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"On Poetry" by Glyn Maxwell

                In the December 2013 edition of The New York Review of Books, I read a review by Nick Laird of a new book on poetics: “On Poetry” by Glyn Maxwell, an English poet, playwright and novelist. The book, originally published by Oberon Books in 2012, was published in the United States by Harvard University Press in 2013.

                According to the Laird review, the book is a combination of ars poetica, a grab bag of lectures, and a teaching aid. This would be an apt characterization of my own manuscript that I expect to publish later this year, a manuscript that Harvard U. Press could find no place for publishing. Naturally, my curiosity was triggered and not only did I read the book but I read other reviews of the book and also delved somewhat into Maxwell’s poems. I was particularly interested in the latter because José Garcia Villa, the true author of my manuscript, held the view that “The ‘poems’ of prose-writers have a laxness and imprecision of language – they are not language yet for they use the language of prose. That satisfies prose; it does not satisfy poetry. And these prose ‘poems’ have a looseness of technique – prose-writers do not know how to tighten the vise of a poem to that finality of authority that is required.”

                In a review of “On Poetry,” Adam Newey, writing for The Guardian, characterized the book as “the best book about poetry I’ve ever read.” I do not agree (obviously Newey has not read my book so I exclude it), but I do agree with Newey that “On Poetry” is “a tremendously good book, and should be read by anyone who writes poetry and anyone who’s interested in how and why poetry is written.” However, I have a caveat: If you have not yet read my book you will not get a whole lot out of Maxwell’s book because you won’t understand it and because while he gets a lot right he falsely claims in his first sentence that his book is a “book for anyone,” which it clearly is not.

                In a review by William Wootten in The Times Literary Supplement, it is said, correctly in my view, that “Taking little for granted other than the need to explain and make a case, [On Poetry] is a cogent, engaging, elegantly structured, and, at times, inspiring account and defence of the poet’s art and calling.” But don’t skip over that prefatory phrase; the book does take for granted the need to explain and make a case for many of its assertions. For example, Maxwell decries (as do I) free verse, writing: “We will know what ‘free verse’ means when we learn if it can survive. Let’s recite some we know by heart, let’s see how it’s getting on. And by ‘free verse’ what I mean is verse that isn’t formal at all, that neither shadows nor echoes it, has no interest in what it has foregone. Verse that on theoretical ground has refused to engage with any traditional form at all. Which, in case you ask, means I don’t mean Stein or Eliot or Pound or Jones or HD or Rosenberg or Williams or Bunting or Lowell or Plath or Morgan or Hughes. What I do mean is an awful lot of what we’ve got.” However, Maxwell makes no effort to elucidate what constitutes poetic form other than traditional formalism, being satisfied to use excerpts from poems of Hopkins, Matthew Arnold and Thomas Hardy as “canonical examples because they have shown the strength to outlast time.” “On Poetry” is far from the best book on poetry because if one wants to emphasize form rather than substance (meaning) as the hallmark of what makes for poetry as an art, one must define what one means by form and instruct the poetry student how it can be achieved, and this Maxwell does not do or even try to do.

                My manuscript, in contrast, states in the Introduction that: “The novice writer and/or reader of poetry needn’t have a college degree, be a literature major, pursue a Master of Fine Arts, or even attend a poetry workshop to grasp the nature of the poetic process and use the workable tools found therein in crafting and appreciating poetry as a fine art. Villa was a poetic visionary who set forth his theory in easily-understood terms, making what first seems inaccessible approachable even to the common reader.” I maintain that this is the principal difference between Maxwell’s book and my own, because Villa did not take for granted “the need to explain and make a case.”  My book truly is a book for anyone.

                Turning to my reading of Maxwell’s poems, admittedly limited to a sampling of about a dozen or so, I reaffirm Villa’s guidance that “prose-writers do not know how to tighten the vise of a poem to that finality of authority that is required.” Maxwell is not only hampered in his poetry writing by a prose orientation, but he is additionally handicapped by being a playwright whose affinity for narration creeps into his poems to their detriment.  Adam Newey may have been referring to these tendencies in stating in his review that "I've struggled, on occasions, to feel at home with some of Maxwell's own verse." 

Vocation: Wall Street Trial Lawyer (Retired)
Avocation: Poetry and Poetics
Studied poetry with Jose Garcia Villa 1970-1997
Writer and Publisher of Poetry


  • Guest
    Moonfly Tuesday, 04 February 2014

    After reading this, I really can't wait to read "Poetry Is" when it comes out so as to satisfy my long thirst for a book of this kind. The boundary between poetry and prose exists, no matter how close they appear to be.. And I don't think distinctions between the two are of little importance. The problem is many so-called weighty poets have no sense of these distinctions. We cannot blur the differences that define these two distinct arts. In a word, we are in in urgent need of a book that will provide this essential guidance.

  • Bob King
    Bob King Wednesday, 12 April 2017

    Now that "Poetry is" I would like to hear from "Moonfly" to learn whether the book met his/her expectations.

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Guest Tuesday, 23 January 2018