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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

In this issue:

Books reviewed by John Malone, Joan L. Cannon and J.S.

100 Essential Modern Poems by Women reveals that a number of the poets suffered from bitter conflicts with their parents or from their physical or emotional absence. Chinese Lessons is written in an artful and entertaining style; China's Government policies are not soft-pedaled. Heartbeat for Horses will speak to anybody who has ever loved horses, either in reality or in literature



Edited by Joseph Parisi and Kathleen Welton

Published by Ivan R. Dee, Chicago; Hardcover, 216 pp, ©2008

I read this interesting anthology while on a ten-day cruise on the Baltic Sea in September this year. It was a wonderful way to return to reading poetry after many years of neglecting it.

As a teenager I was very fond of poetry and even wrote some of my own – puerile, derivative blank verse about preppy weekends spent drinking and listening to jazz in New York, perhaps inspired by my then favorite poet, T.S. Eliot. Some of it was published in The Hill School’s student literary review during my sixth form year, and, when I returned to The Hill for my 50th class reunion, I came across a copy in the school library. Reading it, I thought to myself, “Not bad for a seventeen-year-old, but I think I can do better than that.” Sad to say, I haven’t yet tried. But after reading 100 Essential Modern Poems by Women, I am inspired and thinking seriously of trying my hand again.

The forty-nine women poets in the book are arranged in chronological order by date of birth, running from Emily Dickinson (1830) to Louise Erdrich (1954), seriously stretching the usual meaning of modern to include Dickinson, Christina Rossetti and Emma Lazarus, all deceased well before the turn of the century. They were deemed by the editors to be clearly more modern than other 19th century women poets, atypical of the flowery fin de siècle style.

Each poet has her own chapter, consisting of a well-researched biographical sketch by Joseph Parisi, the long-time former editor of Poetry magazine, followed by his selection of her most essential work. The poems included in each chapter range in number from ten (Dickinson) to zero (Elizabeth Bishop, who, before her death in 1979, imposed restrictions on the use of her work which unfortunately made it impossible for Parisi to include any of it in this anthology). The average number of poems per poet is just over two.

While I realize I am not professionally qualified as a poetry critic, I do know what I like about the poems in this book: I like the openness and frankness with which most of these poets describe their feminine condition, what it feels like to be a woman in a male-dominated world, living in their bodies, celebrating their loves and mourning their losses. I also found Parisi’s biographical sketches fascinating, particularly the relatively large number of these poets who broke away from the norms of society in mid-life, often leaving heterosexual relationships or marriages to partner happily with other women.

Another thing that struck me was the relatively small number of these women who had enjoyed conventional, 'normal' childhoods. Many of them suffered from bitter conflicts with their parents or simply from their parents’ physical or emotional absence, especially their fathers. As a writer and a survivor of an alcoholic family myself, this did not surprise me. In fact it helped me to enjoy their wonderful poems even more. I found the juxtaposition of the brief biographies with the selected poems in each of the forty-nine short chapter a very effective and enjoyable way of making the reader acquainted with these remarkable women in a way that could not be achieved by just reading their poems.

I highly recommend this book to readers of all literary preferences, not only as an inspiring reading experience but also as a valuable source of reference material. In addition to the biographies, there are ten pages of notes to the poems themselves.

John Malone

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©2008 John Malone for

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