Great American Reads

In reference to the Great American Read event presented by PBS and Meredith Vieira


Like most things in our culture, in everyday life, reading is a highly personal affair. I won’t tell you which book to vote for, which book is the best novel for American readers, but I can shed some light on how and why to choose any work of fiction.

As much as individually we tend to choose to operate by the assumption that quality is subjective, there’s a difference between objective quality in any product and its capacity to meet our personal standards and preferences. Online product reviews use the rating system rather liberally, and people take liberties with the option to select only one or two stars out of five. Most products are never as bad as we perceive and make them out to be, and probably, most are rarely as good. A coffeemaker can usually perform more than adequately, even if it’s not a top competitor.

As consumers in a capitalist economy, we have the luxury of choosing the best possible model on the market for our budget. We take our coffee very seriously, after all. On the flip side, that special pillow you bought may have improved your life, but it’s not likely to be a literal lifesaver. Then again, it’s your sleep, not mine, so who am I to judge?

Entertainment products, such as books and movies, are different. It’s true there are standards according to which reviewers and awards committees hold most works of fiction, for instance, but novels in particular can be difficult to quantify, to categorize, and to size up. Experienced readers and reviewers have a greater claim to knowing the formula, if there is such a thing, that makes a great book. But with entertainment, the subjectivity factor carries more weight in the judgment of a book within society and against all other books; they’re not widgets, coffeemakers or pillows.

Sure, traditionally, their form has been mass produced—they’re made of paper and ink or bits of data—but the product itself moves beyond the assembly line. A work of literature is an experience over time, a thing of variable content in its use of ideas and language, and a journey through a story of imaginary people, places, and things. Its nexus of abstraction sets it well apart from the concrete world of electronic devices and motorized vehicles.

But reading is more than just a mental exercise. Stories take us on emotional and sometimes visceral roller coasters of reaction. Authors of books and makers of film can make people cry, laugh, gasp, shudder, scream, swoon, wretch, and more, simply by their artful, vivid use of words and pictures.

For me, reading is about making connections—between me and the author, me and the characters, my life and the setting and plot, between ideas in one story and ideas in another, between different art forms. I tend to read interactively if I’m not reading on a deadline. It’s about savoring as well as digesting, rather than simply ingesting, the art. I like to taste my food as it’s going down, getting to know its different effects on my palate, its aroma, texture, and consistency, rather than devour words like individual grains or layers of sauce—en masse with the rest of the meal.

I like to read about the author’s life, wondering about connections between the story and the life. I like to talk to the author, or myself, through margin notes, Post-It notes, and by writing about the book elsewhere (like here). I like to think about the book’s relationship to culture, to other books, to film, and even to itself. I read deliberately.

In part, that’s about remembering what I’ve read. Processing the content in multiple forms and ways ensures that I’ll retain more details, assuming those matter. On the other hand, a great book doesn’t require as much hard work. To me, a great book combines high objective quality with readability and complexity. It also takes the reader through the gamut of emotion and ideas, a panoply of interesting characters, in a captivating setting, through an unpredictable plot, with grace and style and wit. A great book provokes thought, touches the soul, and stays with the reader long after the final page is read.

By these standards, I hereby make my top choices for America’s best book, which is a different thing than America’s favorite book. The Great American Read started with a list of the 100 most popular novels in America. Although using it as a springboard for this post, I won’t remain beholden to that list’s rather narrow confines. My choices are based on reading the book, so I make no selections where I have not read. This makes my picks even more personal, as they omit what I’m otherwise sure are some gems of literature. At the same time, I’ll select my least favorite books from the GAR list and try to pinpoint the reasons why.

Drawing from both the Great American Read top 100 and my own Goodreads read books list, my top novels read are the following. They appear in alphabetical order, and some link to this blog’s reviews of each. Later, I’ll narrow it down further, but I don’t really believe in single, all-time favorites of any kind of thing. There’s simply too much out there for me to love.

  1. Absalom, Absalom! By William Faulkner
  2. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; and, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll
  3. Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
  4. Animal Farm by George Orwell
  5. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  6. Chronicles of Narnia, #1: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
  7. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  8. The Dream of Scipio by Iain Pears
  9. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  10. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  11. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
  12. Howards End by E. M. Forster
  13. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  14. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
  15. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  16. Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe
  17. One True Thing by Anna Quindlen
  18. Outlander (first book only; have yet to read books 5-8) by Diana Gabaldon
  19. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
  20. Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen
  21. Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
  22. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
  23. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  24. War and Peace by Leo Tolstooy
  25. Watership Down by Richard Adams

Which books did I find most amazing?

  • War and Peace
  • Outlander
  • In Cold Blood
  • Gulliver’s Travels
  • Brave New World

For whom do the pages turn? They turn for me. Length is no deterrent when the words flow like melted butter. The ideas, the stories, the people, the places—all contribute to the full immersion of experience.

If I have to choose a set to honor, to recommend, to champion, each book in this collection of five can never be a mistake. And they are not the only ones for which it is so. It is not simply about enjoyment or like-mindedness. As I stated earlier, it is a marriage of objective quality in writing ability, storytelling, and transportation to other worlds, as well as interesting ideas, beautiful truths, deep connections between people, and the complexities of life and death.

This is not to say that each book is perfect. Perfection is not the aim. After all this time, I can say that with complete and utter confidence. Love is the aim. Insight. And growth. These books have all opened multiple dimensions to me, helped me grow, made me love, and urged me to shout about it.

So for now, these are my top picks for the Great American Read. Is it taking the easy way out not to choose a final top book? I would say the books that move me most are Outlander and War and Peace. In Cold Blood being a close second. Is it predictable to choose Outlander as my favorite book when it’s so clear from my blog that it’s at least well beloved by me? I love Gulliver’s Travels and Brave New World for similar reasons between them; they’re both science fiction, satire, mirrors up to their readers, and deliciously humorous, disturbing, deep, broad, and complex in proportions. They are classic epics.

All but Outlander delve deeply into social commentary on a broad scale (all but War and Peace done fully indirectly, through the story itself), though Outlander is not without indirect social commentary of a more specific nature. None but Outlander indulges in the pleasure of the human sex act. The novel is the most intimate, most personal, and in some ways, most vivid of these five. Certainly the most relatable.

War and Peace is likewise detailed and relevant to our struggles. In Cold Blood focuses on a crime, a pathology of human nature, on social dynamics and psychological dimensions. They’re all amazingly written, some in distinct writing styles. Outlander has the only female protagonist and first-person narrator, authored by a woman. These things elevate it further in my esteem. They say it’s quite difficult to write first person well, for example.

The humor and beauty, the terror and horror, the allure and fascination, the sheer intelligence and wit, as well as the greatly physical and emotional parameters, plus supernatural, science fiction, historical, mystery, romance, and action adventure aspects combine with all those elements previously mentioned to hoist Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander upon the shoulders of all the others. Its contemporary feel increases its relatability while its rich, exquisitely researched exploration of 18th-century Scotland helps anchor it further as a modern classic.

So, yes, I’m choosing one book, Outlander, for my favorite book, at least so far. I recommend this novel to most adults who have not become so totally ensnared in the cycles of pop fiction as to avoid all greater journeys.

As for the Great American Read, voting ends at midnight on October 19; results will be revealed by PBS on October 23. It’s really almost a moot exercise to pick a single book out of all 100 finalists, though. In a future post, I’ll caution against time wasted on some of what I felt were lesser choices among the 100, but again, I’m not a true expert, having not read all 100 books listed.

Meanwhile, if you don’t quite get to read Outlander before November 4th, the date of the Season 4 premiere for the STARZ TV series based on Gabaldon’s works, you’ll still have plenty in the books to explore. For this and so many other reasons, I recommend Outlander, the first in a soon-to-be-nine book series, by author Diana Gabaldon.

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If you liked this post or want to learn more about why Outlander‘s the one, see my more comprehensive review at Book Review: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. This blog also provides 3 Quick Book Reviews of the first three books in the series.

If you’ve read it and love it, I can only hope you’ll #VOTEOutlander on Twitter and Facebook, and select it today–only two more chances left!–online and by phone via the official Great American Read voting page

National Dog Day 2018: Reminiscing

We’re enjoying our dog Ethan, now a year and a half old, who just met my nephew’s new puppy at a family party. So you know I couldn’t let the opportunity pass by to present a collection of dog-related posts on my blog from over the years, for National Dog Day.

Essays & Stories

Book Reviews

Poetry

Phrases, Links, Photos

Photos/Images

Fellow Bloggers

Argyll with Àdhamh, Part 2 of 4

I kicked off Part 1 of this series describing how the heck I got so lucky as to score a day in Argyll and Bute with Scottish Gaelic Language Consultant Àdhamh Ó Broin, who works on the Outlander STARZ TV show, among other projects. I also offered readers and fans the tip to take the chance, too, if you get it.

The “First Foray” of our “Morning in Argyll”? A serpentine drive from Arrochar lodging (Seabank B&B) in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park along the A83 outline of Loch Fyne’s west bank toward the country’s west coast. Maps and several of my photos in Part 1 help tell the story of our adventure’s beginning on September 20th, 2016.

My husband at the wheel and Àdhamh riding shotgun, I sat in the back diagonally from Àdhamh so we could talk easier. He asked us what sorts of things we’d like to see and then planned our stops in his head as we passed lochs, mountains, riverbeds, the storied Glen Kinglas, the town of Inveraray, the 18th-century township museum of Auchindrain, and other landmarks. During our drive through the glens, I spotted a group of deer below us in the distance. Àdhamh complimented my keen eye and said they were probably fallow deer.

Morning in Argyll

A canal runs through it

Argyll’s principal town and county seat of Lochgilphead, population 2,300, is named for sitting at the head of Loch Gilp, an offshoot of Loch Fyne. We passed the town and took the A816 northwest into Knapdale, north of the base of Argyll’s Kintyre Peninsula. It had taken about an hour and a half to drive from Arrochar to the Knapdale coast, so before reaching the main attractions of the morning, we stopped for coffee at Crinan Coffee Shop and relaxed before a view at the basin of the Crinan Canal.

Built in 1801 and peppered with 15 locks, the 9-mile Crinan Canal connects the Sound of Jura at the tiny west-coast port of Crinan village to Loch Fyne, a sea loch, in the east at Ardrishaig. The canal also bisects the ancient kingdom of Dalriada and serves with Loch Crinan and Loch Gilp as the northern boundary of the district of Knapdale. A unique engineering feat, the canal grapples with the ocean tides on both ends of its length. Recently, drought in the area was restricting Crinan Canal’s use to one hour before and one hour after high tide (see Crinan Canal Restrictions).

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Clockwise from center: Crinan Canal Basin, Crinan Coffee Shop left, Crinan Hotel upper left, lighthouse top, Sound of Jura above, Canal path right. Image courtesy OpenStreetMap.org

The shop has a low-angled roof on one side that gives it almost a wedge shape. Part of the Crinan Hotel, the Crinan Coffee Shop offers fine confections and soothing percolations, as well as a public restroom and outdoor seating on the quay. The canal was quiet at that hour on a fall Tuesday, which makes sense in hindsight as its use long ago teetered from mostly commercial to mostly recreational.

Under a bright but overcast sky in balmy weather by the water, my husband and I sat in chairs at a café-side table facing the canal basin. Àdhamh sat opposite us and the shop with its black roof and gleaming white face.

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Image courtesy Undiscovered Scotland

I don’t recall many details of our conversation, but I remember we fell easily into casual chatting, having become acquainted during our 50-mile meandering drive to the coast. We touched on several topics, most about Scotland, and dared to wander in to the typically fraught American subject area of politics. Our trio had the advantage of not knowing each side of the table quite well enough to get into trouble by making provocative declarations but of sharing just enough fellow feeling to be able to sympathize with each other’s views.

At the time, Àdhamh seemed to lament a current of complacency in the Scottish people, as if wishing some would more often back up their cultural pride with stronger political will. He also muttered annoyance at the Aberdeen golf course construction by then not-yet-elected Donald Trump.

From watching the Dundee Rep Theatre’s live performance of the classic Scottish political play The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black, Black Oil three days before, my husband and I already had a basic sense of the issue of who controls Scottish lands and environment—Scotland, England, or multinational corporations—reflected in Àdhamh’s viewpoint. Depicting Scots’ complicity in non-native appropriation of Scotland’s resources across the centuries, the tragicomic musical production even went so far as to update the play, for example, by inserting Trump as a character.

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Image courtesy Undiscovered Scotland

Terms such as “sheep,” “croft,” “forestry,” “stag hunting,” “North Sea oil,” “referendum” (for Scottish independence), and “Brexit” raise just a few of the lightning rod issues of land use, sovereignty, natural resource exploitation, and economics for Scots over the centuries and today.

For our part, we asked Àdhamh questions, noted our own leanings, and shared thoughts from home. I related my friend’s sentiment from her July 2016 trip to Scotland: When the locals would find out she was American, they promptly expressed their sympathy about our having Trump as a candidate, which at that time was more funny than sad.

It wasn’t long before all three of us had finished our cups of comfort in the face of world chaos and were on the road again to our next Scottish cultural curiosity. After discussing Scotland’s national challenges and the similarities between our societies, I became mindful of how very much things connect and intersect within Scotland.

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View of coffee shop across basin, hotel behind, Vic 32 Puffer foreground. Image courtesy Undiscovered Scotland

The mainland district of Knapdale would be a peninsula but for the isthmus connecting its south side to Kintyre Peninsula. Knapdale is bounded on the north by the Crinan Canal, the east by Loch Fyne, the west by Sound of Jura, and the south by West Loch Tarbert. As if that weren’t enough water, some 20 inland lakes, along with rivers and rivulets, further infuse the district.

Gazetteer for Scotland has a fascinating piece about Crinan Canal’s origins, engineering challenges, development and different uses, and connections between parts of Argyll, Loch Fyne, and the Sound of Jura–from tidal factors to the canal network, boom to bust, British to Scottish management, and commerce to recreation.

In my last post, I described how the inland freshwater lochs north of Arrochar spread finger like up through the Trossachs. In like fashion, the headlands of Knapdale reach their tentacles out to sea through the Sound of Jura, interlacing most deeply with Loch Sween to the north, but also with Loch Caolisport to the south. After our coffee break, this was our target destination.

In North Knapdale, “the extent of coast, including the shores of Loch Swein, is almost fifty miles: the rocks in the north rise precipitously to a height of 300 feet; in some parts the coast is bounded by low ledges of rocks, and in others by a level sandy beach.” – Samuel Lewis’ 1846 Topographical Survey

Second Sweep

Jura

With nearby sites such as Castle Sween and activities like ferrying to islands, but with just a day to spare, we focused on a blend of Àdhamh’s cherished enclaves and our main interests, including breathtaking vistas. For this, we sought a great view of major islands across the water. We stopped somewhere just north of the Point of Knap, a coastal headland into the Sound of Jura where it meets Loch Sween. Midway up a vacant hill at the roadside, we parked, stepped out, and gazed upon the scene across the Sound of Jura and took in the panoramic sweep of the coast.

On a map of the region, Knapdale and Jura look almost like a pair of lungs, divided by the rather wide sternum or spinal column of the Sound. Each lobe forms a tear drop shape with a tapered north and rounded southern end, although Loch Sween gives Knapdale a bit of a diseased appearance as lungs go, and then it has this large, elongated growth hanging off the south end—Kintyre Peninsula. Okay, so the analogy isn’t perfect, but in approximating a lung, Jura’s shape does well. If that metaphor holds, I suppose it’s only fitting that the island should have on its surface some mountains in the shape of breasts.

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Clockwise from lower left: Islay, Jura, Argyll, and Bute; Google account favorites marked; darker text added. Snapshot from Google Maps.

From our perch on land between two lochs and a sound, Àdhamh introduced us to those dome-like mountains called the Paps of Jura, which jut roundly up from their island of the same name. As goofy as he can be–American accent imitation, spontaneous ditties on the drive out–Àdhamh was tasteful or proud enough of the scenery not to joke about the breast-shaped hills.

Unlike most such hill groupings across the globe, these peaks are triplets, not twins. Compared to Scotland’s other examples in places like the Scottish Borders, Fife, Perth & Kinross, Caithness, and the well-known Pap of Glencoe, the Paps of Jura viewed from the east appear to be more uniformly molded. Jura’s trio includes Beinn an Oir (highest of 3, its Gaelic name meaning “mountain of gold”), Beinn Shiantaidh (east of Oir), and Beinn a’ Chaolais (south of Oir)–all centered in the rounded southern half of an elongated Isle of Jura oriented northeast to southwest.

The smudge of sunlit distance gave the prominent globes a chalky, dream-like aura. As we looked, our faces relaxed into a mouth-open moment. Perhaps it was the near-perfect conditions, perhaps it’s because we hadn’t seen a beautiful coast in years, or perhaps it really was a singular vision among the Highlands and Islands. Whatever created it, our instinct made us stand in awe of the interplay: rocks, sun, blue water and sky, nearer strips of yellow-green hatch-mark islands, and the broader, farther canvas of magenta-tinged blue mountains.

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A cluster of slender islets huddles close to Knapdale’s coast (foreground). Centered is Beinn a’ Chaolais, the most dome-like of the three “paps” on the Isle of Jura. Image © C. L. Tangenberg

A few solitary sheep sauntered in the grass close to us. At first sight, I thought one of them that lay nestled in the taller tufts might be ill or injured. Even if it was, I didn’t ask for fear of sounding foolish, sheep being so ubiquitous in Scotland. They bore reddish spray-paint marks on their backs, which looked like vandalism but were almost certainly a method of identification. Most likely, they would be found, safe and sound. Below is a panoramic slide show of Jura, the Sound, and Loch Sween, with some of those sheep visible on the hill.

Besides the mountains, the island boasts abundant wildlife and Europe’s third largest whirlpool, at its north end. The sparsely populated island’s rugged terrain and boggy flats keep most residents and visitors along its single-track road or at the town of Craighouse in the south, its west coast being notoriously difficult to access.

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Although the Outlander STARZ TV show has not used the access challenged Argyll for filming, it doesn’t take long-distance travel in the British Isles to come across not only famous and ancient historical sites but also literary places. English author George Orwell once lived on the northern end of Jura at Barnhill farmhouse, presumably giving his most iconic dystopian novel 1984 a peaceful atmosphere for its birth.

“People disappear all the time,” the opening of Diana Gabaldon’s novel Outlander tells us. And if you’re really looking to make yourself scarce, why not hike the Isle of Jura’s truly wild west of otters, eagles, and red deer, or its remote Orwellian north, crowned by a forbidding whirlpool?

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Me and my husband. Photo by Àdhamh Ó Broin

South of Jura’s thousands of deer, 200 people, and one whisky distillery, the island of Islay (pron. I-luh) holds more whisky makers than most of Scotland’s larger islands, at nine distilleries and growing. Laphroaig whisky, for example, is one of Sam Heughan’s (Outlander‘s Jamie Fraser) favorite brands.

These whiskies tend to be earthy, with a peat-based aroma and flavor. My husband had to do the honors of finishing our bottle of Lagavulin single malt (no, not all in one sitting), purchased from duty free on our way back home. My dad, a seasoned taster, and I preferred the Dalwhinnie 15-year Highland single malt, made just south of the Cairngorms in central Scotland. He’s more used to Crown Royal blends, though, and none of us could be considered connoisseurs. My husband’s more of a craft beer, gin, and bourbon man, and I prefer wine, hard cider, and sometimes cocktails.

During our brief visit to this coast of whisky on the morning of 20 September 2016, the wind was strong, the sun was bright, and Àdhamh took a picture of his guests with the Sound and the 30-mile long, 7-mile wide Isle of Jura behind. Through the haze farther south, half of the isle of Islay was just visible, the other half hidden behind Jura’s heights. The view was a true highlight of the day, well worth the effort to reach, and my husband’s favorite spot from our time with Àdhamh.

Although my photos hardly do it justice, for more Isle of Jura images, see my previous post about the Paps of Jura. Several Scottish tourism websites offer a variety of ways to wrap this prominent feature of the Isle of Jura into your itinerary along the lower west coast of Central Scotland. Learn more about the Paps of Jura and other features of the island at an Islay resident’s Isle of Jura website.

To visit the Isle of Jura, you can catch the ferry from Tayvallich on the mainland, but to bring your car, you’ll have to ferry it to Islay first. A good general resource about the Isle of Jura is The Jura page at Undiscovered Scotland.

Chapel museum, rich with history

Along with the port of Crinan, Knapdale district holds the village of Tayvallich where we stopped for lunch and the settlement of Kilmory in South Knapdale Parish. On the hillside of one of Knapdale’s extensions into the Sound of Jura, Kilmory Knap Chapel, also known as the chapel of St. Mary at Kilmory Knap (or simply Kilmory Chapel), bides between Loch Sween and Loch Caolisport, about where the mouth of Sween meets the Sound. This coastal water is also the Loch Sween Marine Protected Area.

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The chapel was built in the first half of the 13th century and is both more complete and fancier than proximal chapels from the same era. Very near our view of the islands, its close quarters tightly pack a collection of late medieval grave slabs (14th-16th centuries) and early Christian cross slabs from different parts of Argyll.

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Many of the slabs lean against the chapel walls, and a Celtic cross stands upright on the chapel floor. Several medieval schools of the West Highland style of carving, influenced by Romanesque sculptural and architectural works, are represented in the collection. Although the chapel is without its original roof, a solid, clear covering with drainage protects the artifacts.

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A tiny sprig of fern fighting its way through cracks most of the way up the wall inside the chapel, even as the fall season began turning green fern to brown bracken, recalled for me the cycle of life in that museum of unique death markers that was once an active house of worship.

Nestled into a hillside, the graveyard of Kilmory Knap Chapel oversees adjacent farmland and its flock of sheep, yet it still affords a distant view of the Isle of Jura across the Sound. In the first shot below, the tops of the Paps, isolated from their island, peek over the mainland hills. In the second picture, a long stretch of the wild island of Jura poses in all its voluptuous grandeur for Kilmory residents and visitors alike.

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So far during our trip, we’d seen quite a bit of Scotland. During the first stay in Edinburgh, we snagged Edinburgh Castle, several wonderful museums large and small, the highly entertaining theatre performance mentioned earlier, and our amazing day tour with Slainte Scotland among Outlander STARZ filming sites.

On that day, from South Queensferry, we traveled with them along the Firth of Forth north and west of Edinburgh, through the Kingdom of Fife, and out to the eastern edge of Stirling, seeing Midhope Castle (Lallybroch), Blackness Castle (Fort William), Culross (Crainsmuir), Falkland (Inverness), and Doune Castle (Castle Leoch).

September 20 was only day 4 of our 14-day vacation, and in the morning alone Àdhamh gave us a great introduction to some of Scotland’s most engaging, peaceful, and gorgeous offerings: a remote and “heavily indented” coast with rolling countryside glens and hills, freshwater and sea lochs, mountains, a canal, the sea, some of the islands of the Inner Hebrides, and a unique chapel museum overlooking farmland and neighboring shores.

There was much more we could have seen, given time which always runs short, some of it designed for tourists and some inherent threads of everyday Scottish life and living. Of course, those things also intersect sometimes.

The Scotland experiences Àdhamh made possible next, however, rivalled or exceeded the beauty and wonder of nearly every place and monument we’d already visited. In my next post, I’ll first explore a glistening and mysterious historic treasure more recently cradled in an evergreen forest; second, enjoy a cozy, idyllic village inlet and ferry port full of sail boats at lunchtime; and third, discover an ancient, elevated landmark surrounded by a vast plain and winding river bathed blue in mid-day sunshine and made complete by our host’s cliff-top bagpiping.

Thank you for visiting Crinan, Knapdale, Kilmory, and Jura with me. I hope I’ve inspired you to learn more or to visit western Argyll in person. I’m excited to bring you Part 3 of Argyll with Àdhamh and some of the day’s most captivating highlights. Stay tuned.


Sources Consulted and Cited

Crinan

Crinan Hotel and Crinan Coffee Shop, official site – https://www.crinanhotel.com/en/crinan-coffee-shop_47016/

Crinan Canal Overview at Gazetteer for Scotland, accessed through Lochgilphead link on the site’s Argyll and Bute Overview page – http://www.scottish-places.info/features/featurefirst1169.html

Crinan feature page at Undiscovered Scotland – https://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/crinan/crinan/

“A visit to Crinan, Argyll and Bute – the site of the Crinan Canal” at Pure Scotland blog – https://purescotland.wordpress.com/2018/01/20/crinan/

Local Attractions page at Cairnbaan Cottage – http://www.cairnbaancottage.co.uk/attractions.html

Knapdale

The Landscapes of Scotland, Descriptions 51-60, Scottish Natural Heritage: 52 – Jura, 53 – Knapdale and Kilmartin

“Kintyre and Knapdale” from Lewis’ 1846 Topographical Survey: “An 1846-published gazeteer giving an interesting insight into the area south of The Crinan Canal” – https://www.scribd.com/document/5996965/Kintyre-and-Knapdale-Samuel-Lewis-1846-Topographical-Dictionary

“The Land of Knapdale,” The Scots Magazine, Tom Weir https://www.scotsmagazine.com/articles/tom-weir-knapdale/

Jura

Jura feature page at Undiscovered Scotland – https://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/jura/jura/

The Paps of Jura link at VisitScotland.com redirects to “The Paps of Jura” at Isleofjura.scot – https://isleofjura.scot/the-paps-of-jura/

Isle of Jura page at Scotland Info Guide – https://www.scotlandinfo.eu/isle-of-jura/

“Just back from: Jura, Scotland,” Lonely Planet blog, Alex MacLeish – https://www.lonelyplanet.com/blog/2017/11/20/just-back-from-jura-scotland/

“Playing Scotland’s most exclusive new course requires approval from ‘Wizard’,” Golfweek, Martin Kaufmann – https://golfweek.com/2018/02/23/playing-scotlands-most-exclusive-new-course-requires-approval-from-wizard/

“Millionaire Greg Coffey’s Jura golf resort sees island’s population surge by 50 per cent,” Herald Scotland, Moira Kerr – http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/14530566.Golf_resort_plan_drives_Jura_s_population_to_new_high/

Kilmory Knap Chapel

Kilmory Knap Chapel feature page at Undiscovered Scotland – https://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/crinan/kilmoryknapchapel/index.html 

Kilmory Knap Chapel entry of Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kilmory_Knap_Chapel

Argyll and the Isles – General

Argyll and the Isles Tourism Co-operative Ltd (AITC) http://www.exploreargyll.co.uk/about.php

Argyll and Bute Overview at Gazetteer for Scotland, http://www.scottish-places.info/councils/councilfirst4.html

Destinations and Maps – Argyll & the Isles at VisitScotland – https://www.visitscotland.com/destinations-maps/argyll-isles/

Argyll Guide at Travel Scotland – http://www.scotland.org.uk/guide/regions/argyll-holiday-guide

Argyll, Scotland at The Rough Guides – https://www.roughguides.com/destinations/europe/scotland/argyll/

“Population: Where We Live,” at Argyll and Bute Council – https://www.argyll-bute.gov.uk/info/population-where-we-live

Detailed Road Map of Argyll and Bute, at Maphill.com – http://www.maphill.com/united-kingdom/scotland/scotland/argyll-and-bute/detailed-maps/road-map/

“4. The Inner Hebrides” at “Top 10: cities and places to visit in Scotland,” The Telegraph, Travel | Destinations – https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/united-kingdom/scotland/articles/Top-10-cities-and-places-to-visit-in-Scotland/

Argyll and the Isles – Specific Areas and Activities

Lighthouses of Scotland: Argyll and Bute” – http://www.ibiblio.org/lighthouse/sctw.htm

Walking and climbing in Argyll and the Isles – “Come to Argyll and the Isles for unbeatable walking and climbing. Enjoy epic long-distance routes, magnificent munros, loch-side strolls and coastal treks – all amid stunning Scottish scenery.”

The Kintyre Way from Tarbert – https://www.inspirock.com/united-kingdom/kintyre-peninsula/the-kintyre-way-a5385829581

Walking Scotland, Easy Ways Ltd. – https://www.easyways.com/mull-of-kintyre/

Mull of Kintyre Webcam Live – http://www.camsecure.co.uk/kintyre-webcam.html

Walk Highlands: Argyll, Bute and Oban – https://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/argyll/

Arran Coastal Way – https://www.easyways.com/walking-holidays/arran-coastal-way/

Scotland General

UndiscoveredScotland.co.uk clarifies how Scottish lands are sliced and how they overlap. Fully orient yourself to where’s where on their Councils, Regions, and Counties page, which links to breakdowns of those three different types of division.

Find out more about how the tourism industry, as well as British and Scottish governments, have labeled things; see the first footnote of An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 3, under the heading “Notes on Area Names.”

OpenStreetMap – https://www.openstreetmap.org/

Google Maps – https://www.google.com/maps

Scotland” entry page of Academic Dictionaries and Encyclopedias – http://enacademic.com/dic.nsf/enwiki/16523

numerous topic pages at Wikipedia.org


Gáidhlig Dhail Riada. If you are interested in the rich Gaelic heritage of Dalriada and would like to find out more…

Àdhamh Ó Broin – Gáidhlig Dhail Riada

 

Poetic Feet to the Fire

I’ve won a poetry contest before, once (granted I’ve entered only about 4 or 5 total), and I entered one recently. For this live performance competition, I collected a group of poems I thought to be of reasonably high quality for the upcoming event (end of July). Before long, I started narrowing down the candidates, returning to that process again after two things changed: The “tournament” became a showcase due to insufficient competitor entries to make the brackets work, and the accompanying call for literary magazine submissions opened up to entries from more writers than just would-be contest winners.

Thus, the pressure was lifted for content on one platform (stage) and transferred to the other (page). The result was to extend the time available for each writer’s decisions on what to submit (deadline moved from June 2 to July 1). With the change in deadline came more detailed guidelines as well. I suppose the crisis of faith that followed for me simply happened sooner than it might have, which is probably good since you don’t want to panic right before going on stage either. Whatever the cause or contributing factors, doubt has crept in.

I had already shuffled the order a few times, relegating poems to alternate status and back again, when I learned the news of the event’s structural changes. Before the tournament became a non-competitive showcase, there was to be a series of time limits for contestants at the mic. However, with a dearth of entries, stage time has expanded for each participant. By contrast, with the new goal for the literary magazine being to include more participants than before, page space per writer has shrunk.

The new submission guidelines for poetry (the event includes storytelling, comedy, and music as well) specify a limit of 30 lines per poem, including lines between stanzas, and this has added difficulty to my decisions. It’s appropriate–only your best work. Of course I would submit only my best! If I could.

My trouble, as I see it, given that I do not write poetry prolifically, is that my shorter poems, the ones eligible for submission, tend not to be as good as those just out of range.

The consequences? My collection has thus begun to dwindle further (not inherently bad); I was forced to revise structures to make a few poems more horizontal and less vertical in appearance (no biggie); and I started to feel the overall quality ebbing away (kind of a biggie). The bubble of my collection of poems seems already to have burst.

For this event, I’ve focused on nature poems, but so does my overall poetry collection. Due to my infrequent verse writing activity (up to a half dozen poems a year), the total collection of possible candidates also spans a period of decades. The oldest poem in the group is 24 years old, the youngest a couple of months. My verse children were born in different personal eras (adolescence, college, working world), geographical places (France, Ohio, and Massachusetts), and moments in my poetic development (confessional, abstract/obscure, nonsensical word play, formalism, free verse with internal rhyme, terse verticality, and so on). A diverse brood. Ironically, the oldest poems tend to be the most underdeveloped–sometimes that’s the nature of literary babies (and some humans).

I have not officially, i.e., formally, published any poetry in my career, if one can even call it a career. So, finding myself on the cusp of large-scale live audience action, if not publication, I’m sitting up a little straighter and feeling the lick of flames under my toes.

In desperation before these emergent, combined realities, I found myself scrounging for additional works to use. One poem I had discarded, or set aside, a few years ago as birth defected and beyond repair has become an object for resuscitation, remodeling, and renewal. You can do that with some writing. I journaled about it, scanned the meter, and color coded my pen marks for the strongest aspects I could isolate and reshape into something new. Now the poem awaits rewriting. Who knows? Maybe it will be the saving grace of the family.

Putting yourself out there is a healthy thing, I must remind myself, even if doubt lingers. It forces you to keep moving forward, find a way to make things work, and start new projects. With the imminence of the showcase, for which I’m officially on the schedule, I gain new motivation to work, to improve, to learn, and to try again. Sometimes, when idea inspiration doesn’t come, when desire to express doesn’t win out, the external pressure of a deadline and an audience can provide the needed incentive.

What is it? Disguised blessing? Healthy challenge?

There are more ways than one to get things done, and opportunity need not be a crisis. So courage, creator! And carry on toward adventure.

Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6)–Oh, NOW I Get It! Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots

“The Eemis Stane” reconsidered, 1/26/18, via Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 6: Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots

Without a complete translation, there can be no complete interpretation. This I realized after re-reading yesterday my post on Hugh MacDiarmid’s poem “The Eemis Stane,” featured January 9 on my blog.

Although I knew the picture was incomplete, I attempted to analyze it anyway. And although I understood much of the poem’s message without full decoding, it is only after making a firm choice of translation between two possibilities originally left in competition, and, thus, better understanding the concepts behind the words, that I see how much difference a complete, more accurate translation makes, especially in poetry.

Accuracy of interpretation suffers when the meaning of individual words remains in doubt, even one or two words. In such a short poem, so economically constructed, indeed every word counts.

By reading again, and by further considering through logic and deduction the context of a certain passage’s uncertain meaning to me, I was able to insert the last major puzzle piece. As I believe I have now come closer to understanding the nature and significance of the poem’s message as a whole, I’d like to share these new revelations with you.

For reference, here’s the original poem and my first translation:

“The Eemis Stane” by Hugh MacDiarmid

I’ the how-dumb-deid o’ the cauld hairst nicht
The warl’ like an eemis stane
Wags i’ the lift;
An’ my eerie memories fa’
Like a yowdendrift.

Like a yowdendrift so’s I couldna read
The words cut oot i’ the stane
Had the fug o’ fame
An’ history’s hazelraw

No’ yirdit thaim.

Translation and Analysis

I attempted my translation from Scots into standard English with the assistance of The Online Scots Dictionary and other sources. Brackets and parentheses indicate points of possible alternate meanings.

At the darkest point of the cold harvest night
The world like an unsteady stone
waggles in the sky;
And my eerie memories fall
Like a snow driven by the wind [or a blizzard].

Like a blizzard so that I couldn’t [(even) have] read
The words cut out in the stone
Had the smoky atmosphere [or moss] of foam [or fame]
and history’s lichen

not buried them.

And this is the essence of what I said about meaning:

Truth in cultural identity and any peace of mind about one’s place in the world or cosmos are obscured both by personal perspective and the half-truths of history. In other words, not even personal memory and thought can rescue truth and justice from history’s muddled layers. . . .

Although “The Eemis Stane” might be interpreted simply as an intimate human struggle, MacDiarmid, like many great poets, stretches his words beyond the individual into a more universal context. We can see this happening foremost in the introduction of the word “history.” Employing a distinct lexical heritage, the poem is likely best understood as a metaphorical portrait of a people and culture’s displaced memory and shaken identity, and the far too common resulting experience of loss, confusion, and emptiness.

There are several reasons why definitively selecting “moss of fame” makes the most sense, and why both “fog/smoky atmosphere” and “foam” do not.

1. Poetically, the translation would have to be very close to “moss of fame” to establish parallelism with the concept and metaphor of “lichen of history.” Each provides a concrete living thing paired with an abstract societal concept. Each image produced is similar to the other in that this concrete living thing obscures in a similar manner to the other, growing on rocks, spreading itself over their surfaces.

Use of connectors: The fact that both moss and lichen are “of” their paired abstract ideas means that those things, fame and history, inherently bring with them these ironically polluting elements. The poet’s choice to join these metaphors so closely in proximity using the word “and” signifies that the distorting natures, or by-products, of fame and history necessarily go hand in hand. In fact, when one considers it further, they are interdependent.

2. The second reason why “fame” is the correct choice is that the words “cut oot i’ the stane” refer to remembrance, part of the point of memorializing being to preserve a legacy, to obtain or solidify some form of fame in the eyes of observers.

3. Crucially, the key reason that unlocked the meaning for me is that the alternative translation creates a conflict in imagery between an active blizzard and lingering fog or smokiness. Physically, such a thing as fog, mist, haze, or smoke would have to be blasted away by the blizzard. They cannot exist in nature in the same space at the same time. They are mutually exclusive. So process of elimination comes in handy here.

4. Finally, combining these pieces of evidence results in a more robust interpretation of message. Look more closely at the behavior of fame and history as depicted in this poem’s parallel metaphors. They not only obscure the truth but also grow continuously like powerful adhesive upon the “unsteady stone,” further destabilizing it, as moss and lichen both grow on a literal headstone or memorial monument.

A distinct tone of cynicism emerges as these negative sides of fame and history appear. The suggestion is that their “growths” continue uninhibited and uninterrupted, with no one and nothing successfully clearing them away to improve the reputation of fame or history and, by extension, of man. They are natural processes but stubborn nuisances as well, insidious and marring or tainting in how they creep in and take over gradually, almost imperceptibly.

At poem’s end, aided by the described effects of fame and history, the final impression the reader receives is quite clear. The speaker condemns the hubris and vanity of a human race that worships and perpetuates both this “moss” and this “lichen,” implying the absence of the opposite qualities because of mankind’s failure to prevent these incursions. Humanity’s alternate course would be to seek and uphold simple, honest, humble truths—the bedrock, as it were, of goodness, integrity, and justice.

Therefore, the poem is an undoubted lament of those particularly incorrigible, wretched human habits that make the world such a precarious, dangerous place for the individual, and its future such a dismal one for all.

What is left to further interpretation is whether the speaker primarily lays blame and scolds the cause or simply reels from and mourns the effects. In other words, is the final question “Can’t you see what you have done?” or “What have you done to me?”?

The former cries out for change while the latter shows a man incapable of finding the words, the power to move beyond suffering–a man whose “eerie memories,” perhaps even of learned language, scatter into fragments on the wind. He forgets how to read at all. The feeling behind the first question is a sense of urgency and some small hope, whereas the second descends into a confused, frightened, and irrevocable despair.

What do you think MacDiarmid is saying?

Are the layers of obscurity, deception, and confusion just too thick after all?

Or, by revealing them, does the speaker become a catalyst for removing them and restoring what lies beneath?

Either way, my question remains, “What then?” Will we like what we find? Do we need it regardless of how we feel about it? Will it matter?

The speaker makes clear that he cannot say. He cannot make out the words, let alone discover their import. He not only cannot provide an answer; he cannot even see to look for it. His impotence blocks even the consideration of possibility.

For that reason, I see the message as one of despair. The speaker describes the fixed laws of the universe—gravity, inertia, the physics of vibration and spinning—as well as the forces of more intimate natures. The blackness, the cold, the blinding weather, the isolation from fellow humans, and the sticky coverings over our past efforts—together they inevitably overpower man, unsteadying the stone on which he lives and making it impossible to see rightly the things around him, one way and another.

So, yes, I think I get it now.

What do you think?


To view or review the original part 6 post, go here.

For all posts in this series, visit my page under the menu tab “Writing Pool,” then “Poetry,” or under “Wild”: Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry.

You can also get to them directly here:

The entire Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry series

  1. Nature Poetry by Famous Poets excerpting Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush”
  2. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (1a): “The Sunlight on the Garden”
  3. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (2): Elizabeth Bishop
  4. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (3): Wordsworth’s Daffodils
  5. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (4): Promise of a Fruitful Plath
  6. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (5): Of Mice, Men and Rabbie Burns
  7. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6): Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots
  8. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6)–Oh, NOW I Get It!: Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots
  9. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (7): Black Legacies
  10. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (8): “Corsons Inlet” by A. R. Ammons
  11. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (9): “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”

Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6): Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots

Perhaps it is only when we are released from the stranglehold of the deep freeze that we can once again celebrate cold, snowy art. Today between Hogmanay (New Year’s) and Burns Night (Jan. 25), I bring you a Scottish, though autumnal, chill–the blizzard, the wind, the land, and their combined efforts to confound. Still, may your eyes and heart be open wide to the imagery, the sounds, and the impact that only poetry can deliver.

Recently, I rediscovered the work of a famous poet I was vaguely familiar with: Hugh MacDiarmid, celebrated Scottish poet of the 20th century (1892-1978). Again, I became so fascinated with the Scots language he used to effect his art that I started trying to translate the Scots of one of his poems into standard English. A bit more challenging than “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns, the poem is also more somber and contemplative. A novice in translation for personal interest alone, I am unsure of how well it came out and some of it I couldn’t parse, but I thought the poem interesting enough to share with you.

The poem’s title “The Eemis Stane” translates roughly as “The Unsteady Stone.” If you’ve been following my series on nature poetry, you may have realized by now that sometimes there is a fine line between nature poetry and poetry that uses nature imagery but operates through a different primary theme or mode. Although MacDiarmid’s poem also uses nature imagery, as with many poems, its true subject is more abstract and societal. I believe, though, that all nature poetry need not just celebrate nature; it can also lament it. In that sense, “The Eemis Stane” could legitimately bear the tag “nature poetry.” It would simply need other tags as well.

Following is a bit about Hugh MacDiarmid with a link to more information about the poet, and then the poem in full with my translation and analysis.

According to the Poetry Foundation,

“C. M. Grieve, best known under his pseudonym Hugh MacDiarmid, is credited with effecting a Scottish literary revolution which restored an indigenous Scots literature and has been acknowledged as the greatest poet that his country has produced since Robert Burns.”

“The Eemis Stane” by Hugh MacDiarmid

I’ the how-dumb-deid o’ the cauld hairst nicht
The warl’ like an eemis stane
Wags i’ the lift;
An’ my eerie memories fa’
Like a yowdendrift.

Like a yowdendrift so’s I couldna read
The words cut oot i’ the stane
Had the fug o’ fame
An’ history’s hazelraw

No’ yirdit thaim.

Translation and Analysis

I attempted my translation from Scots into standard English with the assistance of The Online Scots Dictionary and other sources. Brackets and parentheses indicate points of possible alternate meanings.

At the darkest point of the cold harvest night
The world like an unsteady stone
waggles in the sky;
And my eerie memories fall
Like a snow driven by the wind [or a blizzard].

Like a blizzard so that I couldn’t [(even) have] read
The words cut out in the stone
Had the smoky atmosphere [or moss] of foam [or fame]
and history’s lichen

not buried them.

Message of the poem

More about perhaps the nature of history and understanding than about nature itself, here is my interpretation: Truth in cultural identity and any peace of mind about one’s place in the world or cosmos are obscured both by personal perspective and the half-truths of history. In other words, not even personal memory and thought can rescue truth and justice from history’s muddled layers. Alternatively, though less likely, it could mean that only history’s obfuscation of events allows the observant man to see things clearly, as if transgression alone, however unintended, is what urges one’s keen attention to matters. Compounded by this confusion, or perhaps contributing to it, is the timing of the attempt: the darkest point of the night, a metaphor for the hardest moment in life, when you are shaken to your core and too discombobulated to make sense of it.

Means of the message

We can trust the reputable MacDiarmid to use the Scots language precisely, but ambiguity is the primary theme echoed by method across the poem. With compound images and multiple word meanings (fog/smoke/moss, fame/foam), unclear things masked in layers (darkness, fog, eerie memories, blizzard, lichen), and unexpected shifts in visual perspective (in total darkness, harvest night’s earth wobbling in the sky as seen from what vantage point?), the reader feels the speaker’s disorientation.

One example of a mysterious reference, the idea of the “words” cut out in the stone literally suggests either gravestone, monument, or ancient language, but figuratively calls to mind efforts to make one’s mark, the tantalizing nature of age-old mysteries, or a foundation marred or eroded by words and time. Then, stanza 2’s double negative (“couldna” plus “No’”) raises further questions of interpretation.

The speaker’s reaction to the confusion is a lament, with the consistent choice of words that collectively mourn: “how-dumb-deid” (darkest point), “cold,” “nicht” (night), “eemis” (unsteady, unstable, untethered, precarious, tenuous, unreliable), “wags” (wobbles, shakes, waggles, jars, dislocates, disorients), “eerie,” “fa'” (fall), “couldna” (could not), “cut oot” (cut out), “fug” (smoke, haze, fog, moss), and, most obviously, “yirdit” (buried). These account for our mood of sadness, solemnity, and empathetic bereavement.

Unlike the poem’s subject, with the help of such words, its overall impression proves firm, immutable by poem’s end. Although “The Eemis Stane” might be interpreted simply as an intimate human struggle, MacDiarmid, like many great poets, stretches his words beyond the individual into a more universal context. We can see this happening foremost in the introduction of the word “history.” Employing a distinct lexical heritage, the poem is likely best understood as a metaphorical portrait of a people and culture’s displaced memory and shaken identity, and the far too common resulting experience of loss, confusion, and emptiness.


Read more Hugh MacDiarmid, aloud for the music or for the challenge of deciphering, but always for the artfulness of poetry:

For more from my collection of famous nature poetry, see:

square-rock-lichen-Nether-Largie-stone_DSCN3484_eds-2017-12-20

Lichen grows on a rock at the base of a Nether Largie standing stone in Kilmartin Glen, at the heart of Argyll & Bute on Scotland’s west coast. Image © 2016 C. L. Tangenberg


Two weeks later . . .

My eureka moment: Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 6–Oh, NOW I Get It! Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots


The entire Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry series

  1. Nature Poetry by Famous Poets excerpting Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush”
  2. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (1a): “The Sunlight on the Garden”
  3. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (2): Elizabeth Bishop
  4. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (3): Wordsworth’s Daffodils
  5. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (4): Promise of a Fruitful Plath
  6. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (5): Of Mice, Men and Rabbie Burns
  7. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6): Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots
  8. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6)–Oh, NOW I Get It!: Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots
  9. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (7): Black Legacies
  10. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (8): “Corsons Inlet” by A. R. Ammons
  11. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (9): “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”