Reading is a solitary activity.
Or, is it?
When we give books (whether tangibly or through a recommendation) a solitary pleasure is transformed into a shared joy.
This is what I thought as I put together these recommendations for you. I remembered the special friend who knew I would love this book of poetry. I remembered how she flew all the way from Chicago to Pennsylvania to stay with me, and I remembered when she put this book in my hand. She was right. I do love it, and it’s the fact of being so well known, as much as the book itself, that I am grateful for.
I also remembered the blogger who posted her love for this novel on facebook. I remembered the Chicago preschool teacher who kept copies of this writer’s books in her classroom. I know that the right books have a way of finding us at just the right time, and I hope I will always be a conduit for that magic.
I don’t believe in the kind of magic in my books. But I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book. – J.K. Rowling
At the risk of sounding foolishly repetitious, I want you to know that this is a magical book: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry: A Novel by Rachel Joyce. It’s a quiet book. Even simplistic at times. It flirts with sentimentality. And I loved it so much. This is a book that goes on working its magic in your mind and heart long after you’ve turned the last page.
This is a novel about an accidental pilgrimage. Harold Fry steps out of his front door believing he will go only as far as the mailbox at the end of his street. Whether personal demons come out to chase him or some invisible force pulls him along, the result is that Harold puts one foot in front of the other until he has walked from his southern coastal English village 600 miles to the Scottish seaside.
Though I guessed the plot twist from the beginning, I still found this to be a beautiful, quietly devastating novel. It looks squarely at failure (Harold’s failures, his wife’s failures, our many, human failings) without losing hope. Harold’s story is sweet, clever, enjoyable, and profound.
‘If I just keep putting one foot in front of the other, it stands to reason that I’m going to get there. I’ve begun to think we sit far more than we’re supposed to.’ He smiled. ‘Why else would we have feet?’ – Rachel Joyce
I was introduced to the picture books of Elsa Beskow eight years ago in my daughter’s Waldorf classroom. Waldorf education places a high value on fairy tale and the natural world, and I don’t think you can find that combination more clearly, or more beautifully, expressed anywhere but Beskow’s books.
Beskow was Swedish, and she wrote and illustrated dozens of titles between the 1890s and 1950s. One of my favorites, Peter in Blueberry Land, first appeared in 1901.
This is a story about a little boy searching for wild blueberries and cranberries for his mother’s birthday. Unable to find any berries, he sits forlorn on a stump in the forest until the tiny King of Blueberry Land takes pity on him. By the King’s magic, Peter shrinks in size and enjoys a day of pint-sized adventure with the many sons of the blueberry king and the red-capped daughters of Mrs. Cranberry.
We read this story over and over this summer because, well, blueberries! It’s one of those books that quickly becomes a kind of imaginative shorthand for the whole family. Wouldn’t that fern over there be a giant tree for the blueberry boys? we say. Or, Do you think Mrs. Cranberry shelters under a giant mushroom like that one?
The large format books are beautifully bound, but they can be hard to find. I discovered my copy of Peter sitting next to a display of butterfly-patterned china in a London department store. Last week, I spotted a large format copy of Children of the Forest in the gift shop of our local botanical gardens. The smaller, gift book editions are readily available on Amazon. We own a mini gift edition of The Sun Egg, and we return to it frequently even though it’s small. The baby seems especially enamored of its size, but I won’t let her play with these.
His mother was very pleased and said it was one of the nicest presents she had ever had. ‘Where did you find all those berries?’ she asked. But Peter smiled and shook his head. It was a secret between him and the King of Blueberry Land.
Sounding the Seasons by Malcolm Guite was a gift from a friend last spring. I’ve spent the summer reading and rereading these “seventy sonnets for the Christian year.”
Guite is a poet, priest, and musician from Cambridge, England. His sonnet sequence strongly reminds me of the seventeenth-century devotional poetry of George Herbert (a poet I’ve recommended here before), but it is also modern, cutting right to the heart of our contemporary preoccupations.
These poems stand alone as poems, but they are also beautiful accompaniments to the church calendar and to daily worship. By rights, I shouldn’t even include this title when claiming to give you “a peek at my farmhouse bookshelves,” because this book hasn’t seen a shelf since it arrived. It lives on my coffee table, on my bedside table, and stacked with my Bible on my desk. I carry it around with me, and I read it, at least a little bit, every day.
Some of you may have seen the sonnet I shared yesterday. Here’s one more:
First light and then first lines along the east
To touch and brush a sheen of light on water,
As though behind the sky itself they traced
The shift and shimmer of another river
Flowing unbidden from its hidden source;
The Day-Spring, the eternal Prima Vera.
Blake saw it too. Dante and Beatrice
Are bathing in it now, away upstream …
So every trace of light begins a grace
In me, a beckoning. The smallest gleam
Is somehow a beginning and a calling:
‘Sleeper awake, the darkness was a dream
For you will see the Dayspring at your waking,
Beyond your long last line the dawn is breaking.’
I see the world through a lens of metaphor and story. The magnolia tree near our chicken coop is a love letter. The window in our stairwell is a promise.
Like a pair of good eyeglasses, metaphor helps me see the world and my life more clearly. It is the tool I use to scratch beneath the surface of things.
These days, I am learning its limits.
Or, maybe, I am learning my own limits.
I plunge my arms up to the elbows in a deep farmhouse sink. Snap peas, carrots, a rainbow of swiss chard, and heads of broccoli so richly green they’re also purple. In every moment I can spare, I am harvesting, washing, blanching, freezing, eating, feeding. The kitchen garden we rushed to build and plant this spring has become a fountain. Between the rain and the explosion of good things to eat, that is no metaphor.
Apparently, metaphor has been more than a pair of eyeglasses to me. It has also been my preferred tool for setting up distance between the spiritual world and my own. I have used it to say here are my life and my world and way over there? Can you see it off in the distance? Those are the promises of God. The things that truly matter. We will get there someday.
Except, someday is today.
The things of God are here.
The things of God are now.
In my Bible, I can point out an inky smear of a date. Also, a little scribble of a star. They remind me that two years ago, I heard God say this, “they will make gardens and eat their fruit.”
Those words felt like a promise, and I held on to them through two very unfruitful years. In other words, I believed them. Yet, I know now that I believed them in a hazy, over-spiritualized kind of way.
What if God means exactly what he says?
What if his metaphors indicate, not distance, but nearness?
He promised, and, today, I am eating those words. I have sautéed them in oil and garlic, roasted them at high heat. I have shredded them and peeled them into ribbons. I have tossed them in salads and shared them with neighbors.
They taste good.
We don’t read poetry any longer, do we?
Oh, a bit here and there, and some of us more than others, but we’re much more likely to end our days with reality television than The Oxford Book of English Verse, aren’t we?
I often wonder why this is. Is it because we are so accustomed to the easy and comfortable we avoid using our spare time for anything that requires real effort? And I won’t fool you. Poetry requires effort. It asks that we meet it at least halfway.
We must quiet our minds (and our stereo speakers). We must slow down (no one ever speed-read a poem). We must re-read (a good poem can’t ever be checked as “read” on our reading lists and tracking apps; poetry happens in the re-reading).
All I really know is that I’ve hesitated to recommend poetry books in this space. I want to make you happy, and I’ve decided happiness means novels, memoirs, cookbooks, and picture books.
I read this article and realized that poetry is worth more than life to some people. They will risk everything for what it gives.
The least I can do is share a few recommendations with you.
Also, I can make this promise – tonight, when my children are (finally) asleep, I will not turn on my television. I will not pick up my big, fat novel. Instead, I will re-read, and I will remember. I will remember that my life is something different, something better, because I have read Yeats and Auden, Bishop and Heaney.
And these. I have read these:
I have read George Herbert.
One of the great English metaphysical poets (poets known for their elaborate imagery), Herbert was a priest in the Church of England and a friend of John Donne. His religious poetry is beautiful, desperate, and honest. But this is not confession (or not merely); it is art. It is art that dramatizes and explores the encounter between the flawed, sinful self and a God who is Love.
Herbert’s poems are intricately crafted. They reward the time we spend with them.
A verse may finde him, who a sermon flies, / And turn delight into a sacrifice. – George Herbert
I have read Eavan Boland.
I can’t recommend poetry without recommending the work of this contemporary Irish poet. Boland writes about home, about motherhood, about what it means to create beautiful art out of the raw materials of violence, loss, and the various troubles of history. Her work is accessible, but it is not superficial. It rewards our first reading, but it gives more with subsequent readings.
I suggest picking up a single volume of her work (rather than a collection or the few poems you might find in an anthology). Reading poetry is like music in this regard – poets write poems the way musicians create albums. It is one thing to know a hit single in isolation; it is entirely another to know what has been created when the artist gathers their work into a whole.
I often return to her volume In a Time of Violence. You might start there.
Write us out of the poem. Make us human / in cadences of change and mortal pain / and words we can grow old and die in. – Eavan Boland
I have read everything ever published by T. S. Eliot. But, always and especially, I have read Four Quartets.
Eliot was the first poet who ever made me love poetry. I was a teenager, and I was mesmerized by the rhythms of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Now I don’t often go back to Prufrock and his coffee spoons (though the first lines of that poem are impossible for me to forget), but I return, more and more often, in fact, to Four Quartets.
There are times when an imperfect little art (like a quirky little poem) will suffice. It is like us: small yet precious, strange but lovely. There are other times when we need an art that hints at something much bigger and more perfect. Four Quartets is like that for me. It is big enough to move in, big enough to dream in, big enough to inspire your own creativity. It is Art-with-a-capital-A, and some days that is what my own little life needs most of all.
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling // We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time. – T. S. Eliot
Do you read poetry? Why? Why not? I’d love to know.
If there is one thing I am sure of after two years of desert living, it is that darkness can be a gift. It is often (perhaps always?) the only possible beginning for new life.
After all, the very darkest night is the night of the new moon.
Here is one more poem from one of my favorite collections, Luci Shaw’s Accompanied by Angels: Poems of the Incarnation.
“… the power of the Most High will overshadow you …”
When we think of God, and
angels, and the Angel,
we suppose ineffable light.
So there is surprise in the air
when we see him bring to Mary,
in her lit room, a gift of darkness.
What is happening under that
huge wing of shade? In that mystery
what in-breaking wildness fills her?
She is astonished and afraid; even in
that secret twilight she bends her head,
hiding her face behind the curtain
of her hair; she knows that
the rest of her life will mirror
this blaze, this sudden midnight.
– Luci Shaw
Explore the growing collection of Advent imagery here.
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For a while now, I’ve reserved Mondays for poetry. If nothing else, poetry slows us down, and I usually need that on Mondays.
Here is a poem for the first Monday of Advent.
No doubt you can find many English-language versions of Rilke’s poem “Magnificat.” I’m afraid I couldn’t say which is best, whatever “best” means when we are speaking of poetry in translation. Most accurate? Most beautiful? As much as possible of both?
I chose this translation because of the words which begin the final stanza: “That he found me!”
Despite the trouble that sent Mary to seek refuge in the home of her cousin, she praises God because he saw her. He noticed her. He found her.
He is God-who-sees-us.
He is God-who-knows-us.
We are all of us lost, we are all of us found. Some of us don’t yet know that we’ve been found. Some of us just have a hard time remembering.
Rilke’s version of Mary’s song reminds me that even in the midst of trouble, even when I feel most lost, I have been noticed. I have been found.
Already gravid, she ascended, nearly
bereft of any solace, faith, or hope.
The pregnant matron, proudly and austerely
knowing, met her on the slope,
aware of all that Mary need not share.
Since she was resting on her suddenly,
the heavy frau embraced with patient care,
and waited till the younger spoke: “You see,
I feel as if I were to live forever.
God fills the rich with vanities, dear friend,
almost not even looking at their clever
glitter; choosing maidens, though, He’s never
rash, but fills them with life without end.
That he found me! Consider, that on my
account His fiats moved the stars. Oh, raise
Him up, my soul. Exalt the Lord on high,
for all that you can praise.”
– Rainer Maria Rilke, translated from the German by Len Krisak
One year ago, I was waiting, holding on to these words from Psalm 81: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of Egypt. Open wide your mouth, and I will fill it.”
The date inked in beside those words in my Bible is August 23, 2011. By the time Advent began, I’d spent three months wringing out every drop of hope they had to give.
I did not know when (or even if) we would be moving on from Florida, but I longed to leave the desert behind. I was not yet pregnant, but I had a daughter who prayed every night for a sister. I had only imprecise dreams of what the future might hold, but I kept my mouth open and imagined a cup running over.
I wrote every day that Advent, and I shared it all with you here.
Before I’d even packed away the Christmas tree, I was pregnant, and the events which would bring us to Pennsylvania had been set in motion. I celebrated the new year with anticipation, though I still knew nothing of a baby girl or a red brick farmhouse.
Such a year it has been. Such a year.
And now – now, it is a season for singing. And, so, like last year, I will have something for you here each day of Advent.
We will wait and sing, together.
I am singing my Advent anthem to you, God: How all year
I’ve felt your thrusts, every sound and sight stabbing
like a little blade – the creak of gulls, the racket
as waves jostle pebbles, the road after rain, shining
like a river, the scrub of wind on the cheek, a flute
trilling – clean as a knife, the immeasurable chants of green,
of sky: messages, announcements. But of what? Who?
Then last Tuesday, a peacock feather (surprise!)
spoke from the grass; Flannery calls hers “a genuine
word of the Lord.” And I – as startled as Mary, nearly,
at your arrival in her chamber (the invisible
suddenly seen, urgent, iridescent, having put on light
for her regard) – I brim over like her, quickening. I can’t
stop singing, thoroughly pregnant with Word!
– Luci Shaw