Friday, November 30, 2007

Montreal Review of Books Review of Little Eurekas

A very good review of Robyn Sarah's Little Eurekas: A Decade's Thoughts on Poetry in the MRB. An excellent Christmas gift! You can buy it here:

or here:

or even here:

Yes, I know: so much for all I want for Christmas is 600 new subscriptions...

Oh yes, the review:

"If anybody had told me, years ago, that I would one day publish a book of literary criticism, I think I would have laughed out loud," a rather astounded Robin Sarah writes in her introduction to Little Eurekas. Yet here it is, a tidy collection of diverse writings gleaned from essays, columns, reviews, and collaborations, and arranged in a volume that is certainly substantial evidence of a literary life, among other things. Indeed, the volume "reflects personally upon a life in poetry" by one who has written, edited, taught, reviewed, published, and even typeset it manually. Rooted in the personal, Little Eurekas is unencumbered by any of the potentially daunting theory that typically characterizes the genre, and in this sense, one hesitates to categorize it as LitCrit proper. If Little Eurekas is literary criticism, then it is, as Sarah points out, certainly an unconventional contribution to the genre.

Organized into five parts, Little Eurekas is a friendly, even hospitable collection, and the conversational but sophisticated prose makes it all the more so. Part I offers a handful of essays ranging from Sarah's account of how, as a young girl, she fell for poetry, to a frank discussion of poetics in "Poetry's Bottom Line," to a thought-provoking trio on teaching, publishing, and editing poetry. In "I To My Perils: How I Fell for Poetry," Sarah describes poetry's insidious creep upon her: "No primal 'Eureka moment.' Many little Eurekas - some of them unconscious, smiting me after the fact." She goes on to say that "it is an addiction to the little Eurekas, those moments of electric response to a particular poem that makes one a reader of poetry." While this reviewer was not smitten with the title of the collection, the sentiment behind it - the exuberance, the joy, the electricity that poetry can yield - is certainly true enough.

Throughout the collection, Sarah shows herself to be a writer who, in the fullness of time, has developed particular ideas about things. She does not shirk from asking and answering thorny questions that probably should be asked by more writers but too often are not. Consider: "If poetry is a good thing, can there be too much of it?", or "What makes a poem a poem?" Nor does she hesitate to share her various gripes. For Sarah, all that ails poetry - the current cultural program, the overproduction of poetry that nobody reads or reviews, the poet as celebrity, creative writing training, less than stringent editing - seems to boil down to an abiding concern that quality over quantity be poetry's mantra. Whether or not one agrees with her opinions, Sarah demonstrates no small courage in laying her views out clearly and plainly.

Perhaps the best way to describe Little Eurekas is to say that it "Dances with Poems," for the collection is, by and large, comprised of Sarah's essays on, and reviews of, poetry. In the chapter of that name Sarah is clear: "Appreciation of poetry begins with poems." And true to her word, she is generous with quotation. Like a good dance partner, Sarah's engagement with poetry is attentive, considered, and at its best downright inspiring. Her collaborations (with Dennis Lee and Eric Ormsby among others), taken from interviews, symposia, and most interestingly letter exchanges, add yet another dimension to the dance.

This reviewer is not a poet, and Sarah might be heartened to know that Little Eurekas made her want to read more poetry; it made her pick up a dusty collection from her bookshelf; it made her send a poem to a friend who seemed to require just those particular words; and it made her want to seek out some more of the poems Sarah reviews. And is it not just these little moments of electric response - these little Eurekas - that make one a reader of poetry?
Brenda Cockfield is a Montreal writer.

No comments: