The Poetry Society recently had a giveaway of five copies of Glyn Maxwell’s ‘On Poetry’ and on a whim I chucked my name into the hat – via an e-mail – and promptly forgot all about it.
About a week later a package arrived. I’d actually been pulled out of the hat.
I hadn’t known very much about the book beforehand, presuming it to be one of your regular ‘How to Write Poetry’ books. I’ve a shelf full of them. The only really useful one I previously read was ‘Teach Yourself Poetry’.
This is not like any of those. It’s a joy and a revelation.
By the end of the first chapter I realised I knew nothing. This is a good thing. It’s what they did to us at University when I was doing my illustration degree. They tear away all your bad habits and preconceptions then reassemble you.
This is a collection of Maxwell’s writings about Poetry itself, dramatised by a possibly fictional Poetry workshop/class where his four students write and critique each other’s exercises.
Maxwell is – as you may be aware – one of our foremost poets and clearly knows what he’s talking about. For anyone struggling with their writing – and my view is that if you’re not struggling with it you’re not doing it right – this book will make you reappraise how you approach writing, maybe shrug off some bad habits and evolve some new approaches.
I feel I really want to read the whole thing over again, and that’s something I hardly ever do without an intervening period of years.
It’s a brilliant piece of work. Thank you, Professor Maxwell.
The only serious problem I had with the kindle version of this book is that the formatting is just terrible.
Poems runs into one another and one has to check the index to ensure that one is reading one poem rather than two. Capital ‘Th’s are replaced regularly with tickboxes, and the letter sequence ‘fi’ is replaced with a space.
This is doing the poet a disservice since it is difficult to concentrate on a single poem while having to check where exactly it ends, and indeed recognise that the letters ‘fi’ are missing. ‘terrified’ for instance, appears as ‘terri ed’
However, with perseverance, one can translate to a certain extent.
I very much enjoyed the piece related to hares and St Melangell, ‘Melangell and the hare’ which was flowing, evocative of the forces of nature and somewhat surreal. Indeed, the pieces relating to nature, the older British landscape and conservation are all quite powerful, orchestrating the lines and phrases into a rhythmic flow.
This is somewhat missing in other works which focus on human interactions and relationships, although many of these are interesting, the longer pieces faring better than the shorter ones. ‘Hydro’ works particularly well, with its vignette view of fellow diners at a restaurant breakfast. I very much liked ‘Living to tell the tale’ which sets Scheherazade in a modern context, quite chillingly.
I can not, I am sorry, provide a more detailed view of this simply because of the formatting problems and wish I’d been able to get hold of a print copy.
The title refers to the practise of users of modern technology whereby they personify and abuse their devices both verbally and physically.
I found this a very difficult and unenjoyable read, at least at first since the author occasionally adopts a clumsy grammatical style as if the words at some point are pouring on to the page.
However, some way in it seemed I found some common ground and it was a revelation.
One problem of the book unrelated to the content is the e-book format since it is often difficult to determine where the author’s chosen line ending is. My apologies therefore if any of my quotes from the poems are not in the form they should appear in on the page.
Olsen addresses dark issues; chronic pain, death, the ruthlessness of nature and perhaps the veneer that separates humanity from this. He employs both free verse and some intense prose poems. There’s a sense of ripping away the facade of ‘human happiness’ to reveal a bedrock of pain, frustration and pointlessness. And yet, the natural world seems to hold some hope, or at least some unattainable meaning.
Although I read and write a good deal of it, I do not claim to be an expert on poetry, particularly American poetry, and fully admit to not fully appreciating some of the more difficult pieces. There is much I am missing although I feel I will return to this book. Olsen has the knack of pushing one’s perceptions in new directions, which can only be a good thing.
The first poem ‘Posthumous Cabin’ begins as a description of occasional trips to a lakeside cabin and by degrees descends into an almost raging cry for help.
I find that ‘Customer Service’ is also a poem that returns to me, wound around the frustration of waiting in a queue. Here, there is the smalltalk with others which not only demonstrates to oil the veneer covering our inner natures but also serves within the piece to take the author on a sidepath to examine the nature of the self.
The guy at the beginning of a growing line is saying,
“No one else is gonna do it for me,” and I’m saying,
“That’s for sure, you gotta do everything yourself,” he’s saying “That’s for sure.” and then finally saying, “My mama isn’t gonna do it for me,”
with some tacit rage of having said that hovering in his face.
‘Early Murder’ is a lengthy and beautiful prose poem about crows, one of my favourites in this book, which again touches on our relationships with nature and each other, and the way we mask unpleasant facts from ourselves.
The title piece is one of the most difficult poems for me. I can see there is an exploration of how technology has infiltrated our lives, from his wife’s e-books (‘My wife reads books on clouds / that wander lonely or out loud’ ironically referencing Wordsworth and his personal connection with Nature as a force) to Luddites, the holocaust and the Transformers movies.
Olsen also manages to include quotations in this piece and elsewhere, a stylistic touch that I’ve never seen employed before.
“the human frame / A mechanized automaton,”
Shelley wrote, “Scarce living pulleys of a dead machine…”
“Men are more easily made than machinery,” Lord Byron, for a brief
Say yes to cyberutopia
and instant democracy.
The author, refreshingly, does give some helpful notes at the end of the book on some specific pieces. Should this be necessary? Yes, I believe so. It’s always useful and indeed interesting to get the artist’s take on whatever s/he has created but preferably after one has wrestled with it to determine a personal interpretation.
The collection has certainly grown on me in the last couple of weeks and I am certain I will be returning to it to fathom its other secrets. I liked it. It pushed my boundaries.
This is a very interesting collection by a man on a journey of self discovery, examining his relationships with his father (extensively) , his colleagues, his wife. his sister, his grandmother and his legacy as a descendant of Greek immigrants.
As is likely to be the case, this becomes more of a portrait of the artist than of the other subjects involved.
Welch has a very individual style and tends to the longer form, occasionally veering into prose poetry. A sense of loss and lack of fulfilment pervades the collection, but is offset by moments of joy and slightly surreal humour as in a piece set around a misunderstanding between his father and himself on the subject of roadkill.
It also adds a new perspective on the depiction of the US, particularly from the point of view of someone whose experience of the US is restricted to New York, Florida, detective shows and movies.
Welch uses language deftly and employs subtle and well crafted metaphors, providing a sharp focus on small elements of his homeland that bring us a new perspective.
‘It’s a sad thing to fly too low.
The summer sends its creeping greens under the window–
robins, brown and red, divide the moment at hand
(These Arrow-Smitten Stymphalian Birds)
Birds and animals pepper the collection, often in connection with sadness or death, either overtly as in when his father thinks that Welch has mistaken a dead raccoon for a deer, or more ambiguously as in the case of the bee that alights on his neck whose sting could mean death to Welch due to his allergy.
Owls and feathers become rivers, cancer and Michael Jackson, reflecting and refracting through the collection while Greek myths and dreams play their part in his exploration of his own past.
The ‘odd bloom’ in the title is taken from an interview with an astronaut on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 describing his unique view of the attack, a moment in history which, like the JFK assassination, fixes all Americans with a specific memory of where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news.
This is a very accessible collection, in which each piece, although sometimes markedly different in style and length, resonates with others in the volume, and reading through it, one gets the impression of an ongoing narrative as if these were random sections from a surreal novel.