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christian science monitor review of swensen

GOEST, by Cole Swensen, Alice James Books, 63 pp., $13.95

"Cole Swensen leads readers through history as she explores the subject of light, both natural and man-made. The poems in "Goest" travel back and forth through time - from the present-day United States to the streets of Paris in the 1500s and Rome in 50 BC. A highly intellectual poet, she traces the development of incandescents and the events they set in motion. She also writes, with meticulous care, about the color white and, more briefly, about mirrors, whose reflected images become another form of illumination. Her subject matter is often fascinating, and the language - spare and highly visual - seems to mimic flashes of light. "The Invention of Streetlights" is a good example of the poet's approach and tone: "noctes illustratas/ (the night has houses)/ and the shadow of the fabulous/ broken into handfuls - these/ can be placed at regular intervals,/ candles/ walking down streets at times eclipsed by trees." Long lines sometimes slow the narratives and make the work seem denser than it is. More disappointing, however, is the lack of clarity and directness in the book's third section. After following Swensen through many landscapes, the reader longs for a more personal or emotional approach. That payoff doesn't come, leaving one to feel that opportunities for enlightenment have been missed."

I am wondering what the reviewer means by a "more personal or emotional approach" and the word "payoff."

More so the word "payoff." What does it mean to have a payoff. A reward. A cookie for attending sunday school.

Also, lack of clarity and directness.

It's so strange how a lot of poetry reviews still use such a limited criteria. Isn't it possible to take a book of poetry and "evaluate" it on its own terms, what it's attempting to do (rather than what you want it to do).

To me, it's like saying "_____ abstract art does not contain a human form and therefore lacks emotion and clarity."

What art critic could get away with that?

Why is the overall conception of poetry so 19th century?

>reviews of the poetry finalists for the NBA


Chris Vitiello said…
Thanks for posting this, Marcus.

That word "payoff" is fascinating. It commoditizes understanding in the most cynical way. As if the poem is an object designed to hide or obscure meaning, and the meaning is actually the poet. The payoff for widning your understanding through the text is that you reach the creamy filling inside. Enlightenment, as CSM puts it.

Saying that Swensen's book has a "lack of clarity and directness" is no different than the Republicans saying that Kerry was a flip-flopper. Swensen's argument throughout the first 2/3's of the book is aimed back at itself (the book, structurally, implies this conceptual mirroring), which complicates the text with analytical doubt.

The most perceptive bit in the CSM review is that the language mimics flashes of light. Too bad that their reviewer couldn't extend that thought in order to try to understand the longer lines and other less formal choices in the third part of the book.
Laura Carter said…
What an interesting review! I find the book beautiful, in the best sense of the word, I think.

But my personal taste leads me to judge it as too clear, too direct.

"The Invention of Streetlights" is perhaps the stand-out piece. I'm glad they gave readers a few lines here.

The key word may be "intellectual."
Anonymous said…
Substitute "money shot" for "payoff."

Hey Marcus, I appreciate your line of questioning here and wanted to "weigh in." I don't think the conception is 19th century (although I agree it's outdated, which seems more to the point of what you're saying). The problem with this criticism, for me, is it's summation. Any poem that resists summary resists certain (many?) critical paradigms. Sorry about saying "critical paradigm," I need more coffee. The point of summary-justified criticism? It posits critics and teachers (me, I'm guilty here) as priests of knowledge. I get to mediate someone's interaction with poetry, for example. "My dear, let me tell you what this means."


Jeffrey Morgan

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