Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Book Review: Ordinary Genius

Note: I've got less than a week before my next work packet is due for grad school. So um... today's essay/post is actually my annotation of Kim Addonizio's fantastic Ordinary Genius.

Seriously, if you are at all interested in poetry (writing or reading it) buy this book. It is extraordinary. 

It was difficult to read quickly because the rich slew of wisdoms and practical exercises/suggestions constantly tug the reader toward their own notebooks and ideas. Ordinary Genius leaves its reader hungry for the possibility of their own literary actions (whether its reading or writing). It reads like an intense flirtation, extremely playful and forthright. All of the challenges/exercises arouse rather than intimidate the reader. Which is admirable considering the wealth of materials Addonizio refers to/recommends as well as those she quotes or includes wholesale. She never lets the book get dull and it is clear that Addonizio has love, joy, passion, frustration, and fascination with the craft of poetry.

Ordinary Genius was viciously difficult for me personally to get through quickly because I wanted to stop and respond to every prompt. Consequently I wrote much more poetry this month thanks to these prompts, my notebooks is now littered with the heading “prompt from O.G.: ”.

Not only does it include multiple specific examples of craft elements Addonizio also includes non-examples and portraits of what not to do (usually written by herself). Because of its well controlled and wide ranging references and its approachability Ordinary Genius would be an absolutely fantastic textbook for a beginning or intermediate poetry course. Its sections are equally well suited to being used in a modular take-what-you-like fashion or as a workbook that students could move through slowly and consecutively.

For use in a modular fashion I highly recommend the following sections for beginners: 1. leaping into the dark; 10. read this; 11. identity 1: boys, girls & bodies; 12. three meditations; and 15. me myself & I. And I recommend the following for more advanced/intermediate poets: 22. metaphor 1: the shimmer; 23. white heat, necessary coldness; 24. bag of tricks; 28. music & meter; 29. write a sonnet; and 34. do-overs & revisions.

As a poet who often has the habit of overwriting I was the most intrigued and challenged by section 23. white heat, necessary coldness in which Addonizio quotes Anton Chekhov:

*see below for my feels about the "he or she"
This is a balance I am now on the lookout for in my revisions. Addonizio's identifies of this poetic principle in simple terms. her doing so clearly demonstrates an ability to create space in her work for readers with different levels of skill and experience with poetry. This “coldness” is a sophisticated balance to strike. One beginning (and even seasoned) poets may not succeed in achieving, but one they will absolutely benefit from being able to recognize.

Addonizio has an absolute knack for selecting appropriate examples of craft principles she's trying to illustrate. The range of examples chosen restricts itself to no time period or specific poetic style. But it's not just the exercises and suggested readings that make Ordinary Genius such a gem.

The way she groups and explores concepts of creativity, practice, poetry, and human experience is succinct and inviting. In the section read this she frees writers and potential poetry enthusiasts from what I see as the biggest barrier to entering the world of poetry: 

This comes after her personal anecdote about being touched by a Keats poem but not understanding many of its complexities for years. On the first page of the first section of Ordinary Genius she states that
There is a lot of uncertainty in any creative act. Some people love this—it's what draws them, over and over, to make something out of nothing. Other people can't seem to get past it; they don't want to confront the unknown. It's useful to recognize that uncertainty is going to be there, however you feel about it.
My only critique of this book has to do with its somewhat simplistic presentation of gender roles and gender rhetoric. Despite how transgressive and important I find the content and exercises in the section on gender identity I was bothered by assumptions that go along with her use of “the opposite sex” and her use of *“he or she” where “they” would be more inclusive. Because of the section's either/or approach to gender I found myself ill equipped to participate in many of the exercises. However, I definitely think they are very valuable prompts!

Ordinary Genius is so much more than just a workbook about “how to write good poems”. It breaks open the how's and why's of what makes poetry so powerful culturally and personally and then tied that back to actionable craft elements. All of the advice and exercises come from a deep and true observations about how poetry functions as a force of human nature. I highly recommend it to any poet/writer looking for a good read and a little something to kick their practice in the ass. I especially recommend it to writers new to poetry or just feeling insecure about their place in its admittedly strange and intimidating depths. Ordinary Genius is your perfect guide.

No comments:

Post a Comment