Reading Ohio: Some Poems

I have been working on this post for weeks. Really. I just don’t seem to know what I want to write (or what I can write), but it’s becoming a burden now, keeping me from other posts, and even other reading. So I’ve decided to just bite the bullet and post it, my random, stumbling thoughts on some Ohioan poetry. (Darn it, Ohio, why’d you produce so many poets? This is only scratching the surface…)

I don’t really read much poetry (AKA haven’t read any lyric poetry since high school). I don’t really feel that I know how to read poetry. I blame this in part on high school English classes and their focus on “studying” poems–it almost seemed an instruction that the only way to read poems was this one way. I forget 3rd grade and the rhymes and amusements of Shel Silverstein. Third grade poetry was fun.

So it was with uncertainty that I picked up a volume of poems from the library to begin my explorations of Ohio writers. It was still February then, and I’d thought that in honor of Black History Month I should begin with some of Ohio’s African-American writers–not a few of whom were, or are, poets. (As a bonus, when I started this, it would also have been aligning with The Classics Club’s February theme–I guess I’m a bit a lot behind.)

I find, flipping though the pages of this anthology (Essential Pleasures, Ed. Robert Pinsky, 2009), stopping at random when a title or author’s name catches my eye, that it is not so difficult, actually, after all, to read poetry. Some is delightful, the play of sounds and words. Some is beautiful in its lyricism. Some I don’t understand. I discovered that I rather liked some of it, the small little stories told. The poems that tell stories I like best–perhaps why I have managed to read some of the epic poems on my own. (If you happen to be curious as to which poems I read, they’re all listed under my 2014 reads in the menu above.)

But I don’t know how to write about poetry. So I share here what I can–some biography, some random musings. My stumblings.


The anthology I picked up had two poems by African-American-Ohio poets, Paul Laurence Dunbar and Rita Dove, both of whom were born and raised in Ohio. There was also one poem by Langston Hughes–his connections to Ohio are less strong, but he did attend high school in Cleveland, and his maternal grandmother Mary Patterson attended Oberlin (the first college in the U.S. to regularly admit black students and oldest continuously operating coed college).

Paul Laurence Dunbar (June 27, 1872-February 9, 1906) was born in Dayton, Ohio to former slaves, Matilda and Joshua Dunbar. He grew up in Dayton, where he became good friends with Orville and Wilbur Wright, of “first in flight” fame. They would briefly co-publish a newspaper together. Although Dunbar had been active in high school activities–debate, school paper, literary society, his race would limit him after high school, leading to a job as an elevator operator. Working days, he wrote nights, eventually receiving attention for his poetry and publishing his first collection, Oak and Ivy in 1892. He continued to write and read at local gatherings, with growing attention leading to a reading at the 1893 World’s Fair. Ohio native William Dean Howells praised his 1895 collection Majors and Minors in a Harper’s Weekly column, leading to further fame. A collection of his two previous books, as Lyrics of a Lowly Life, may have been the best-selling work of African American poetry prior to the Harlem Renaissance. (His complete poems are available digitally HERE.) Dunbar’s legacy is mixed–although praised for his poetry, he has also been criticized for his dialect verses, which some have felt were a sell-out to white expectations and a reinforcement of stereotypes. Dunbar himself was upset that his more traditional poems did not find the same audience as his dialect verses. (BIOGRAPHICAL SOURCES)

“Little Brown Baby”

Little brown baby wif spa’klin’ eyes,
Come to yo’ pappy an’ set on his knee.
What you been doin’, suh—makin’ san’ pies?
Look at dat bib—you’s ez du’ty ez me.
Look at dat mouf—dat’s merlasses, I bet;
Come hyeah, Maria, an’ wipe off his han’s.
Bees gwine to ketch you an’ eat you up yit,
Bein’ so sticky an sweet—goodness lan’s!

Little brown baby wif spa’klin’ eyes,
Who’s pappy’s darlin’ an’ who ‘s pappy’s chile?
Who is it all de day nevah once tries
Fu’ to be cross, er once loses dat smile?
Whah did you git dem teef? My, you ‘s a scamp!
Whah did dat dimple come f’om in yo’ chin?
Pappy do’ know you—I b’lieves you ‘s a tramp;
Mammy, dis hyeah’s some ol’ straggler got in!

Let’s th’ow him outen de do’ in de san’,
We do’ want stragglers a-layin’ ‘roun’ hyeah;
Let’s gin him ‘way to de big buggah-man;
I know he’s hidin’ erroun’ hyeah right neah.
Buggah-man, buggah-man, come in de do’,
Hyeah ‘s a bad boy you kin have fu’ to eat.
Mammy an’ pappy do’ want him no mo’,
Swaller him down f’om his haid to his feet!

Dah, now, I t’ought dat you ‘d hug me up close.
Go back, ol’ buggah, you sha’n’t have dis boy.
He ain’t no tramp, ner no straggler, of co’se;
He’s pappy’s pa’dner an’ play-mate an’ joy.
Come to you’ pallet now—go to yo’ res;
Wisht you could allus know ease an’ cleah skies;
Wisht you could stay jes’ a chile on my breas’—
Little brown baby wif spa’klin’ eyes!

Clearly an example of Dunbar’s dialect poetry. I don’t know enough, it makes me wonder if that was an accurate transcription of late 19th century African-American dialect, or just a “this is what white people think African-Americans sound like” transcription? Regardless, the love of the father for his son shines through. I found it a sweet, touching poem. It also made me curious as to his non-dialect poems. Not knowing where to begin with the Complete Poems, I elected to read “Sympathy,” from which Maya Angelou took the title of her memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—
I know what the caged bird feels!I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting—
I know why he beats his wing!I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!


Langston Hughes (February 1, 1902-May 22, 1967) was born in Missouri and lived in Kansas, Illinois, and New York, as well as Ohio, where he attended high school in Cleveland. He began writing poetry in high-school, and would later drop out of Columbia to travel the world. His first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, was published in 1924, and was strongly influenced by his love of jazz. He would become strongly associated with the Harlem Renaissance, both for his love of Harlem, and his success as a writer, publishing over fifty works, including novels, plays, and short story collections as well as poetry. His politics would lead to some trouble in the McCarthy era, but he remains well-known and well-regarded. (BIOGRAPHICAL SOURCE)

“The Negro Speaks of Rivers”

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

(Opening lines)

I love this one–the images it conveys, the touching on things ancient and timeless. It touches the soul.

Rita Dove (August 28, 1952) was born and raised in Akron, Ohio. She grew up loving to read and write, but didn’t realize that writing could be a career until high school. Her education included Miami University, two semesters in Germany as a Fulbright Scholar, and the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop. She began publishing, in magazines, anthologies, and eventually poetry collections. In 1987 she won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for Thomas and Beulah and from 1993 to 1995 she served as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, the first African-American and youngest writer to hold the post of Poet Laureate. She has continued to publish; her most recent collection was Sonata Mulattica in 2009. (BIOGRAPHICAL SOURCE)

“Gospel” (from Thomas and Beulah)

Swing low so I
can step inside–

a humming ship of voices
big with all

the wrongs done
done them.

(Opening lines)

I’ll be honest: I’ve had a lot of trouble with this one. I’ve gone over and over and over it, and I just don’t fully understand it. I can tell there’s a story there (I think), but I’m not sure what it is. There’s definitely a reference to the spiritual “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” (all the italicized lines in the poem), and I’m wondering if the rest of the poem is the “thoughts” of the poem’s voice (a character? the poet? a narrator?) in between sung lines. I’ve learned that this poem came from the collection Thomas and Beulah, which forms an overall story, so perhaps some of my confusion comes from reading it out of context.


I don’t intend this as my last poetry reading for my Ohio project, but the genre is so unknown to me, that I may yet shy away again. (Or possibly just read and not post on it. The posting seems the hardest part.) I did declare that I would participate in Richard’s April readalong for The Golden Age: Poems of the Spanish Renaissance, so I’m trying to keep my toes in the water. (And for anyone looking for dead female writers, the poetry in the collection includes some by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.)  Book blogging/reading projects: here to make us try things we wouldn’t otherwise, right?

Week’s End Notes (14)

First crocus of 2014

Happy Spring! (To the northern hemisphere, that is. Happy Autumn to the southern!) I’d begun to despair of ever seeing it this year–and Friday, a day after the calendar claimed it to have begun, we (my coworkers and I) were quite distressed to see yet another snowfall and hear that two of our members were driving through white-out conditions on the way back to the office. But then. The sun came out, the temperatures rose, the unwelcome snow melted. I arrived home a few hours later to discover the first crocus of the year, which delighted me to no end. They just wanted a little thaw and a little sunshine to spread their cheer, even if it is later than usual. I’ve also noticed the smell of skunks and the twittering of birds in the mornings, signs that no matter how much winter prolongs its grasp, spring does come.

onceup8300And with the first days of spring comes Carl’s annual Once Upon a Time Challenge (VIII this year). I had thought I’d sit this year out, with my Ohio project plans what they are. But then I remembered that I would still like to finish my The Lord of the Rings reread this spring. And then there’s The Wizard of the Emerald City, which as a special request from the library, I really do need to read now. And if I really wanted, I could find an appropriate book or two from Ohio, I think. Scratch that, it looks like the one I’m currently reading qualifies as “folklore.” So I’m in! I haven’t done so well with this challenge in the past, but spring is the time for optimism, so optimistically I shall join. And not just join, but aim for Quest the Second, to read at least one book from each of the categories: fairy-tale, fantasy, folklore, and mythology. I just need to find something to read for mythology… Any suggestions?

For anyone interested in Carl’s O.U.A.T. Challenge, it should be noted that rules number one and two are HAVE FUN. I think this means we should all be interested.

A big thank you to Fariba of Exploring Classics for naming me among her picks for the Liebster Award. It looks like Fariba has a relatively new blog, and she explores primarily English and French classics as well as children’s classics (yay!)–if those topics interest you, check her blog out. I’ll skip the “11 things about you” as I’ve done that before & had a hard enough time then. But I can answer some questions:

  1. What are your favorite and least favorite literary genres? Not good at picking favorites! If I’ve tried a genre, there’s probably at least one book in it I really like. As for least favorite, probably poetry, simply because I don’t really know how to read it. (Working on that.)
  2. What are you currently reading? The Wizard of the Emerald City by Alexander Volkov & The Conjure Stories by Charles W. Chesnutt.
  3. What month-long classics book challenges would you be interested in doing this year? This year I’m limited by my Ohio project, but I’d be strongly tempted by a Spanish language (translated) classics month. (I believe there IS a Spanish-lit month planned for July–I’ll participate!)
  4. What do you do when you are not reading? Watch too much TV (working on that…) & movies, knit, listen to music, bake.
  5. If you were stranded on a desert island, what 5 books would you need? Toughie. Perhaps Bible, Anne of Green Gables, As I Lay Dying, Dracula, Pride and Prejudice? And I’d likely have different answers tomorrow or the next day.
  6. What sort of music do you listen to? A lot: pop, classical, country, classic rock, “oldies,” bluegrass, soundtracks, jazz…mostly anything except hip-hop, Gospel & “smooth jazz.”
  7. City or country, beach or mountains? Uh…yes? I like all in their turn. I’m really a city girl, though–everything is so close at hand.
  8. Name 5 people (dead or alive) you would like to have a round table discussion with? I haven’t the faintest clue. Quite frankly, I think I’d be too tongue-tied to converse with anyone well-known.
  9. What is your favorite book that has been published in the past 10-20 years? I haven’t read too many from this time frame. Most enjoyable of what I’ve read would be The Raven Boys, but the best one would be The Savage Detectives.
  10. If you could learn another language what language would you choose to learn? Not counting the bits of Spanish & Italian I already know? Maybe French (to be able to pronounce names & words in books). Although I’m tempted by Gaelic (Scots or Irish, I’m not particular).
  11. You are on vacation in a different country, what do you make sure to fit into your itinerary? Architecture–the older, the better (usually). Of course, this does depend on the country!

That was rather fun–thanks again, Fariba!

I’ve acquired some “new” used books recently–my parents were weeding out their library and they were getting rid of some books I’d still like to read. The problem is I don’t really have room for them on my shelves. Or perhaps in my reading time! As I mentioned above, I knit in some of my spare time, and knitters have an acronym for when we’ve acquired more yarn that we could possibly knit up in our lifetimes: STABLE, or “Stash Acquisition Beyond Life Expectancy.” Is there a bookish equivalent? Somehow BABLE seems both appropriate and…wrong!

And with that, I’ll close my own “babblings.” Happy Reading!

Reading Ohio, Completed: “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”

“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”
James Thurber
first published March 18, 1939, The New Yorker
first collected, My World and Welcome to It, 1942
U.S., Ohio


Happy anniversary to “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”! First published 75 years ago today and adapted to film twice (1947 and 2013), I’m not sure if any American is actually permitted to graduate high school without having read it at least once. Or maybe that’s just my anecdotal perception!

If you’ve never read “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” or if you just want to revisit, The New Yorker has it posted on their site, HERE. Check it out! I reread it when reading The 13 Clocks as a comparison, and found that even in a story written for an adult audience, Thurber’s use of wordplay and sound-words still remains. The plot is less poetic: a weak-willed man with a domineering wife but a very active imagination. An enjoyable read nonetheless. (And nothing like the movie trailer!)

Reading Ohio, Completed: The 13 Clocks

The 13 Clocks (book cover)The 13 Clocks
James Thurber
Illustrated by Marc Simont
1950, U.S. (Ohio)

It’s always such fun to research authors/titles for a new project (see: Amanda’s vast quantity of mostly-untouched-since-created project lists), and back in December I decided that the best way to transition from my January Children’s Classics Event to my Ohio project was to find a children’s classic by an Ohioan. But I didn’t know what–was there anything out there that would both be at least 50 years old and by someone I counted as “Ohio enough”? Ha! A quick glance at my project map shows that the answer is a resounding YES. And being a little dense, I hadn’t caught onto the fact–until after hours of research–that one title was already on my Classics of Children’s Lit project list, James Thurber’s The 13 Clocks. The perfect book to transition from January’s event to February’s new project start. Mission accomplished.

James Thurber was born in Columbus, Ohio December 8th, 1894 and raised there, ultimately attending The Ohio State University, although he didn’t graduate as he was unable to complete a required ROTC course due to poor eyesight.* While at OSU, Thurber wrote for the school newspaper and was editor of the humor and literary magazines. After leaving Ohio State, he was a reporter and columnist for The Columbus Dispatch. He would later work for The Chicago Tribune in Paris and Nice, France and for the New York Evening Post. In New York he would befriend E.B. White, who helped him obtain a job at the New Yorker, where he published the remainder of his career, until his death in 1961. Over his lifetime he published over 30 books, including short story collections and children’s books, as well as three plays, and his illustrations made the pages of The New Yorker and three books. Notable among these is his story collection My Life and Hard Times.†

The brambles and the thorns grew thick and thicker in a ticking thicket of bickering crickets. Farther along and stronger, bonged the gongs of a throng of frogs, green and vivid on their lily pads. From the sky came the crying of flies, and the pilgrims leaped over a bleating sheep creeping knee-deep in a sleepy stream, in which swift and slippery snakes slid and slithered silkily, whispering sinful secrets.

Chapter V, The 13 Clocks

It is a fairy tale, but not quite like any other I’ve ever read–a fairy tale with a knowing wink, a sly smile at the conventions of the type, but also something completely its own, something almost a poem, a celebration of language and sounds. I find it hard, in a way, to describe, but fortunately the edition I read has an introduction by Neil Gaiman, telling of his childhood introduction to the story:

It was funny in strange ways. It was filled with words. And while all books are filled with words, this one was different: it was filled with magical, wonderful, tasty words. It slipped into poetry and out of it again in a way that made you want to read it aloud, just to see how it sounded.

Neil Gaiman, Introduction to The New York Review Children’s Collection Edition (2008)

Illustration by Marc Simont from The 13 Clocks

Illustration by Marc Simont from The 13 Clocks

I myself read it twice, wanting to re-experience the magic of its words all over again. I read it without knowing anything about that story, and I think that all anyone needs to know to pick it up, is that if you wish to be delighted or enchanted, to experience the magic of words, this is a book to read. Reading it, I wondered why it is that it seems that it is only (or primarily) children’s books, children’s stories that allow us to see delight and wonder. It is as if we deliberately limit wonder, delight, enchantment to the age of childhood, relegating them to those not yet hardened by the world, but I can’t help but feel that we would all be better off if, all our lives, we continued to cultivate our senses of wonder and delight. Happier, certainly. All these “best of” and “must read” lists–they would all be better for including such lovely books as The 13 Clocks and the Moomin tales. (Happily, the infamous 1001 books You Must Read Before You Die list, does include the Thurber.)

Finally, to any Hobbit fans–have you read this? And if so, did you find certain scenes with the Golux reminding you of the riddles in The Hobbit? I didn’t notice it the first go-’round, but the second time through, I could hear Bilbo’s voice quite plainly. And for those who haven’t read it–does not “Golux” intrigue you? Go on, read it!

*In what will surely be only the first “it’s a small world” connections with this project, when my dad was in college (outside of-US: university) he boarded for a year at the house of a Mr. B–, who knew Thurber at Ohio State.


† Biographical information from and

Week’s End Notes (13)

  • Now that the Olympics are well past and winter has finally begun to break–it’s somewhat hard to believe that January, worldwide, was among the warmest on record, when winter locally has been among the coldest on record–I suppose I’m out of excuses for my little blogging break. Although I think we’re about to get swamped at work–two big projects came in over the past 8 days, only days (literally!) after the specter of possible layoffs was raised. No layoffs currently projected. Insanity much more likely…
  • I’ve been reading, a bit. My February plans were slightly derailed when it took much longer than expected to get books I’d requested from the library. I think the out-of-area request must have been bicycled in, it took so long!
  • That said, my library is the best! I requested, via Inter-library Loan, the English translation of The Wizard of the Emerald City, after the discussion about it in the comments on The Wizard of Oz readalong post. Having looked it up on WorldCat, I wasn’t really optimistic, but my library didn’t just find a copy–they bought one. I don’t know how ILL works; it may be that there’s a cost involved and that it was cheaper for the library to buy a copy. Or maybe the librarian in charge of ILL was intrigued. Either way–I have a book I wanted to read. Incidentally, this will also be the first novel I’ve ever read translated from Russian.
  • Speaking of translations, have you seen THIS article on the lack of translations (and readers thereof) published in the U.S.? I always have grand ideas of reading more translated fiction–I have a particular interest in Spanish and Italian fiction after studying those languages–,but usually fall short. (Last year: 0 books in translation.) Reading this article, though, I’m tempted to make my next project (next year, perhaps) one to focus just on translated fiction for a while. Heck, I have so many translated books on my shelves, that at my reading rate, I could probably go for a couple years just from those… I think what really struck me when I read this particular article was the idea that when we don’t read literature from other countries–or even outside our own comfort zone/culture–we make it that much more difficult for ourselves to have meaningful conversation with or related to those who are different from ourselves. This isn’t really a new idea for me, it just struck me particularly here.
  • I just realized, I’m sitting here listening to Pink Martini as I type–specifically their album Get Happy–a band I love not just because of the style of their music, but because of all the languages of the various songs on their albums. Spanish, German, Turkish, Japanese, Romanian, French, English, Neapolitan, among others. I love the sounds of other languages, love learning other languages…come to think of it, why didn’t I study languages or linguistics in school instead of architecture? At the very least, it strikes me as odd that I seem to be so stuck in the rut of original-in-English only reading rather than translations.
  • Veering away from the international back to much, much more local, my Ohio project is full-steam underway (now that the one hold request has come in). If it weren’t for my blogging break, I’d actually have two or three posts written by now, so hopefully I can get those done in the next couple weeks. While still reading.
  • I have to admit, I was a bit surprised at all the attention paid to my little Ohio-authors map. I mostly created it for a fun little image of my project, that was more bookish than a plain ol’ map, but it seems that everyone wants to know what I might be reading… The map’s not actually all-inclusive, nor will I guarantee reading something by everyone listed on it–but it’s a fun place to start!
  • Happy reading!

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