I think most of us still know the words to some poem, favourite or not, that we learned years ago in school. I have a few, and one of them is Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” But just like we all “know” the words to a pop song whose lyrics we’ve never actually looked up but that we’ve sung along to countless times, we might not always have the words right. In the case of songs the results can be hilarious. I remember hearing of one fellow who turned U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” into the far more threatening “Someday buddy, someday.” And it worked for him.
I was reminded of this recently when thinking of Frost’s poem. I found myself reading it and was surprised to find I didn’t have some of the words right. Surprised because it’s really a very simple poem.
For starters, I’d remembered the third line — “He will not see me stopping here” — as “He will not mind me stopping here.” I guess that’s pretty bad, but the thing is, I kind of like my version better. Why would the person who owns these particular woods see the traveler? Presumably he and his horse are some ways out from the homestead, and it’s night out in the country, where there are no streetlamps. Also I think the point of the line is that the property owner wouldn’t be bothered by some minor trespass. What difference would it make even if he did see the man and his horse? Would he be upset? Why? Are they up to something they shouldn’t be?
Then, at the end of the second stanza, I’d always read “The darkest evening of the year” as “The coldest evening of the year.” And again I prefer my replacement word. What does the darkest evening of the year even mean? Any night with a new moon? But on a snowy winter night it’s always a bit lighter than at any other time of the year because the snow reflects whatever light there is. And there has to be some light because the man is watching the woods fill up with snow. Or does he mean it’s the darkest evening of the year because it’s the shortest day of the year? That may be, but it’s not what he says. Meanwhile, since it’s winter and the man doesn’t want to dawdle, having it be the coldest night of the year makes some sense.
Unlike a song whose lyrics I may have misheard, I don’t know where these revisions to Frost’s poem came from. I guess my brain replaced these words at some point many years ago, and because I liked them better they stuck. It makes you wonder how much of this goes on in any oral culture, and whether such indeterminacy is always a bad thing.
Over at the Literary Review of Canada website you can read my review of John Semley’s Hater: On the Vitrues of Utter Disagreeability.
Whenever I see an end-of-year list of best books (or movies, or songs, or whatever) I always think about how small a sample size any individual list-maker can hope to draw on. I read a fair number of new releases every year, but even so my own list of the best has to be drawn from a pretty narrow number of choices. That said, here are my favourite books of 2018 in three categories.
Best fiction: This is where I really fell down this year. I didn’t read that many new novels and short story collections in 2018. But of those I read I liked Iain Reid’s Foe the best. It’s a page-turner that forces you to reflect on what makes us what we are.
Best non-fiction: Looking over all of the non-fiction books I read this past year it’s amazing how dominated the list was by Trump. So just to be different, I’ll say Adam Zamoyski’s Napoleon. It’s a good read and does an admirable job of summing up a complex man’s incredible life in a single volume.
Best SF: There were a lot of choices here – even leaving out Foe, which was an SF novel too. On my short list I’d have The Body Library by Jeff Noon (not really SF, but weird), 84K by Claire North, and The Razor by J. Barton Mitchell. But I think I’ll vote for The Robots of Gotham by Todd McAulty. It’s an epic SF robot opera set in a remarkable new world where humans and independent machines are fighting to get along. Great stuff.
I was recently asked to write an essay that would look at some current trends in literary criticism. In order to provide some background I wanted to talk a bit about earlier books like Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading and Cleanth Brooks’s The Well Wrought Urn. I have copies of both but since they’re buried away in boxes in my basement (I’m a slow mover), I thought I’d just walk over to the university library and check them out.
No luck. Neither book was available in the holdings of the university library, or any of the other university libraries that are part of the same library system. ABC of Reading was listed as being there but it wasn’t, while The Well Wrought Urn (available only in a single copy) was reported as missing.
What gives? These are two very well known, seminal books of literary criticism: the first a keynote of modernism and the other the signature work of the New Criticism. I was so sure the catalogue listings were wrong that I even went into the stacks to double check, but neither was there. Nor were they available in the city library system.
This would be weird enough, but just a month ago I’d had a similiar experience when looking for a copy of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Again, this is a landmark work and very well known. It was just recently republished as part of the Library of America series. And yet trying to find a copy in the university and city library systems I came up empty. They didn’t have a single copy available. And again the stacks were bare.
I don’t offer this experience as evidence that it’s the end of the world as we know it, but I do think it suggests how much is changing. Obviously libraries are being transformed into something more than just warehouses for books, but they do still have stacks and holdings. With gaps this wide starting to show up though I’m not sure how valuable a resource they’re going to be for much longer.
I recently came across the word “oscitant” while reading Tade Thompson’s Rosewater. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it used before and I pulled a complete blank on what it meant. (When I looked it up I found it described by the OED as rare and obsolete, which made me feel better.)
Its meaning is drowsy or dull, deriving from the Latin for “gape.” So literally it means yawning from drowsiness. According to several dictionaries it also means negligent, in the sense of being asleep at the wheel. You read and learn.
A nagging injury has led to my catching up on a backlog of notes I’d made on some older books. One of these was The Only Average Guy, a book about Rob Ford’s political career by John Filion, who sat on Toronto City Councilor during many of these years.
I reviewed Filion’s book when it first came out but two subsequent events made me want to go back and write something more on the subject, which I’ve done in a new review over at Goodreports.
The first was the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States (something I first wrote about here). In the lead-up to that astonishing event, and for a while after, there were many comparisons made between Trump and Ford.
The second event was the election of Rob’s brother Doug as premier of Ontario (which I initially responded to here). Like it or not, the family had established itself as a political dynasty.
The similarities between Trump and the Ford brothers are obvious: media-friendly blowhards who ran as right-wing populists. Are there deeper connections though? Not only between the personalities involved but the electorates? This is a subject that I think could still use some further investigation.
Over at the Literary Review of Canada website you can read an essay I wrote on some new books of short stories: That Tiny Life by Erin Frances Fisher, Tiger, Tiger by Johanna Skibsrud, Zolitude by Paige Cooper, and When We Were Birds by Maria Mutch.