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A certain kind of essay collection is a meander through the writer's mind, all the anecdotes and stored associations, so that you begin to learn the patterns of their thought and the sort of metaphor they reach for naturally when required; and a certain other kind of essay collection is a rummage through the lumber-room of literature (not my phrase, Woolf's), showing you nooks and nails and facets you had not considered, the names and phrases you already recalled and the ones you ought to know and don't already. Carolyn Kizer's essay collection is, happily, both, because her vast acquaintanceship is in fact a room labeled American Poetry 1930- ; her father kept Vachel Lindsay in a room in the attic (the poet, I mean, not his work), and her essay about being shy explains that shyness is best explained as the thing that keeps you from saying more than two words to T.S. Eliot no matter how good a party everyone else thinks it might be.

This lends something of a pleasant, personal touch to her book reviews. This is mostly a collection of book reviews, with a few detours into autobiography and explication of personal symbolism, all directly relating to poetry, though it is not except around the edges a book about poetic technique. In general she is fond of books by poets and savage to books about them, a tendency I understand. She will fight to the death for the honor of Alexander Pope (as who should not?) and hates Sylvia Plath with a vicious personal hatred that is one of the only things not to admire here; she laughs at the very idea of trying to analyze Emily Dickinson and, in the book's centerpiece, comes quite close to convincing me that the nineteenth-century English poet John Clare is the major hole in the modern conception of that era's poetry.

It's a rambling mind and a large room, cross-connected, fluent, puritanical at peculiar intervals, politically radicalized but not overly bitter, with an unexpected religious streak that crops up seemingly at random and a quiet fervent feminist undercurrent that occasionally shows on the surface. Prose is a medium she works in pleasantly, though it is not her home and that is somewhat noticeable-- there are several places in which she says a thing, and then quotes her own poetry to better explain it, and the poetry is always more assured and more concise and far more striking. The final essay is a showstopper, though, a set of nested book reviews in which she uses the language and rhetoric of each poet she's already treated as part of her vocabulary to examine the next one, a cathedral-arched sort of thing that never even teeters on the edge of incomprehensibility despite the fact that it honestly ought to.

As a poet, I suspect Kizer has won her lasting cranny in that lumber-room, but as an essayist she is more than well enough to be getting along with, and her principal advice on the craft of poetry does make me think: if you haven't got strong verbs, she says, you just have nothing. I recommend this, if you're the sort of person who enjoys reading book reviews.


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March 2017

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