The Acid Tongue
The Book Preview
Selected By Cyril Wong
In her article and review of four poetry collections in Contemporary Poetry Review entitled 'The Tell-Tale Line', Joan Houlihan suggests that you no longer need to read reviews to decide which books are worth buying. All you need to do is preview the opening lines of any poetry volume from any number of available sources. She draws a parallel from movies:
Previews for a movie, or a trailer, usually tell me what I need to know about the movie—how's the acting? Dialogue? Cinematography?—and I can make a decision to: a) go see it now, b) wait for the DVD, or c) forget about it…In the same way, I've gone from being led by a review to (or away from) a particular book of poetry, to "previewing" it, either by browsing in a bookshop, or more often, checking it out on Amazon's "look-inside-the-book" feature… I think most readers of poetry can tell from the opening lines of a book if it's a book they want to read more of, just as most of us make a decision about seeing a movie from its trailer.
She then proceeds to find much to dislike in half the books she has chosen to preview. With regards to the opening of "I Speak to Fewer People" from Charlie Smith's Word Comix (2009), Houlihan has this to say:
I note the clichéd phrase ("in touch lately with my inner self") and, up against the title ("I Speak to Fewer People"), I already know how this poem will unfold. Perhaps these first words are not meant in earnest, are meant to be ironic; perhaps the narrator is deliberately using psychobabble to transparently indicate a resignation…the tone is deliberately flat, reportorial, matter-of-fact…the poems in the collection do not…compel further reading, perhaps because I have no investment whatsoever in how this "I" feels or perceives life. I also have the distinct impression that I'm not likely to be surprised by anything—in language, idea, plot, or character.
Alrighty then. Houlihan moves on and is not impressed by Lawrence Raab's "The First Still Life" from The History of Forgetting (2009) either:
The first line ("The scene at the table wasn't going well / or so he thought"), up against its title, along with the title of the book, all give me the impression that I'll be experiencing a "project," one that involves the idea of rewriting history…This poem is not badly written, only dull. And so a question persists: why was it written…the poem exists as a page in a book filled with other, equally forgettable poems…If the poet is as bored with writing poems as this poem suggests, how can the reader be less bored? Why should a reader sit and read one word after another, go down a page, then turn it—it's just tiring.
In stark contrast, Bruce Bond's Blind Rain (2008) fares much better:
Blind Rain begins with mystery and provocative imagery. I like that the first line presents a situation that's a little off kilter ("staring in your sleep"), alongside one that's familiar but described in an original way ("on a lake of ice, his head lit, eyes closed"), and also that it contains a potentially big hypothesis…Bond's facility with imagery, his ability to frame what could be sentimental material in a way that is both moving and original…this is an author whose imagination is both observant and compassionate, one whose narratives will hold far more than a flat report from the province of "I."
The reviewer then moves on to an enthusiastic analysis of Liz Waldner's Trust (2009);
Waldner pushes the boundaries of narrative...masterful in its turns ("Since my wreck I haven't felt / Able to find myself"), and lively with rhyme, rhythm, vivid surprising images ("Back when my father's vein crashed in / And his brain drowned in not enough air") and, surprisingly, wit ("Car 54, where are you?"). I find these qualities in some measure present in all the poems in Trust and, though Waldner strays far from whatever tethers the poem, a tether is never lost. An emotional through line holds the story together. The collection as a whole is a delight and a powerhouse…
Somewhat over-ambitiously, Houlihan concludes by positing a future end to how we presently buy and read poetry:
QLRS Vol. 9 No. 2 Apr 2010
As we move into the next decade, it seems very likely that a subset of all published poetry will, like music, become readily experienced or viewed for free...It may even turn out that the book of poems as physical object no longer holds us, cannot maintain its presence through the next ten years, cannot justify its 65 or more pages of poems all bound into one place—we might instead purchase only 5 or 10 poems at once, or a "mixed tape" of poems we love…we, the readers, will only need to become proficient at making our own selections. Just be sure to read the first lines before you buy.