Book Review – Talking Back to Poems: A Working Guide for the Aspiring Poet, by Daniel Alderson

Reading poetry is a vital part of writing poetry. Alderson takes it a step further, however, by suggesting that poets not only read poetry, but respond to it, to talk back to poetry with poems of their own. Part I presents four short sections that briefly introduce the aspects of Sound, Image, Form, and Meaning in poetry, while Part II follows with a collection of poems, each followed with instructions to copy the poem by hand, note down what you notice about the poem, and then a prompt for writing your own poem in response to it.

There is a long history of poets writing in response to poets, and I’ve even written a few poetic responses myself. However I was not very impressed with the prompts in this book as Alderson presents them. His idea of talking back to poems is far too much like mimicry to me. In the examples of his students’ writing that he includes in the book, the students (using their own themes and ideas) echo almost exactly the form and flow of the poem being responded to. This is far too restrictive for me, especially when it comes to mimicking strict forms, such as sonnets that have tight rhyme schemes. This restriction of form often has the tendency of causing me to freeze up when I’m writing rather than opening up and becoming loose as one would hope.

My experience with writing in response to poetry involves not mimicry, but a playful dialogue. The few poetic responses I’ve written have little relation to the original poem (one example is here), but is rather reacts to the subject matter of the poem in kind of debate. Of course, this is not the only way to go about this, and Alderman’s way of talking back to poetry is equally valid. Just as there are many poets who comfortably play in rhyme and strict forms, which I do not.

The practice of handwriting out a poets previous work also did not appeal to me. Though I understand his reasoning for having a writer first copy the poem by hand (in order to get a feel for the rhythms and voice of the poem), I did not feel that it helped me gain any greater sense of the poem. Rather, I found that reading the poem out loud was a much better way to get a feel for the rhythm and sound, as well as a sense of the residual meaning.

I’m sure that there are many poets out there who would find this book very valuable and inspiring, however I am not one of them. Of the 20 or 30 poetry prompts in the book, I found myself interested in responding to only a handful of them. And when I did respond, I often found myself jumping outside of the prompts and guidelines, coloring outside the lines as it were, and responding to the poems as I damn well felt like it — which is really how it should be anyway.

[Cross-posted to my livejournal. If you feel inclined, you can comment either here or there.]

Books Read in November

Books Read:
1. The Walking Dead: The Heart’s Desire, by Robert Kirkman
2. The Walking Dead: The Best Defense, by Robert Kirkman
3. The Walking Dead: This Sorrowful Life, by Robert Kirkman
4. The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde
5. Fables: War and Pieces, by Bill Willingham
6. Fables: The Dark Ages, by Bill Willingham
7. Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life, by Brian Lee O’Malley
8. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, by Brian Lee O’Malley
9. Scott Pilgrim and the Infinite Sadness, by Brian Lee O’Malley
10. The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom, by Margarita Engle
11. Girl, Interrupted, by Susanna Kaysen
12. The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende
13. Under the Volcano (audio book), by Malcolm Lowry

Click here to read reviews.

Book Review: The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende

The Neverending Story by Michael EndeBastian is a fat, ordinary boy, who is always picked on by his fellow students and ignored by his father. Escaping a band of bullies, Bastian slams into a books store. Inside is a grumpy old man is reading a strange book with two snakes curling around each other eating each other’s tails — The Neverending Story. Drawn to the book, Bastian steals it when the man’s back is turned. He runs to the attic of his school and begins reading. As he follows a young hunter’s journey to save the Childlike Empress, Bastian is surprised to discover that he is drawn more and more into book itself, into a world that is very much real.

I always loved the movie as a kid and I still love it now. I wanted to hang out with Atreyu, the hunter, and ride Falcor, the Luck Dragon. I wanted to visit this dangerous beautiful world in which a childlike empress was in charge of everything. I even liked the subpar sequel with the super cute Jonathan Brandis as lead.

As is to be expected the book has far more subtlety and depth than the movie. Though I was surprised to find that both movies were adapted from the book with the end of the first movie being the midpoint of the book.

The childlike empress is much so much more in the book, closer to the spiritual soul of Fantastica. She loves everyone and everything equally, including those considered evil by other, because all has a purpose and a place to her. Atreyu is even more steadfast and brave, and Falcor is beautiful and far less creepy.

Bastian’s journey throughout The Neverending Story becomes more of a spiritual quest in the book than the simplified adventure that the movies (especially the sequel) present. He does have many grand adventures, but as he looses his memory, he loses a part of himself. He rises and falls, does grand deeds and fails, and in the end he must find his way back home.

This is really a brilliant story, and I wish I had had the chance to read it before seeing the movies that affected me so much and left such an imprint on my mind. I still the love the movies for what they are and as a part of my childhood nostalgia, but the book is amazing. I almost wish it really was never ending.

[Cross-posted to my livejournal. If you feel inclined, you can comment either here or there.]

Books Read in October

1. Pride and Predjudice, by Jane Austin
2. The Boy with the Cuckoo Clock Heart (audio book), by Mathias Malzieu
3. The Sun Also Rises (audio book), by Ernest Hemingway
4. The Witch of Portobello, by Paulo Coelho
5. After the Dance: A Walk Through Carnival in Jacmel, Haiti, by Edwidge Danticat
7. Chasing the Dragon, by Nicholas Kaufmann
8. Brideshead Revisited (audio book), by Evelyn Waugh
9. Woman on the Edge of Time, by Marge Piercy
10. Fables: The Good Prince, by Bill Willingham

You can my reviews of these here.

Book Review – Breathers: A Zombie's Lament, by S.G. Browne

Browne, S. G. - Breathers (2009 TPB)In this darkly comic take on the zombie story, Browne presents a world in which the dead arise, but instead of being brainless shuffling corpses, they are actually intelligent and only occasionally shuffling corpses. After a car crash in which both he and his wife die, Andy finds himself embalmed and shuffling away from the mortuary on a distortedly broken ankle. His afterlife is immediately beset with problems, as he is now considered a worthless subhuman with out any of the basic rights that the living enjoy.

Andy spends his time watching reruns in his parent’s basement (with the door locked, because they are embarrassed of him), being shouted at and pelted with food when he walks down the street, trying to keep from falling apart by getting his fix of formaldehyde, and once a week going to Undead Anonymous meetings with others who are in his same situation. His daily depression is compounded by the fact that he cannot even speak of his problems to his therapist. Things begin to turn around for him, however, when he falls for another zombie who sucks on lipstick and makeup to get her fix of formaldehyde.

I love the dark humor and the clever writing style. You are made to wholly sympathize with the zombies and their plight to the point that humans, also known as breathers, seem to be one dimensional. Every breather is so disgusted with zombies that they are cruel and vicious to them (even the mother who tries to be nice still falls short). The reaction of just about every Breather when they see a zombie is either to scream or to quiver in fear. In a way this was necessary to your sympathy for the zombies, but it also made the world seem somewhat flat. For it seems to me, if zombies were a regular occurrence in the world, they would be treated just as often as a mundane annoyance rather then always objects of terror. Furthermore, we are really attached to our loved ones, and I have to imagine that a percentage of humans would look on their undead family members as slightly smelly loved ones, and that they would insist that their loved ones be treated by respect at large. But then I may be over analyzing, and the hateful and oppressive treatment of the zombies in this book — who often seem more human in comparison — is what allows the reader to maintain sympathize with them.

But all that aside, Breathers is a great zombie love story, or zombie revolution story (depending on your point of view).

[x-posted to my livejournal. If you feel inclined, you can comment either here or there.]