This is the prequel, or preceding companion to Maxwell’s fantasy creative writing course Drinks With Dead Poets, in which Maxwell writes urgent, obstreperous essays about how to read, write and think about poetry. On Poetry feels like a book written for practitioners at all levels. It’s certainly a hugely useful teaching book, full of admonitions and exasperated noises, as well as passionate explanations of the how and the why of meter and rhyme. I was reading it while teaching poetry boot-camp to my first-year students and came across a passage vehemently refuting the things I’d been teaching the day before. It’s from the chapter called ‘Chime’.
As we saw – or heard – with meter, it’s clear that the shorter the meter the more evident or present is the form. With rhyme what matters is the distance between rhymes, so that couplets – two lines together that rhyme – have no interest in concealing their effect, whereas a more complex stanza might separate rhyming words by six, seven, eight lines, in which case the impact of the rhyme is subconscious, kin to musical motif. As Joseph Brodsky writes: ‘In poetic thought, the role of the subconscious is played by euphony.’
Some poets say about their work or someone else’s that they use a lot of ‘internal rhymes’ – rhymes that are not at the ends of their lines – when what they mean is that some of the words sound quite like each other. I don’t think, by the way, one can ‘use enjambment’ either – that is, a line flowing without punctuation to the next line. For one thing, as I said before, the line-break is punctuation, it’s just white instead of black, and for the other, some effects ought to be subconscious in a poet, and I think enjambment and internal rhymes are things you say you’re doing but can’t help doing. The same goes for anything you call ‘assonance’. I imagine I get through a shed-load of assonance.
I gave that to my students to read in their next class. I have no idea if they liked it or not, but a bit of contradiction will be good to stimulate their minds for the exam.
On Poetry is not an instruction manual. It’s a set of opinions and heartfelt beliefs about how poetry works and why. It’s also a loosely-formed story about four creative writing students of whom I would be terrified in my own class, so attitudinal and know-it-all are they. There isn’t much theory, and hardly any of the scary big words that give prosody a bad name. (Stephen Fry and The Ode Less Travelled, I’m looking at you, you great lunk of show-off wordery.) Maxwell is not prescriptive. He blunders about in an expert’s scruffy working clothes and shows us that he knows his stuff. Good for enough for anyone.
Glyn Maxwell, On Poetry (Oberon Books, 2012)