Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 3 March 2001

"The Poetry Circus" by Stanton A. Coblentz

This is "a frontal attack on the sloppiness, pretence, and just plain sensationalism that prevails in much of contemporary poetry... He takes some well-known modern poems and runs the lines together into prose to show how dull they really are; then he takes some dull newspaper prose and breaks it up into poetry-like lines.... He inverts the line order of other poems to show that even that doesn't seem to change the effect of this poetry one way or the other! Other faults precisely pin-pointed in The Poetry Circus are the arbitrary pairings - for example 'casual highways' - the forced concentration on the uglier aspects of every subject, and the lack of true imagination..."

Such attacks were common then, and continue to this day. They're usually entertaining to read. Coblentz calls the readers' bluff by asking them to compare famous and fake poems. It's an empirical approach that appeals to me.

His views of what poetry should aim for include

  • to comfort the lonely
  • to see beyond; to hint at hidden strangeness and splendour
  • to celebrate the beautiful

I find it hard to sympathise with these aims. His idea of how poems should work on the reader is limited too. The word/world interface seems transparent to him, and poems primarily mimetic.

  • he thinks that poems can't "be" (he lays into MacLeish's "Ars Poetica")
  • he dismisses collage, lists and mood pieces. He wants if not narrative then at least development.

His extracts of old and new work (that he seems to present as self-evidently good and bad respectively) aren't always convincing.

However, that said, I think there are useful things in the book - obvious things for the most part, but it does no harm being reminded of them.

  • The testing, by experiment, of layout changes is worth pursuing.
  • Obfuscation, as much as blandness, needs to be challenged. Clever-sounding obfuscation, like sentimentality, is suspiciously easy to do.
  • Avoidance of the trite doesn't necessarily produce good poetry.
  • Cliches are ok in small quantities - they may be the clearest way to express something.
  • Novelty for its own sake gets tedious.
  • Too much of poetry is just portentous, leaden prose.
  • Too many poets conform to fashion.

I blushed more than once while reading examples of what he described as "modern excesses", because they reminded me too much of my own. E.g.

  • "you hear the cracking twigs again, squandering pleasantries."
  • "My insignia have become this opened bedroom window,"

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