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Friday, Mar 6, 2009

Weeks ago I came across a secondhand one-dollar copy of a hardcover Everyman’s Library anthology named Minor Poets of the 18th Century. The old Everymans make a beautiful set of books: small, neat, studious, green. The covers, with their blunt-edged knots, are plain enough to suggest surprises.


The surprise here was a blank-verse four-part poem called The Fleece written by a man named John Dyer. I’d never heard of it before. Searching online for a version of the poem that I could link to this post, I found nothing more than a single old, scanned copy at Google books. Not all of the poems in Minor Poets are that obscure. Etexts of William Collins’ “Ode to Fear” are available in several places, and Anne Finch’s “The Owl Describing her Young Ones” was once the Poem of the Week over at the Guardian‘s book blog. Even taking its age and minor status into account, it seems safe to suggest that The Fleece is not well known.


Welsh by birth, Dyer tried his hand as a painter and parson as well as a poet before dying in 1758 at the age of 59. His one great success came in 1727 with the publication of a nature poem named Grongar Hill. The idea behind Grongar Hill is simple. Our narrator climbs a hill and admires the countryside, which, he tells us, is a place of “Pleasure” where “Quiet treads”.


“Now, even now, my joys run high
As on the mountain turf I lie”


“Dyer,” remarked Samuel Johnson, “is not a poet of bulk or dignity sufficient to require an elaborate criticism. Grongar Hill is the happiest of his productions.” Wordsworth liked the poem so much he wrote a posthumous ode in Dyer’s honour. The Fleece is wobblier than Grongar Hill, but it’s also more ambitious, an attempt to take the idea of Virgil’s Georgics and re-mould it to tell the story of the contemporary international trade in British wool. Dyer was not alone in his inspiration—other poets of the same time wrote georgics on the subjects of cider, sugar cane, and hops—but as far as I know he was the only one who chose sheep.


He introduces himself to us in a deliberately classical tone, like this:


“The care of sheep, the labours of the loom,
And arts of trade I sing. Ye rural nymphs,
Ye swains, and princely merchants aid the verse.
And ye, high-trusted guardians of our isle,
Whom public voice approves, or lot of birth
To the great charge assigns: ye good, of all
Degrees, all sects, be present to my song.”


This introduction lets us know that The Fleece is not going to be a small-scale poem like Grongar Hill, taking place on a single spot of countryside. This is going to be an epic that will embrace as many people and parts of life as possible. Trade is society, Dyer suggests. The shepherds and merchants are not only subjects of the verse, they also “aid” it. Buried under that self-conscious ‘ye’ is a basic egalitarian cry—come one, come all, gather round, listen, this poem is yours. The unsteadiness that runs through The Fleece has its origins in the contrast between Dyer’s heightened language and the hucksterish sociability of that cry, and between his abstract ideas of Ancient Rome and the concrete fact of a sheep. Between, in short, simplicity and artifice. Sometimes he lets one swallow the other. A ram’s head “is fenced


With horns Ammonian, circulating twice
Around each open ear, like those fair scrolls
That grace the columns of the Ionic dome.”


In lines like this his attachment to the classics—to the ideas they stood for at the time, to scholarship and respect, to the invisible footnote that pipes up like a schoolchild, “I’ve read Latin!”—uproots him from himself. The horns like column scrolls are falsely conceived, not felt, not seen: forced. This is part of the reason why the poem is not completely successful, why it has been assigned to a book of minor poets. Dyer doesn’t completely trust his own experience. He can’t free himself from this self-consciousness, or find a way to merge with it as other poets have found ways to reconcile themselves with their uncertainties. Parts of his own work have been allowed to fight against him.


Tagged as: john dyer
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Monday, Jan 5, 2009

Where do you turn when you need to recommend a book or buy a gift – for someone with completely different reading tastes than you have?


This holiday season I was looking for something to give to a somewhat reluctant reader who has enjoyed everything Chuck Palahniuk has ever written – and little else for a number of years. Personally, I loved the Fight Club movie, but haven’t read any of Palahniuk’s books, and don’t quite have my head around the gritty-macho-sensationalist-violent-comedic genre enough to recommend other authors with confidence.


On Christmas Eve, I visited the central location of the large public library system in the mile-high US city where I spent Christmas, and asked for help. Public librarians can of course be a great resource for reader advisory – the ‘if you loved this, then you’ll like that’ argument. I spoke to several people before I found one with the resources to help me. After a bit of searching, he recommended John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces and Carlton Mellick III’s Electric Jesus Corpse. I took a look at both and decided that they were quite different from each other, as well as too niche to seek out for my Palahniuk fan.


Another factor in my search was that in an ideal world, I would come across an author who has published a number of books, and who preferably is still active in authoring new stories, as every avid reader’s dream is to encourage those who drag their feet to discover new writers to love. With that in mind I went to plan b: the nearest big box downtown bookstore, where I inquired at the help desk. Without hesitation, the staff person I spoke to recommended Christopher Moore’s novels, and pointed out Lamb as a particularly popular one. I recognized the cover of Moore’s You Suck from bookstores everywhere throughout 2008.


I decided to let all this information settle in my brain before making a decision, and later in the afternoon finally picked up Lamb from a smaller, totally non-big-box store. The book was gifted that evening and well received, though it’s hard to tell when the recipient will have time to open it.


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A few days later on the opposite coast, while visiting a small New England town, I strolled into a used bookstore hawking the overflow from the local public library’s wealth of donations. I stumbled across a special edition, signed copy of Lamb (gilded pages and leatherette black cover reminiscent of a certain holy book) for a third of the price of the new paperback I’d purchased a few days earlier and had to laugh. Giving a signed special edition copy of a book would probably be sure to turn off my reluctant reader friend, but perhaps I should have picked it up in anticipation of the day when an actual Moore fan crosses my path.


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Friday, Oct 24, 2008

There’s nothing like scoring some fresh used books at an unexpected book sale. Today was the annual library book sale at the nearby central university library here in Atlantic Canada. Thank goodness I had some cash.


The books were roughly categorized and stuck on spare shelving carts, with colored dots stuck on the covers to indicate prices. I picked up a ten year old marketing textbook for fifty cents that probably cost a hundred dollars back when there wasn’t a newer edition. I might use it for one or two projects and then release it back into the wild.


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A cheap Dover thrift edition of Jane Austen’s Emma set me back a dollar but I’m pretty sure I don’t have a copy and I know I’ve never read it, so I picked it up because it looks brand new. There were quite a few beaten up hardcover mass market novels from big name authors, but the only one that caught my eye was Misfortune (2005) by Wesley Stace. The dust jacket was interesting enough to make me pick it up, and the premise was interesting enough to merit forking over another dollar. The paperback reprint has four out of five stars on Amazon, and five of five on Barnes & Noble’s website, but of course I didn’t know that at the time.


My big purchase was a two dollar guide to grammar and the major writing styles; indispensable when you have (as a humanities student) long been accustomed to using the MLA guide and suddenly professors want APA style and ix-nay on the passive oice-vay. A small price to pay for an almost current grammar and style guide!


A recommended management text for a current course that I didn’t purchase at the start of the semester because funds were tight was meant to be mine. For another fifty cents, it’ll be worth it for the next assignment alone, because normally I would be trekking back to the library to take a look at the copy on reserve.


Total cost for five books: $5 Canadian. An excellent start to the weekend.


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Tuesday, Aug 26, 2008

Spontaneity got me to Good Reading. A rainy Thursday, no commitments, why don’t we go for a drive? I was quite sure Benalla was, ooh, maybe 45 minutes from my house. Perfect driving time—not too long, and just far enough to make getting there seem like a real adventure.


So, I’ve never been good with distance and driving, and the trip took nearly two hours. Oops. Good thing the Benalla countryside is lined with gorgeous yellow canola fields, each one more brilliant and full than the one before. It’s a peaceful, scenic drive. Well worth the few extra kilometres on the clock. 


I found Good Reading almost straight away, the big, yellow “BOOKS” sign out the front practically unmissable. You know, you go to secondhand bookstores long enough, they all start to blend. Each arrange sections differently, each overprice in their own way, the store owners either want to converse about every little thing, or just stick to their knitting. I prepped myself for the exciting, yet same old, world of books.


What I found at Good Reading was very nearly an entrance into The Neverending Story. This bookstore was like none I’d even been to: the ceiling-high shelves, the paintings, the little calligraphy notes marking genres, the catacombs that continued to wind and bend so that by the end of the walk-thru, every possible type of book has been encountered, in bulk. Good Reading is not simply a book store, it’s an archive, and everything’s for sale.


I didn’t ask to take photos, so while the white-haired woman at the counter was helping a customer to find updated road-map books, I snuck in a few snaps.


Surprisingly, I only spent about $60. And then cursed the $15 I spent on dinner, because there was just so much more I wanted. I have now created a savings fund specifically for my next visit.


There’s something to be said for random trips through the country. Try it… you might come home with some books.


Good Reading, 22 Bridge Street, Benalla, 3672, Victoria, Australia


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Wednesday, Aug 13, 2008

Last Thursday, a fellow book addict and I embarked on a book buying adventure to rival all others. We’ve travelled far and wide to hit secondhand stores before, but this was the first time we’d gone with our tax rebate cheques in hand. It seemed like free money, and neither of us minded in the least haphazardly spending as much of it as necessary on any and all books that grabbed our attention. Who says the government can’t be kind and generous sometimes?


There’s really no greater thrill than entering a secondhand bookstore with near-unlimited funds. Everything’s priced at or below $8.00, so it’s just too easy to fill your arms and go back for more. I loaded myself up with a travel-handy Walt Whitman collection, Christopher Reeve’s last book, and a battered copy of Jewel’s poetry. I picked up books by Carrie Fisher and Delia Ephron, Larry McMurtry and Oliver Sacks, I found a book on JFK, Jr.’s life and death, and I finally nabbed a copy of Charlotte Gray – a book I always see at secondhand stores yet am normally never in the right mood to buy. I went slightly nutty, overwhelmed by the musty book-smell, and the excitement of the old folks behind each and every secondhand store counter ready to talk my ear off about how busy I’ll be doing so much reading.


My favourite experience on the trip, however, was at the Book Inn. It’s a little shop, crammed with books, overseen by ladies who sit behind their counter-like table and knit all day long. One of the ladies was telling the other one that she’d picked up a book on assassinations and had been held rapt by its stories, especially those on political figures and celebrities who “were assassinated and survived”, like Ronald Reagan and George Harrison. The book had only cost her $4.95 at the supermarket.


But that’s not the experience I’m talking about. While browsing the Book Inn, I stumbled across the rattiest, dustiest copy of P.D. James’ The Children of Men for just one dollar. I took one look, put it in my pile, and continued shopping. It wasn’t until I got home that I realized what I’d done. See, I already own Children of Men, which I bought brand new early last year. I rarely buy books new, especially paperbacks for $20.00, like this one. I had to, though, because every single secondhand shop I’d visited in the months prior did not carry a single copy of the book. I scoured them, too. The big secondhand stores, right down to the crazy little ones near the bowling alley that mostly sell clothes from the 1960s and copper pots.


No one had Children of Men, and I was getting desperate. I wanted to see the movie, but I couldn’t without reading the book first. My partner cracked and saw the movie without me. And then I cracked. I was in Melbourne with my mum, it was the last copy left on the shelf, marked down from $24.95, it was shiny, and I thought, bugger it, I’ve got no choice. It was right in front of me. It was then or never.


So, a year and half later, when I saw that elusive book exactly as I’d wanted it for the price I’d really wanted to pay, I had to grab it. On principle. I don’t need two copies of Children of Men, but I look at my new ratty edition and think only one thing: Mission accomplished.


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