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
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.

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