Is it possible to review poetry in a more imaginative way? Inspired by Jon Stone’s Poems Are Toys, Helena Nelson reports on Shapeshifting for Beginners by Emma Simon (Salt, 2023)
Everything’s a journey these days. To get here, I had to traverse two poetry-related publications several times. But now I hope you’ll help me circumnavigate a book of poetry in a slightly off-the-wall way. Please bring along any previous experience of reading this stuff. I know you have the necessary skills or you wouldn’t have found your way this far. You know, for example, that Emma Simon’s new book, Shapeshifting for Beginners [SFB], might theoretically be a manual – for magicians perhaps. Or physiotherapists. But it’s poetry, so the shapeshifting will be metaphorical, won’t it? There’ll be a Contents page with titles. When you see ‘Walking on Water, Beginners Class’, ‘Indoor Cloudspotting’ and ‘An Arsonist’s Guide To Lockdown’, you won’t be thrown (what happened to the shapeshifting?). No, you’ll correctly interpret the message – namely that this writer is playful, and her book involves subversion.
All of which is promising if we are to approach Emma Simon’s poems as toys. Which is my plan. I got the idea after an invigorating foray into Poems Are Toys (And Toys Are Good for You) [PAT] by poet Jon Stone. SFB has 74 pages, 54 poems, just over 9000 words. PAT is a pamphlet of 35 pages comprising one prose essay, about 1000 words. Similar lengths then, but different formats, different reading methods.
Stone’s Poems Are Toys says a number of things I agree with. For example, that “poems are difficult, and a hundred poems are difficult in a hundred different ways”, and “lack of straightforward utility [in poems] is a feature, not a bug”. Equally, I concur that the experience of reading poetry is often described by pundits in terms of “being helplessly drugged, commanded or worked upon, sometimes physically, by the poet”, and that such description often involves “florid phrasing”. Stone even talks about “failure of the language that surrounds” poems, and I think this must include many reviews, as well as the convention of ‘endorsements’, without which few books of poetry arrive in the world.
Which takes me straight to the back-jacket of Shapeshifting For Beginners where I learn, under “PRAISE FOR THIS BOOK”, that the work has “emotional punch”, as well as (somehow) the “whiff of chlorinated public pools, the musk of old paperbacks” and “the heavy air of empty rooms”. It also involves “sensory brilliance” and “metaphysical force”, as well as “a yearning for the unexpected light that lights a fine metaphor”. I’ve written blurby copy myself. Enough said. I don’t think endorsements help. They just brandish the idea that the contents (whatever they may be) are astonishing and marvellous. That poetry is … pure poetry, in fact.
I don’t think endorsements help
I have a good number of acquaintances (oh I should come clean: one of them lives with me) who don’t agree. They see little point in poetry, with the possible exception of funerals. I recall a close friend driving me to an event at which I was due to read some poems myself. Two hours later, he was revving the engine outside to ferry me home. Zero chance of him coming in, despite being a theatre buff and concert goer. Jon Stone suggests that as you read poetry, you develop the skills for tackling it with pleasure. But most people never even get started. They don’t even want to. “All poets strenuously protest otherwise,” says Stone, “but their interests are generally looked upon as a form of devotion to an almost-masonic alternative order.”
Either way, even non-conscripts absorb the wider message from those who make the cultural case for poetry as “vital”, those with emotional (and often financial) investment in this area. Stone romps through their arguments: poetry’s important because it offers a voice to the unheard; because it communicates universal experience pithily; because it has “deeper music” or “artfully arranged clusters of words”. Often the contemporary poet explores painful, personal experience, from which a kind of moral authority emerges.
But wait. I’m only interested in how important any book (or some of its contents) might be to me. I don’t give a fig what anyone else thinks about it. As a reviewer, however, I’m aware of an inconvenient side-issue: how important might I be to the author? This morning I read an effusive tweet posted by a friend to someone who’d just reviewed her first book, link provided. A public thank you, then. So the review had clearly been pleasing. I hope it wasn’t what Gerry Cambridge recently called “the bland pabulum that generally passes for reviewing these days.” Either way, it had speedily generated a response from author to reviewer, a feature only easily possible in this age of social media. It’s clear that the whole process quickly gets personal these days, and getting personal seems to me to complicate something which should surely be about the poems, not the poet. Or are they indivisible?
I once sat through a poetry event at which a well-known bard was reading. I duly purchased a copy of his new collection, and queued to get it signed. He asked me my name, scribbled a dedication and his signature, and turned to the next punter. As I glanced at my purchase, I noticed my own name was among his endorsements. I’d reviewed his previous book a few years before, and one of my comments had gone into service as promotional copy, a comment which (out of context) looked remarkably flattering. So I had been useful to him, it seemed, without being important to him (he had no idea who I was when he signed the book). Is the chief function of a reviewer to be useful to authors? Or what?
This is so complicated already! Why can’t I just get on and play with my new toys? Because I’m supposed to be reviewing the toys. Oh but.
A review, according to convention, involves evaluation: strengths and weaknesses, an expert(ish) opinion aired (usually respectfully) in public. On Amazon and GoodReads, it even involves a star rating
A review, according to convention, involves evaluation: strengths and weaknesses, an expert(ish) opinion aired (usually respectfully) in public. On Amazon and GoodReads, it even involves a star rating. But when it comes to poetry, there’s an insurmountable problem with this kind of appraisal. There’s no universal agreement about what’s ‘good’, no respected authority to appeal to. There’s a deep, dark gulch between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture too. This has always existed, but surely not as dramatically as now. Poems regularly go viral on social media while being publicly derided by ‘literary’ readers. It’s not long since one of our most popular poets, and former laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, was described by Tim Atkins in the Friday Poem as “the Celine Dion of British poetry”. What? As popular as Celine? People often say that poetry should be more widely read. But when a scrap of it spreads like wildfire, the poets sneer. On the other hand, there are practising poets who espouse fractured syntax, bamboozling and/or coded formats and paradox, poets who are super-heroes of obscurity. They have their followers too. A few. (In poetry, less is more.)
Meanwhile, Jon Stone, who is concerned about “the boundary between general reader and reader of poetry”, suggests we might get poems off their pedestals and think of them as toys, “something to play with in any way we want” (any way). Then we could reflect on what “me and the poem [got] up to when we thought no one was looking”. This might work for the private reader, but the whole essence of reviewing is that you do expect someone to be looking. You’re writing to be read. So for me to try out this approach for the esteemed Friday Poem — hm. I could end up looking a pillock, right?
Let me be honest. I’m trying to do at least two things at once, which is asking for trouble. First, I want to test out Stone’s theory that I can profitably respond to a set of poems as “toys”. Second, I want to review a book in a non-typical way, avoiding “florid” terms and a standard evaluative stance. I do think poetry reviewing is stuck in a predictable mode, where the reviewer acts like Mary Berry on the Great British Bake Off, sampling bits of cake and then pronouncing on quality and originality.
But why are we still doing this when (unlike cake) we don’t even agree on what the basic ingredients of a poem should be? And who wants to consume the resulting “bland pabulum” anyway? Poet Maitreyabhandu even claimed in The Dark Horse [issue 45, 2022] that “poetry criticism has degenerated into promotional copy” and that “bland reviews and overpraise have wrongfooted readers into doubting their own critical perceptions”. Perhaps the real reason for the persistence of poetry reviews is cultural convention. When books are published, someone is supposed to review them. Poets want their books noticed. Hundreds of readers are waiting for the next set of reviews, desperate to see what they have to reveal. Otherwise, why would Hilary Menos include them in The Friday Poem? And you – well, you’re still here apparently. Why? Why are you reading this at all?
Bring on the toys. Here’s some of what Emma Simon’s Shapeshifting for Beginners and me got up to when nobody was looking
Bring on the toys. Here’s some of what Emma Simon’s Shapeshifting for Beginners and me got up to when nobody was looking. My risk should be limited, because this book isn’t hard to understand, and parts of it are amusing. I don’t know the poet personally. I haven’t spoken to her publisher in a decade. I have read quite a lot of poetry in my time, have written a shedload of reviews, and I do want to offer a response to the book that’s pleasurable to read, and truthful. Jon Stone says: “We need to consider the act of reading itself to be potentially expressive, constructive, disruptive, political – both a route to shaping one’s future through the exercise of the critical and imaginative faculties, and a dynamic performance which brings the text to life.” So I should be okay, right?
But the thing is: how do you think about poems as toys, albeit toys of “an advanced sort”? PAT points out that you’re “allowed to use [a toy] in almost any way you want”. A toy is an object, and he suggests one can think about a poem as an “object” too. Let’s have a look at the shapes of Emma Simon’s poem-objects, then. What sort of formats are in play; how much shapeshifting’s going on?
At this point a bit of arithmetic is required, and a pencil. I count thirteen single-block texts in Shapeshifting, thirteen poems formatted in 3-line stanzas, four sonnetish constructions (fourteeners), nine in couplets, five prose poems etc. Nothing exceptional. The “shape-shifting” in the title must be more a matter of ideas. “The human body is precisely our capacity for metamorphosis” says the epigraph. No surprise, then, that the “mermaid” in the opening poem isn’t keen on her legs, and since she has legs, maybe she’s not a mermaid. Some chap describes them as “a sturdy set of pins”. Damned with faint praise, poor maid. Now she dreams of knives. With a sharp blade she might pare off the surplus flesh and leave just “a clean curve of bone”. How blood-curdling, and at the same time, attractive! Reminds me of Donne’s “bracelet of bright hair about the bone” in ‘The Relic’, which I shoot off to revisit. (I like it when one poem sends me to another.)
That “clean curve of bone” has fixed my attention on bones, and in the very next toy, ‘The Derry Street Trials’, there are more of them:
If you can see the bones of her,
a jut of questions marks, a lack of marrow,
then she’s a skinny witch.
While the mermaid liked baring things back to the bones, this witch-finder loathes thinness. Skinny witches are “the worst”. Indeed, here be more female-oriented concerns (there are masses of women in this book), as well as ideas about thinness and fatness, with fat as deliberate disguise. Shifting shapes and shapeshifting. And hey — guess what’s lurking in the third poem (‘Leverets’)? Yes, more bones! This time an “empty house” shifts “the bones of itself” while a little girl sleepwalks. Spooky. Then the fourth poem features poltergeists, spirits and changelings, while the fifth has balloons as “ghosts”. The next(‘Bird’) throws in “the hollow bones / of hungry pelican”. This box of toys is jam-packed with inter-textual connections! Sometimes a verbal repetition makes the link; sometimes it’s similar motifs or ideas rattling away like … bones. I spend ages tracking individual words from one poem to the next. Maybe poems can connect like jigsaw pieces. Sometimes a box of toys adds up to more than each individual plaything.
When I get to ‘Walking on Water, Beginners Class’ I stick around and play for a good while. This cool toy makes me laugh. The eight stanzas have no fewer than fourteen footnotes, and the business of reading a line before zooming down to its associated note is most amusing! I like the contrast of tone between the poem and its feet (as it were). For example, the opening phrase is ‘Expect to get wet’, and then in tiny print at the bottom of the page:
Course unsuitable for non-swimmers and/or agnostically inclined.
You can’t read this poem in any conventional way. And it, too, has numerous links with other pages: legs, body weight, body image, water, faith, miracles. How on earth has a Möbius loop got in? It’s here for the devil of it! By now I’m thinking of the whole volume as a slinky. Place it at the top of my mental stairs and it tipple-topples its own way forward, intricately interconnected. Onwards and downwards.
Does it work to think about these poems as toys? It’s certainly refreshing
Does it work to think about these poems as toys? It’s certainly refreshing. And maybe it offers a new angle for a jaded reviewer. But the issue of evaluation is still bugging me, because I know we don’t like our toys equally. Some are far more entertaining than others. We play with those more often, at least until the novelty wears off. Each child has its own personal response, and it can’t be faked. So I think there has to be an element of evaluation in a review, even though the reviewer’s just another player. Maybe the key is in taking ownership, making the response personal. Ideally, imaginative responses to new books of poetry should start conversations. But they can’t offer verdicts. Never ever verdicts.
Hey, reader – are you still there? Because I need to say that the toy metaphor doesn’t cover everything I want to talk about. Poems are made of language, and language is weird. It’s hard for me to conceive of a language artefact as an object. So I haven’t managed to talk about Emma Simon’s sentences yet, though they intrigue me. She uses an unusual number of fragments, by which I mean groups of words with no active verb. For example, ‘Quantum Theory of Moss’ is entirely made of them. Not one finite verb, so each sentence is not grammatically ‘correct’, which is not to say it doesn’t work. Quite the reverse, in fact. Sometimes these fragments are short (“Dishevelled grass. A mop to blot the dew.”) but at least one extends, in the form of a list, over several lines:
Entwined necklaces strung with emerald beads,
a glass of chartreuse drunk among the weeds,
spring-soft mattress and morning after hairdo.
‘Quantum Theory of Moss’ is also a rhyming sonnet, though only intermittently iambic, with the last line long and perhaps a little clunky (to me). But I do think this poet is hot on description. It looks effortless: she scoops up one phrase after another, a series of vivid visual images. For my money, this works particularly well in ‘The Alarms’, ‘Grandma Frankenstein’s Needle Book’ and the prize-winning ‘Mushrooms’ too (‘No silky petal swish.’ / ‘Mouths buttoned up.’).
I find this poet less satisfying when she’s using more conventional syntax. Or perhaps less skilful. For example, in ‘Nest of Scarves’:
Afterwards I folded up
the plastic carefully
to stop what particles
being lost in the stale air
of shoes and handbags
on my wardrobe floor.
I misread the lines above at first. I read them to mean this (I’m adjusting content slightly): “Afterwards I folded up the plastic to stop the particles that remained drifting from being lost in the stale air …”. So I didn’t see why there was a comma after ‘drifting’. But I should have read: “Afterwards I folded up the plastic to stop the particles from drifting, from being lost in the stale air …”. There’s a potential issue between ‘stop’, ‘remained’, ‘drifting’ and ‘being lost’. And yet this poem ends with my favourite sentence in the whole box of toys, a beautifully simple construction:
The scarves knot inside
the scent of a memory
with the memory of a scent.
Forgive me for being un-exciting. The fact is, my nerdy interests often focus on the nitty-gritty of sentence construction, especially where form is fairly free. If I get confused, I want to know why. Also how it might be different. If I admire the syntax, however, I want to try it out myself. So perhaps this is close to playing with toys, although maybe closer to the idea of games: the complex games we play with our toys. I take toys apart sometimes, especially Lego. Often I can’t put them back together again. In the case of Shapeshifting for Beginners, I dismantled several poems and examined their components. I’ve done this kind of thing before and I do find it pleasurable; so much so that the pieces are still all over the floor.
It occurs to me that Jon Stone’s prose essay is a toy in its own right (some toys are intensely serious). Ideas from it have been tumbling through my head kaleidoscopically while reading Shapeshifting. And still are. I’ve only touched on some of them, and perhaps not even the most far-reaching. In a sense, I’m toying with it on this very page, moving the ideas in and out to make different kinds of sense. I know I need to go back to the business of “eroding the boundary between general reader and reader of poetry” and how the principle of play might help in “demystifying the medium”. Poems Are Toys has considerable mileage for me. So I plan to play with it again, and invite my friends to do the same. It’s also a tool and has helped me in this review, which is also a piece about writing reviews.
Dear Review Reader, you’ve journeyed with me all this way, and I want to thank you. Or if I lost you earlier, c’est la vie. I’ve always liked writing reviews; I’ve spent over two decades working to get better at it. For me it’s not unlike structured talking. If I read a new collection and find it interesting, I feel compelled to talk about it. I want to share ideas, ask questions, explain how I see the poems. Why? Because I make them too, and it’s my business to be interested; it’s my business to deconstruct and learn. I find the whole thing enormously stimulating and, as a practitioner, not in the least pointless. But sometimes it does occur to me to wonder whether the poet’s having more fun than me. Isn’t the best fun of all making your own toy? That’s if (as poet Douglas Dunn might say) you have a toy to make. Which I might. Shapeshifting for Beginners gave me one or two ideas ….