On Poetry – Glyn Maxwell
Maxwell, Glyn. 2012. On Poetry. Harvard UP.
Thoughts: I had been close to dropping this book off at a little library, it having sat on my bedside table for six months with a bookmark partway through the second chapter, but I’m glad I decided to pick it up again and finish it off. On Poetry is a combination of fictional creative writing class and guided tour of some of Maxwell’s favourite bits of verse. I enjoyed the final chapter, which does a good job tying the book together: upon completing it, I felt like reading through it a second time to explore its various internal references.
(The notes below are not a summary of the book, but rather raw notes - whatever I thought, at the time, might be worth remembering.)
- 10: “What evolutionary psychologists – and I – believe is that aesthetic preferences, those things we find beautiful, originate not in what renders life delightful or even endurable, but in what makes life possible.”
- 12: The difference between poetry and lyrics is that poetry can stand on its own, but lyrics seem dead when put on the page - lyrics require music to hold space and provide pacing
- 27: a useful way to explore the boundaries between different literary forms (and to practice writing in them): convert a piece of writing in one form into another form - what gets added, what changes, what gets left out? (j: this is an act of translation, and could relate to the idea of error accumulating. this would also be a good argument in favor of looking at primary sources when doing history.)
- 53: repetition is never just repetition (j: relating this to information theory, the amount of information communicated varies from one repetition to another - on the surface, less information is communicated in successive repetitions, but some other information (based, say, on conventions surrounding repetition in a genre) is communicated by the fact that some information has been repeated.)
- 69: interesting form: sestina: six-line stanzas, each line ends with the same six words (but in a different order). tied together with three lines at the end.
- 73-74: “Personally, I had absolutely nothing to say till I was about thirty-four… But what I did for about twenty years from my mid-teens was play with words, so that by the time I had some things to say I had a pretty good idea how to.”
- I’m not sure how I feel about developing a skill, hoping that it will come in handy decades later
- 75-76: translation is a useful exercise for writing poetry, having to convert from one language or medium to another. Maxwell suggests even translating from a language you don’t know, using a x-to-English dictionary.
- 83: “Poetry workshops are fifty times less valuable to the poet whose work is being scrutinized than they are to those doing the scutiny. The poet whose work is being discussed is a trembling tower of ego… But the poets discussing it are learning all the time.”
- 94: you can tell what’s going on in the poem by listening to the rhythm of the language. “Robert Frost suggested that one could hear a conversation in the next room, muffled thwough a wall, make out not a single clear word, and yet still understand what’s going on.”
- 98: Maxwell, “in the years I didn’t know anything”, rolled dice to choose line and stanza forms, then saw what thoughts emerged while working within that form. Can flip coins for rhyming/not, choose indents by chance.
- 110: Sir Gawain and the Green Night (14th C.) - used five beats per line, each line tied together with alliteration. Stanzas had variable numbers of lines, but each was concluded with four short lines tied together by end rhymes. The different meters are used for different purposes: the pentameter drives the story forward; the short, rhyming lines summarize
- 111: "all true poets ask themselves: what forms survive for what reason? What forms survive for what purpose?"
- 116: the form of a poem is more present/evident when the meter is short. Rhymes that are close together are obvious, but rhymes that are separated are subtle, “in which case the impact of the rhyme is subconscious, kin to musical motif.”
- 117: to read: Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” - in terza rima: ABA BCB CDC etc.
- these sorts of rhyme schemes could be fun to experiment with and expand upon. Could expand to four lines: ABzA BCAB CDBA etc. or AzBA BACB CBDC etc. Each rhyme spans three stanzas.
- 119: to read: Osip Mandelstam, “Conversation about Dante” - “the most challenging and sublime essay I know on poetry”
- 123: more about translation: exercise: translate a poem/story into an imagined form of English where only 2 or 3 vowels have survived (e.g. A/E, or I/O/U). (could, of course, be applied to other letters)
- 141: plays in prose follow about as many conventions as do plays in verse: “that characters speak in turn; that everything they say is clear to the audience; that everything they say is either clear to each other, or significantly obscure; that everything they say matters to the story.”
Posted: Dec 12, 2020. Last updated: Dec 19, 2020.