Below are some poetry book reviews I've written in the last several months. Some are bigger than others, but I kept each one to a paragraph. Maybe one of the books will resonate with you. Enjoy!
Larry Levis’ ingenious 1985 poetry book Winter Stars dazzles with strong images, compelling music, and developed motifs such as pastoral settings, familial woe, and existential dread. Levis develops his ideas in long sentences, using enjambment and appositives to add nuance and pathos to his dark meditative and narrative themes—most interestingly, Levis’ conflicted relationship with his deceased father and his melancholic reflections of past sexual relationships. Each poem in Winter Stars showcases tension at its finest, proving that trauma, no matter how toxic, can be conveyed brilliantly in accessible verse. Poems in the book I especially admire are “Winter Stars,” “South,” “Family Romance,” “Childhood Ideogram,” and “A Letter.” I strongly recommend Winter Stars.
(Note: this review is about a poem, not a book.)
T.S. Eliot’s beloved poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” has inspired generations of writers with its sonorous rhythms, dramatic refrains, colorful images, and shocking enjambments. The first three lines encapsulates irony and nihilistic tension, two key motifs in Eliot’s poem: “Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table.” Eliot uses music and imagination to extend his acerbic feelings of modern life past the domineering images of civilization’s “yellow fog” and “narrow streets” to disquieting seas: “I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of the silent seas.” The alliteration here and elsewhere intensifies the tension, showcasing an adroit unity of sound and sense. One of the best poems I have ever read, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” impresses me beyond words. I strongly recommend this poem.
Larry Levis’ 1991 book The Widening Spell of the Leaves engrosses me with its complicated imagistic and thematic associations and surprising uses of enjambment. Unlike his brilliant 1985 book Winter Stars—which I still highly recommend--The Widening Spell can be hard to read since Levis occasionally withholds or slowly develops key plot points or character depth in sprawling, chaotic sentences. The book’s style, therefore, is reminiscent of other poets such as Walt Whitman and Charles Wright, the latter whose work I will explore deeper this semester. To get the most out of The Widening Spell, I may reread it later this semester. In addition, even though I had a stronger personal connection with Winter Stars, The Widening Spell still exemplifies magnificent craft. Poems in the book I love include “Nature,” “Slow Child with a Book of Birds,” and “Oaxaca, 1983.” I recommend The Widening Spell of the Leaves.
Larry Levis’ enchanting 1981 book The Dollmaker’s Ghost haunts me with its brilliant images, themes of death, and reoccurring images, especially wasps, ice, and ghosts (or the presumption of ghosts). Unlike The Dollmaker’s Ghost, Levis’ later work explores the interiority of the poet’s psyche in greater depth—namely, his wonder with the world and his reoccurring nihilism. Still, The Dollmaker’s Ghost demonstrates vibrant craft choices to further enrich his fun, accessible verse. For example, Levis writes, “A sound inside her throat like cranes in a wet, / Black field!” This simile adds more mystery and tension to a description that could’ve turned out underwhelming or easily expected. Poems I love in the book include the following: “To a Wall of Flame in a Steel Mill, Syracuse, New York, 1969,” “Ice,” “A Pool of Light,” “The Wish to Be Picked Clean,” “Magnolia,” and “Overhearing the Dollmaker’s Ghost on the Riverbank.” I recommend The Dollmaker’s Ghost.
Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s award-winning poetry book Song mesmerizes me with its dramatic images and themes of existential dread. Such images and themes seem to be at their strongest in Kelly’s more reality-bending nature poems, mostly notably the book’s titular poem. One of my favorite aspects of Kelly’s work is her mastery of rhetorical and auditory repetition. For example, Kelly uses diacope and alliteration with expert grace when writes this in her poem “Of Royal Issue”: “Days and days from now, each web / of small branches, in the weeks of high wet / winds.” The repetition of “days” and the repeated W-sounds (“web,” “weeks,” “wet,” “winds”) reinforce the lyricism of the poem, holding my attention longer. The repetition, therefore, becomes a mnemonic device: most impressively, when Kelly’s music is reinforced with meaning (which in turn is reinforced by narrative clarity), the eye and ear are not only “pleased,” but the mind is also stimulated by the poems’ “catchy” images and connotations when the music ends (that is, when the poems themselves end). The following are a few poems I especially love in the book: “Song,” “Garden of Flesh, Garden of Stone,” and “Dead Doe.” I strongly recommend Song.
Lee Ann Roripaugh’s award-winning poetry book On the Cusp of a Dangerous Year comprises dramatic lyric and narrative poems about the poet’s oft-humorous fascination with salty food and colorful insects. I wanted to read On the Cusp of a Dangerous Year after I explored Roripaugh’s Year of the Snake last year. I enjoyed perusing Year of the Snake, and I can say I enjoyed exploring On the Cusp of a Dangerous Year, which exemplifies Roripaugh’s masterful ability to develop vivid images in right-branching, journey sentences (that is, long sentences conveying lots of information or imagery, especially via appositives). For example, in “The Desire for Space Travel Is a Metaphor for Escape,” Roripaugh writes, “New Year’s Eve is slipped into New Year’s day, the fortune / cookie stale but I ate it anyway, and the plane began / its descent—guided down by flashing tower lights, blinking / semaphore of flares, glow-in-the-dark strips illuminating / the runway.” In this case, the sentence starts with a basic clause, then continues without stopping, revealing more about the plane and the surrounding area, including the lights, which Roripaugh brings to life with extended descriptions, mostly notably, the lights resembling “semaphore of flares.” Some poems in the book I love are as follows: “Squalid Things,” “Objects in the Mirror,” “Luscious Things,” “Insect Postures,” and “The Desire for Space Travel Is a Metaphor for Escape.” I strongly recommend On the Cusp of a Dangerous Year.
Charif Shanahan’s emotionally vibrant book Into Each Room We Enter Without Knowing captivates me with its motifs regarding race (what it means to be mixed), sexual orientation (what it means to be gay), and family (what it means to be the son of an intolerant white father). Even though many poems in the book do not resonate with me, I recommend Into Each Room to every poet. I especially admire the following poems in the book: “Plantation,” “Briefs,” “Soho (London),” “Wanting to Be White,” “Persona Non Grata,” “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,” and “Where If Not Here (II).”
Last night, I left my Tuesday night class early to address a problem with my car: the Check Oil light had just flashed on. Since then, I scheduled an appointment at Midas to have an oil change and I completed a homework assignment an entire week in advance. I am proud that I am making progress in my life--even just addressing a car issue and working on homework can be a small cause for joy: that is, I'm getting things that require my attention done.
Last night as well, however, an hour or so before I went to bed, I said to myself, "I am often riddled with anxiety and lonliness. But what feeling or conept is holding these negative feelings together? In other words, what is at the heart of my trepidation, sorrow, and feelings of inadequacy?" Then my mind, almost on cue, gave me the answer: Terror. I am terrified almost all the time, but my coping mechanisms have made me blind to these darker feelings of terror.
I am terrified of living away from home, terrified of my own toxic masculinity, terrified of my own perfectionism, terrified of my overwhelming empathic abilities, terrified of moments when I don't have a lot of control over my life. I can offer so many examples of these manifestations of terror. But I would prefer to write about my feelings and thoughts as they come (i.e., in a freewrite), ultimately reassuring myself that the terror can be managed and that I--to flourish even more in life, not just in grad school--must learn from my terror so that I can use my stress and anixiety in less maladaptive ways.
Perfectionism is often just an embodiment of anxiety. For most of my life, I have tried to be a perfect student, but such a student doesn't exist. When I asked my teacher last night, "May I leave early to address my car issue?" I felt anxious/insecure, as if I were jeapordizing my ego as a man, as a "perfect" male student, someone who practices rugged individualism and no-nonsense responsibility, someone who simply "toughens it out" and is "always prepared to make a laudable impression."
When I was crying last night, thinking about the terror, I realized that my perfectionism, along with my toxic masculinity, was holding me back emotionally, intellectually, and psychologically. I came into my grad school program as an openly gay, progressive athiest with socialist leanings. Now I need to lean into my identity even more by asking myself, in part, "What is the point of the terror? What do I need to do to cope with the negativity better? That is, how can I begin to live my life so as NOT to 'defeat' fear, stress, or trepidation; instead, how can I cultivate greater meaning, gratitude, charisma, patience, and hope?"
I am terrifed to flourish. I never though I would be terrified to create and embrace a life built on progress, especially since, once more, I identify as a progressive. But the terror of change haunts me--that I may lose control of my life, that I must, in response, learn to accept wholeheartedly this: even though I have little control over so many external factors life throws at people, how I cope and perceive such factors (e.g., hardships) matter more than being "perfect."
I don't want to let others down. I want others to see me as relevant, kind, intelligent, and composed. All of this is understandable, but I can't control how people see me or treat me. I must, more to the point, change the paradim of my thinking and behavior while inviting vulnerability. Without vulnerability, I may become a complacent, nervous wreck.
So, here are a few things I can do to flourish knowing I have the terror:
I hope to come up with more things to do to better myself. I am grateful to have a platform like Weebly to share my ideas and feelings. And I am grateful that I have the time to honor my soul and learn from my terror, which may not want to better my life, but I must stay open-minded and remain wholehearted to my potential. As I wrote in previous blog post: "We all need to embrace positivity. Each day is a new life. My life and yours matter because you and I say so. We must continue to review the facts, analyze them, and make the best choices we can to flourish, knowing the people who care about us the most—not just friendly acquaintances or allies—want us to succeed more and cherish ourselves better. Each day is a new life."
Lately, I’ve been overwrought with stress, doubt, and anxiety—all of which has exacerbated my imposter syndrome and endangered my self-concept.
After my first year in grad school—one of the most toxic times in my life—I’ve attempted to honor boundaries I created to protect my sense of self-worth from outside negativity. And despite the progress I’ve made to better myself emotionally, I still feel inadequate and shameful every week.
Recently, I came across a fascinating YouTube video about a word that encapsulates my feelings: for a long time, I’ve been *languishing*. Psychologist Adam Grant explains: “Two decades of research show that languishing can disrupt your focus and dampen your motivation. It's also a risk factor for depression because languishing often lurks below the surface. You might not notice when your drive is dwindling, or your delight is dulling. You’re indifferent to your own indifference, which means you don't seek help and you might not even do anything to help yourself."
In several instances in grad school, I’ve been told in some form or another that life is not meant to be happy, that languishing, however toxic it can be, is “normal” and expected, especially for creatives such as myself. Although life itself can be toxic, I refuse to normalize languishing as “just” a given in a creative’s life and dismiss happiness as something that “must” be seen as something trivial or transitory.
I see happiness in a different way, in a way that will help me overcome my languishing and maximize my capacity to be even more enlightened, beneficent, and peaceful. My view of happiness derives from the philosopher Aristotle, who defined happiness not as “pleasure,” though it can be seen as that; instead, he equated happiness to human flourishing. Hence, sustainable happiness—the most important kind of joy—is not a moment of pleasure, but a process of continual human growth.
To flourish even more, I must focus my energy in the present moment while neither ignoring the bad around me nor letting the bad convince me I’m unteachable, unlovable, or unremarkable. Psychologist Nancy Etcoff asserts: "When you think about it, people are happiest when in Flow, when they're absorbed in something out in the world, when they're with other people, when they're active, engaged in sports, focusing on a loved one, learning, having sex, whatever. They're not sitting in front of the mirror trying to figure themselves out, or thinking about themselves. These are not the periods when you feel happiest."
More than ever before, we all need to embrace positivity. Each day is a new life. My life and yours matter because you and I say so. We must continue to review the facts, analyze them, and make the best choices we can to flourish, knowing the people who care about us the most—not just friendly acquaintances or allies—want us to succeed more and cherish ourselves better. Each day is a new life.
"On the whole, I have found editors friendly and pleasant, but unpredictable and occasionally embarrassing in their desperation. So seldom do they get what they think they want that they tend to become incoherent in their insistent repetition of their needs. A writer does well to listen to them, but not too often, and not for too long." --Jerome Weidman
"The best advice on writing I've ever received was, 'Rewrite it!' A lot of editors said that. They were all right. Writing is really rewriting--making the story better, clearer, truer." --Robert Lipsyte
"If you want to write, you can. Fear stops most people from writing not lack of talent, whatever that is. Who am I? What right have I to speak? Who will listen to me if I do? You're a human being, with a unique story to tell, and you have every right. If you speak with passion, many of us will listen. We need stories to live, all of us. We live by story. Yours enlarges the circle." --Richard Rhodes
"Believe in your own identity and your own opinions. Proceed with confidence, generating it, if necessary, by pure willpower. Writing is an act of ego and you might as well admit it. Use its energy to keep yourself going." --William Zinsser
"The 'best advice' I think is in reading good writers, not seeking advice from them, for we learn best by emulating the best." --Gay Talese
In his book Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process, Peter Elbow reserves a chapter called "Writing for Teachers" to discuss "the problematic relationship that exists between the student writer and the teacher reader--even when the teacher is a decent person doing a conscientious job" (217-18). Here are some quotes from the chapter:
I am reading Frances Mayes' delightful text The Discovery of Poetry: A Field Guide to Reading and Writing Poems. In it, Mayes explains the difference between a literal image and a figurative image: "A literal image remakes something in words in order to describe a reality as vividly as possible. A figurative image establishes connections between things we normally would not associate."
The phrase "between things we normally would not associate" stands out to me because I still need to learn how to make my figurative language great--that is, fresh and interesting.
Mayes, in fact, lists the reasons why a poet would use a figurative image: (1) Expand sensory perception beyond the literal meaning. (2) Give pleasure or surprise to the imagination. (3) Impart vigor by the inclusion of another active sensory detail. (4) Intensify the deeper intention in the poem by adding the new dimension of the figurative image.
There is a problem that impacts so many of us in school, and even though some are aware of the problem, it continues to mislead students for the worse.
When I was an undergrad, I was taught many "rules" on writing, such as: every paragraph should be 5-7 sentences long and every thesis statements I write must be short and clear and appear at the end of my introduction. These "rules" are better expressed as guidelines; however, the problem arises when these guidelines, when enforced as rules, cause students to think that writing professionally is mostly about self-expression.
All writing is an expression of humanity in some form or other: a scientific report may reflect the writer's human desire to learn more about the outside world, whereas a poem may reflect the poet's desire to explore personal trauma. Consequently, the personal, or "human," element of writing must not be ignored.
That being said, students need to see writing as something other than just personal but something rhetorical. Specifically, students must see their writings as tools worthy of their target audiences' attention, especially OUTSIDE THE CLASSROOM. Many students may understand this notion well, but ALL students should internalize this notion because readers outside school will NOT care about students' writings--or anyone's writings--unless the readers consider the writings valuable. Hence, students in writing classes are often taught how to become better students who have to write about their thoughts for teachers who are paid to care about their students. The students, however, must be taught differently: they need to become thinkers prepared to write inside and, more importantly, outside school. Granted, this may already be happening all across the country to some extent, but I doubt this rhetorical imperative to write for readers other than teachers is being emphasized enough.
Recently, I watched a lecture on YouTube that explores the conclusions in bold above. The video's presenter, Professor Larry McEnerney, deconstructs the traditional model on how to teach students how to write, ultimately arguing for a better model, one, in fact, based on world-world practicality rather than the helpful, though wildly arbitrary "rules" of writing. Lei Xun, a person on YouTube, posted a list summarizing the professor's points in detail. Here's the list:
1. This course is not about writing rules 3:04 2. Stop thinking about rules and start thinking about readers 3:55 3. The problems that domain experts have in their writing 4:00 4. Domain experts use writing to help themselves with thinking 4:51, if they don't do it this way, they can't think to the level they need 5. The challenge: the way that experts do their writing (to help with their thinking) is different to the way that readers can understand 6:53 6. The consequences 8:10 - 1. readers need to slow down and re-read many times 2. readers can't understand or misunderstand 3. readers give up 7. Readers read things that are valuable to them 11:52 8. Writings need to be clear, organized, persuasive and VALUABLE 13:45 9. Valuable to the readers of a research area (not everybody in the world) 15:20 10. An example of comparing two writings 17:16 11. Writing is not about communicating your ideas, it is about changing readers' ideas 21:24 12. Nothing will be accepted as knowledge or understanding until it has been challenged by people who have the competence to challenge 23:24, this determines the readers of our writing 13. A piece of writing is important, not because it is new and original; It is because it has value to some readers 25:16 14. What does the world of knowledge look like 28:00 15. Every research communities have their own code to communicate VALUE 31:30 16. Why does it take 5-6 years to get a PhD? 34:30 50% of the time is used to know the readers in the field 17. Using these words to show that you are aware of the research communities: widely, accepted, and reported 35:24 18. Flow/transition words can help to make writing preservative and organized: and, but, because, unless, nonetheless, however, although, etc. 36:00 19. Do things under the code of the communities 42:00 20. Another example 44:25 21. The function of a piece of writing is to move a research area forward, not to be preserved for 500 years 46:54 22. Writing is not about to express what is in our head, it is about changing other people's thoughts 48:50 23. The instability words that create tension/challenge: anomaly, inconsistent, but, however, although 54:00 24. Bad writing style: backgroud+thesis 55:07 and a better style: problem+solution 56:18 25. Learn the language code from the target publications 1:01:30 26. Literature review is used to enrich the problem 1:02:50 27. Problem vs background 1:06:47 28. Gap in the knowledge is dangerous 1:08:45 29. Identify the right readers (research communities) is important, but it could be difficult for interdisciplinary research 1:11:57
In isolation, many of the points above may not mean that much; therefore, I encourage every writer to watch the professor's video and judge whether the video holds merit. I suspect many who study this video will see writing inside and outside school differently.*
Writing rules in the strictest sense do not exist and should matter less than the relationship between one's writings and one's target audience. When students, or any other writers, write, they should say, "What is the purpose of my writings? Are they clear, organized, and persuasive? Whom are they for? Why? Why would my target audience care about or VALUE my work? What might they learn about the world from reading my work? What will they gain from reading my work?"
*I post the video below for the sake of convenience.