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.

Friday, 1 April 2011

"Poetry Writing: The expert guide" by Fiona Sampson (Robert Hale, 2009)

There's no introduction. The first chapter's rather dispiriting, beginning with talk of writing sheds and touchstones. We're told that "a well-made poem is a completed object, a whole to which every part contributes. It's also a completely achieved insight, moment or thought ... When you take a close look at how it's constructed ... It shouldn't lose resonance, or such formal qualities as balance", p.10. I was surprised how Formalist-friendly (and pre-modernist) the book was - there are chapters on clarity, rhyme, villanelles and ghazals, sonnets, series and sequences. I can't help thinking that a US-based equivalent would have a rather different balance and wouldn't have so many quotes like these

  • "not only the sonnet, but other Romance forms, such as the villanelle and sestina, which no serious emerging poet should exclude themselves from", p.38
  • "Much contemporary 'free-verse' is in fact blank verse", p.41
  • "Free verse must be exceptionally finely calibrated if it's to achieve musical coherence", p.58
  • "Read through your most complex poems to date and ask yourself whether every sentence is a full grammatical entity", p.100
  • "It's surprising how often emerging poets fail to examine their poems for logic", p.108

Chapter 2 deals with defeating self-censorship and self-sabotage. I liked the chapter about the senses. The chapter about creating one's "Ideal Reader" and using past poets is useful. The chapter on difficulty deals mostly with material that's difficult (for personal reasons) to write about, rather than obscurity.

The section on metaphor provides a useful checklist of features - "resemblance (the metaphor fits), appropriateness (the metaphor suits) and affect (the metaphor moves the reader in the way that the original means to)", p.84

She name-drops Prynne on p.168. Jorie Graham gets a few mentions. The exercises are merged into the text. Mostly they're very standard, but at least they're thoroughly explained. And I suppose the same could be said about the rest of the text too. The book's not really for experts, more for serious beginners. Except for a few chapters dealing with the psychology of writing, the advice is good old common sense. To end, here are some quotes that caught my eye -

  • "All writing has a 'speaking voice'", p.28
  • "All good poetry displays some tension, or sympathy, between the formal tropes it reworks and the individual 'voice' of the poet", p.60
  • "The 'Anglican' line-breaks of R.S. Thomas's later verse, where a significant word doesn't end a line but starts the next, echo the conventions of The Book of Common Prayer", p.77
  • "The use of poetry in times of stress has become fashionable in the UK", p.95
  • "As with much formal verse, it's good to let your second line and the approach to the third grow naturally out of the first if you can", p.145
  • "The best poets are always the bravest, though not necessarily the most experimental", p.176
  • "Like the charisma that surrounds very shy people, difficulty gives poems an extra glow, an intensity and freshness", p.179
  • "I'm with the former Director of the Poetry Society of Great Britain, Christina Patterson, who said, 'If you knew as many poets as me, you'd certainly hesitate to say that poetry improves communication skills: or indeed mental health!'", p.183
  • "writing poetry is essentially exploratory. It's not about healing, but about opening up the wound", p.183.

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