Welcome to Post-weekend Poetry and a slight detour from the poetry in this series. This week Phillip Ellis returns with another review.
Review: Writing the Life Poetic by Sage Cohen
‘Writing the Life Poetic’ may seem yet another writing handbook, one more guide by a practising poet, one more book to read and leave behind. It is, however, more than just these. Writing the Life Poetic seeks to inspire poets to create, and this, despite its flaws, is what such books can do best. Yes, there is a place for handbooks of prosody, but Writing the Life Poetic does not concern itself with the minutiae of technique. Rather, in assuming the poet knows what a poem can start as, it seeks to open up the poet to techniques of exploring creativity, rather than counting syllables and marking stresses. The end result is a book that inspires the poet to write and live the life poetic.
One of the main reasons, and arguably the primary reason, for reading Writing the Life Poetic is to inspire poets to read and write poetry. It does so by presenting a number of brief chapters, each with their own focus. Going through these, the poet is ideally inspired to write. And the chapters, although varying in emphases and directions, focus on writing poetry, and on the life of a poet as one who writes and submits poetry. If the book contained only these texts, then it would be worth looking into as a series of prompts to consider writing, but there is more to Writing the Life Poetic than just these. There are, for example, a series of exercises that can be completed and worked upon.
The exercises tie in with their chapters, and remain relevant to the heart of the book. They are prompts, rather than assignments; they are designed to stimulate creativity and thought about what poetry is and can do. This means that Writing the Life Poetic is less of a textbook than it is a starting point for practical thought. Since being a poet involves the writing of poetry, the best way that Writing the Life Poetic can inspire poetry is to encourage active, practical steps of writing it. There is a tendency to assume that the reader can know what forms a poem takes. With one exception, a single chapter of poetic forms, there is no deeper, involved discussion on the forms a poem takes, for example the use of lines, stanzas and strophes and so forth.
Further, though it is possible to read the book without working through the exercises, the best results are gained by writing through them. Doing so allows poets to learn from Writing the Life Poetic by doing more than just reading the chapters. It enables them to develop practical skills, as well as the opportunity to reflect on the texts via their own poetic practice. This does mean that the results of the exercises can tend towards being written to order, a failing common to many workshop poems. There are chapters, however, that argue that imitation and freewriting are steps towards escaping this, the former by allowing the poet to see poetry’s possibilities, the latter by allowing significant themes and images to arise more spontaneously.
A further element, in addition to the exercises, are the poems and excerpts of poems scattered through the book. They emphasise, as does Sage elsewhere in Writing the Life Poetic, the importance of reading poetry as part of a life as a poet. As a result, the poems may not suit everyone’s taste in poetry. I found most of them of a uniform quality, with few that stood out; this does not mean the poems were either bad or poorly chosen. The poems, to me, were examples of what poems could be and do, more than examples o what the best poems can achieve. They are better yardsticks as a result, more surpassable if I may say so. This is not to say Writing the Life Poetic is flawless.
One of the chief failings involves further reading. With rare exceptions, references to books and websites are embedded in the text of the chapters, forcing the reader to hunt through the text in order to locate them. How this is a problem is that Writing the Life Poetic could easily have added a list of recommended reading and resources at the end of either chapters or the book. Doing so would help the reader and poet. Further, with the exception of URLs, only minimal details are given. The publication details, and ISBNs, of the books would be welcome and useful. Fortunately, here and there there are bulleted lists of web resources, making this aspect of Writing the Life Poetic useful.
There is a further failing, one that has greater effects on the usefulness of the book. While Writing the Life Poetic has been designed to be dipped into, the lack of an overarching sense of order or direction limits the attractiveness of reading straight through the book. Further, such an order would facilitate the brief index, making it more useful. The unorganised structure of Writing the Life Poetic makes it difficult to sense a trajectory that can apply to a beginning poetic career. It makes, that is, one’s development as a poet seem less structurable, more chaotic than it can be, and a degree of organisation is essential to a poet seeking any degree of professionalism.
Writing the Life Poetic seeks to inspire poets. It seeks to get them writing, and to get them living the life poetic; and it succeeds. Each of its chapters covers a facet of such a life, and it adds to these exercises more as stepping stones than assignments. Further, it includes poems that aspiring poets can measure against; achievable poems, not unsurpassable ones. Yet it is not flawless. It tends to hide references to further reading, and it eschews many details needed to locate them. And its lack of overarching structure to the chapters hinders any sense of order, given the need for some degree of order necessary if one is to be more professional as a poet. Writing the Life Poetic, however, succeeds in its aims, and this is, really, the least that can be asked of it. It inspires, and it continues to inspire.
Sage Cohen’s Writing the Life Poetic: an Invitation to Read & Write Poetry (Cincinnati : Writers’ Digest Books, 2009) ISBN:978-1-58297-557-3 US$18.99. Available from the usual places including Amazon.co.uk.
That was really interesting, thank you, Phillip.
Phillip A. Ellis is a freelance critic, poet and scholar, and his poetry collection, The Flayed Man, has been published by Gothic Press. Gothic Press will also edit a collection of essays on Ramsey Campbell, that he is editing with Gary William Crawford.
Phillip is working on a collection to appear through Diminuendo Press and another collection has been accepted by Hippocampus Press, which has also published his concordance to the poetry of Donald Wandrei.
Phillip is the editor of Melaleuca and furthermore has recently had Symptoms Positive and Negative, a chapbook of poetry about his experiences with schizophrenia, published by Picaro Press.
If you’d like to submit your poem (40 lines max) for consideration for Post-weekend Poetry take a look here.
The blog interviews will return as normal tomorrow with science-fiction / fantasy author Paul Fox – the three hundred and eighty-fourth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, biographers, agents, publishers and more. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further. And I enjoy hearing from readers of my blog; do either leave a comment on the relevant interview (the interviewees love to hear from you too!) and / or email me.
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Unfortunately, as I post an interview a day (amongst other things) I can’t review books but I have a feature called ‘Short Story Saturdays’ where I review stories of up to 2,500 words. Alternatively if you have a short story or self-contained novel extract / short chapter (ideally up to 1000 words) that you’d like critiqued and don’t mind me reading it / talking about and critiquing it (I send you the transcription afterwards so you can use the comments or ignore them) :) on my ‘Bailey’s Writing Tips’ podcast, then do email me. They are weekly episodes, usually released Monday mornings UK time, interweaving the recordings between the red pen sessions with the hints & tips episodes. I am now also looking for flash fiction (<1000 words) for Flash Fiction Fridays.