My January Post at The Lamp's Blog
I don't quite know what to make of this

Sally Thomas: Motherland

I read this book twice last year--twice because I like it so much--and have been meaning to write about it at least since the last reading, which was probably early last fall sometime, which is to say four or five months ago. But I kept putting it off. I knew that one reason for my procrastination was plain laziness, which is one of my more serious character flaws. Only now, when I have finally forced myself to begin, have I realized that there is another reason: I find it difficult to write about poetry, and I don't like doing it.

It feels superfluous, maybe even pointless. A poem is a thing made of words, so why make another thing of words that is some kind of representation of or reaction to the poem? It makes sense if you have an impulse to make a word-thing of your own that is somehow produced or inspired by the other thing. Or if, which I guess is more likely, you simply have a strong urge to talk about the thing. But if those don't apply, if you just want to direct the attention of other people to the other thing, what is the point of saying much more than "There it is--look"?

There's a place for criticism, and in fact I read eagerly the semi-annual "Verse Chronicle" in The New Criterion, in which William Logan reviews half a dozen or so recent volumes of poetry. I learn from it, though most often what I learn is that I don't want to read the books, and am confirmed in my lack of interest in most contemporary poetry. And I also get useful nuggets of opinion on the nature of poetic virtues and faults, with which I may or may not agree but which provoke thought. Obviously Logan puts a lot of care and work into these essays, and I'm glad he does. But what he does is not something I want to do myself.

So I will just state briefly why I like these poems so much. It's basically quite simple: they give me a lot of pleasure, of a particular kind that's almost unique to poetry, and only the best poetry. I define "best" tautologically as that which gives me this pleasure. Prose can occasionally do it, but that's relatively rare. I don't know of much poetry written since 1970 or so that does it, though I don't know all that much poetry written since 1970, period.

That of course is a comment on me at least as much as on the poetry, but that's a discussion for another day. Suffice to say that I am not in principle hostile to "modern poetry" as a category. And these poems are "modern" in more or less the ways you might expect them to be from that term. They are not, however, as obscure as modern poetry frequently is. And they are not free verse, or mostly not. Some of them are quite definitely and apparently in traditional forms, such as the several sonnets included. Some use traditional techniques so subtly that you might not notice it at first, such as those which use slant or approximate rhyme. And I'll admit that the rationale for the structure of one poem, "New Year's Day," eludes me, though I love the poem. But though the forms tend to be pretty subtle, I think their tautness has a lot to do with the considerable emotional power of many of the poems. 

As the title suggests, it's a very feminine book, by which I don't mean that it's light, but that it exhibits a consciousness which in both its quality and its content strikes me as very much that of a woman. And I'll leave that at that. Here is an excellent review at Dappled Things. I strongly suggest that you read it if you want more than the scant information I'm giving you. It includes the full text of one poem. And I can direct you to another which is in the book and which Sally allowed me to reproduce here a few years ago when we were doing the 52 Poems series. It's called "Bridge Morning," and I think it's brilliant. If you like either or both of the poems, you won't regret buying the book.

A note about the sequence which closes the book, the twenty Richeldis of Walsingham poems: these appeared on their own as a chapbook a few years ago and I was not greatly taken with them at the time. But either further acquaintance or their context within this larger volume changed my mind, though most of my favorite poems appear in the earlier part.


A beautiful cover is always a plus.

P.S. There are some pretty funny moments here, wit of a dry sort--which, again, I think of as feminine. 

P.P.S. In the spirit of full disclosure, I note that I am in a small way personally acquainted with Sally Thomas by means of online discussions of one kind or another. 


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I had the good fortune to hear Sally read some poems from this book last night and it was a lovely evening. They are feminine, I agree, but also universal. Some of them are also quite Catholic, but the Baptist in attendance was very taken with them.
She also read from her forthcoming novel and it sounded like a feminine J.F. Powers--I can't wait to read the whole thing.

I read a short story of hers that was in Dappled Things a few years ago, and liked it, but not as much as I like her poems. I don't think that story was part of this novel, though. I will certainly read the novel when it comes out.

A confession: I don't much enjoy hearing poets read their work. As much as people and especially poets talk about poetry needing to be read aloud, I don't in general find that to be true. Some, yes; most, no. Some contemporary poets actually harm their work by reading in this weird way which I don't know how to describe.

I don't have much experience hearing poetry read aloud by poets, but Seamus Heaney's audiobook of his Beowulf was great. I do enjoy hearing amateurs read or recite poems that they like.

I don't know, it's just me. Poets reading tend to strike me as either dull or a little cringe-making. I think it's at least partly something to do with the musical flatness of modern poetry when compared with that of earlier periods.

I think we talked about Heaney's Beowulf before. As a translation I didn't like it as well as another, maybe Tolkien's. I can imagine him reading it very effectively. Even though he's Irish, and the poem is so Anglo-Nordic.

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