he had done nothing to offend. It was not something he had done.  It was him.  She wished she could kill herself out of existences, herself and every word she had ever said.

Glory said, 'None of this is your fault, Jack. The phone woke Papa out of a sound sleep, and he's a little cross. That's all.
Jack said mildly... "It never seems to make much difference. Whether I'm at fault or not."

He was "the black sheep, the ne'er-do-well, unremarkable in photographs. None of the very few stories that mentioned him suggested the loss of him could have been wholly regrettable."

We know, the reader knows, Glory knows -- but does his father know? -- how Jack felt after his father insisted he be the one to say grace at table, upsetting the expected routine.

"No, no Jack. I want to hear you say the grace. Humor an old fellow."

"All right." He cleared his throat. "For all we are about to receive, help us to be truly thankful. Amen."

His father looked at him. "That will do, I suppose. I have heard that grace any number of times. It's perfectly all right. And the Lord is forgiving. We can start our breakfast now."

Jack is always polite, but avoids talking about his life. And Jack is afraid his being there is harming his elderly father. No matter how polite and kind and considerate Jack is, he sees his father's anxieties.

"You were always on his mind, all those years. It isn't having you here that makes him worry."

"Then it's -- what? -- my existence, I suppose. My hapless, disreputable existence. And from his point of view, I can't even put an end to it. There is no end to it. I'll always be somewhere in eternity, rotting, or writhing...."

"He never said one thing in his life about rotting or writhing!"

"True. It was always 'perdition' wasn't it. I finally looked the word up in the dictionary. ''The utter loss of the soul, or of final happiness in a future state -- semicolon -- future misery or eternal death.' He's a saint, and I believe he's afraid to die because of me. To leave me behind, still unregenerate -- I know that's what he has on his mind."

Glory said, "If you feel he's worried about you, have you ever considered -- just to ease his mind ... ?"

He looked at her. 'Lying to the old fellow? About the state of my soul? Ah, Glory, what would I be then?"

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