I do tend to read a lot of “how to” books about writing. You never know when you’ll pick up some wonderful new tip. And I’m always curious about how others do and think about what I spend so much of my own life thinking about and doing. Needless to say, not all of these “how to’s” are inspirational. But I am happy to say that Glyn Maxwell‘s small tome, On Poetryreally is.

There is a way that poets write prose — and I am thinking specifically about those poets who, unlike myself, write predominantly poetry and steer clear of novels — that sometimes gets me car sick. There is often a lot of jumping around, lurching from side  to side and stopping short. Yes, there is some of that here. But there is so much of interest being said, so much with humour and eloquence, that I didn’t mind the occasional lurches. Maxwell may not write novels, but he is so interested in and clear on the difference between poetry and prose that you know he has made a choice which not only suits his own writing, but also his view of literature and our language. He is also one of our best practitioners of poetry plays. Poetic plays  are a special interest of mine, as my own Dreams of May will attest, and I was also especially interested to see what he had to say about that undervalued genre. Happily, it is quite a lot, all of which is fascinating.

Maxwell is  a strong supporter of form, of the importance of knowing your poetic forms even if you don’t use them. I strongly agree with this. I’m always troubled by writers who say they don’t read, and poets who say they don’t “like” poetry or pay much attention to what came before their own black splotches on white.
      If I were a violin master at some fine arts academy, what would I think of a student who arrived at my class at 21 having decided there is nothing he or she can learn from long ago? No skills to develop. No moves to learn. No marvels to consider. Nothing to still you with its force…Nothing of lasting value can come from one who thinks so. I don’t think anything has, or will.
I must say, I quite agree. His plea for form is eloquent and convincing, but I think his discussion of black and white, the difference between them and the uses of them, is the most compelling. Those are the chapters where I personally learned the most.
     In  my work, Maxwell writes,  the white is everything but me, and the black is me.
And the white space?
     For the poet, it’s half of everything. If you don’t know how to use it you are writing prose. If you write poems that you might call free and I might call unpatterned then skilful, intelligent use of the whiteness is all you’ve got.
        Put more practically, line break is all you’ve got, and if you don’t master line break — the border  between poetry and prose — then you don’t know there is a border. And there is a border.

This is the first book in a while which I read with a highlighter in my hand.  I don’t mean that I got up and grabbed a highlighter when I needed it. I mean that I didn’t crack open the cover unless the highlighter was by my side. I used it so much I worried about yellow blotches turning up on my black couch. So I urge you, if you read or write poetry, if you wonder about it, if you worry about it, if you dismiss it with the back of your hand and a shake of your head, read this book. It won’t take long. It will make you laugh just as often as it will make you say aha. And you won’t regret it.

PS If you’re wondering why I didn’t put a picture of the cover up here, it’s because it wouldn’t have looked like much. The cover is all white but for a few words printed in black. Very apt, but not great for the blog. I thought his furrowed brows were more interesting to look at, anyway.