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Poetry: A Survivor's Guide by Mark…
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Poetry: A Survivor's Guide

by Mark Yakich

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There’s a lot to like in this irreverent and provocative book about both reading and writing poems. For anyone shy of the art (whether reading or writing poetry), Yakich is most encouraging. He includes many tips and techniques, exercises to jog you out of the routine and ordinary ways of seeing and jumpstart your writing. And there are so many gems of good advice. Here are just a few of the bits I especially liked and copied out:

“A poem cannot be paraphrased. In fact, a poem’s greatest potential lies in the opposite of paraphrase: ambiguity. Ambiguity is at the center of what is it to be a human being. We really have no idea what’s going to happen from moment to moment, but we have to act as if we do.”

“A poem has no hidden meaning, only “meanings” you’ve not yet realized are right in front of you. Discerning subtleties takes practice. Reading poetry is a convention like anything else. And you learn the rules of it like anything else—e.g., driving a car, baking a cake, walking a tightrope.”

“As hard as it sounds, separate the poet from the speaker of the poem. A poet always wears a mask (persona) even if she isn’t trying to wear a mask, and so to equate poet and speaker denies the poem any imaginative force that lies outside of her lived life.” How many times I’ve harped on this to students and fellow writers!

“Poets depend on readers for confirmation of their worth. Readers depend on poets for confirmation of their doubts.”

“Not all poets are visionaries but all poets can be subversives, even if they are subverting only their own visions periodically.”

Readers will like some parts of the book better than others. I skimmed much of the latter half, since I was not much interested in reading about how to run a creative writing classroom/workshop, literary magazines, publication advice, putting together a manuscript, etc. And the Epilogue was far too long and terribly out of place in this context — a long-winded paean (on and on and on) to showers (the kind in which you stand in the tub or stall and wash and masturbate or whatever). Why here??

The book could have used some better proofreading. In quite a few sentences, I noticed words (articles, prepositions) left out, run-on sentences (comma splices), or other errors of punctuation. This just bugs me, perhaps a lot more than it should.

One mistake that I found rather significant is in the following sentence: "Even a single word can change its emphasis: present as a noun is an iamb, present as a verb is trochee.” In fact, the author has it backwards: the verb is the iamb. Pre-SENT. This seems pretty bad, considering that he’s using this example to illustrate.

And I take issue with a couple of other things. One is the famous (“under understood” says Yakich) quote of Gertrude Stein, which Yakich quotes as "A rose is a rose is a rose.” Unfortunately, he then proceeds to explain this statement for us. I don’t think Yakich has any inside knowledge here and wouldn’t give him the final word. Stein’s original version was “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,” in which the first Rose is widely understood to be a surname. Stein is known to have had a painting by Sir Francis Rose hanging in her living room. So, really, who knows? It’s true that Stein later used variations on that sentence, including “A rose is a rose is a rose.” It may just mean that things are what they are. Yakich says: “A rose is clearly not a rose. “Rose” is a word standing in for that flowery thing that is out there in the garden. To say “a rose is a rose” is already once removed from what a rose really is. A rose is a rose is a rose. Does the rose turn a deeper red when it’s repeated three times? Perhaps. But couldn’t the rose also fade with such wear? The repetition of rose makes the rose less of a rose and more of a piece of language. Say it again aloud: a rose is a rose is a rose. Did you detect it? Arose: to ascend. Stein’s phrase isn’t about making the rose more rosy, but how language takes on a life of its own.” Well, maybe it’s that, too. He follows this up with a completely tangential and unnecessary paragraph about how many roses to send for various purposes, according to “the folks at Teleflora.”

I would also have to take issue with Yakich’s pronouncements (as if from on high) about prose poetry. For instance, “Prose poems are, for the most part, more prose than poetry—that is, they are structured more along the lines of story and scene than song.” It sounds like he hasn’t read many. Prose poems are not all structured along the lines of story. There’s a difference — actually an overlap — between prose poetry and flash fiction. Some prose poems read like fictions, but not all of them do. Some short pieces are thoroughly in one camp or the other. Yakich further maintains that “A prose poem is really a failed attempt at lineating a poem, or is a piece of prose that has failed to turn into a longer work. [I can't believe anyone would put such goofy thoughts in writing!] Like Montaigne’s Essays, which are literally “attempts” or “trials,” prose poems illustrate that there is nothing wrong with a failure of form. If the prose poem does nothing else, it illustrates that even straightforward prose is affected prose.” Huh? To each his own. He can have an opinion, but this is both ignorant and arrogant.

Here’s something to rankle those of us who happen to enjoy reading, and even writing (oh horrors!), short stories:: "Studying the short story mostly gets you sucked into writing a short story, and writing a short story takes too much time for what it’s worth, perhaps a publication in a journal which few will bother to read."

And poetry journals are so widely read, right? ( )
  toniclark | Mar 24, 2016 |
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"Playful and serious, unforgiving and compassionate, Poetry: A Survivor's Guide offers an original take on a subject both loved and feared. In a series of provocative and inspiring propositions, the act of reading a poem is made new, and the act of writing one is made over. Questions of poetry's difficulty, pretension, and relevance are explored with insight and daring. In an age of new media and social networking, this handbook-cum-manifesto provides fresh reverence for one of our oldest forms of art"--Provided by publisher.… (more)

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