Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Little Eurekas Reviewed in Prairie Fire

Little Eurekas: A decade's thoughts on poetry by Robyn Sarah. Emeryville, ON: Biblioasis, 2007, ISBN 978-1-897231-29-6, 272 pp., $24.95 paper.

What makes a poem?

Robyn Sarah, an accomplished poet, has collected in this book many of the essays and reviews she has written over the years. While not a literary critic or academic, she poses an honest question and tries to answer it with her own litmus test for poetry, mostly by looking at individual poems to see what makes them work.
Her bugaboos are plainly stated: "abstruse theories, personal mysticisms, abstractions and vagueness" (210) versus clarity of thought and gracefulness of expression. She agrees with George Johnston, once a teacher of hers, that a good poem has a particular voice, but that the poet could be anonymous. Great poems outlive their authors because they are memorable.
But what makes them memorable? The list is not unusual: cadence, rhythm, music of words (not chopped prose), density of meaning, compression, alliteration, assonance, rhyme, a juxtaposition of images which provide tension or interest (or tug, as she calls it); an element of surprise and authenticity of feeling, to mention a few. But she adds to this that a good poem wants to be said aloud, to be savoured, learnt "by heart." It is her definition of poetry with heart that resonates most with me. She has the courage to denounce "high-sounding vagueness" in poetry that has no feeling.
The only place where this book falls down is where the "lit-crit babble" is allowed to creep in, in her collaborative essay on polyphony. On the whole, erudite, honest, informative reviews fill this book. Sarah expects the best of poets, and she shows us where they don't quite measure up. Some may find her views a bit stuffy, but she is not interested in the showy, the loud or the trendy. If no one is reading the poems, she asks, what use is giving glitzy prizes to attract attention to poets as if they were celebrities? Similarly, she questions our country's publishing subsidies, which she feels promote quantity over quality. Who can keep up with the reading?
Little Eurekas is not concerned with making canons or baptizing the "new" great poets. "As a culture, we will begin to reclaim poetry when we learn to praise poems, not poets" (57) states Sarah. Such an attitude treats poems on the level of their poetry. It confirms what many feel, that contemporary poetry (whether free verse or formal) benefits from a heightened attention to the song and dance of each syllable, to the marriage of music and meaning.
This book is useful to both students and teachers. Its ideal reader is anyone interested in how and why poetry works. She also gives advice on how to write a good review. (How'd I do, teach?)

Jennifer Boire attended the Maritime Writers' Workshop in 2005, where Robyn Sarah first read her essay "Poetry's Bottom Line." Although both of them in Montreal, she and Robyn first met in Fredericton, and have not met since!

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