May 31st, 2012

Rose-coloured reviews *Little Eurekas* by Robyn Sarah

I have been trying to become a more astute reader of poetry lately. I have a very good literature degree, and can scan a poem pretty well, as well as read it with some seriousness and insight. But actually, sometimes not all that much insight. Even when I really love a poem, I often can’t articulate why. And then I lame out in that chickenish trap of feeling too stupid for poetry, like I should just give up and go watch a reality show about cakes.

I thought reading Robyn Sarah‘s collections of essays on poetry, Little Eurekas would help improve my confidence–I finished that degree a long time ago now. But I was actually so intimdated by the book–what if I’m too stupid for essays *about* poetry, too??–that it languished on my shelf for several years.

I’m really glad I got over myself and read it. Sarah is a careful and insightful reader–incredibly well-versed in the analytical language of poetry criticism, but also adamant that both poetry and criticism be accessible to all who care to read. My favourite sections were the middle three–Appreciations, Essay-Reviews, and Short Reviews. All three sections a focussed direct engagements with individual poems, suites of poems, or collections. Some are more positive than others (the Appreciations are only positive, obviously) but all explain carefully, analytically *why* Sarah feels the way she does about a poem. Also, she quotes liberally–sometimes entire poems. This is so incredibly helpful to a non-professional poetry-reader. For me, many poetry reviews are inscrutable and nigh on unreadable because the reviewer seems to assume the entire audience has read the book. What would I need a review for then? Sarah has an aura of trustworthiness, but she invites you test her judgments on your own by tossing you the poem for your very own. These essays are empowering and inspiring–you feel Sarah is sharing her intelligence with you to help you grow your own. Like sourdough. That metaphor fell apart.

I enjoyed the first and last sections less. The first chunk of the book is general essays on Canadian poetry and they’re actually fine–Sarah is far more reasonable and careful in her judgements than most of the people writing such essays these days. But general is always less interesting to me than specific, and the specific pieces in this text are so insightful–I felt smarter after reading them in a way that the intro pieces didn’t inspire. I did love the first essay, “I to my perils: How I fell for poetry”–one of the only truly personal pieces in the collection, it’s a perfect introduction. But a few of the others in this chunk had the creeping hell-in-a-handbasket-ism that smacks of the standard generational split: kids these days publish too much, too early; workshopping is a crutch and robs students of their voice, etc., etc.

The last section of the book I didn’t really enjoy, though through no fault of the author–it consists of dialogues (in letters, mainly) between Sarah and other poets. As dialogue between professionals usually does, these conversations use highly elevated vocabulary, and often spin around and around on abstract topics that I couldn’t really grasp. I imagine someone who is a poet or critic him/herself would enjoy this section more. But I was very disappointed not to be able to follow the conversation between Sarah and Dennis Lee about polyphony in poetry–literary polyphony is one of my obsessions, so you really think I’d’ve gotten something out of that piece. But no. Alas.

What I probably shouldn’t have done is read this collection cover to cover in a week–it’s not that sort of book. But because it isn’t indexed and the pieces aren’t dated, it would be hard to use as a reference book, either. To be honest, I think the text is probably intended for teachers of poetry, who will be able to read with more insight than I, and then pick and choose pieces to assign in the classroom. Which is darn good luck for the students–*Little Eurekas* is a powerful education.

This is my fifth/May book for the Off the Shelf challenge.

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