Book Review: On Poetry by Glyn Maxwell

On Poetry - a book by Glyn MaxwellOn Poetry is not just another book about poetry, it’s in a whole category of its own. It’s short, and concise, but also full of irony, subtlety and humour. It has a simple structure and purpose, to break poetry down to its basic elements and encourage you to pick them up for yourself, beginning with ‘white’ – a chapter which considers the essential element of white space on the page – the one thing that, Maxwell argues, divides poetry from prose. After reading this chapter, I had to put the book down to process it for a while, and then I read the whole chapter again. It’s that kind of book.  

Here’s an extract, to give you an idea:

“Regard the space, that ice plain, that dizzying light. That past, that future. Already it isn’t nothing. At the very least it’s your enemy… Poets work with two materials, one’s black and one’s white. Call them sound and silence, life and death, hot and cold, love and loss: any can be the case… Call it this and that, whatever it is this time, just don’t make the mistake of thinking the white sheet is nothing. It’s nothing for your novelist, your journalist, your blogger… For a poet it’s half of everything. If you don’t know how to use it you are writing prose.”

Maxwell goes on, establishing the controversial difference between poetry and song lyrics. He encourages his readers to imagine they are about to write an incredible line of poetry, and to consider what happens in that pause, that space before the line appears on the page.

In the second chapter, ‘Black’, we delve more deeply into what makes poems work – the surface narrative, the ambiguity, the sound, and this is followed by ‘Form’, ‘Pulse’ and ‘Chime’ which focus in on other elements of the poetic craft. The penultimate chapter, ‘Space’, moves away from poetry to examine the poetic aspects of writing plays.

One aspect of the book which I really enjoyed was the use of fictional scenarios, in which the reader is invited into the book, and encouraged to imagine being present in a creative writing workshop, learning alongside four other students. This reminded me somewhat of Virginia Woolf, who used the same scenario technique in some of her essays.

The final chapter, ‘Time’, is written in the form of a long poem, without any explanation. The poem takes its starting point with the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, describing the wedding itself as it goes on, whilst the one wedding guest is still being accosted by the mariner outside, listening to his story. It makes use of all the techniques previously mentioned, with reference to the four students and other characters. There is probably a lot more going on here than I have yet fathomed, but I think the general gist of it is to make a point about how poetry can do what it likes with time – while all this is going on, the mariner is still reciting his tale.

Most of what Maxwell says in this book has been said before, but he has a way of making it matter, coming at the truth of poetry in such a tangible way that it feels different, somehow. His writing style is full of hyperbole, and half of the time I wasn’t quite sure whether he was laughing along with me or laughing at me, or even laughing at himself… but nevertheless, I’m glad I read it, and it’s given me some ideas.

I do disagree with one thing – he dismisses internal rhyme and enjambment as entirely ‘subconscious’ acts, which seems to contradict everything else he is saying. Perhaps these things are initially subconscious, yes, but there’s no reason why we can’t go back to them later, and consciously consider them, and make conscious changes to them, in order to construct a better poem.

To be honest, although the quotes on the back suggest that this is a book for everyone, there are plenty of references which only poetry enthusiasts will get, but perhaps only poetry enthusiasts will want to read this book, so maybe that doesn’t matter. In essence, this book is aimed at those who don’t just write poetry, but want to make sure that their poetry ‘means right… sounds right, looks right’ and ‘fits right’, whilst acknowledging that all of this is entirely subjective anyway.

Buy On Poetry by Glyn Maxwell here…

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