The Art of Syntax for the Ordinary Genius.

It is as I feared: Ordinary Genius: A Guide for the Poet Within, by Kim Addonizio, while a friendly and frank-talking book, is really a book for beginners.  Addonizio is tremendously likable, and the self-deprecating manner in which she presents her own early drafts is appealing, but if you’ve been a practicing poet for some time, while you may find something useful here — it’s 300 pages after all — I found myself often wishing for something less chatty and more challenging.  From her chapter on memorization, “By Heart: A Shakespeare Sonnet”:

Why start with Shakespeare?  Why a sonnet?  Here are some reasons:

  1. He was really, really good at writing sonnets.
  2. A sonnet is only fourteen lines.  It also has meter and rhyme.  Those things make it a snap to memorize, in comparison with a lot of other poems.
  3. In memorizing, you’ll also get a sense of the sonnet’s structure.  The traditional sonnet develops an argument, and that makes it easier to learn; you can do it in chunks.
  4. You will impress everyone by being able to recite Shakespeare.
  5. I mean, everyone.

Nothing wrong with this; I like Kim Addonizio.  But I would argue, contrary to what the book jacket advertises, this is not “the perfect book for both experienced writers and beginners”.  Not even close.

On the other hand, Ellen Bryant Voigt’s The Art of Syntax: Rhythm of Thought, Rhythm of Song is just the ticket.  The language is a little out of my comfort zone (“fundament” anyone?), forcing me to stretch without alienating me altogether.  And she’s exploring an area I’ve worked through by instinct alone, validating some of the choices I make as I write, while helping me understand why and how different syntactical methods help drive a poem.  If you enjoyed diagramming sentences in sixth grade, you’ll probably enjoy this book, too.

My Current Reading List.

Besides the stack of literary journals that have been arriving in my mailbox demanding to be more than flipped through (The Café Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, Weave Magazine, Bateau, Tar River…off the top of my head), and in addition to the Tupelo Press books I am joyfully immersing in, there are a clutch of other titles I’m looking forward to reading:

  • She Walks Into the Sea, by Patricia Clark (Michigan State University Press, just released.)  Her name rings no bells for me, but her picture looks familiar, so I’m thinking I must have seen her listed in her publisher’s sales catalog.  I was introduced to her through SHE WRITES, and read about her online.  Then she visited this blog and I became a fan for life.  I can’t wait to dig into this new collection.

  • The Art of Syntax: Rhythm of Thought, Rhythm of Song, by Ellen Bryant Voigt (Graywolf Press).  The Art of... is a great series from Graywolf, and I love Ellen Bryant Voigt’s previous works of critical prose.  And this is a subject that I could use exploring right now, the various ways poets structure their poems.
  • Ordinary Genius: A Guide for the Poet Within, by Kim Addonizio (W.W. Norton & Co.).  On the one hand, I’m a sucker for this sort of thing.  The autodidact in me can’t resist.  But I’m afraid it’ll turn out to be a book more suited to the beginner.  It has more than 300 pages, so I’m optimistic.

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And my reading list would not be complete without mentioning my own chapbook.  Again.  Because the pre-sale is still going on for a little bit longer.  If you want to order a copy, just click on the cover at right, or visit my Hunger All Inside page to get a gander at a few blurbs and a sample poem.  The more books that are ordered, the better my print run will be, so thank you!

A Preponderance of Grief.

Not only did I get the two reviews I’d committed to writing written (one on Carol Frost, the other on Ellen Bryant Voigt), but I got them done early, a minor miracle. So they were published early. Reading them in printed form, I discovered something I hadn’t noticed in the absorption of writing — both reviews reference grief an inordinate number of times.

There have been so many losses of late — David Foster Wallace, Reginald Shepherd — great talents, young talents, I can’t get my heart or mind around them. I’ve also learned that a dear customer of mine, not a young man by any stretch of the imagination, but a great-grandfather, a retired professor who continued to teach his fellow residents in a retirement community (his fall class was to be on Milton), is riddled with terminal cancer.

Tragedy leaves me inarticulate, with a mouthful of banalities. As usual, I can only let poetry speak for me.

By Connie Wanek, from her collection, Hartley Field (Holy Cow! Press, 2002):

A Field of Barley

Wind passes over a field of barley.
Nothing could be more lyrical.
Why God favored Abel’s burnt meat
I’ll never understand.

Sometimes I imagine the hills of Nod
covered with barley, and Cain standing alone,
dark with sunburn, wondering
what more he must do to be forgiven.

Years ago I visited a blooming orchard
on the east slope of the mountains
watered by its own spring, and I thought
I’d surely found Eden.

At night we saw city lights glowing
far out in the plain,
but the dark rock rose behind the farm,
eternal and absolute.

Up there one could see tragedy
long before it arrived,
foreshadowed in the first act.
Dust swelled behind its four wheels.

Dread is our inheritance.
But what sprouts out of the earth
is our consolation, the good yellow grain,
heavy in our arms.