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on 5 September 2012
On Poetry by Glyn Maxwell is a thrilling book. There aren't many thrilling books in the world and very few about poetry. I hate giving stars but if I could I'd go for 4.75. I don't have time to be eloquent so here are some numbered points (wake up at the back...):

1. This book is in a hurry. I like that. It is terse and sometimes impatient. Good. It is a short, quick read and there is every possibility that I'll read it again.

2. It starts with white space. How poetry is placed on that or in that white space. How poetry isn't like prose. How poetry isn't like song. That's a really good bit, how poetry isn't like song. We all know this, don't we, instinctively? We know that even the words of best, the very best song writers are daft without music, so they aren't poetry. Full stop. Thank you very much. I paraphrase and I'm in a hurry, as I say, but that's the gist of it and very refreshing too.

3. It talks about line-endings. It respects line-endings. I'm obsessing here, I know, but line-endings are obviously very important, although so much poetry is written and published by poets who don't seem to think line-endings are anything other than lawn edging strips (you know, the green corrugated ones). Glyn Maxwell's point is, I think, that form means something and you'd better believe it.

4. It talks about 'pulse' and 'chime', the rhythm and noise of poetry (but these are described so much more accurately). Those two titles, 'pulse' and 'chime', just seem so right; not slavishly counting beats or ladling on the assonance, but knowing what's going on in a poem, as a writer and a reader; the music which is not music.

5. And it suggests, gloriously, that having poems voiced by trained actors is a good thing, useful, interesting, not something to be frightened of. We don't get to the bottom of why so many poets are so wary of this because there's no time and this is not a book that has time to waste. So let's just believe Maxwell's right. Hey, he's right.

So, that's it. Not a review but a short list. And what I liked most was the underlying sense that to write good poems or/and to be a deep reader of poems it might be necessary to do a little bit of work... Not 'cryptic crossword, footnotes galore, knowing Ancient Greek' work, but 'listening carefully and noticing (by eye but also by ear) what's going on in a poem' work. Fair enough. Why not? The best poems are going to last hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years, so let's give them some time, now.

Read this book if you want to go back to poetry with renewed vigour. Read it if you want to be reminded about why some lines of poetry have effortless class (there's a killer line from Hamlet given as an example; just so good) while so many other lines of poetry don't. Read it if you want to question every poem that comes your way - your own and other people's - in a more than superficial (do I understand it, have I nodded in agreement, am I jealous) way.

And it is very well written: full of invention and imagaination. Full of fun.

Finally, thank you, Glyn Maxwell, for not writing a book about how we can all turn our life experiences into prize winning poems. Those books exist. Good. This is not one of them. Great.
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on 23 February 2013
'A poem coherently expresses the presence of a human creature.' If Maxwell considers this kind of mystifying mumbo-jumbo meaningful he is deceiving himself. And us. Looking for lit crit? Of the six words 'As I lay asleep in Italy', Maxwell remarks 'What does 'I lay asleep' become in the light of 'in Italy'?' (I can't imagine, and Maxwell doesn't tell us.) But at page 45 ('my writing classes') the penny drops; this is not about reading at all. I remember a time when people didn't need encouragement to add to the poetry glut; it was something they did in private, for comfort, almost introspectively - and assuredly not for publication!

This is an anthology of teaching aids. Maxwell could have titled it 'Well, they worked for me'. But you can't 'teach poetry', any more than you can teach French (though you can teach to pass a certain kind of exam - if you call that teaching); the impetus must come from within. (Remember Teach Yourself Books?) This self-indulgent ramble is more like therapy, for all parties (pretend teaching, and - sadly - pretend learning); like David Bellos's marginally better Is That a Fish in your Ear (on translating) it shows up what education has become. Why read these lazy offcuts, kids, when you could be reading the real thing? John Hayward's Penguin Book of English Poetry will probably last you a month or two at least, maybe six, and help firm up what you like, then you've a lifetime before you (it will take a lifetime, just in English), during which you might conceivably add to the corpus, and it would certainly be better than having Glyn Maxwell breathing down your neck like a sex therapist in a bridal suite

'Poetry is creaturely.' What po-faced piffle! (Bellos plays similar tricks.) Is this late onset midlife crisis or proto-guru-ification? The eroticism surrounding couplets and sonnets (naked vs. clothed forms) is palpable - and, I thought, the high point of the book, spent all too soon. Later it becomes a different, less breathless animal, but it's altogether too late - and indescribably too slight - for this reader. The sample of Maxwell's own work is, well, instructive. Not one of his peers feature; all poets cited are well dead except for Armitage - as Gawain translator! - and all quotes positively hoary old faithfuls, bits of Ivor Gurney and Edward Thomas excepted. Sometimes in his quest for *meaning* Maxwell will disappear up his own italics, and qua playwright* he's going to have to watch his Anglo-Americanness, lest he end up stranded between folk (in the quaint (Chaucerian?) locution on p127) and the frankly folksy folks (p150, twice). '[K]eenly feel the pressure of silence' - oh, I do, I do

As for what Maxwell's *teacher* (sheesh! so the problem goes way back; but Maxwell concedes he had nothing to say for the first 34 years) said about poetry stateside (that if things go on as they are 'it will soon have, effectively, no readership at all'), this state of affairs is precisely what books like this encourage - and anyway Walcott's wrong; the Americans are way ahead of us creatively**, it's just that it's somewhat blocked by the sheer tonnage turned out by the creative writing workshops. Those people producing the good work constitute, between themselves, their own readership. It is all the audience art needs. Art can survive without an audience; can we survive without art? Read poetry for its own sake. Read it for love

* If he's taking tips from Eliot on playwriting, I fear for him
** Maxwell, for instance, is still fighting the to-rhyme-or-not-to-rhyme war long since cordially concluded Over There and resolved partly, I suspect, by the vast army of private versifiers not processed 'by the schools' or seduced by fashion, not a few of whom went on to subsequent publishing success, plurality getting one over on career path
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on 24 March 2013
This one is getting a five-star halo effect. Caveat lector.

Maxwell has great facility with words and interesting thoughts on poetry but he is also a contrarian. He is chippy about having been labelled a neocon but bickers repeatedly about free verse (cf the example supposedly retrieved from a factory floor), which he simply travesties rather than engaging with the output of Lawrence or any number of American poets of the twentieth and twenty first centuries who have formed their lines from the weight/sense/relationship of words or the rhythms of conversation rather than obeying the diktat of the metronome. Maxwell is fixated on the measured beat and even ploughs an unrewarding furrow in defence of the contemporary verse play.

He sneers too at English teachers, who he blames for not skilling up their charges and for endorsing "so-called 'free' verse". I would love to see him get an all-ability class of eleven-year-olds writing worthwhile pentameter. No chance, pal. But let them loose in a free-verse playground, with words and images as magic toys, and no because-you-have-to requirement to bang 'bold' crassly against 'cold', and any of them can reach angelic heights. Of course the historic and global heritage must be taught all the way to A Level and beyond but for goodness sake, loosen up, Glyn. You're meant to be on our side, not Gove's!

As well as the contrariety there are the contradictions. In his creative writing classes Maxwell styles himself 'the professor', the authority figure, while recording the sessions in feet-on-the-table, cool dude prose. There is lots of games-playing and second-guessing. It sounds like a stressful environment, not least when he slyly rewards the gullible student with
the prize of making the coffee.

In short, I enjoyed the book for Maxwell's undoubted insights into how verse is made. But the impatient, doctrinaire tone in the voice is a significant detraction.

And one for Kindle readers: could you read the final chapter, TIME? I couldn't. The font is microscopic and would not enlarge.
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on 25 May 2013
As an amateur writer, trying to get to grips with free verse in particular, I found this an easy and useful read, at a bargain price as a daily deal.
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on 25 March 2013
But WHY oh WHY is the final section in a minuscule type size that can't be changed in the usual way?
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on 1 March 2017
I bought this because it was on the recommended reading list for my first year of university - I'm now in my third year and I've got nothing useful out of it. It's quite pretentious, and the language is just a little too flowery for my liking. It's a book for reading all the way through, which is fine, but I wouldn't recommend this for students due to the lack of index, and vague contents page. There are far better books on poetry out there.
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on 18 August 2012
Glyn Maxwell's book is beautifully and provocatively written - I decided to buy a copy after reading a review that excerpted a few passages and wasn't disappointed. I imagine his claims and arguments - written from a highly individual perspective - will probably be more appreciated by people who, through their reading or own writing, have already formed strong opinions on what makes poetry, makes it work, makes it different from prose, different from song lyric, because this is a book to give one second or third thoughts about all those things. And the richly associative way the book is structured, as well as the fundamental topics it covers, is a welcome departure from literary text-book-ese. Highly recommended.
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on 28 January 2016
Glyn Maxwell writes with wit and serious wisdom about the art of contemporary poetry. If you're looking for a beginner's book to explain the craft, this is not it; it's a slightly exasperated but always entertaining manifesto for Maxwell. But if you read contemporary poetry, this may illuminate your reading and help you to put your finger on what defines success or pretension.
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on 20 December 2012
Which, since I'm an English graduate and former teacher, and most of the poems he takes his examples from are very familiar to me, is saying a good deal. I don't think I've ever read anything which so clearly distinguishes how the experience of both reading and writing poetry differs from other kinds of aesthetic experience. And also a lot of it is very funny: it's a creative work in its own right. I think anyone seriously interested in poetry should buy it.
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on 15 October 2012
Inspiring to a young poet. Engrossing for an older reader of poetry. Uses great examples of old and modern classic poems. There was a good review in the Guardian which led us to it. Very good on the 'black' and 'white' of a poem; spaces, pauses, line breaks, punctuation, structure generally. His playful tone and use of a metaphorical tutorial group to demonstrate different styles and approaches was entertaining to us, although some people might find it odd.
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