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 26 November 2016

"Down with poetry!" by Helena Nelson (Happenstance, 2016)

It includes poems from Unsuitable Poems and The Unread Squirrel. The back cover suggests that poetry is "worthy of serious satire" and that "Some of [the poems] even rhyme". Acknowledgements include Ambit, PN Review, and The Rialto - a heavier list of magazines than many unlight poetry books can boast.

Marianne Moore famously wrote "I, too, dislike it". Ben Lerner has recently published The Hatred of Poetry where he "takes the hatred of poetry as the starting point of his defense of the art". In an age where allegedly only poets read poems, and those poems are written by friends, and those friends teach poetry all day, I think skepticism is healthy - even necessary. Standing back to take in the bigger picture (to include the worlds of Flash, stand-up, etc) it's sometimes possible to see things that aren't so obvious to practitioners - the new rules and fashions, the old tricks in new disguises, and maybe the emperor's new clothes.

It does no harm for poets to laugh at themselves. Many of them (sorry, I mean "us") work on the fringes of pretence. And let's face it, some forms are asking for trouble -

Submission Guidelines
Do not go gentle into that villanelle
Allow yourself a period of remission.
Rage, rage against a rhyming hell.
Why they exist, no laureate can tell


Try a sestina. Forget that villanelle!
It's not too late, it's really not. Oh well.

Helena Nelson is a practitioner but she's also a publisher. She has to read thousands of poems a year, many from previously unpublished poets. She's also a shrewd reviewer/essayist for PN Review and The Dark Horse. She can see the wood and the trees. She's old enough to have seen waves of fads come and go. People intending to submit to her press are well advised to read this book. Once or twice I blushed as I read it, embarrassed that my tricks had been exposed.

My favourites are "Poetry Virgin", "Bellytalk", "Fillers" (not at all light) and "The Contemporary Poem Explains Itself", whose beginning and end are "I'm not allowed adjectives and adverbs./ Exclamation marks are out too, which is sad./ I can have any amount of verbs, I adore verbs./ My tone is casual, but that's just a front. ... You're supposed/ to go back to the beginning now/ and get to know me better".

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