Category Archives: poets

Review: ‘A Child’s Introduction to Poetry’ by Michael Driscoll

This book, “A Child’s Introduction to Poetry” by Michael Driscoll, illustrated by Meredith Hamilton, is the single best introduction to poetry that I have ever seen. It is part of a series of books aimed at 8 to 10-year-olds, and is divided into two parts: ‘The Rhymes and Their Reasons’, with two to four large pages on topics as diverse as Nonsense Rhymes, The Villanelle, Free Verse and Poems Peculiar; and ‘Poetry’s Greats’ with a couple of pages each on 21 poets such as Homer, Wordsworth, Dickinson, Belloc, Auden, Paz and Angelou. The book is richly illustrated on every page, and is packed with bits of biography, commentary, prosody, explanation and definition. Purely as a book, it is superb.

But wait! There’s more! The original edition came with a CD of all the poems, and the Revised and Updated edition comes with downloadable audio and a poster. These audio aspects are not as brilliant as the book, for two reasons: first, the poems are read “professionally” which unfortunately means without the joy, excitement, teasing, energy or naturalness that I listened for. They are clear, flat and boring, with unnecessarily exaggerated pauses between lines. I listened to the first three poems, and quit. Secondly, the CD version (which is what I have) may have been obsoleted, but the major item of comment in the Amazon reviews is that there are no explanations for downloading the audio, and that it was difficult for reviewers to figure out how to do it.

Ignore the audio, then. If you already have an interest in poetry you will probably do a better job than the unfortunate “professionals” in reading aloud from the book, and your child will have a richer experience anyway from your personal involvement and introduction. The book will soon enough be one for the child to dip into and skip back and forth in, moving from biographies to poems to illustrations to factoids as the mood takes them.

In terms of the variety of poetry–forms, moods, eras, nationalities–I have never seen anything so rich and satisfying for a good young reader as this Introduction. I wish all English-speaking children everywhere could have a copy.

Review: ‘Rhythm and Blues’ by David Stephenson

David Stephenson’s ‘Rhythm and Blues’ was the 2007 Richard Wilbur Award winner, and contains some excellent poems. Its back-cover blurbs are accurate–as Kim Bridgford states, the collection has “wisdom, a plain-spoken, convincing style, and a sense of irony… all the time with impressive technical skill.”

Several of the sonnets are excellent: ‘Pilate’ meditates on the harshness of the law,
But why waste breath? In six months, who will mourn
This insect, or recall that he was born?

The ‘Geologist’ speaks of his passion for the history of rocks, ending:
The present is a world of dirt and sand
And people–they of the immortal soul–
Whom I do not pretend to understand,
Though I admire them in their long-term role
As precursors to limestone, chalk, and coal.

And beyond the sonnets are villanelles, and longer blank verse monologues in the voices of a toll collector, a housebreaker, a corporate hatchet man, and so on; and poems with various structures of stanza.

But there is a problem: the ruthless, relentless, metronomic use of iambics. The entire collection is in either iambic pentameter or iambic tetrameter. In general, the shorter pieces are good; the longer pieces are thematically interesting, but I find pages of blank verse unappealing. Stephenson can obviously think easily in iambic pentameter; but that skill tends towards blather. As the book title suggests, there is rhythm; but with insufficient variety for the claim of music.

But maybe this is expecting too much. Stephenson is a committed formalist, to the extent of having started his own Pulsebeat Poetry Journal for formal verse. His sonnets in particular are very good. And the book is highly readable and rereadable–though in small doses, not straight through in one go.

And there is actually one break in the unremitting use of iambics, in the shortest and most whimsical poem in the book–and for all those reasons perhaps my favourite. It is ‘To a Garbage Truck’:

Stop for me, romantic sloop,
When all your cargo is on board
And your ride low upon the waves,
For I would cast my lot with yours

And put forth on the open street
En route to some strange orient
Full of exotic ports of call
Beyond the gray horizon.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Mindy Watson, ‘The Three’

Young Clotho spins new Thread of Life,
She holds Fate’s spindle taut. Precise
Lachesis measures life’s strand’s length,
Thus governs lifetime’s span and lot.
And Atropos, death’s agent, cuts
The mortal thread that Clotho wrought.

When I first burst from mother’s womb,
Three Fates were watching o’er my room.
Lachesis doled me ample thread,
And so, in time, I grew to be
The mother of my own young Three.

Upon my bosom all three drank;
They slept and flourished there. Across
Ten years, four jobs, three homes – I nursed
Away their sorrows, hurts, and scares.

And now I know our nursing age
(Which one year past, met poignant end)
Was in itself a life, a thread,
Spun, drawn, and sheared by three small Fates.

My eldest son precisely spun
That nursing thread with infant’s cord.
His warm-breathed suckling sutured closed
The wound my late son’s loss exposed.

My younger boy, for four years straight,
Was nursing life’s allotting Fate.
He lengthened thread, bridged start and end –
Became his sister’s nursing mate.

My Three’s sole girl, at three years old,
Adroitly sheared our tender twine
When, blonde crown bowed, she deftly swore,
“I don’t need boo-boo anymore.”

And from these Fates I deem my Three,
I’ve learned the joys of genesis –
I’ve learned there’s silent eloquence
In birth, in growth – in severance.
From newborn’s threaded cry all Three
Ascend—beginning, middle, end.

Mindy Watson writes: “The Three is an internally/intermittently rhymed poem in (mostly) iambic tetrameter, equating my three children to three Greek Fates who taught me, via our respective breastfeeding “threads,” to cherish all beginnings, middles, and ends.  I’m enduringly sentimental about this one, which represents not only my first published poem (originally appearing in the Quarterday Review’s October 2016 Samhaim issue) and my first creative post-grad school venture (although I’d majored in nonfiction/science writing rather than poetry)—but also my first attempt at articulating (and externalizing) my children’s and my seemingly endless nursing journey… a year after its bittersweet conclusion.”

Mindy Watson is a formal verse poet and federal writer who holds an MA in Nonfiction Writing from Johns Hopkins University. Her poetry has appeared in venues including Snakeskin, Think Journal, the Poetry Porch, Orchards Poetry Journal, Better Than Starbucks, Eastern Structures, the Quarterday Review, and Star*Line. She’s also appeared in Sampson Low’s Potcake Poets: Form in Formless Times chapbook series and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Association’s 2019 Dwarf Stars Anthology. You may read her work at: 
https://mindywatson.wixsite.com/poetryprosesite.

“THE THREE FATES MEMORIAL FOUNTAIN [A GIFT FROM THE GERMAN FEDRAL REPUBLIC]-136831” by infomatique is licensed under Openverse from WordPress.org

Odd poem: D.H. Lawrence dialect verse, ‘The Collier’s Wife’

Somebody’s knockin’ at th’ door
Mother, come down an’ see!
–I’s think it’s nobbut a beggar;
Say I’m busy.


It’s not a beggar, mother; hark
How ‘ard ‘e knocks!
–Eh, tha’rt a mard-arsed kid,
‘E’ll gie thee socks!

Shout an’ ax what ‘e wants,
I canna come down..

–‘E says, is it Arthur Holliday’s?
–Say Yes, tha clown.

‘E says: Tell your mother as ‘er mester’s
Got hurt i’ th’ pit–
What? Oh my Sirs, ‘e never says that.
That’s not it!

Come out o’ th’ way an’ let me see!
Eh, there’s no peace!
An’ stop thy scraightin’, childt,
Do shut thy face!


‘Your mester’s ‘ad a accident
An’ they ta’ein’ ‘im ‘i th’ ambulance
Ter Nottingham.’–Eh dear o’ me,
If ‘e’s not a man for mischance!

Wheer’s ‘e hurt this time, lad?

–I dunna know,
They on’y towd me it wor bad–
It would be so!

Out o’ my way, childt! dear o’ me, wheer
‘Ave I put ‘is clean stockin’s an’ shirt?
Goodness knows if they’ll be able
To take off ‘is pit-dirt!

An’ what a moan ‘e’ll make! there niver
Was such a man for fuss
If anything ailed ‘im; at any rate
I shan’t ‘ave ‘im to nuss.

I do ‘ope as it’s not very bad!
Eh, what a shame it seems
As some would ha’e hardly a smite o’ trouble
An’ others ‘as reams!

It’s a shame as ‘e should be knocked about
Like this, I’m sure it is!
‘E’s ‘ad twenty accidents, if ‘e’s ‘ad one;
Owt bad, an’ it’s his!

There’s one thing, we s’ll ‘ave a peaceful ‘ouse f’r a bit,
Thank heaven for a peaceful house!
An’ there’s compensation, sin’ it’s accident,
An’ club-money–I won’t growse.

An’ a fork an’ a spoon ‘e’ll want–an’ what else?
I s’ll never catch that train!
What a traipse it is, if a man gets hurt!
I sh’d think ‘e’ll get right again.

D.H. Larence was the son a a barely literate coal-miner at Brinsley Colliery in Nottinghamshire. This poem is from the environment of his childhood, in the dialect he grew up in. To make the three-way conversation a little easier to navigate, I’ve italicised the wife’s words.

As for the dialect, it’s not difficult, more of an accent than anything. “Scraighting” isn’t a word I know, but it’s obvious from the context. Other words: “nuss” is “nurse”. “Owt bad” doesn’t mean “knocked out badly”, it means “aught bad”, “anything bad”.

Review: ‘Archaic Smile’ by A.E. Stallings

‘Archaic Smile’ was the debut poetry collection by A.E. Stallings, an American who moved to Athens, Greece, a couple of decades ago. Published in 1999, it won that year’s Richard Wilbur Award and its opening poem, ‘A Postcard from Greece’, is perhaps my favourite of all her work. It is a sonnet with slant rhymes describing a car accident:
Hatched from sleep, as we slipped out of orbit
Round a clothespin curve new-watered with the rain,
I saw the sea, the sky, as bright as pain
That outer space through which we were to plummet.
Stallings lives in the modern world of cars and planes and thinks in terms of orbits and outer space; the Greece of this poem is not there yet – there is no guardrail on the cliff-sided road, the only warnings are the memorials to those who have died there, who
sliced the tedious sea once, like a knife.
Luckily, her car hits an olive tree on the edge of the cliff and they don’t go over.
We clung together, shade to pagan shade,
Surprised by sunlight, air, this afterlife.
And so the ancient world steps in to save her from rash modernity, and in this first poem she weaves the present and the past together, living as a pagan shade in a refreshed existence. And the rest of the book, and indeed all her work, carries on this integration of past and present.

The first section of the book is titled ‘Underworld’, appropriate for that near-death event, but mostly being poems such as ‘Hades Welcomes his Bride’ and ‘Persephone Writes a Letter to her Mother’ – there is a lot of Greek mythology in Stallings’ work, but filtered through a modern sensibility:
Death, the deportation officer,
Has seen your papers and has found them wanting.

In the second section, ‘A Bestiary’, she writes of her American experiences of animals and birds, in life and death and freedom and captivity, with her customary detached amusement. Take ‘Watching the Vulture at the Road Kill’:
We stopped the car to watch. Too close.
He bounced his moon-walk bounce and rose
With a shrug up to the kudzu sleeve
Of a pine, to wait for us to leave.
She observes that most other birds have to get in and out in a hurry, whether raptors or prey, and draws a lesson from it:
There is no peace but scavengers.

The third section, ‘Tour of the Labyrinth’, returns to Greek themes, but again weaving past and present, as in the reaction to an antique pot being broken. The final section is ‘For the Losers of Things’, echoing the sense of loss or near-loss in the rest of the book, but staying in the present – ‘Watching the News After the Tornados’ – or even the far future, with another of my personal favourites, ‘The Machines Mourn the Passing of People’:
The air now is silent of curses or praise.
Jilted, abandoned to hells of what weather,
Left to our own devices forever,
We watch the sun rust at the end of its days.

As can be seen from the excerpts quoted, Stallings is a formalist, and very comfortable with whatever form and metre is appropriate for the particular piece she is producing. ‘Archaic Smile’ is a superb collection, readable and rereadable, memorable, quotable. Her subsequent collections have been equally impressive. If there is a better poet currently writing in English, I haven’t run across them.

Photo of A.E. Stallings by Milos Bicanski

Review: ‘Snowman’s Code’ by Midge Goldberg

‘Snowman’s Code’ won the 2015 Richard Wilbur Award. And the first poems are all right, most of them being competent sonnets with a strong final line or couplet – ‘On Getting a Record Player for Christmas’ strongly evoked that era when a high point of childhood was having a couple of albums that you could replay when you wanted, ending with
I memorized not only every word,
But all the scratchy silences I heard.

But gradually the collection goes downhill, into villanelles (a verse form that is exceptionally difficult to make interesting, needing the oratorical power of a Dylan Thomas), and short insights arranged on the page as though they were verse – as in the title poem, with its
Be proud of lumpy hereness,
made by hands that carry
you, scoopful by scoopful,
to this place, at this moment,
patting you into existence.

In short, though there are poems I like in this book, I didn’t find enough to justify it as a prize-winning collection.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Tom Vaughan, ‘Afterwards’

Afterwards, I’ll shake the hand
of total strangers in the street
as though they were my oldest friend
and as and when that friend I’ll meet

we’ll stroll across Green Park towards
Crown Passage’s Il Vicolo
to dip our bread in olive oil
and drink wine till our faces glow

and talk of this and maybe that
as if we had all day to kill
then we’ll argue who should pay, aware
we’ll agree at last to split the bill

and when we say goodbye, we’ll know
how rare and wonderful it was
to be together, even though
neither will say so. Why? Because

why even hint the day might come
when public or private fresh disaster
prevents we two from sitting there
to share a salad and a pasta?

First published in Snakeskin 276, September 2020.

Tom Vaughan writes: “I have a soft spot for Afterwards because I hope it strikes the balance I often try to achieve between light-heartedness and seriousness. Plus it’s pinned in the real world: a London restaurant I very much like. I had submitted it originally The Spectator, which originally rejected it. George Simmers then accepted it for the September 2020 Snakeskin. Shortly thereafter I noticed a very positive restaurant review of Il Vicolo in The Spectator and, apparently quite independently, their poetry editor came back to me saying that on reflection he wanted to publish it, which he then did in October that year (with a suitable acknowledgement to Snakeskin as its first home). Then I learnt that the much-loved owner of Il Vicolo had died a few months previously – although not of Covid – but that his admirable daughters had decided to continue to run the restaurant. So, somewhere underneath the poem, the note of all-too-actual human mortality.”

Tom Vaughan is not the real name of a poet whose previous publications include a novel and two poetry pamphlets (A Sampler, 2010, and Envoy, 2013, both published by HappenStance). His poems have been published in a range of poetry magazines, including several of the Potcake Chapbooks:
Careers and Other Catastrophes
Familes and Other Fiascoes
Strip Down
Houses and Homes Forever
Travels and Travails.
He currently lives and works in London.
https://tomvaughan.website

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Susan McLean, ‘Deep Cover’

Nakedness is the best disguise.
When you discard the final veil,
it always takes them by surprise.

Because men think that compromise
is weak—that if you yield, you fail—
nakedness is the best disguise.

Though you expose your breasts and thighs,
your mind is as opaque as shale.
It always takes them by surprise

to find out that the body lies.
Surrender can conceal betrayal.
Nakedness is best. Disguise,

equivocation, alibis
can be seen through. To lay a trail
that always takes them by surprise,

hide nothing and you’ll blind their eyes.
Go ask Judith. Go ask Jael.
Nakedness is the best disguise.
It always takes them by surprise.

Susan McLean writes: “When I think of which subjects have lasting appeal in poems, I think of the subjects that have never changed and never will, such as human nature, but also of the questions that have no definitive answers, such as the nature of truth.  This poem expresses several paradoxes: that overt shows of openness are the most successful ways to deceive someone; that everyone lies, so telling the truth is always surprising–and is often not believed; that no matter how much truth you tell, there is always much that you don’t say; that when there is a power difference between two people, surrendering can be a tool of resistance. 

“Another thing that I think gives a poem lasting appeal is the use of rhythm and sound to create a music with words.  Though we live in a time in which free verse is dominant and ubiquitous, I don’t think people will ever lose their innate love of the songlike in poetry, a quality that also makes poems easier to remember. One of the most songlike of poetic forms is the villanelle, and it has been one of my favorite forms for many years.  Though I know that many readers find the repeating lines in villanelles to be tedious, small variations in the lines, in their punctuation, and in the surrounding lines can enable the narrative to move forward without losing the appeal of a songlike refrain.” 

Susan McLean grew up in Oxon Hill, Maryland, attended Harvard University and Rutgers University, and taught English for thirty years at Southwest Minnesota State University. She has published two books of poetry, The Best Disguise (winner of the 2009 Richard Wilbur Award) and The Whetstone Misses the Knife (winner of the 2014 Donald Justice Poetry Prize), and one book of translations of the Latin poet Martial, Selected Epigrams. She lives in Iowa City, Iowa.

‘Deep Cover’ was originally published in Mezzo Cammin, a journal of modern formalist poetry by women. Susan McLean’s ‘Lessons From A Fool’ appears in the Potcake Chapbook Careers and Other Catastrophes.

https://www.pw.org/directory/writers/susan_mclean

Review: Helena Nelson, ‘Starlight on Water’

Helena Nelson’s 2003 poetry collection ‘Starlight on Water‘ is quiet, reflective, beautiful and intensely intimate. Not necessarily personal – in some of the poems the poet has no children, in others a daughter or two, so there is no guarantee Nelson is writing of herself – but intimate with the senses and memories of existence. One of my favourite poems is ‘Ironing Day’:

I’ve never had an ironing board cover that fits
or a baby of my own.
None of the doors here properly shuts
and the garden wall’s come down.

But I shouldn’t ever want to lose my iron.
Pressing hard, I remember
grass between my toes
and the soft rain of September.

This speaks to several of my biases: going barefoot, enjoying rain, tolerating imperfection, triggering memories… and the music of casually rhythmical rhymed verse.

Not all of her verse is in the same style. Some poems are formally structured, some are free; the bulk of the book wanders all over internal and external landscapes, while the last third circles around and around Mr. and Mrs. Philpott, first one and then the other, a very caring couple of very distinct individuals in their mature second marriage. Here are some opening lines at random from the 19 Philpott Poems:

At the kitchen window
in his dressing gown,
Philpott stands alone
his sons have gone.
He’s on his own.

and

The sweetness of June, a summons conveyed
from strawberry fields, calls her to pick.
She drives to the farm, the car arrayed
with Tupperware tubs.

and

His father died at fifty-eight
and so he will die at fifty-eight.
He fetches a tumbler.
Two years to go.

and

Philpott’s anger lives in his shoes.
It tangles in the laces
and he wrestles like a lover

The first part of the book is about all manner of things – the spirit of a dead cat, say, or a night in an isolated Scottish cottage, or the teasing poem ‘Genderalisation’:

Women keep scales in their bedrooms;
Men keep weights.

The latter part of the book is just the Philpotts. What the whole book has in common is, without any sentimentality, the deep love that comes from respect, patience and close observation. It is all very intimate, and Nelson appropriately ends the Philpotts and the book with this short poem, ‘Love’:

He has tipped, he has spilled
his soul into her
and she carries it still
like starlight on water.

Review: ‘The Lesser Mortal’ by Geoff Lander

Geoff Lander has produced a score of full-page formal poems about various scientific luminaries: Maxwell, Einstein, Mendeleev and so on, combining career highlights with odd trivia about them. The poems are technically very skilful, with a variety of forms and metres being used (though the book is marred in a couple of places by the typesetting failing to follow the structure of lines and rhymes). Here is an excerpt from ‘On the Shoulders of Others’:

Does the gentle polymath,
Monsieur Henri Poincaré,
buried there in Montparnasse,
ponder how it came to pass
Einstein’s name now dominates
all things relativité?
(…)
In the central USA
near St. Louis one fine day
in 04 he first declared
E might equal mc2.

That was news to me. And it does raise the question of why Einstein should get all the recognition. Another of Lander’s poems, ‘Socks Off to Einstein’, suggests a possible answer:

While others may claim to have seen mc2,
they weren’t sock-eccentric, they weren’t spiky haired.
Their names are forgotten. Quite rightly that rankles–
the price you might pay if you coddle your ankles.
So three cheers for Albert, and get your heels bared!

Lander is a chemist by training and a computer programmer by profession, and poetry only came along when he started writing out other people’s verse to help his right hand recover from a stroke. Then, “encouraged from Scotland by Helena Nelson and from the grave by John Betjeman”, he started writing his own verse of which only a tiny fraction has been published.

New historical information and skilful light verse makes for a powerful combination! This very interesting little book from HappenStance Press contains most of what Geoff Lander has published to date.