Thursday, April 05, 2007

Little Eurekas

Robyn Sarah's Little Eurekas: A Decade's Thoughts on Poetry, will be back from the printer a week from tomorrow. It's a marvellous collection of essays, reviews, interviews, and appreciations. Robyn's criticism is really a wonderful thing: thoughtful, generous, elegant, and honest, it takes criticism back from the critics. It is written with a poet's eye and sensibility, with an understanding of the history of the form, and with obvious love. These essays also explain, in an accessible manner, how poems work, and this is, for me, at least, a rare thing: so many critics in this country seem more in love with their own voices and pronouncements than with engaging the work of the poet being discussed. This is not the case with Robyn's essays in Little Eurekas. Several of these essays have helped me find entry into the work of poets I'd not been able to appreciate previously: her essays on George Johnston and her review of August Kleinzahler stand out as examples. Her thoughts on publishing, editing and teaching poetry have changed how I will approach my job as a publisher of poetry going forward. Her reviews have helped to set the standard of what I want to see from my reviewers: honest consideration, elegance, passion, and a clear argument and explanantion.
Like any good collection of criticism, this is certainly a book that poets should read. But what separates it from so many that are published, it is also a book geared for general readers. It helps to take the fear out of approaching a poem for the first time, the fear of making a fool of oneself. Robyn is not merely another obscurantist; with these essays she pulls back the veil, makes things understandable. There's a lot of good old fashioned common sense here, a much maligned concept, but in Robyn's hands very powerful.
The pre-publication interest in this collection has been a bit astonishing. We've had close to a dozen requests for galleys and review copies. We go into the spring season knowing that there will be several timely -- and likely quite positive -- reviews. Robyn has been invited to read and teach at the Blue Met in support of this book. A couple of teachers have suggested that it might very well be something they put on their course list. It's all very exciting, and gratifying.
Here's a few choice quotes from Little Eurekas:
On poetics

“I believe that a true poem, whatever its subject or style, has a density of meaning, a felicity of language and an authenticity of feeling that cannot be faked—a mysterious synthesis that doesn’t happen every time a poet picks up a pen, but is born of some urgency of the moment.”
On publishing poetry

“I am all for the publication of healthy amounts of poetry—but if most new poetry releases go unread, unnoticed, uncritiqued, and unsold (even second hand!) surely something is not right about the way in which poetry is being published.”

“I have heard the view that publishing as much poetry as possible is a way of making sure good poems get published. In effect this asks the reader to do the editor’s job: to hunt for the gold in the ore, separate the what from the chaff. I don’t think readers can be blamed for not wanting to do this work.”
On editing poetry

“A ‘workshop habit’ can, I think, cultivate an entrenched insecurity about one’s own intentions as a poet—an inability to judge one’s own unfinished work, to decide when a poem is finished, and to stand by one’s choices in full knowledge of why they were made. Such knowledge is hard acquired, and it comes of long, solitary wrestling with one’s own texts.”

“A good poetry collection is not just a bunch of poems stuck between book covers. A good poetry collection is of a length commensurate with its substance, has been assembled selectively, and has been arranged intelligently. Thought and attention have gone into the presentation of the poems. The typesetting and layout departments have been given clear instructions. Nothing has been left to chance.”
On reviewing poetry

“Where are the reviewers who will recognize a poverty of metaphor in a poet’s work, and name it? Where are the reviewers who have anything at all to say about sound? who notice and are able to discuss a poet’s grasp and handling of form? or the niceties of diction in a poem? or the role that syntax, yes, good old grammar, the building-stuff of rhetoric, plays in this person’s poetics?”

On form in poetry

“Traditionally, poetry’s magic was partly formal, carried by metre, rhyme, and patterned structure. When these were abandoned for free verse, it became easier for people to call what they were writing “poetry”, but it did not make it easier to write good poems. This is not well understood today, even by people who should know: editors, publishers, critics.”
Incidentally, Robyn will be reading at the Blue Met April 25th, and teaching a 2 hour workshop on poetry Sunday, April 29th.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

tried to leave a comment earlier but believe i was rebuffed at some e-gate, so apologies if this is a repeat. anyway the matter bears repeating: read robyn sarah's upcoming book. i've read certain essays in magazines and can't wait to read the rest. to ensure i get a copy, i've ordered one in person, over the phone, and online. no need to emulate my goofball multimedia paranoia, but...find your way to a copy. robyn's humane and generous perceptions, her mindful responsiveness to poetry, may change the way you think, feel, respond to poems yourself. it's done that for me. she uses nudges more than cudgels, but that doesn't mean it's soft-focus "all is cool" stuff...on the contrary...she lays down strong lines you'll question, disagree with...but the point is, there's ample room in her essays for opinion, admiration, explication, love and loathing. not all will find their notions verified, but all may enter. that's rare i think. check it out. mike barnes