The Library of Congress just appointed Charles Wright from Virginia to be our new national poet laureate. Some ofour best contemporary poets have brought their energy and vision to promote this ancient, ever-changing art. Recent poets laureate have included: Billy Collins, Natasha Tretheway, Robert Pinsky, Rita Dove, Ted Kooser, and Kay Ryan.
Some of their projects live on. Ted Kooser created a free weekly newspaper column called American Life in Poetry that features work each week by a different poet. Billy Collins started Poetry 180 a website that has spurned at least two books that have brought accessible poetry to high school students and the general public. Natasha Tretheway started a series on PBS’s The News Hour called “Where Poetry Lives.” It includes segments of contemporary poets reading their own work and describing how it came to be.
And what, you might ask, will Charles Wright do? In the New York Times announcement of his post, Wright said that he and his wife spend two summer months each year in a remote corner of Montana. He will envision his new project there, something worthy of the tradition that earlier appointees have started. Read more about New U.S. Poet Laureate Announced
Penelope Lively is one of my favorite British novelists. She has a talent for capturing the world in detail and a deep understanding of the social world and the dynamics of families. In this nonfiction collection, she looks back upon her life including her childhood as an expat in Egypt, her staid years at a British boarding school, and her coming of age in the wild London sixties. She also writes about her reading and writing life and the complicated state of old age.
Fitzgerald explores how different the world of her youth was from today. When she was a child, everyone dropped everything for formal afternoon tea, and the girl who took the last sandwich or bun earned a wish for either a handsome husband or 10,000 a year. Everyone, Lively said, chose the handsome husband. Money be scorned!
Lively also tells of being part of the post-suffragist, pre-feminist generation. In those days, no one wondered why ten men attended university to every woman. Although Lively enjoyed those odds, she wonders why she never questioned whether men were actually smarter than women or had more of a right to be there. Read more about Dancing Fish and Amonites
I’ve always liked films and plays that are about films and plays themselves. Maybe it’s because there is still a part of me that would have like to have been “an actor.” (Said term must be pronounced with the air of exaggerated sophistication that implies the lack of same.) Noises Off is one of my favorites. It has an all-star comedy cast featuring Michael Caine, Carol Burnett, Denholm Elliott, Julie Hagerty, Marilu Henner, John Ritter, and Christopher Reeve. The story is about a group of actors in a touring company performing a comedic play that they hope will head to the big time. In this case the action behind the scenes is as funny, or funnier, than what is taking place on stage. The film gives us a chance to the see the action from both sides. From the front we see the play “Nothing On,” from the back we see the interactions among the actors. There are affairs, personality conflicts, and drinking to the point of drunkenness. The term “noises off” comes from the direction that backstage sounds are to cease, something that doesn’t exactly happen backstage in the movie.
Noises Off is a comedy based on the play by Michael Frayn. It is a fast paced and driven movie that reminds me quite a bit of some of the best skits from the Carol Burnett Show. In most plays backstage is an area of controlled chaos. In the case of the backstage action in Noises Off remove the word controlled. If you like a good, semi intelligent comedy mixed with slapstick and outrageous personalities you should give Noises Off a try.
If you’re looking for some interesting new poetry, go no further than Maureen McLane’s new book. Even the titles are inviting: “Another Day in this Here Cosmos,” “OK Fern,” “Tell Us What Happened in the 14th Century,” and “Morning with Adirondack Chair.” McLane writes often about travel, nature, love, but most importantly it’s all filtered through the lens of her mind. Her particular world-view is humorous and serious at the same time, and often feels edgy, new. There’s a sense that she does not take herself too seriously while at the same time, she writes in deep earnest.
One poem begins, “OK fern / I’m your apprentice / I can tell you // apart from your / darker sister.” It ends with a sincere request for the wild plant to tell the narrator what to do with her life. (We’ve all been there speaking to trees or inanimate objects.)
Muscle Shoals is great music documentary about the "special sound" that came out of the studio recordings of this small town in Alabama that includes names like Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and The Allman Brothers (among others). Interviews with the studio musicians, the engineers, and some of the more famous people involved on the bands listed above help tell the story of this great place to make music. I was particularly interested in the story of the session musicians from that town, named "The Swampers" that played behind the varied kinds of musicians that came to record over the years. Read more about Muscle Shoals
If you like the lyrical, visual poetry of e e cummings, this biography of his life will appeal to you. Even if you are not a poetry fan, but you enjoy reading about Greenwich Village and Paris during their artistic heydays, you will enjoy Susan Cheever’s carefully researched biography.
e e cummings was born into privilege in Cambridge, Mass. His father a professor and minister at Harvard. He loved technology and was always buying the next new thing, whether that was an early automobile or a collapsible canoe with folding seats.
The latter purchase caused one of the most horrifying incidents of e e’s teenage years. He and his sister took the canoe out on a lake at their summer place in New Hampshire. Their favorite dog, Rex, accompanied them, but unfortunately, turned suddenly to see something. The boat capsized. And as Elizabeth, e e’s sister, clung to it, the canoe sank. Meanwhile Rex had swum almost the whole way back to shore, but then heard the children and hurried back. Exhausted by this time, the dog pushed Elizabeth down. Elizabeth came up sputtering for air and Rex shoved her down again. As the dog circled close for his third attempt to rescue himself, e e swam over and held Rex down until he stopped breathing. Read more about A Poet's LifeE.