From the shelf

The fastest-growing activity during the pandemic must surely be reading. A neighbour recently told me that he’d read sixty books. I’m behind that at about two dozen. Among them are some re-reads such as Gentlemen, Players and Politicians by Dalton Camp, still the best ever Canadian political memoir. I’ve also read books I’ve always meant to but never did such as Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, written fifty years ago.

The best I’ve read so far is Radical Wordsworth by Jonathan Bate, telling how William Wordsworth changed poetry forever in the late eighteenth century by writing about nature, imagination and feelings, a long way from the stultifying verse that had previously existed. Wordsworth, in combination with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, launched the English Romantic movement. Their impact reached to the New World, too, infusing the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau.

One of the many fascinating aspects of Wordsworth’s poetic life is that he had done all of his best work by the time he was forty. Much of the reason for those good years was his friendship with Coleridge. The two made each other better until Coleridge fell into opium and alcohol abuse. After forty, Wordsworth wrote about three memorable poems but it was mostly all dull and downward until his death at eighty. By then, his work was selling well, but he also had a patron who helped keep him afloat.

My poetry is limited to poems to my grandchildren; writing books has been my metier. Nor have I tried songwriting, to my mind an almost mystical process. Arlo Guthrie has said, “Songs are like fish. You just gotta have your line in the water. And it’s a bad idea to fish downstream from Bob Dylan.” In his memoir, Testimony, Robbie Robertson seems to be saying that he wrote everything The Band performed but never tells how he did it. According to the reviews, in her new book about The Band’s drummer, Levon Helm, Sandra B. Tooze declares that there may have been more collaboration involved among the group than Robertson has admitted. And that’s what sends you to the next book. Always in search of good research and good writing that makes you think.

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