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.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

"how to write a poem" by John Redmond (Blackwell, 2006)

Some "how to" books are written as if to prepare readers for a Multiple Choice Quiz ("What type of Sonnet is this?" ....). This isn't your average beginner's book - "A founding assumption of this book is that, far from being helpful, many popular ways of thinking about poetry are tremendous handicaps" (p.1). You'll find many references to "relationality" in the index (a term he explains) but none to "representation" or "mimemis" (though "realism" sneaks in). And if you're looking for behaviour therapy, look elsewhere - "As far as writing habits go, I don't think any special advice is necessary beyond commonsense injunctions like write a lot, read a lot, observe a lot, revise a lot and be prepared to submit your work to others for criticism" (p.14).

The introduction offers a pragmatic approach to poetry, bypassing beauty and truth - "When a poet writes a good poem, they are in the position of someone who designs a good game ... The more you know about the probable behaviour of those taking part the better ... we should think about freedom in a poem roughly in the same way as we think about 'freedom' in a game." (p.10-11). Then the games begin

  • "In this opening chapter, I want to consider one of the most prominent features of what I call the 'default' poem, first-person narration, and to suggest some provocative ways to avoid it" (p.17)
  • "unfortunately we are conditioned to feel that a poem is about self-expression, indeed that a poem is about as personal an art-form as can be imagined" (p.36)

He uses 'fetishize' without explaining it, and before the halfway mark offers a Jory Graham poem (successfully I think). The chapters deal with "The Question of Address", "The Question of Scale". "The question of Background", etc, though they manage to cover most themes that are in more traditional books. The final chapter has Jori Graham's "What the end is for" ("one of the greatest poems of the late twentieth century") which brings together the ideas from earlier chapters.

By not trying to be comprehensive the book manages to give people new to poetry a headstart in appreciating contemporary poetry. The thematic building blocks bring readers closer to Jori Graham than many explanations of the poem do. As usual though, it doesn't pay for readers to be too questioning. If long lines are better than short ones for some things, when is prose even better? Why use stanza-breaks rather than line-breaks? The poems on p.97 and p.125 have rhyming couplets - one has 2-line stanzas, the other has 8-line stanzas; why? The stanza breaks in "What the end is for" aren't discussed either and the line-breaks are praised without being explained. If I re-read the book I might understand them better.

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