What makes a poem tick.
Weighing in at more than 400 pages, this hefty book on poetic form is anything but little. It’s an impressive accomplishment by Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner and past U.S. Poet Laureate Hass (English/Univ. of California; What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination, and the Natural World, 2012, etc.), who is one of only a handful of contemporary poets who could even think of taking on such a monumental task. As he notes in the brief introduction, this has been a work in progress for two decades. His modest goal is to explain how the “formal imagination actually operates in poetry,” the “way the poem embodies the energy of the gesture of its making.” Hass begins with analyses of a single line, then two, three, and four, which take up the book’s first 100 pages. Next, he moves on to form (blank verse, sonnet, etc.) and genre (ode, elegy, satire, prose poems, etc.), finishing up with stress and rhythm. Along the way, he draws on hundreds of examples of lines, stanzas, and complete poems from the history of poetry, which he carefully selects to illustrate his points. There are also hundreds of asides, lovely little insights, and strong opinions. The first sonnet on a political theme is by Milton. Ted Berrigan’s book-long Sonnets “tries to get something of Jackson Pollock’s method…coming at you.” Other topics: what are the four best villanelles? Who wrote the best pantoum? Answer: Donald Justice. And, the “American prose poem in English probably begins with Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (1914).” There’s much fodder here for poet lovers to discuss and debate. Look for this book on the short shelf of classics that includes Annie Finch’s An Exaltation of Forms and Eavan Boland and Mark Strand’s The Making of a Poem.
Erudite, witty, and well-informed, this encyclopedic labor of love will become the go-to book on poetic form for years to come.