I’ve always sworn that the day I actually use the cliché designation ‘a tour de force’ is the day I should stop writing reviews, but I can honestly say that phrase, at its most genuine sentiment, is what needs to be bannered across the cover of this book, practically as a genre all its own.
I should admit some bias here–as a young poet directly in the middle of earning the degree everyone and their grandmother has an opinion on, the MFA, this book felt almost supernaturally conscious of me and many of my own convictions and concerns regarding poetry. Young’s accusations are nearly universally my own; his passionate beliefs are ones I myself share and his articulation of them not only offers the welcome comfort of knowing that I Am Not Alone In This Room, but also that they have been spelled out far more brilliantly than I could hope to.
The accusation here, to boil many down to one, is ‘simply’ that poetry has been relegated far too often (and far too easily) to the realm of craft, with all the neatness, perfection, and of course streamlined efficiency one might associate with that word. What has become neglected, Young asserts, is the primitive, the way that poetry might be seen to spring forth both out of and in response to our ‘first needs’, the so-called human pang, a kind of emotional and spiritual dialogue with everyone and no one, transcribed literally.
The ‘answer’, to use a somewhat reductive label, is what one might expect, which is to say the opposite of the above. A return to this primitive, a dismissal of what Young calls ‘The dry-ice fog of experimental poetry’, among other examples of what we might term gimmickry. Young’s convictions seem to be settled bravely into a renaissance of sincerity, the very beginning of which is an acceptance of its validity.
Many of those even tangentially aware of the landscape of contemporary poetry will probably be quite familiar with the two poles of current belief, envisioned in this book as ramparts of sorts. On one extreme we find, forgive the term, ‘old school’ poets that hold firm beliefs regarding tradition, convention, ideas about indoctrination (watch them cringe at the word while getting red-in-the-face at those who run wild of being pulled in), and…well you get the idea. On the other we have newer, often times (but not always) younger poets, experimental in nature (they’ll get red too, just refuse to call them avant-garde!) that denounce all forms for the previously mentioned.
In this book, Young’s brilliance is his honest and often nearly incandescent way of finding a middle ground that in no way assumes any kind of compromise; this is not a matter of grey area, it’s a matter of worrying about shades to begin with. Both ‘sides’ have got it wrong, and they got that way by thinking there were really sides at all and then worrying about where they wanted to stand–often more sincerely, where they wanted to be seen standing.
On the very first page, Young proclaims “I believe in the divinity of profligacy”, and this serves perfectly enough as a capstone on the book as a whole. The poet must allow for mess, total carnage and wreckage, must not be afraid to be stained. Forget the cleanly ritualized balance of free writing and revising; one should organically work into the other. One idea among many, but the heart of the book.
This book is not a manifesto. Young’s aim is not to shake anyone up through hyperbole and insult. In many ways I perceived this book to be a prose equivalent to the kind of poetic activity Young both admires and hungers to see more of; there are no agendas here, no gimmicks or jingles. Young isn’t trying to sell anyone anything in this book, he’s only trying to take his own advice and get back to a primitive drive, the drive for a ‘first need’ to see this kind of discussion about poetry going on, any way that it has to happen.
Young’s love and pride for poetry as well as art as a whole is really the sheen on this book. This book defies any accusation regarding its own sincerity, and the effect on at least this reader is proof positive of its prescription’s validity, and efficacy.
(This review copy was received through the Goodreads First Reads contest.)