Defiant, Exhilarating, and Poetic

On Poetry

by Glyn Maxwell
Harvard University Press, 170 pp., $19.95
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Nigel Norrington/Camera Press/Redux
Glyn Maxwell at the Globe Theatre, London, 2008

When poets write prose about their art the result tends to be either a manifesto or ars poetica; a grab bag of lectures, expanded reviews, and commencement addresses; or a manual, a teaching aid. The English poet Glyn Maxwell’s new book On Poetry is a curious alloy of all three, comprising soapbox declarations of what makes poetry endure, close readings of various canonical pieces, and a fictionalized account of a poetry workshop run by Maxwell for four apprentice writers. Books by poets about poetry tend to argue for the primacy of their own kind of writing, and Maxwell’s is no different.

He favors well-tended poetry that is not obscure and that bears some relation to rhyme or meter or stanzas, and preferably all three. Certain about what does and doesn’t work, he is fast to set out his argument. (The third page: “If you write poems that you might call free and I might call unpatterned….”) His approach is both thrilling and frustrating: it is heartening to read his assurance and enthusiasm, but his dictums shut down interesting questions and his certainty occasionally feels like camouflage for its opposite.

On Poetry is divided into seven parts—White, Black, Form, Pulse, Chime, Space, Time—though these distinctions are pretty arbitrary, and the book feels like one long engaging barroom lecture. It is against “free” verse, by which he means

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 grounds 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.

The book is defiantly and exhilaratingly poetic, employing metaphor relentlessly. Try this for a new perception:

There are poems of mist and poems of smoke.
By mist I mean something natural that thins or parts or deepens further, something through which a shifting truth is glimpsed with joy, understanding—or spotted with fear. Mist: breathable, water going by in a cloak.
By smoke I mean man-made smoke, complex molecules conjured for reasons obscure, yet emanating from a single, explicable source. Clever to make, not clever to breathe. When you’ve blown it all away you’re looking at a shell. By the time you get what it was you can’t use it any more.

Maxwell deals with the metaphysics of writing poetry in a zesty tone but with serious intent. For him silence, the whiteness of the page, “does the work of time” (his italics, here and throughout). The silence is the time passing, which the poems must work through, and attempt to hold off. Time is the one deity, and a poem …

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