Actions and Travels: How Poetry Works by Anna Jackson
THE WEDNESDAY REVIEW
Actions & Travels: How Poetry Works
by Anna Jackson
Published: March 2022
Reviewed by Bryan Walpert
Some years back, but still well within recent memory, a minor stoush erupted about the selection of Jenny Bornholdt’s poetry collection The Rocky Shore as the winner of what was then called the Montana New Zealand Book Award for Poetry.
Judges praised the work because it ‘disobeys the rules that poetry should be compressed rather than sprawling, that it should avoid the personal, that it should eschew ‘unpoetic’ elements, that it should not include digressions or speculations about imponderables.’ Another poet argued this was precisely why it shouldn’t have won: ‘Take away the line breaks and the author’s name and you are left with a memoir. Subject manner, treatment, style, use of language … this is memoir. Not poetry.’
Significantly, though they had different views about the award, the judge and this poet agreed on a narrow view of what the ‘rules’ were at the time when it came to poetry. I found this disappointing, having fairly recently come from the U.S., where the so-called rules of poetry were constantly being broken, rewritten, broken again—and where ‘sprawl’ was part of poetry’s history and toolkit.
I was very happy, therefore, to encounter Anna Jackson’s new book Actions & Travels: How Poetry Works. Her book takes a broad view of poetry, one that welcomes the expansive alongside the compressed—noting the long history for both—and is happy to consider poems along multiple other spectra. She even has a chapter called ‘Sprawl’, which starts appropriately with a quote from a poem in Bornholdt’s book and then takes us from the iconic American poet Walt Whitman in 1856 to the contemporary NZ poet Paula Green.
Neither textbook nor scholarly intervention, Actions & Travels is instead more like a guide to a country whose landscapes, vistas and history await discovery for the curious first-time visitor and further discovery for the returnee. She aptly concludes the book with a set of useful writing prompts for those inspired enough by the journey to want to contribute to the tradition. An associate professor in English literature at Victoria University of Wellington/Te Herenga Waka, Jackson has impeccable credentials as a poet—seven poetry collections with Auckland University Press, including a New & Selected—and is an author of two scholarly books, among others. She makes for a deeply knowledgeable, warm and enthusiastic guide to the territory.
Actions & Travels has any number of strengths. One of these is the diversity of poems across place and time: William Butler Yeats next to Bill Manhire, Catullus beside Janet Charman, John Donne by James K. Baxter. You needn’t love all of the poems on offer, but you will certainly find plenty to enjoy (she notes the reader will encounter 100 poems), as well as much to discover: even if you’re a long-time poetry nerd like me, I suspect you’ll find, as I did, poems you didn’t know and poems you knew but can now read differently.
New Zealand poets have, of course, a strong presence in her book. But it was particularly good to see a solid American representation—including such important contemporary African-American poets as Terrance Hayes and Jericho Brown. This sounds partisan and will possibly generate hate mail (please direct to the Academy of New Zealand Literature, which commissioned this review, as my inbox is full), but the fact is that U.S. poetry has had a strong influence on poetics here.
This was acknowledged by the editors (Bornholdt among them) of An Anthology of New Zealand Poetry in English back in 1996. They wrote, ‘in the last three decades, local poets have turned more and more to American models, enriching and complicating the notion of tradition.’ Such influences tend more recently to be less publicly acknowledged, so it was good to see Jackson affirm, for instance, that it is the ‘contemporary American poets who are the most important influences on [Hera Lindsay] Bird’s work’. It seemed evident to me then, but discussions of Bird’s work, when it burst into public consciousness in 2016, tended to treat it as something completely fresh, as though it appeared ex nihilo.
One of the book’s surprises is its sometimes idiosyncratic groupings. Sometimes Jackson groups poems by craft, e.g. the chapters ‘Concision, composition & the image’ and ‘Form.’ But other chapters are held together very broadly by style, e.g. chapters on ‘Simplicity & resonance’ or ‘The ornate & the sumptuous’ (and the aforementioned ‘Sprawl’), or by subject matter, e.g. political poetry (‘Poetry in a house on fire’), ‘Conversations with the past’ and ‘Poetry & the afterlife.’ There is one chapter called ‘Letters & odes,’ which tends toward what I would call mode.
The advantage of this diverse approach to grouping poems is that it provides for appreciation rather than pedagogy to act as the lens. That is, though this book will teach you plenty, its primary interest is in revealing some of the things one particular reader—Jackson—has over time learned to appreciate about poetry. As she explains in her introduction, ‘I just write about poems I love and what I love about them.’
Such broad groupings also provide a means to see how certain aspects of poetry cut across time and style, taking on local textures. This permits Jackson to suggest in efficient fashion, for instance, how understanding ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ by the modernist William Carlos Williams allows for greater appreciation of Bornholdt’s poem ‘Photograph.’ This is a useful example for any teacher of poetry: one, in fact, of many such instances that suggest the broad audience—from novice to writer to teacher—to which this book will appeal. I was quite taken, for instance, by the link Jackson draws between traditional odes and contemporary poems written as though they were letters, one of those obvious links that are only obvious once someone sufficiently experienced has insightfully pointed it out; I’ll no doubt draw from that in my classes.
There are occasionally, to my mind, downsides to these groupings. On the one hand, the conception of these sections proved at times narrower than I might have preferred. For instance, her chapter on the ode, given the link to letter-writing, tends to narrowly focus on direct address (formally, ‘apostrophe’), when, in fact, odes encompass a far greater territory (just what an ode is has puzzled critics for hundreds of years, hence the diversity). On the other hand, her groupings at times were broad enough to blur the lines between important sub-genres or modes worth more distinct attention, e.g. the traditions of love poetry and the elegy. Elegy is such an important mode in poetry—the elegiac such an often-sounded note—that I was surprised to find little attention to it as a distinct approach, even in her final, beautiful chapter ‘Poetry & the afterlife.’
Another strength is Jackson’s careful readings, which at their best elucidate the complexities of the poem in ways that are accessible and which suggest why we might appreciate it. This comes through, for instance, in her reading of Hone Tuwhare’s poem ‘Hotere,’ as she draws our attention to ‘the perfectly placed colloquialisms’ and the effect of the ‘rising inflection’ of the tone—casual though the language might appear, she clarifies that these are strategic decisions. It comes through, too, when she suggests that the ‘slashes within lines’ of essa may ranapiri’s ‘she cuts herself shaving’ ‘suggest rupture and allow ambiguity.’ In general, I admired how well Jackson balanced a close reading of a poem’s careful use of technique with the need for accessibility to a non-scholarly audience.
Still, though largely guided by the lens of appreciation and a discourse suited to the non-scholar, the approach of the book is just occasionally uneven. For instance, she does lean toward potentially challenging close readings when she gets to Sappho and Catullus in her interesting chapter ‘Conversations with the past,’ when she elucidates the differences between various translations and adaptations to suggest a subtle ‘play of difference and identity.’ For instance, she draws on scholarship and etymological analysis here in far more detail than elsewhere, noting ‘Classics scholar and translator Daniel Mendelsohn observes that the Latin word for ‘‘repeatedly” , identidem, is derived from the repetition of the word idem, or “same,” and in turn gives us the concept of identity.’
This already risks treading onto abstruse territory for a non-scholarly book seemingly aimed at the non-specialist, even the novice. She then goes on to provide on that page a lengthy scholarly quote from Mendelsohn: ‘In ordering the words out of which he creates his own version of Sappho, he puts the adverb adversus, ‘‘opposite,” immediately next to identidem,’ the effect being, Mendelsohn concludes, ‘to make you hear the words opposite and same after the other: otherness, alterity, and sameness, identity, are exquisitely contraposed.’
Personally, I loved the brief deeper dive into scholarly distinctions and vocabulary (‘alterity’)—I learned something, and it has the advantage both of showcasing Jackson’s passion for these poets (she has two poetry collections that engage with Catullus) and suggesting just how important subtle language choices can be to the complex effects of a poem. But from the broader view of the project, it is distinct from the sort of discussion we find elsewhere in the book.
If, on the one hand, the subtle extended attention to Catullus might go just a bit far for some readers, at other times I wished she had aimed the impressive lens of her experience more fully on some of the other poems. For instance, Jackson is such a keen reader that I’d love to hear her explicate, say, Kay Ryan’s poem ‘Linens,’ which she touches on only briefly in discussing ‘concision.’ She does glide lightly through some poems who could easily withstand greater scrutiny toward useful ends. In discussing form, she might have noted that Elizabeth Bishop’s use of the sestina is apt because it performs the sorts of cycles it describes, which would usefully suggest how form and meaning intertwine. Given her interest in the ways that poems converse with the past, she might have observed in discussing Terrance Hayes’ sonnet, which he calls a ‘prison’ and ‘a box of darkness with a bird in its heart,’ that it recalls the famous poem ‘Sympathy’ (1899) by the African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar: ‘I know why the caged bird beats his wing / till its blood is red on the cruel bars.’
Similarly, she draws on Jericho Brown in her chapter on ‘Form’ to offer a terrific reading of his use of the sonnet to create a new form. But it seems a missed opportunity given the topic of that chapter not to discuss Brown’s amazing facility with the line break. His work, which would work well alongside Jackson’s attention to line break in Marianne Moore’s ‘The fish,’ often suggests how fundamental the line break can be to meaning, the way a line in Brown’s hands so often implies the sentence will conclude one way then, after the break, concludes in a much more surprising one.
Of course, there also are the inevitable might-have-beens with regard to which poets to include. I would have given more attention in ‘Sprawl’ (okay, that subject is close to my heart), for instance, to such poets as Alan Shapiro, Mark Doty or Barbara Hamby (and indeed to Bornholdt) to suggest how sprawl might encompass both the expository and evocative, and might suggest how the reliance on syntax in such poems becomes itself a dazzling art.
It is the job of a reviewer to point out such things. Then again, re-reading my concerns, I keep coming back to this: So what? What of the fact that I might have done things differently, preferred different poets, argued for different distinctions? That’s poetry—a field in which there are no answers, only arguments. That, after all, is what makes poetry a living art form, makes it a community rather than a museum, filled with interest and beauty and surprise. This more or less is the point of Jackson’s useful and approachable book, which generously and successfully characterises poetry as a long, interesting conversation worth entering.
The interesting idiosyncrasies of her choices and structure are in fact part and parcel of Jackson’s implicit argument about the relationship between the reader and the poem. She doesn’t expect a reader to agree with her choices or her opinions. She says so directly, urging the reader to peruse and consider the poems (she provides a web link to them) before reading any given chapter, thus ‘forming their own sense of the poems that can be compared with mine.’
Her argument for the role of the reader is implicit, too, in the epigraph from the poet Anne Carson, who provides the source of the book’s title. The epigraph suggests that the poem is always a dynamic relationship between text and reader: ‘I think a poem, when it works, is an action of the mind captured on the page, and the reader, when he engages it, has to enter into that action. His mind repeats that action and travels again through the action…’
What Jackson wants, as I see it, is not to argue for her readings or her distinctions and groupings as fundamental or unassailable—simply reasonable and appreciative. What I think she wants most is for readers, whatever they decide about a given poem, to be touched by poetry and to engage with it. As the epigraph from Carson concludes: ‘by the time you get to the end you’re different than you were at the beginning and you feel that difference.’
I called Jackson’s a guide to the country that is poetry—it is, though not for the gawking tourist, but rather, one I would happily recommend for the intrepid and curious traveller.
Bryan Walpert is the author of four poetry collections, most recently Brass Band to Follow (Otago UP), two scholarly books about poetry and three books of fiction. His novel Entanglement (Mākaro Press) is shortlisted for the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction at the 2022 Ockham New Zealand national book awards.