Thursday, September 9, 2010

Migrations, Inner and Outer

Oh, how I wish I had vast swaths of time in which to read. There are several books out that sound fascinating, but they're non-fiction and huge, and my history hasn't been good with huge works of non-fiction read in the hour here and the hour there that I have to read.

I want to buy the book The Warmth of Other Suns, just for the title alone. What a GREAT title. And the subject matter sounds great too: the Great Migration, that movement of African-Americans from the U.S. South to the North and the West, during the period between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. I've read that it was one of the biggest relocations of people for a non-war reason.

Of course, you might say that there was a war of sorts. When I've heard about the lives of African-Americans in the pre-Civil Rights era South, it horrifies me. Even beyond the separate bathrooms, drinking fountains, and Bibles in the courtrooms--I've heard more than one older black person recounting road trips where everyone took a potty break before crossing the Mason-Dixon line, because they wouldn't be stopping again until they left the South.

Imagine driving across multiple states without stopping to stretch your legs, to get a Coke, to go to the bathroom. Imagine vast chunks of the nation where there was literally no place where you could get a hotel room for the night.

Isabel Wilkerson has imagined it, and her book, which has gotten rave reviews, helps us imagine it too. I especially love this story which talks about her writing process, her immersion in that oral culture that taught her about the time, her immersion in artifacts from that time. She also talks about the migrations of her family and her own migration back to the South (some demographers are calling this time period the Third Great Migration, as African Americans move back to the South).

I also wish I had some time to read Helen Vendler's new book, which is really Emily Dickinson's old book. At least this one sounds like one I could dip in and out of; as Michael Dirda quotes in his review, "As Vendler writes in her introduction to 'Dickinson,' hers isn't so much a book to read through as 'a book to be browsed in, as the reader becomes interested in one or another of the poems commented on here.'"

I've always wanted to understand Dickinson better than I do, and it sounds like this book will be just the guidebook I've wanted; Dirda writes, "Emily Dickinson is certainly never going to be an easy poet to understand, but her dense, poignant lyrics are now a lot more accessible to ordinary readers thanks to Vendler's unravelings. If you're going to read Dickinson, this 'selected poems and commentary' is the place to start."

I'll start by listening to this NPR program where Helen Vendler is the guest. And then I'll get the book and commit to reading at least one poem and commentary each week. I will also choose a modern poem and write a commentary on it here--yes, that's what I'll do. I'll start next week. It will likely be a poem that has yet to make it into anthologies. And when I start teaching Composition again, in October, I'm going to experiment with poetry and essay writing, again with more results here.

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