Review by: Stephen Page
The first three chapters of Writing Poems are review for any writer who has taken a writing workshop at university and/or published anything other than a blog entry or a vanity book, yet the review is sweeet. I believe it is imperative for all writers to reread the basics every decade or so, especially if that decade comes after years away from academia and teaching. It’s not clear which parts of the book are Wallace and which parts are Boisseau, but the colaboration results well. I like their ideas and theories, and their explanations are clear and concise. I recommend this book to all writers and teachers alike.
On other reading this month, I read chapters three through six of Writing Poems. I found the authors’ opinion of prose poems poignant: “Prose poems, as one might infer, aren’t verse at all, but short compositions in prose that ask for (and reward) the concentrated attention usually given to poetry.” By definition of verse (turning, to turn, turn over) I guess that qualifies. Also relevant is the discussion on free verse:
“’T.S. Eliot said, ‘No vers is libre for the poet who wants to do a good job.’ And the great American innovator in free verse, William Carlos Williams, was always quite certain: ’…to my mind, there is not such thing as free verse. It’s contradiction in terms, the verse is measured. No measured can be free.’ Since the nature of verse itself means that we pay attention to the way lines cut across and so measure the flowing phrase and sentence of speech, Williams is correct; free verse measures, lines are measured, and though not metered.”
When I taught high school, to interest the teenagers in poetry, I mingled poems with pop rock lyrics. I explained that rock-and-rollers of the last forty or fifty years lived similar lives to poets in Shakespearian times, traveling around in bands, playing on street corners, playing to paying customers in theatres. I also showed how lyrics, when seen visually on the page, look like poems, and have many of the same qualities of poems, especially meter, assonance, alliteration, internal rhyme; moreover, end rhyme to help the listener memorize the verse and know where the line ended. The author talked similarly about this in the first paragraph of chapter five.
Chapter six is especially interesting, as it parallels what John Haines talked about in his essays,
“Equally blinding for the beginning poet is the assumption that poetry is mainly direct self-expression: What happened to me, what I feel. Poets risk psychobabble—endlessly reporting their own feeling, their own experience (only because it’s their experience), unaware that they are boring a reader. Looking only inward can keep poets from looking outward.”
“Subjects and Objects” is a good section of chapter six as it covers what most great writers already know: take the usual and make it extraordinary. Make every day occurrences interesting for the reader. In the chapter there is another topic that Haines talked about, poetry and place. Go out where you live and get into the feel of the place. Connect. That is where the poetry comes from. The “Presenting,” section talks about your advice on some of my poems: whittle your poem down to their essence. Take out, or leave out, unnecessary details.
Chapters seven through nine of Writing Poems are informatively interesting. Chapter seven begins like this:
Every poem begins with a voice, a speaker, the person who tells us whatever we hear or read. Usually the poet speaks, but often someone else does. Just as anything can serve as the subject of a poem, so too can anyone, indeed anything, serves as the speaker. In this poem Amy Gerstler (b 1956) speaks through the voice of a mermaid . . .
That’s good advice for poets trying to find new avenues of expression. Write from the other person’s point of view. Take on a role. Speak for the mute. Speak for the verbally inarticulate. Speak for the ones who can no longer speak, as Rita Dove does for the slave girl in chapter eight. It is also good advice for narrow minded critics who believe every poem with an “I” in it is an autobiographical sketch, or a confession, or some hidden facet of the poet’s subconscious. Writing from another’s point of view is also a way to solidify the main character in the poem. And, as the “Persona” section explains, speaking in the first person reveals character motive and clarifies reader understanding, especially when the “unreliable narrator” in employed.
The “Narrative” section is good also. Here is an example:
Paying attention to the fundamentals of good narrative allows a poet to choose what to include and what to leave out., when to summarize details and when to depict the action moment by moment; that is to control the poem’s pacing.
That’s good advice for writers who get to far into language poetry and lose narrative thread, for writers who get sloppy and forget which details need focus and which need not be in the poem., for writers who forget how to use the line.
The “Metaphor” chapter is detailed enough in explaining the subtleties between the labels we have for figures of speech, so it’s either good review or a good introduction to tropes. I agree with Aristotle, to a certain point: Metaphor usage is something that cannot be (easily) taught. “Easily” is my word. Metaphor usage is something that should be natural to writers, something innate. But, that doesn’t mean a writer is going to be rattling off metaphors as he first begins to speak—“Hey Mom, you’re the womb of my heart. Hey Dad, you’re the hand of my limits.” It takes time to know how to use metaphors well. It is often the writer’s influences in life that bring these inner characteristics out. Some of those influences might be parents, but often they are also teachers, mentors, books. Additionally, bettering metaphor usage can be taught. It can be sharpened through practice and coaching. Most specifically I am speaking about learning the difference between extended metaphor and mixed metaphor, a mistake all beginning writers make and all bad writers continue to do throughout their careers.
I laughed with the first paragraphs of the “Beyond the Rational” chapter, the part about the muses. I often try to picture my muse, and even did once while writing a long verse poem. She became a character in the play, but I still don’t know if I created her or if she just was. On the other hand, as the chapter points out, to scientifically explain the creative process, psychologists and researchers have noted differences in how the brain functions in creative people. So, maybe there are different realities for creative people, different perceptions of the world while creating. That’s where the chapter expands into the opening of our world view, the shaking off of our prejudices, the repatterning of our rigid views on what makes sense and what does not.
You can find the book here: http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Poems-Edition-Michelle-Boisseau/dp/0205176054
– Stephen Page holds two AA’s from Palomar College, a BA from Columbia University, and an MFA from Bennington College. He is the author of The Timbre of Sand and Still Dandelions. His Book Reviews have appeared regularly in the Buenos Aires Herald, Gently Read Literature, Classic Book Club, and the Fox Chase Review. He is the recipient of The Jess Cloud Memorial Prize, a Writer-in-Residence with stipend from the Montana Artists Refuge, a Writer Fellowship from the Vermont Studio Center, an Imagination Grant from Cleveland State University, and an Arvon Foundation Ltd. Grant. He lived in the Congo for one year.