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 January 2015

"The Whetstone Misses the Knife" by Susan McLean (Story Line Press, 2014)

This book won the 2014 Donald Justice Poetry Prize. The poet also won the 2009 Richard Wilbur Award, and a poem in this book was a finalist in the 2014 Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award! Many of the poems have been previously published - "Light Quarterly", "Lighten Up Online", "New Trad Journal" and "Mezzo Cammin" (women-only, 11 poems) account for many of the appearances. You can read some of the poems in Mezzo Cammin.

Reading the book invoked if not a bout of soul-searching then at least a self-questioning from first principles. Though I'm interested in Formalism from both a psychological and historical perspective (and as an occasional practitioner - I've been in "Lighten Up Online" twice), I try not to become polarized in Formalist/Free debates (if you're interested in them read

etc). It's sometimes thought by young non-formalists that Formalists rhyme because they've not read other types of poetry, or because they're not bright enough to understand modern poetry. Susan McLean did her first degree at Harvard and has a Ph.D in Literature. She lectures about poetry. It's safe to assume that she writes the way she does because she chooses to. Indeed, in November 2007 she wrote "I am a formalist. Yes, it sounds like a confession of addiction, and it is. I am addicted to the esoteric pleasures of rhyme and meter, and I don’t even try to deny it or camouflage it with slant rhymes. ... I am comfortable with being called a New Formalist because I tried to write in form during the ’60s and ’70s and received such universal condemnation for it from teachers and editors that I abandoned poetry writing for nineteen years."

She could have sugared the pill by adding something of Geoffrey Hill's density, or she could have jumped on a bandwagon of Elliptical hybridisation of Formalism with the avant-garde. Instead, she writes in a zone that in the UK is occupied by poets like Sophie Hannah and Wendy Cope. She could have used fewer syllables. In another poetry book that I'm currently reading I think a few little additions would have made comprehension much easier; at times the disregard for readers borders on rudeness. In this book there's the opposite tendency - a teacherly anxiety that the reader won't understand. Occasionally we're told what's going to be said, then it's said, then we're reminded what was said.

The sonnet "Flyway" (the title means "a flight path used in bird migration") set me thinking. It begins

Wild geese trace lines that overlap and merge
like fluid cursive scrawled across the sky,
honking in concert as their paths converge.

Let's play the workshop game, the devil's advocate. Is "fluid" needed, given that we have "cursive"? We can assume that the geese are flying, not waddling, so "across the sky" isn't needed. "in concert" can be assumed. If we know that they merge, do we really need "as their paths converge"? An alternative might be

Wild geese trace overlapping cursives, honking as they converge

which has 9 words (the original has 22!) and has the bonus of avoiding that clanging dumdeedum noise (though maybe this is a poem about poetry, the lines honking in unison). Economy is the hallmark of good poetry - think what could be done with those 13 spare words! And yet ... and yet ... surely there's more to poetry than mere word-count. That so-called noise is music to the ears, and the "honking in concert" oxymoron is worth preserving.

This sonnet's sestet compares students to these geese, ending with the narrator (who "barely can recall being that high,/ that free") thinking

But why should they change course or heed the urging
of one who's long been tethered to the ground?

The poem follows a standard template - an observation turns out to be the pretext for an analogy then a moral. The octet's a set-up for the sestet. Is it needed at all? With only a few adjustments the sestet could initiate explicit and implicit comparisons. Poets have many templates/gestalts in their heads. They can fill the gaps in. They don't need to be shown the tenor, the vehicle and how to connect them. But this poem spells it out. Perhaps the poem's in the grip of another cherished nostalgia - the idea that non-poets read poetry.

In "The formalist/free avant-garde/mainstream UK/US splits" I've wondered whether there are personality traits that might draw people (people like me) to Formalism. Perhaps there's subject matter that suits the temperament of people who choose to write formalist poetry. If only life were tidier, if only he/she loved me as much as I loved him/her, if only things were like they used to be. Poetry offers a chance to restore, to put things in order. Rebel by all means, but only at the volta. Perhaps my temperament led me to anticipate that "Controlled Burn" (observation -> analogy -> moral) would end up being about love. "Plane Geometry for Lovers" is more obviously so, including the passage "A man who touches you once/ is on a tangent./ Secant, you may find". It took me more than one reading to realise that "Secant" was a pun on "Seek and" (I was distracted trying to recall the formulae for tan and sec, so I could work out their relationship). It ends with "Congruity is the paradigm of love -/ one figure overlapping another,/ touching at all points". It reminded me that long ago I wrote a poem called "The Shape of Lost Love" which upped the dimensions - "A disc may cast a sphere's shadow,/ chancing upon perfection as it moves,/ but it can never be love".

Some of these poems are as good as anything I've read of late. I liked "Abandonment Issues", "Caesura", "Survivor", "Dead Giveaway", "The Kids", the title poem and "Going with the Floe" which ends

Your world is shrinking: continents divide,
calving their icebergs large as city blocks.
Now you're aware of movement as you ride
the melting: house to room to bed to box

(is that Frost's riding? And are those 2 final lines also a comment on Formalism's stanzas?). The ones I'm less keen on are like "Cul-de-Sac", where the dreaded mid-villanelle sag is evident. If you can't find the words to fill a form, why not shorten the form instead of submitting to it?

I couldn't find any reviews online.

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