Jul/Aug 2008  •   Reviews & Interviews

No Common Commonplace Book

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Quote Poet Unquote.
Dennis O'Driscoll.
Copper Canyon Press. 2008. 355 pp.
ISBN 1-55659-270-6.

Surely, among the most satisfying books in a poet's library—those poets who maintain a personal library—are the reference books. An excellent dictionary, with word derivations, is a pleasure to read on its own merits. Specialized versions such as Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Farmer and Henley's Slang and its Analogues, Bierce's Devil's Dictionary, and The Wordsworth Dictionary of Proverbs can be even more entertaining. These are books which can be depended upon to supply 20 minutes of delight filled reading, again and again, while the average book of poetry waits disconsolately nearby.

Who can open the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics without wandering afield after the business at hand has been taken care of? Who Cuddon's Dictionary of Literary Terms? The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes? And then there are the books that might better be categorized as "auxiliary" or "popular" reference works: Flexner's Listening to America, for just one example, or any of the dozen or so titles by Charles Earle Funk.

My personal favorite from among the reference genre is Chambers's Cyclopedia of English Literature: a History, Critical and Biographical, of British Authors, from the Earliest to the Present Times. I have long cherished my closely printed two volume 1863 version (a three volume reprint of the 1879 version is currently available). At 1600 pages it is a treasure trove of information and entertainment. Every British writer, major and minor, of poetry and/or prose, is provided a biography suitable to his or her historical importance. Selections from the work of all but the most minor follow the biographies. Each literary period is introduced with an essay.

New versions of the Cyclopedia appeared, it would seem, until 1903. I keep hoping that some particularly industrious editor will think to update it to include all English language poets of note through the present day. It would be a wonder.

With the appearance of Dennis O'Driscoll's Quote Poet Unquote, we now have another classic reference volume, a Bartlett's Quotations targeted to the poetry world. O'Driscoll himself prefers to think of his book as "a commonplace book: a contemporary compilation, not a canonical work of reference." The reader may choose her or his own preferred label. Call it what he or she will, I suggest, so long as they call it a book on their shelf.

Among its sterling qualities Quote Poet Unquote is gratifyingly full of combative and contradictory remarks. Each entry being sourced and dated, it is clear that much of the dissonance is a matter of the year that the comment was made. When Joseph Brodsky says:

The charge frequently leveled against poetry nowadays of being difficult, obscure, hermetic, and whatnot indicates not the state of poetry but, frankly, the rung of evolutionary ladder on which society got stuck.
           —Joseph Brodsky, Poetry Review, Winter 1991-92 [184]

There need be little doubt that the comment was made well before the year 2000. When Billy Collins, on the other hand, says:

So-called difficult poetry is often very rude. It ignores the presence of the reader. It wants to be an act of writing taking place in front of you, but it doesn't want to address you.
           —Billy Collins, Portsmith Herald, 23 January 2005 [183]

one can be equally confident that the comment was made after that year. On most of the occasions that this pattern does not hold true the quote is sure to come from one or another aged poet emeritus commenting after 2000.

And then there is the exception to the rule:

Poems have become reflexively, wearyingly, claustrophobically (or is that agoraphobically?) personal, seeking nothing but miniature epiphanies, like so many needles in the disorderly haystack of life. Poets retail the meager incidents of their lives, even if they've suffered nothing worse than an IRS audit, a bicycle accident, and a headache.
           —William Logan, The Undiscovered Country, 2005 [28]

The objurgatory Logan is among the poets and/or critics most frequently quoted in Quote Poet Unquote. Among O'Driscoll's other favorites are Seamus Heaney (49 entries), Charles Simic (27), Billy Collins (27), and Don Paterson (23). Jorie Graham manages to stand out as much as anyone quoted in spite of having only 11 entries and Mu'ammar al-Gadhafi in spite of having only one (the same number as Camille Paglia). 757 contemporary poets and critics are quoted in all.

Book reviewing is among the 64 topics covered (under the heading "In Critical Mood"). Strangely, there is no notable pre-/post-2000 fissure among the quotes in the section. "Discrimination is needed. Without it," Michael Hamburger writes:

...art succumbs to the randomness of commercialism, in which the shoddy product can displace the well-made and durable simply by being more effectively marketed.
           —Michael Hamburger, Testimonies, 1989 [246]

Les Murray, for his part, feels that:

Criticism is our jailer. Poetry should be sprung from it so that it is as natural a form of reading as a novel.
           —Les Murray, The Independent, 11 May 1994 [246]

Precisely how Murray's comment relates to criticism-qua-reviewing it is difficult to say. Regardless, this is one reviewer who is under the illusion that novels are every bit as "jailed" as poetry. Still more deluded, this reviewer is under the impression that publishers of poetry frequently bemoan how impossible it is to get jailed these days.

There is actually a 65th category in Quote Poet Unquote. Unlike the others, however, it is not assigned its own 2-10 pages. It is heavily sprinkled throughout the book.

In the present climate, where poetry is less a fate and more a career-choice... the level of conformity, from what is said and not said and about whom, to the invisible pecking order and the smart casual dress code, makes a bankers' convention, by comparison, seem a riot of anarchy.
           —Harry Clifton, Metre, Autumn 2002 [102]

The category is humor. Usually the quotes in this category are quite short:

A friend once borrowed [my early poems], and when he gave them back he asked "When are you publishing the answers?"
           —Norman McCaig, The Independent [181]

Often the better term is "wit":

Poet Laureate Andrew Motion has admitted to using chemical stimulation to help him write poetry—a daily cup of cold remedy Lemsip... A spokesman for Lemsip manufacturer Reckitt Benckiser assured users: "It is fair to say that it doesn't cause poetry in most people."
           —Unattributed, BBC News online, 15 October 2002 [207]

It is difficult to believe that a reader could possibly read even a handful of pages from this work without at least once laughing out loud and many more times thinking more deeply about poetry than is generally the case.

Previously published in Great Britain, under the title Bloodaxe Book of Poetry Quotations, the Copper Canyon Press has wisely added Quote Poet Unquote to its list. This is a book with a potentially limitless shelf life.

In fine, Dennis O'Driscoll's Quote Poet Unquote is a book that belongs in every well-appointed library.


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