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Poetry as Persuasion (The Life of Poetry: Poets on Their Art and Craft Ser.) Paperback – March 1, 2001
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With Whitman and Dickinson as his touchstones and contemporary American poetry as his specific purview, Carl Dennis brilliantly demonstrates in Poetry as Persuasion why poetic voice is essential to the process of lyric articulation. Dennis's essays are particularly useful to poets learning their craft and to students of poetry, but every reader will find delight in the calm and lucid intelligence each page holds.(Michael Collier)
Poetry as Persuasion is the result of the careful consideration of long learning. Dennis has done all the work for us and modestly offers us its fruit in his complete articulation of a single, large, useful idea. His readings are almost unerringly sharp. The range of his examples is generous, and the way he compares and contrasts them is invariably pertinent. He is a reliable tour guide and gentle teacher.(Michael Ryan)
About the Author
Carl Dennis is the author of seven books of poetry, including, most recently, "Practical Gods," winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. A recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, in 2000 he was awarded the Ruth Lilly Prize from "Poetry Magazine" and the Modern Poetry Association for his contribution to American poetry. He is a professor of English at the State University of New York at Buffalo and a sometime member of the faculty of the MFA program in creative writing at Warren Wilson College.
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Mr. Dennis does a fine and convincing job of representing the view that a poet's voice is one of the critical elements that determines the affect a poem has on the reader. He does not claim that is the only criterion, nor that his view of its importance is unopposed by current skeptical viewpoints that question the efficacy of saying anything in a post modern "fallen" world.
The key element, however, that makes Dennis's effort useful and the hyper-critical contrary view less useful is in his "reading" of the poems he puts forward as examples and in his proposed hypothetical changes in voice that the poet might have considered which under Mr. Dennis's deft handling are shown to be very much less evocative and engaging. This is, in my view, very much a case of the "proof being in the pudding".
The book starts in the very first essay with a careful examination of Ben Jonson's two lines of verse that serve as prologue to his book of epigrams. I will not reiterate that examination. But I will say that it is for the budding poet or poetry reader so effective as to likely make the entire book a value even if there were nothing further useful in it. That's not the case, but the examination of Jonson's adopted voice and it's effectiveness on those short two lines is wonderful.
Much later in the book in the section on Midcourse Corrections, Mr. Dennis evaluates one of my most favorite poems from one of my most favorite poets, Elizabeth Bishop's "At the Fishhouses". I may not agree with every jot of every assessment and conclusion about the relationships of "meaning" between the different "sections" of that poem, but on the broader brush matters his discussion of the poem's changes was eye opening. Again, I'll not try to reiterate that discussion, but I will say that where I always loved that poem, I could not have explained in any coherent way the reasons why, but after reading Dennis's discussion I have a much better handle on that issue. I would love to sit down with him to discuss those jots and conclusions on which I have slightly different takes than Mr. Dennis. At least now, armed with his convincing framework, I be much better equipped to be a reasonable participant in such a discussion.
That expansion of appreciation was a general effect of all Mr. Dennis's essays. I found some (as stated above) more convincing than others (Myth and Liberation), but I don't see how that could not have been the case with any undertaking of the task represented here. It was well done and well written. Mr. Dennis is not one of those poets who writes prose badly. Nor is he one of those who descends regrettably into barely intelligible academic-speak which is the occupational hazard of the current crop of American poets who so often teach at Universities around the country.
If you are interested in writing poetry or in reading it with greater enjoyment, these essays will provide a persuasive argument for being critically aware of voice as part of how you do what you do. Definitely worth the read.
This book proves a common discovery: that most poets can't write prose to save their lives. Or that respects the language. So instead they produce the unreadable.
It appears that the author didn't have to deal with an editor, and it shows: irrationality and incoherence abound (those arguably an essence of and acceptable in poetry). And that he doesn't know that writing is RE-writing, therefore he failed to sufficiently digest, through RE-writes, what he wanted to say, in order to arrive at a point at which HE understood what he wanted to say. And the lack of distance and objectivity which results from the insufficient digestion of insufficient rewrite -- shows as a prose that appears so wholly fascinated with and aborbed in its own navel -- in effort to figure out what it is and means -- that it is unaware there's a reader present and watching.
This needs BOTH an editor, and rewriting. Until that happens it is so much a chore to read that one must often reread one or another nonsensically convoluted sentence in effort to get the point hidden somewhere amid the polysyllabic effluvia. Academics, and especially semi-academics, need to learn and apply a basic rule: reading a book should be a pleasure, not a chore which exhausts for all the wrong reasons.
An editor and a rewrite -- or three -- would likely eliminate the unreadable and as result reduce the thickness of the thing by roughly 1/4". As it is the effort to read this is an unnecessary, off-putting struggle.
I emailed the publisher with the above concerns, though not as sharply stated. No response. Apparently the editor, if there is one, was then -- and continues to be -- out to lunch.
All in all, stick with writers about poetry who sufficiently digest, through rewrites, that they intend to say to understand it themselves -- instead of inflicting the indeterminately-semi-baked onto the hapless reader.