Articles about poetry

The Anthologist — Nicholson Baker

This is a fascinating book about poetry, disguised as a wry and humorous story about a poet with writers’ block. It’s like two books in one!

The protagonist is a likeable everyman. Well not really an everyman — he’s a poet and academic rather than just a regular Joe. But he’s definitely likeable in the way that Nicholson Baker’s characters often are. (I feel that Baker’s protagonists tend to be versions of himself, even though I don’t at all know what he’s like in real life. I presume he is likeable.)

Anyway, he is supposed to be writing an introduction to an anthology of poetry, but instead spends his time doing odd jobs, wistfully trying to get back together with his ex, and procrastinating in various other mundane ways. He also thinks and muses on poetry. Reading those sections is like talking to a smart but down-to-earth friend — just fun anecdotes, opinions and observations, but about poetry and literature rather than football or celebrities. (Or football celebrities.) There are some pretty neat ideas — I am convinced by his argument that so-called “iambic pentameter” (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”) actually has three beats to the line, not five. There’s potentially an academic paper in there, but that would be less compelling than the present book.

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Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is a great song. I often find it running through my head. I love how the lyrics are evocative without being literal, and the way the verses all have the same feel but are pretty much independent. I find myself half-making up new verses all the time. So did Leonard: apparently he wrote 80 verses for the song, whittling them down to the four in the final version.

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By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept — Elizabeth Smart

By Grand Central StationThis is an amazing prose poem spanning the author’s love affair with an older married man. The language is raw and rich and really takes you to another place, and usually not a happy one — when she isn’t miserable, she’s obsessively ecstatic. But wow, what a ride:
Under the redwood tree my grave was laid, and I beguiled my true love to lie down. The stream of our kiss put a waterway around the world, where love like a refugee sailed in the last ship. My hair made a shroud, and kept the coyotes at bay while we wrote our cyphers with anatomy. The winds boomed triumph, our spines seemed overburdened, and our bones groaned like old trees, but a smile like a cobweb was fastened across the mouth of the cave of fate. Fear will be a terrible fox at my vitals under my tunic of behaviour.
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An uncomfortable villanelle

I picked up a great book in the library the other day. A Kick in the Head – An Everyday Guide to Poetic Forms is a children’s book describing and illustrating about 30 poetic forms. It includes obvious ones like the limerick, haiku, sonnet and couplet, but there were several that I hadn’t encountered before. I especially appreciate the forms with very rigid constraints, such as the villanelle, the triolet and the very tricky pantoum.

A few days later, I read an article by Michael Hofmann in the London Review of Books about the “professional controversialist and Austropathic ranter” Thomas Bernhard. Hofmann quoted a passage and said it “loops like a villanelle”. (The passage, a powerful yet demented diatribe, makes me want to read the book.) Encountering villanelles twice within a few days inspired me to write one. Very restrictive forms are easier to write in a way, since there are fewer choices to make.

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