Review of a Field Guide to Poetics

A Field Guide to Contemporary Poetry and Poetics
Edited by David Young, David Walker, and Stuart Friebert
Paperback, 342 pages
Published by Oberlin College Press
Publication date: June 1997
ISBN: 0932440770
Reviewed by Scott Rettberg in Authors Review of Books, 4/28/1998

The first time I took an undergraduate poetry workshop, one of the required texts was the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. A mammoth green paperback, the book is exactly what it promises to be — an encyclopedia of terms, genres, histories and formal definitions, arranged with Aristotelean exactitude. It is a useful volume, containing all the “codes,” as I thought of them, all of the rules of the genre. An impressive reference book, but something about it scared me. As if poetry were something to be ruthlessly indexed, reformatted and empiricized, a kind of carefully arranged math with words. Though I learned the difference between a sestina and a villanelle, The Princeton Encyclopedia didn’t really make me want to write poetry, or help me to think about the way that I was trying to write it.

The newly revised and expanded A Field Guide to Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, on the other hand, is exactly the kind of book that should be thrust into the hands of novice poets and poetry readers on the first day of their first class. This collection of essays by 29 contemporary poets is an illuminating and inspiring guide to poetry, not simply an art form, but also as a way of life. Loosely divided into 5 sections: The Process of Writing, The Poetic Line, The Image, Poetry and Values, and Portraits and Self Portraits, the Field Guide presents a wild melange of subjective reflections by practicing poets, all writing in their own intimate terms about what they know best.

The essays collected in this volume treat poetry not only as a product but as a process. The tone of most of these reflections is refreshingly un-academic — these are poets treating poetry as act, as something that they do, rather than as something done and solidified, ready for a scholarly post-mortem. Poets as varied as Larry Levis and Laura Jensen, Galway Kinnell and Adrienne Rich, represent perspectives and aesthetics from across the spectrum of contemporary poetry.

Rarely will one find a collection of essays on any topic as consistently passionate, inventive, and playful as are the essays collected here. Many of the poets acknowledge that what they do is not easily definable or necessarily “teachable,” as Margaret Atwood states in “Poetic Process?”:

I don’t want to know how I write poetry. Poetry is dangerous: talking too much about it, like naming your gods, brings bad luck. I believe that most poets will go to almost any lengths to conceal their own reluctant, scanty insights both from each and from themselves.

Some of the essayists incorporate the techniques they discuss into the construction of the essay itself, as does Russel Edson, in “Portrait of the Writer as a Fat Man: Some Subjective Ideas or Notions on the Care & Feeding of Prose Poems,” which is an essay about prose poetry in the form of a series of prose poems about a fat man as he writes prose poetry.

Though the essays in the Field Guide are subjective in nature, the editors have arranged the book in such a way as to bring into focus the basic building blocks of the form, including meditations on line breaks and imagery, the poem as confession, as lament, as politics. The poem is as many things as there are poets. This collection offers up a parade of poets, a chorus of distinctive voices.

Some of my favorite essays in the Field Guide are also the shortest — perhaps because poets are usually at their best when they shoot for compaction, such as Charles Simic’s gem “Images and ‘Images'” which makes an argument in the form of aphorisms:

Poets can be classified by how much faith they have in truth via “images.” It’s for the sake of truth that one makes one’s grandmother ride a giraffe–or one does not.

Besides, any day now, “images” will attack poets and demand that they fulfill their promises.

Overall, the most resonant lesson of the essays in the Field Guide is that poetry isn’t necessarily done according to specific rules and codes, but that, for poets, poetry is a way of life, as C.D. Wright puts it, “a necessity of life, what they used to call a taxable matter.” I could go on for hours about the joys and revelations contained within the Field Guide, but this is a book review, not a lecture, so I’ll stop here. If you are a poet, or if you enjoy reading poetry, or if you’ve had a hard time thinking of what gift would be right for the would-be poet in your family, buy a copy of this book. First complied back in the 70s, it has recently been revised and expanded to cover even more of the ideas at play in the field of contemporary poetry. It is a great show, well worth the price of admission.

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