Thursday, 31 July 2014

Holiday reading, for those who do and those who don’t read poems: The Enthusiast Field Guide to Poetry

If a house is an extension of its occupant’s brain, then when it gets turned upside down, the brain is affected too.  Especially if books are involved.  Last week all my books were crowded into two smallish bedrooms, while downstairs the plaster was hacked off and replaced, and a damp course put in.  The ceilings haven’t collapsed – not yet.  There’s more work going on this week. 

Domestic surrealism isn’t all bad: upturned chairs on the spare bed, a bath on the sitting-room floor.  Things that I’d forgotten have reappeared, including this book. 

I bought it in the second-hand bookshop in Halesworth three years ago, after going on the Poetry Trust’s Aldeburgh Eight seminar.  I don’t know which page I opened it at, but I remember being intrigued by its difference.  The anonymous authors describe the book as “a conversation on the possibilities of poems”.  It consists of 150 texts, mostly poems but some prose, each followed by a short and plain-worded comment, often quirky, or insightful, or both. 

Here’s a sample from several consecutive pages, to try to show what the book does.  On one side is an extract from a Gerard Manley Hopkins letter:

One of two kinds of clearness one should have – either the meaning to be felt without effort as fast as one reads or else, if dark at first reading, when once made out to explode. 

The commentary quotes Hopkins’ ‘The Windhover’ as an example of exploding clarity. On the opposite page, for the other sort of clarity, are around a dozen lines from Ezra Pound’s ‘Canto 49’:

Comes then snow scur on the river
And a world is covered with jade
Small boat floats like a lanthorn,
The flowing water clots as with cold. And at San Yin
they are a people of leisure. 

..the equal distribution of emphasis, so that on each and every thing the poem, as it were, sheds its light… This is the value of free verse. In the absence of metre the poem’s emphasis falls everywhere. Everything, so Pound would have us believe, is illuminated. The key element of poetry, he argued, is light.

A poem about looking, a poem attentive to its own attention, which wanders, and in wandering, stumbles across things. 

And then Charles Olson’s ‘May 31, 1961’ which starts,

the lilac moon of the earth’s backyard
which gives silence to the whole house
falls down
out of the sky
over the fence

                                 poor planet
                      now reduced
                      to disuse

Here there’s a commentary that takes in Whitman’s lilacs on the dooryard, Ashbery’s “the lake a lilac cube”, and the making-it-new effects of spacing, “the way, in the poem, the attention falls”.  The next poem is ‘In Leonardo’s light’ by Lorine Niedecker, a different shape of falling; and so on.  

It’s this juxtaposition which enables many of the insights:

What the book believes very strongly.. is that poems are, among other things, commentaries on other poems, that poems are readings, that poems enable the possibilities of other poems.

The book ranges from Homer and Sappho to Dickinson, Apollinaire, Empson, O’Hara; and Ashbery and Hill, two of only a handful of living poets represented.  Very much the western canon, though including several American poets I’m not familiar with; and nearly all white male.  Can I forgive the authors for leaving out Elizabeth Bishop?  They need to write a sequel.   

The prose includes Wordsworth and Pound, but also William James (1892) on streams of consciousness and an extract from I A Richards’ Practical Criticism, listing ten difficulties, from mnemonic irrelevancies to stock responses and inhibition.  There’s a quote from Nietzsche on poets, including:

    A little voluptuousness and a little tedium: that is all their best ideas have ever amounted to.
    They are not clean enough for me, either; they all disturb their waters so that they may seem deep!

And there’s Muriel Rukeyser’s sonnet ‘Homage to Literature’:

then stare into the lake of sunset as it runs
boiling, over the west past all control
rolling and swamps the heartbeat and repeats
sea beyond sea after unbearable suns;
think: poems fixed this landscape: Blake, Donne, Keats.

[Commentary]…The only true homage to literature is literature, which is to say, doing something.

Whether or not one agrees with all the commentaries (and surely half the point is to disagree, thus carrying on the conversation), this waymarked trail of poetry and poetics is entertaining and thought-provoking to follow.  Some or many of the texts will be familiar to people who are versed in this stuff, but that’s fine.  The effect is like having one’s library, both physical and in-the-head, turned upside down and reassembled differently. 

Above all, The Enthusiast Field Guide to Poetry would make a perfect present for anyone who’s interested in reading, and ideas, but doesn’t read much poetry and maybe doesn’t ‘get’ it.  The fragmentary format also makes it perfect holiday reading.  The book has an order, which doesn’t need to be followed.  It has a perfect last poem, ‘Salute’ by James Schuyler, too perfectly brief to quote part of, better to go to the whole.

The Enthusiast Field Guide to Poetry was published by Quercus in 2007.  It’s not on their website, hence the Amazon link, which normally I’d avoid giving but it shows plenty of copies.  If you’re curious about the learned authors, one of them is easy to identify by googling; I’ve no idea who the other(s) are, though the writing style sounds uncannily like someone I know.  To end, here’s a definition of theirs:

A poem is an arrangement of words containing possibilities.


  1. Dear Fiona

    It sounds like an interesting book and I'm with Nietzsche! We're in Fontainebleau for a while where I'm working hard on my fourteenth volume. I'm writing a couple of poems a day at the moment which is good going for me. Here is my latest:-


    My thirst was rising fit to burst
    When I spotted a drinks machine.
    I slotted in a euro
    And observed the little screen.

    My money hadn’t registered.
    Imagine my surprise
    When I hit the ‘Return Coins’ button
    And didn’t win a prize.

    ‘There’s nothing we can do, we fear,
    The machine’s no longer ours
    And if we call an engineer
    You’ll be waiting here for hours.’

    I cursed and grinned, ‘Let it be so -
    The universe wins one euro!’

    Best wishes from Simon

    1. Revenge poems against vending machines could become a genre. There's a machine I need to do this to.

    2. Dear Fiona

      Yes, I lost a euro but at least I got a poem out of it so I wasn't quite as choleric as I might have been!

      Best wishes from Simon

  2. Dear Fiona

    Here's another new one for you. (Last one I promise!)


    The wasps they dance around the glass
    Before diving in to drink.
    Many things have come to pass
    Provoking me to think.

    I think of my long-suffering wife
    (Her needles and her pins.)
    I think about my wasted life
    And of my many sins.

    A wasp gets bored with drinking beer
    And settles on my arm;
    I feel the sting like anything
    And try not to alarm

    My wife who’s sitting next to me
    And asking what I want for tea.

    Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish