Friday, July 27, 2007

Two Book Reviews

Dan Pritchard here as the guest blogger. If you like my post today, I have a less-formal daily literary blog The Wooden Spoon [] you can read when I'm not "The Penny Dreadful." A quick disclaimer, I work for David R. Godine, Publisher, who is doing In the Blood—suffice to say I would not write about it if I didn't really enjoy the book (my review options become limited as I read mostly galleys, haha). Thanks!

McSweeney's Book of Poets Picking Poets
(McSweeney's, 2007)

is somewhat more organized than Dadaism. I mean, it could have been truly random. The curator, Dominic Luxford & company, could have begun by scattering slips of papers torn from an anthology around the room at random with poems on them and then tossed lawn darts, blindfolded, to chose which poems would go in the book. Instead they began with a whim. Ten poems by ten poets that they liked. Luxford says, in the "About This Book" foreword, "we tried to stay entirely out of the way, letting the poems in this book pick themselves."

Each poet chosen then was asked to choose one more of his/her own poems, and another poem by another living poet, and so on. The result is an extraordinary and revealing selection of contemporary poets, established and burgeoning, that spans movements, cultures, and languages.

Some of the choices make so much sense that you wonder how you didn't see it coming, as with an M. Night Shyamalan film—the twist just barely inventive enough to be concealed. Like James Tate choosing his poem "The Radish," one of his more popular poems and one he has taken to reading when he does appearances, and then bringing the reader to "The Devils" by Paris Review editor Charles Simic. Simic's poem goes, "We drank gin / And made love in the afternoon." Of course James Tate – the literary world's Keith Richards – would take us here. Of course! And both writers are so distinctive, so individual, their poetic voices making those kinds of complex native sounds no other poet could. It's like Bert picking a poem by Ernie.

Tomaz Salamun picks a poem by the student Thomas Kane and you think How did he find this Kane? but then you discover that Kane is translating Salamun's poems into English as part of his MFA candidacy. Michael Ondaatje chooses "[Untitled]" by Lisa Robertson and all at once, like a moment of grace, you realize that they speak in the same rhythms, their syntax overlaps in ways that no one could have guessed. One begins to see a community of poets in the world that ignores the normal boundaries of gender and race.

The book is not without its criticism. There are sections that are not as strong as others,– one mediocre poem quickly becomes four or five before the cycle is broken – and poems (mostly those chosen by the author from their own work) that may not have been included if there were a more dictatoriam editor. The collection avoids any extremes of avante-gard, or classicism, and in doing so a whole sub-culture of writers is exempt. But these peccadilloes exist with any collection—this or that poet was snubbed, etc., etc.

For all its inventive approach, for all the wonderful connections you see, the best part of this collection is the feeling that these poets are recommending each other to you. By getting out of the way, Luxford has washed his hands of that job. It is no stuffy editor or academic, trying too hard with indexes and anthologies. Here, each author says to you, you should read this, take it home, tear this page from the book, – you'll like it, I think – fold it in your pocket, take it. When will you ever have this chance again?

The Back-way Glance
Andrew Motion's In the Blood

The role of American Poet Laureate is not one of clearly defined powers and responsibilities. They are often chosen in recognition of their careers from blank page to verse. Beyond that, a laureate's role is defined by each individual poet. Donald Hall, for instance, tends to his garden in New Hampshire. Louise Glück insisted on the umlaut. Billy Collins picked arguments with undergrads. William Carlos Williams furrowed his brow at beautiful women, who passed with asphodels in their hair. Essentially they did—whatever it was they always did before, and added a line to their resumes.

Not so in Britain. A Royal Poet Laureate of Great Britain is required to write occasional verse (for special occasions, mind you, not poetry some of the time). The poet must versify – to the best of his or her ability – state affairs, moments of national triumph, hours of mourning, and everyday occurrences. The reigning British laureate Andrew Motion sums his duties up in his forthcoming memoir, In the Blood. The part of the poet laureate is played by mum. Andrew plays England, in all his slumbering glory.

"Mum doesn't knock, she just whisks open my bedroom door, crosses straight to the curtains, tears them apart, and flaps one hand in front of her face. 'What a fug!' "

Motion is well known for his fondness of meter and rhyme, and established verse forms such as iambic pentameter—he is an unadulterated lover of his national literary heritage, of which he has made himself very familiar. His acclaimed biographies of Phillip Larkin and John Keats reveal his poetic genealogy, but despite the use of classic verse forms, Motion's poetry is clear and often very personal. He is, in that respect, as much a descendant of Robert Lowell's "confessional" writing as he is of Larkin's impersonal but more colloquial style. He is very well suited for the royal position he holds—a poet capable of expressing the personal in traditional verse forms, making a connection between individual perception and feeling, and the grand historical moment.

"The best poems are those which speak to us about the important things in our lives in a way that we never forget," Motion told the BBC. One could argue just the inverse of Motion's work. His poetry is very much informed by the central themes of his early life: the premature death of his mother, and his childhood in the ever-dwindling English countryside.

Motion's memoir In the Blood (Godine, 2007) is a masterful, lyrical work of autobiography. It centers on the young poet's relationship with his mother, opening with the hunting accident that would – after a long coma – tragically take her life. Their bond is intricately drawn over the course of the book, without being focused too tightly, so that it still exists in the context of a family that is full, and fully drawn. The story is crafted so naturally that it seems almost like a novel—though few modern novelists outside of Colm Toibin would dare attempt to depict so simple and human a story.

It was from his mother that Motion was first taught the power of words. In the most middle-class, domestic way, she teaches young Andrew to use words such as "looking-glass" for "mirror," and "perfume" for "scent," because they "always have done." Their conversation is comical –nearly absurd – for its stereotypical preoccupation with propriety, however two of Motion's great strengths as a poet can be traced back to this scene. The first is his complex relationship with slang, colloquial, and working-class diction. Motion is the rare poet who is able to choose a diction that matches the occasion and themes of the poem without overwhelming them. There is a balance to be found between ideas and the words used to express them, when a poem conveys theme and mood clearly, easily, and beautifully.

The second strength is Motion's reverence for tradition. It is clear from In the Blood that the Motion clan is only recently middle-class, and no class of people since the French Revolution are more concerned with tradition and propriety than the recently elevated. In the wrong hands this reverence becomes stale language and out-dated verse forms, poems rife with dead metaphors. Motion, on the other hand, feels his place in the long line of British poets as a eminent challenge. They stand over his shoulder, they point out his naivete and flaws with the blank faces of their collected works, and he is able to use or break tradition masterfully with their expert guidance.

Throughout the memoir the importance of scenes such as this becomes clear only in relation to the first chapter, depicting his mother's injury. Thus Motion is able to affect the same layered construction of his life that is so central to the experience of being a child, and of looking back at one's childhood. Hindsight gives the quiet moments between poet and mother an emotional weight that the author-as-child has obviously not developed enough to perceive. The poet's relationship with his mother is the central event of his self-construction, and imbues him with an ability to see the true value of the present.

There are times when this book is so domestic, and so much a picture of life, that the going becomes slow—happenings are infrequent, and the world in which he grew up in England is unlike any in America, and likely has disappeared there as well. The greatest enjoyment I found was with the craft and care Motion took in his writing. He has the rare ability to draw a visage that is full of subtext, delineating a hidden life beneath the surface.

Motion was seen very much as a "safe" choice for the position of laureate, but that description belies his complicated relationship to the past, and his gift for seeing the present with a kind of immediate hindsight. This gift allows him to see his own poems in relation to the past, to the future poets of Britain who will seek their own lineage, and now to his family, on display quite beautifully in his memoir In the Blood.