Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Maxwell nous

There are certain books which transcend their status as collections of words on paper (or quantum splodges in e-space) and, like kaleidoscopes, benignly shatter and transform their reader's perspectives.  With these books, one is sent on extraordinary journeys of thought, perception and experience, and one's soul is tinged with enduring magic.  This is very much the case for me with one of last year's surprise literary best-sellers, On Poetry, by Glyn Maxwell, which I have almost finished reading (thanks to the estimable Hertfordshire library service).

The book's central theme and plea is that form is the animating essence of poetry, be it in the guise of rhyme, metre or the division of line, and that poetry without any of these elements is a pallid, lifeless imitation of the real thing. Maxwell does not scruple to observe that a great deal of contemporary, alleged poetry falls into this latter category.  The brilliance and passion of the book lies in the way that the author goes about defining and analysing poetry, cleverly using an approach which is at once basically physical and imaginatively sensitive.  On Poetry invites us to view a poem as a method of marking the blank whiteness of the paper with the shapes of black ink (an approach echoed in the strikingly minimalist cover); to examine what shapes the ink makes, how the appearance of the lines varies, and what kinds of new relationships are formed between the two.  From this point, the book goes on to explore how verse structure, rhyme, alliteration, metre and line-endings embody the voice of the poem, and how, at its best, poetry uses these techniques because they not so much clothe, or present, but enact the sentiment, thought or feeling that the poet expresses.  Maxwell's close reading of poems, especially Edward Thomas' Old Man, are both exquisite in their perception and detail and very able demonstrations of his thesis.  Maxwell invites those who proclaim that the formal approach is an outmoded or irrelevant one to consider why it is that poems employing such devices have survived, and makes an audaciously 'unpoetic' comparison to those aspects of human behaviour which have allowed us to survive as a species, yoking together evolutionary theory and poetic quality in a way that not only avoids sounding pretentious but resounds with the ring of surprising credibility.  Another very useful and well-expressed strand in the book is Maxwell's survey of the development of these formal aspects of poetry, whereby he provides an idiosyncratic and engaging potted history of European literature.

The voice of the book is never portentous; a tone of insouciant wit wafts happily alongside the passion and didacticism, and there are good and frequent humorous passages, including a series of brilliant set pieces featuring Maxwell's creative writing class, which (embellished by comic exaggeration) describe some of his ingenious methods of encouraging students to think about and create poetry in fresh and genuine ways, and to wrest said students free of the lazy or cliched response.

I am very conscious that my review - having been constructed using insufficient time and eloquence - has not only failed to do justice to, but practically blasphemed against this book and the pleasure and wonder it has given me.  I can only urge you to acquire a copy and hope that you will be as joyfully educated, enlightened and inspired as I have been to both read and write poetry with a fresh and new appetite.

No comments:

Post a Comment