Friday, June 02, 2006

poetry friday: two books about poetic forms




In The Long Secret by Louise Fitzhugh, Harriet (the spy) has discovered she likes poetry: "something about the economy of it appealed to her." Today's books brought that quote to mind, because what could be more economical than using poetry to explain poetry?

R is for Rhyme by Judy Young finds a poetic form for every letter of the alphabet--with only a little cheating--from Acrostic to "Zany Words," such as those used by Lewis Carroll and Dr. Seuss. Along with an original poem illustrating each concept, additional text describes the form, its history, and poets who have used it. There's some interesting information here, such as the history of the Tanka, an extended version of the more familiar haiku: "Poets would write a hokku (haiku) on the way to the party and then trade them with another poet, who would write the two renga lines." And I never knew that Pete Seeger's "Where Have all the Flowers Gone" is in a style called Ubi Sunt, a poem based on a custom of calling out names of the dead after battle.

But you know a book of poetry hasn't succeeded when the plain text is more memorable than the poems. "Competent" is the most complimentary thing I can say about most of the poems here, though "Hanging On," in the form "You Voice," has some power:

"Because you want to hang on the longest,
you want to be the very last,
the last to release your grip,
the last to drop.

...

So you say to yourself,
you are a leaf,
hang on,
hang on."

The poems might be more successful if they weren't coupled with large, exaggerated drawings that are sometimes grotesque and sometimes grotesquely inappropriate. For example, the poem for "Metaphor" describes a bluebird as "A piece of summer sky/With a bit of sunrise on his breast," an ethereal image that is shot to pieces by the flouncy, bug-eyed bluebird shown. The pictures frequently include caricatures of poets famous for a particular form, which seems in keeping with the sometimes desperately educational tone of the additional text. Overall, R is for Rhyme is good for a browse, but not for much more.




After a book which got so many things wrong, what a relief it is to look at one that got so many right. A Kick in the Head selected by Paul Janeczko and illustrated by Chris Raschka, is subtitled "an everyday guide to poetic forms" and it is blessedly free from self-importance. Janeczko keeps his editorial voice out of the way here, aside from an introduction, a brief description accompanying each form (in teeny-tiny-eyestraino-vision) and a more thorough description in the back. What's important here are the poems, which are all chosen to be both descriptive of a form and enjoyable in their own right; for extra "economy," a number of them, such as "Haunted Poem Pantoum" by Liz Rosenberg, "There Once Was a Limerick called Steven" by Steven Herrick and "Is There a Villian in Your Villanelle?" by Joan Bransfield Graham, are even self-referential.

The illustrations, splotchy blobs of color and textures, are more variable here than the verse: some are vibrantly lighthearted, some are witty (check out the grave under "Epitaph for Pinocchio") but others, particularly the depictions of people, feel inaccessibly strange. For me, that keeps A Kick in the Head from being a perfect book... which just makes it a very, very good one.

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