Literature Reading Journal
1. “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams is extremely spare and simple, yet it evokes a multitude of thoughts and scenarios. The “so much depends upon” suggests that the wheelbarrow is not just a child’s toy but a family transport vehicle, perhaps for carrying the chickens’ eggs to the market or for carrying loads of the chickens’ feed to their coop. The color red often signifies an emergency, as well, so given the “so much depends upon” opener, there is also a suggestion that the wheelbarrow could be an emergency transport vehicle, carrying wounded family pets or even the chickens to the veterinarian’s. The fact that the wheelbarrow is “glazed with rain water” identifies that it is sitting out in the rain, which could either mean that it has been abandoned or neglected—although not likely, since so much depends upon it—or that it is always there, at the ready. The white chickens pose a stark contrast in color to the red wheelbarrow, and this is clearly intentional on Williams’ part. Red and white evoke images of the Red Cross, Christmas candy canes, and blood and bandages, although it is not certain which of these, if any, Williams is alluding to. What I loved most about this poem was that in a few simple words it evoked all of these thoughts and scenarios. What I hated about it was that it left me hanging, not certain what Williams was really getting at.
2. In the haiku section of the book, I couldn’t help noticing that a lot of the poems were about ponds and frogs. What is it about ponds and frogs that inspires haiku? Allen Ginsberg’s version and Earl Miner’s version were quite similar, although I felt Ginsberg’s had more punch due to its brevity. Basho’s “A Village without Bells” suggests that the village people depend upon the bells, either for their familiar, happy sound or to let them know about changes of the hour or important events. When one is accustomed to hearing bells punctuate the hours, an absence of bells can make the day seem long and diffuse rather than broken up into manageable segments. My favorite haiku was Richard Wright’s “In the falling snow,” which is a happy poem reminiscent of my own childhood. The boy is laughing in the falling snow and holding out his hands, something we used to do as children, because we loved to see the snowflakes fall and accumulate on our hands. We waited months for the first snowfall, which to us heralded the soon-coming Christmas season, our most exciting season of the year as children. And we loved the snow. We played in it, made snowmen from it, had snowball fights, went sledding in it, and even just loved walking in it and watching our footprints fill with snow. Wright’s poem somehow captured all of that in a few short words and took me back to times of wonder.
3. Having read Walt Whitman at a relatively early age, I have always enjoyed his work. “I celebrate myself” for me fuses the self with all of nature outdoors. Whitman links man to the world of nature and depicts is in a lush manner, filled with intoxicating perfumes. When I read this poem, I get that sense of peace and awe that I get when I go outside on a gorgeous summer day and lie down in the grass, surrounded by myriad living organisms from blades of grass to robins. Whitman’s reference to “houses and rooms” as being filled with perfumes and “shelves…crowded with perfumes” pictures a neighborhood full of houses whose shelves and rooms hold freshly picked bouquets of flowers from outside, melding the outdoors with the indoors in a profusion of color and scent. Whitman says of the air “I am in love with it,” and I am too. What I love best about this poem is that Whitman is loafing. I loafed a lot as a child, exploring the nature around our house, but I have difficulty finding time to loaf as an adult, and I miss it terribly. I used to study blades of grass, flower petals, and hollow trees for an entire afternoon, coming home tired but satisfied. Now all I get is a quick walk with the dogs and then back to work or chores. Whitman had it right. We all need to spend time loafing every day in nature, and we need to bring as much of it inside to perfume our homes as we can manage.
4. Salter’s “Welcome to Hiroshima” was well written, providing a stark and ironic contrast between the horror of Hiroshima and the mundane world of today, in which people seem to have forgotten much of the horror. Her point seems to be that she cannot forget seeing the real Hiroshima, and the Hiroshima museum is like a mockery of that that completely misses the point. Not only is it in bad taste, but it looks real enough to reemerge in reality and create the horror all over again. Although I think Salter did a good job on it, I did not enjoy reading it. I would have preferred that she delve more into what she actually saw instead of the plastic mock-up of it.
Sharon Olds’ “Leningrad Cemetery, Winter of 1941” was eloquent. Although the subject matter again is not enjoyable, her description of the corpses wrapped in cloth or wound in sheets is poetic and compelling. She creates a scene that one cannot take one’s mental eyes off of, and at the same time, she hints at desperate privation and poverty. The comparison of the corpses to a tree ball waiting to be planted suggests that new life will spring forth from the plantings, although certainly not from these. The fact that the bodies are taken on a child’s sled suggests that the people were light and small and had perhaps starved to death. Her descriptions make the scene real and palpable.
5. Among the African American poems, I liked both “We Real Cool” and “The White House.” In the first poem, poet Gwendolyn Brooks makes her poem sound almost like a cheerleaders’ cheer, sort of sing-songy. She distills the essence of her message into just a few words, which identify that leaving school, lurking late, and drinking gin are a path to early death, but she makes it sound “real cool,” thus reflecting what leads most people down that path. In reality, she is warning her readers not to take the same path.
Claude McKay’s “The White House” is excellent. He describes his anger and resentment about being treated like a second-class citizen because of his race. There is boiling anger in every line of his poem and a sense that he is determined to press on despite being unfairly treated. The last four lines are especially powerful. It will take “superhuman power” to “hold [him] to the letter of [the] law” because of how he feels, but he recognizes that he “must keep [his] heart inviolate” so that the “potent poison” of hate does not contaminate it. As powerful as this poem is, I could not help feeling that the poison of hate had already tinged his heart. Anger and resentment are not the mark of a forgiving person. However, in recognizing this truth—that hate poisons the soul—he is on his way toward rising above his circumstances.
6. I love Shakespeare’s “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” There is obviously nothing more beautiful than a summer’s day, but Shakespeare tells his love that she is “more lovely and more temperate” than that. He points out that “Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,/And summer’s lease hath all too short a date,” suggesting that there is adversity before summer comes and then when it does, it is very brief and sometimes even too hot. Although summer fades quickly, Shakespeare’s love has beauty that does not fade, and even death cannot destroy it. Thus, a summer’s day is not perfect, but Shakespeare’s love is. Moreover, it is eternal, because he ends by saying, “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see/So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” It couldn’t be more lovely or more romantic.
His “Let me not” is equally delightful. Once again, he is talking about love, and it is clear that he is one of those rare men who truly understands it. In contrast to today’s marriages in which people try to remake each other, Shakespeare insists that marriage is not supposed to change them; love is permanent and not changeable. Time cannot change it, and it lasts forever, even until doomsday.
7. Emily Dickinson’s “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass” talks about spotting a snake in the grass. Her description of the snake’s slithering through the grass is rather ingenious: “The grass divides as with a comb/A spotted shaft is seen/And then it closes at your feet/And opens further on.” This hints at the mystery and surreptitious movement of the snake. In tall grass, all you see is the movement of the grass, as she says, with maybe just a flash of the spotted snakeskin. Unlike her other poems, this one does not seem to have deep hidden meaning, unless I am just missing it. Rather, it discusses the habits of the snake and the poet’s relationship to it. Although she likes most creatures in nature, she does not like the snake, and she makes her fear of it palpable with the phrase “tighter breathing/and zero at the bone.” These physiological responses are those of abject fear. Interestingly Dickinson never calls the snake a snake. It is a “narrow fellow,” which ascribes a certain amount of the human to it. If there could be any analogy in the poem, it might be to a human fellow with snake-like characteristics; one that is hard to apprehend and who sneaks about with the potential for doing damage to others. However, I did not have this sense when I read it. I merely identified with it, having seen a snake slithering through the grass once as a child; it looked exactly as she describes it—I only knew from the movement of the grass what was moving underneath.
8. I thought The Importance of Being Earnest was hilarious, and in fact, it was even funnier because I had seen it in film some years back with Rupert Everett and Colin Firth in it, both camping it up. I’ve read that this is one of Oscar Wilde’s most popular and enduring plays, and I’m not surprised, because it is as relevant today as it was at the turn of the 20th century. For me, it is about hypocrisy and how it is easy to get into impossible situations once you tell a single lie. Both men in the story invent a completely fictitious person, one an alter ego and the other a friend, in order to facilitate their getting out of social engagements that they do not want to attend. What makes this play so funny, I think, is that after getting away with this ruse for many years, they both become locked into their stories and unable to get out without admitting everything. It is also funny that they both later pretend to be Earnest and then find out that their given names ARE Earnest. This play reminded me a lot of Moliere’s plays, which I have always found hilarious too. They deal with the foibles of people, and often the people themselves are unaware of how silly they look to others, but Moliere plays on these foibles, not only to make his point but also to ramp up the humor. When played well, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (the would-be gentleman) is one of the funniest plays ever.