Saturday, 31 December 2011

New Year

Here's a great New Year poem from Denise Levertov.

You can also see and hear her reading some of her poems here.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

José Tolentino Mendonça

A couple of weeks ago the Pope appointed new members and consultors to the Pontifical Council for Culture

What was interesting about these appointments was a) how wide-ranging the Vatican's definition of Culture is (among the consultors were professors of neurology, physics, and astrophysics) b) how high profile some of these appointments were (Arvo Pärt being the standout figure) and c) how poets rather than novelists represented the literary arts.

I will write shortly about Catholicism and the novel but, for now, let's look at the poet (and theologian) who was named as a consultor, Fr José Tolentino Mendonça. You can read about his work here and can read one of his poems (which is partly about Flannery O'Connor) here.

If you ever need a lesson on how to not use the comma, Mendonça's the man.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Image Journal: Poems for the Season

Image Journal is an interesting publication with an interesting blog. If you're looking for some festive poems they have some good recommendations here.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

The Father Christmas Letters

Tolkien's The Father Christmas Letters - also published in more detail as Letters from Father Christmas - are quite fun, though not in anything like the same league as The Lord of the Rings. The title is also slightly misleading. The letters are indeed from Father Christmas (to Tolkien's children) but Father Christmas is not quite as significant in most of the letters as the North Polar Bear, his accident-prone helper, though I suspect that it is Tolkien's pictures rather than his tales or his characters which are the chief attraction for many children.

I was intrigued by one minor detail though. Tolkien is very precise about the date of the last major Goblin attack - 1453 - which rather suggests a link with the Ottoman Turks who famously stormed Constantinople in that year. Now we have to be careful here: Tolkien claimed to hate allegory (though there is more than a whiff of it in stories like Farmer Giles of Ham and the wonderful Leaf by Niggle). The simple fact that the Goblins return to the North Pole during the dark days of World War II suggests that we cannot simply equate the Goblins with the Ottoman Turks. However, this simple fact also suggests that Tolkien's imagination was rather more allegorical than he sometimes claimed or would have liked.

One word of warning. You don't get all the letters in The Father Christmas Letters or even, I think, in some editions of Letters from Father Christmas, which can be rather frustrating.

Indeed, despite the enormous number of books published by and about Tolkien, there are still some gaps. I look forward to the day, for example, when we get a Collected Letters. What we have at the moment is only a selection with some significant lacunae. Take this example, for instance:

"Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament..... There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon earth, and more than that: Death: by the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste (or foretaste) of which alone can what you seek in your earthy relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man's heart desires."(pp.53-54)

I'd love to know what comes at the end of that first sentence. But, even with the gaps, these letters are really wonderful.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Dickens, Chesterton & Christmas

G. K. Chesterton wrote a series of brilliant introductions to Dickens' books, including his Christmas books, which are well worth reading at this time of year. You can find the relevant introductions here and here.

As you might guess, they are eminently quotable, so I have had to restrict myself to just a few of Chesterton's comments here. 

What he appreciates is that "Dickens devoted his genius in a somewhat special sense to the description of happiness. No other literary man of his eminence has made this central human aim so specially his subject matter." 

Which is why he was so attracted to Christmas, almost despite himself: "All Dickens's books," he writes,  "are Christmas books."

So what is so special about Christmas?

"Everything is so arranged that the whole household may feel, if possible, as a household does when a child is actually being born in it. The thing is a vigil and a vigil with a definite limit. People sit up at night until they hear the bells ring. Or they try to sleep at night in order to see their presents the next morning. Everywhere there is a limitation, a restraint; at one moment the door is shut, at the moment after it is opened. The hour has come or it has not come; the parcels are undone or they are not undone; there is no evolution of Christmas presents."

And why does the season matter?

"All comfort must be based on discomfort. Man chooses when he wishes to be most joyful the very moment when the whole material universe is most sad."

As he wrote about Dickens: "He may almost be said to have only written a brilliant introduction to another man's book."

Thursday, 8 December 2011

How to Read

I love this passage about reading from Steinbeck's East of Eden: "Samuel rode lightly on top of a book and he balanced happily among ideas the way a man rides white rapids in a canoe. But Tom got into a book, crawled and grovelled between the covers, tunnelled like a mole among the thoughts, and came up with the book all over his face and hands."

This thought from the Sayings of Light and Love by St John of the Cross (who is quoting Guigo the Carthusian who is, in turn, reworking Luke 11: 9) is wonderful in a different way: "Seek in reading and you will find in meditation; knock in prayer and it will be opened to you in contemplation." 

This fourfold approach is the basis of lectio divina but, it seems to me, it also has an application in the classroom. As English teachers we want our students to read but how they read is pretty important too.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Regina Derieva

Regina Derieva is an interesting poet. She was born in what is now Ukraine in 1949 and lived for many years in what is now Kazakhstan before converting to Catholicism, emigrating to Israel and then finding herself in a stateless condition. She now lives in Sweden and continues to publish to critical acclaim.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Making the Most of Advent

This time last year I recommended the poetry of St Robert Southwell (and here) and Alice Thomas Ellis's The Birds of the Air

This year I have been slogging through her The Inn at the Edge of the World, a novel about a group of individuals who spend Christmas at a failing inn on a remote Scottish island in a vain attempt to escape the horrors of Christmas. As is typical of Thomas Ellis, there is more to the story than immediately meets the eye - selkie legends run through the story and a twist is coming - but I'm not enjoying it as much as I did The Birds of the Air simply because the characters are an eminently unlikeable lot.

So what else is available as we prepare for Christmas? I recommended a few books last November and a couple of children's books this year (here and here) but there's plenty more out there.

Denise Levertov's 'The Tide', for example, is presented as an Advent poem in one anthology of Catholic poetry. It's a good poem but I wonder if her poem about the Annunciation might not be a better bet at this time of year (as well as in March)? Levertov is a fantastic poet and not terribly well known, at least on this side of the pond.

Another option is Mauriac's 'A Christmas Tale', a story about Christmas, growing up and authorship, which is available in John B. Breslin's The Substance of Things Hoped For (along with some other great, and unusual, short stories.

Any other suggestions gratefully received.