Date to note June: 23rd Bicentenary of publication of Washington Irving’s ‘The Sketch Book’ including Rip Van Winkle.

Dates to note in the Guardian Review literary calendar this month were: 

5th Women’s prize for fiction winner announced.

23rd Bicentenary of publication of Washington Irving’s ‘The Sketch Book,’ including “Rip Van Winkle”.

This month I chose the bicentenary to write about safe in the knowledge that every woman and her dog with interest in the literary world will have an opinion on the women’s prize for fiction winner.  I was unsure whether the anniversary of a book by a long gone Irving might have had similar interest but thought it likely not.

Most of us have heard of Rip Van Winkle but a quick vox pop of friends evidences that very few had much of an idea of the story other than it is about someone who falls asleep for a long period.


The story, inspired by folklore (there are many very similar variables of this story across Europe), is, in fact, charming, humorous and beautifully written and as so many enduring stories are, is an apologue of sorts. The story said to be about the demands of the British Empire (represented by the nagging wife) upon the USA (represented by Rip Van Winkle), is set in New York’s Catskill Mountains.  Rip, escaping the nagging of his wife, wanders into the woods with his dog where helps a peculiar man carry a barrel. They meet up with another group of odd beings who seem to know Rip.  He drinks with the group and falls asleep.  When he wakes his dog is gone, his gun has rusted, he has a long beard and everything is different.  He recognises no-one in his village and discovers that the American revolution has happened.  He finds most of his friends gone, lost to the war, his wife long dead and his son a grown man.  He is told he was missing for twenty years and that he was likely to have been partying with ghosts in the woods.

Irving, born of British parents but settled in New York City (1783-1859) began his writing career by letters and commentaries to newspapers and literary magazines. After his grand tour of Europe, he returned to the States and studied law but increasingly became involved in writing and publishing through which his reputation grew.

(Portrail of Washington Irving by John Wesley)

The story ‘Rip Van Winkle’ appeared first in Irving’s ‘The Sketch Book’, in 1819 to great acclaim and the subsequent instalments of volumes from the series equally so.  Following their great success, Irving travelled Europe and published more work which was also moderately well received.  Following his successful writing career Irving was appointed as a Minister to Spain, work he did not especially enjoy, before returning to the States where he died aged 76. 

The bicentenary has not caused the bedecking by bunting and launching of fireworks in many places though the town of Sleepy Hollow in Winchester County, USA, is hosting a series of celebratory literary and arts-based events and Tarrytown where Irving lived are also hosting activities and local tours.

The bicentenary is indeed a date worth celebrating. Rip Van Winkle is an enduring story which has been adapted for theatre and film, television, animated films and cartoons several times. The story has influenced comics and music and paintings. Bing Crosby and Al Jolson can be found on YouTube singling ‘who pays the rent for Mrs Rip Van Winkle’. The Rip Van Winkle Bridge spans the Hudson River, near Catskill where the story is set. There is even a Rip Van Winkle Bourbon whiskey. It seems to me there is a lot worth celebrating. (Photograph by Anthony-22, 2017).

My personal favorite inspired work though is a poem by Carol Ann Duffy.

Mrs Rip Van Winkle

I sank like a stone
into the still, deep waters of late middle age,
aching from head to foot

I took up food
and gave up exercise.
It did me good.

And while he slept
I found some hobbies for myself.
Painting. Seeing the sights I’d always dreamed about:

The Leaning Tower.
The Pyramids. The Taj Mahal.
I made a little watercolour of them all.

But what was best,
what hands-down beat the rest,
was saying a none-too-fond farewell to sex.

Until the day
I came home with this pastel of Niagara
and he was sitting up in bed rattling Viagra.

© Carol Ann Duffy ‘The World’s Wife’. Picador. 1999

Date to note: 31st Bicentenary of birth of Walt Whitman

Dates to note in the Guardian Review literary calendar this month were:

6th Centenary of the death of L Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

20th Rathbones Folio prise awarded.

21st Man Booker International prize awarded.

23rd Hay festival opens until 2nd June.

31st Bicentenary of birth of Walt Whitman.

It is two hundred years since the birth of poet Walt Whitman and this is still relevant because…? I do not seek to be provocative: as usual with the Guardian Review literary calendar the dates are left to speak for themselves which they may well do to staffers of the Guardian Review or Guardian Books. It could be they present such dates as a simple list of facts, useful for the crossword perhaps but given that this list appears alongside ‘books to look forward to’ for the same month I think the lists are meant to be more than that (as an aside, I did write to ask – twice – but no one from the Guardian has responded).  So, as I have in earlier blog posts, I ponder on this date.

Whitman was an American writer, journalist and essayist but he is known primarily for his poetry. In particular, he is known for the audacity of his poetry, which, depending on the critic was considered either fearlessly bold or brashly unmannerly with some critics calling his work ‘obscene’. It would appear that Whitman took little note of his critics and was a self publicist who might today have been very comfortable in the playground of social media, sending his work to all and sundry, drawing attention to favourable reviews and indeed, even creating his own.

Is audacity alone reason enough to note the birth date of Whitman?

Like many people I readily recall ‘O Captain! My Captain’ written following the death of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 since is was used so marvellously by Robin Williams in the film ‘Dead Poets Society’ (the boys on the desks scene is still one of the best in cinema) and this poem as a stand alone is arguably good reason to remember him but he contributed so much more.  Whitman changed poetry.  He distained the poetic canons of historical tradition at that time primarily influenced through European history.  He wrote distinctly as an American for an American audience though his work was often contentious even to a home audience discussing as he did, nature, love, friendship, politics, sex and himself.  More important, arguably, than the content of his work is the free verse style he created which has had a huge influence upon modern poetry.  This was acknowledged by, amongst others, so called ‘beat poet’, Allen Ginsberg a devotee of Whitman who speaks to him directly in his own poem A Supermarket in California’.

My own favourite Whitman poem is I Hear America Singing’ which speaks of the different voices of America’s working people without romanticising their labour or refusing them the respect of individual agency.  It is a poem of celebration but also acknowledges difference and a right to belong – or not belong – and in that respect, it might be viewed as a distinctly political poem and one as relevant today as it was when it was written.  

Whitman broke the rules and rejected the then familiar traditions of poetry

His work has rhythm without rhymes, unusual informal and yet highly formal structure of long and short lines, lines grouped in new ways and arrangements which appear both wildly disorganised and yet acutely organised. Not all of his work is an easy read. I am unqualified to make any kind of assessment other than ‘I know what I like’ and some of Whitman’s work, it seems to me, has real relevance to current social and political discussion of diversity, place, belonging and democracy. 

The bicentenary of Walt Whitman’s birth is worth noting and deserves its place on the Guardian Review’s list. 

Date to note: April 22nd Fifty years since Booker Prize first awarded in 1969 to PH Newby

Dates to note in the Guardian Review literary calendar this month were: 

5th  – the release of The Sisters Brothers, starring John C Riley and Joaquin Phoenix, based on Patrick deWitt’s Booker shortlisted novel.  And Pet Sematary, the second version of Stephen King’s horror tale. 

21st – Bicentenary of the start of Keats’s “great year”, including most of his Odes.

22nd – Fifty years since Booker Prize first awarded in 1969 to PH Newby.

23rd – 300th anniversary of the publication of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, often called the first novel in English

Most readers have heard of the Booker Prize and, it is said to lead readers to books in numbers significant enough for it to still be important to publishers and writers.  However, a deliciously wry Guardian article by Rachel Cooke in 2018 cited an off the record bookseller who suggested that the shortlist was not the draw it once was and had stopped being a good indicator of readers choices.  The article suggests the prize has ‘lost its lustre’ and notes the withdrawal of sponsors from book prizes in recent years.  It is clear that the breadth, remit and aims of this prize  – and perhaps others – may be in something of a flux at the moment.  Nevertheless, the Booker Prize has a significant and important history of promoting and fostering literature and encouraging reading of high-quality fiction.

Has the Booker ‘lost its lustre’ or is it still important in promoting and fostering high quality literature?

My relationship with the Booker has been up and down.  I have actively worked at improving the quality of my (fiction) reading choices over the years (I have trash fiction taste if left to my own devices) via selecting from noted book prize shortlists, including the Booker.  Last year I adored the winner – Anna Burns Milkman – funny and astutely observed but read another which I thought was absolutely awful – could not even imagine why it had been published, let alone nominated or shortlisted.  2017 was a better year. Of the shortlisted six, I read one I loved – Ali Smith’s Autumn, and three others I thought were OK – the latter three did not strike me as magnificent, but I did finish them.  I had a similar experience in 2016.  Every year I have the hope for blow-my-socks-off reading only to feel somewhat let down.  I ponder on why this is.  Although an unashamed fan of crime fiction, I read a lot and broadly.   I am a committed reader and active in trying to expand my reading horizons and tastes and yet I never understand the selections or judge based outcomes.  I must be missing something. I only wish I knew what it was.

On the upside, In this 50th year I note the English Patient by Michael Ondaatje has won the special ‘Golden Man Booker Prize’ for the best work of fiction in the last five decades of the prize. I loved this book.  Well done to Mr Ondaatje – a worthy winner.

Note: PH Newby won for his novel Something to Answer For.  The book kept me reading to the end though it was a confusing and challenging read at times.  I am not sure whether Newby is a good recommendation for the prize or vice versa.

TS Eliot Prize for poetry awarded

January dates of note (Review 5 January 2019)

  • 1 Centenary of birth of The Catcher in the Rye Author JD Salinger*.
  • 7 Winners of Costa category awards announced.
  • 11 Release of the biopic Collette, starring Kiera Knightley.
  • 12 50th Anniversary of the publication of Phillip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint.
  • 14 TS Eliot prize for poetry awarded.
  • 29 Costa prize-giving with book of the year revealed.
  • Germaine Greer turns 80.

In this post I will be pondering upon 14th January: The TS Eliot prize award for poetry

Image: TS Eliot by Lady Ottoline Morrell © The estate of Lady Ottoline Morrell. Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence

I mentioned in my first post that some of the dates are written as if self-explanatory – that anyone would understand why these, rather than other dates, are especially of note in the literary year ahead.  In a future post, I will reflect on the influence of the lens upon the collection offered.

For this post, and for future monthly choices of dates to consider specifically, I will be guided by one simple question:  Why is this a date to note?

I chose this date because I am relatively ignorant about the event.  What I know about the craft of poetry writing could be covered in a seven-line limerick. Beyond ‘knowing what I like’ in a poem (John Cooper Clarke, Maya Angelou, Roger McGough, – popular but arguably unadventurously mainstream) I find many as difficult to interpret as another language.  Learning about the shortlist and the winner provides me with an opportunity to give more time to poetry than I usually allow. 

Helpfully, readings from the full shortlist are posted online:

Personally, I find hearing poetry is a more satisfactory, more sensual experience than reading it and so I spent a couple of hours being variously caressed, battered or bored. 

I do not have the technical knowledge to critique but I found Tracy K Smith’s reading from Wade in the Water (Penguin, 2018) to be distinctive, evocative and politically thought-provoking.

The winner of the TS Eliot prize was announced as Hannah Sullivan for her book Three Poems (Faber, 2018). Her work is precise with a near-forensic economy of chosen words.  Her reading readily evoked visceral imagery. Belying my lack of a framework to understand poetic form and discipline, I did not have as powerful a response to it as the prize awarding panel which found her work ‘exhilarating’. The Chair of the panel and previous winner Sinéad Morrissey is reported, in a Guardian article, to have said of Ms Sullivan that ‘a star is born’.   

A quick peruse of Wikipedia shows there are a great many well-respected poetry prize opportunities internationally and I assume this must be a good thing for poets and therefore poetry.  It must be a very challenging field in which to publish and become successful.  Prizes must help bring work into focus and audience and this can only be a very lovely thing.  The TS Eliot prize is unquestionably much coveted and indeed, valuable. 

I found an unexpected prize.  The TS Eliot Prize website made available for download readers notes for each nominated author.  Notes include brief bio’s of the author, example reviews of their work – some samples of which are also included – and, super-usefully, discussion ideas through which to dissect and debate the authors work. Suggestions for other writers of a similar vein are offered.  The reader notes allow poetry novices such as me a way to engage with and learn how to understand the poems submitted.  It is my intention to now actively use these so go back to the recordings and consider them with a more discerning ear. There was also an invitation to join the mailing list and I enthusiastically signed up.

If one is a poet or involved personally/professionally in the literary world, then I guess the TS Eliot prize is indeed noteworthy and perhaps obviously so.  I am sorry (and perhaps just a little bit embarrassed to admit) it had not crossed my own horizon before, but I am very sure it will become a date to note for me in the future. I am grateful it was included in the list. 

Postscript: *I note that the Review of 2 February 2019 carries a four-page article based on an interview with Matt Salinger, JD Salinger’s son and literary executor.  On 3rd February the Observer (sister paper) ran a ‘book of the day’ article by Tim Adams (@TimAdamsWrites)  about the publication of volume 8 of the letters of TS Eliot. I wonder if perhaps the Literary Review calendar is in fact plan which will be guiding future editions of the supplement?  Time will tell.