Monday, September 12, 2016

Book Review: Where I'm From

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Where I’m From

Author: George Ella Lyon

Author's web site:

Date: 1999

Publisher: Absey & Co.

ISBN: 978-1-888842-12-8

Length: 100 pages

Illustrations: black-and-white photos by Robert Hoskins

Quote: “[P]oetry…wasn’t invented to be hard to understand or to belong to a few people only…Poetry is for you. It’s in you…this book is to help you see and say that.”

The subtitle of Where I’m From is Where Poems Come From. Lyon is from Kentucky, and the poems in this book are about things, places, and people in Kentucky, but this is not just another of Lyon’s poetry collections. This one is a textbook for writing groups from grades four or five up.

Like many currently practicing poets, Lyon has been a visiting-poet-in-public-schools. The defining assumption of her book, perhaps typical of this type of poets, is that students are unduly intimidated by traditional explorations of Poetic Form and need to be encouraged to think of just about any words that may come to their minds as “a poem.” Like most visiting-poets-in-schools, Lyon does have a sense of which of the words she’s written have formed “poems” and which have not, but—like anyone who’s ever tried to define the difference between a non-metrical “poem” and a good piece of short prose—she doesn’t quite succeed in explaining that sense to readers.

“Pick a piece of the material world that matters to you, whether you love, hate, treasure, or are just intrigued by it…write down every response the object calls forth in you. It’s fine to write in phrases, rather than sentences, and don’t worry about whether they make sense…You’re not writing a poem at this point; you’re making a list.”

Yes, and what, exactly, is the difference between one of Walt Whitman’s “catalogue”-style poems and the jottings of a fourth grade student? A lot of people disagree with me when I say: poems differ from prose in having some sort of audible pattern, and although the pattern can consist of rhythm or alliteration or rhetorical structure rather than rhyme, if you don’t see and hear the pattern what you’re reading is a piece of mindfully written prose.

Either the poem or the prose may be good, bad, or mediocre; that’s a different question, I contend. Prose is not writing that started out to be a poem and failed. Prose is writing that, perhaps because of its length or its intended use, doesn’t depend on having an audible pattern so much as on informing, persuading, or entertaining the reader or listener. There’s good poetry and bad poetry, not to mention Bad Poetry as a comedy genre; there’s good prose and bad prose. I mention this because, by my definition, most of what Lyon presents here are quite good pieces of short, mindful prose.

        “It was a mirror too
        for faces not yet set,
        for any unknown princess trapped
        with a strange family in the sticks.”

I think this is as good a description of a metal bucket lid as any I’ve read. I merely affirm that it doesn’t need to be printed as if it had even the jingling kitchen-to-nursery structure of

        “hundreds of things
        thousands of things
        look’em and poke’em
        soak’em and cook’em
        with sowbelly meat
        to make the soup sweet”

“For a Super Soup-Bean Supper” may be more of a nursery rhyme than what some people call a Poem (those people really ought to spell “poem” with a capital P) but it does have a poetic form; the second half, at least, of “The Syrup Bucket Lid” would sound equally good, and look less pretentious and thus (I say) “better,” in the form of “It was a mirror, too, for faces not yet set, for any unknown princess trapped with a strange family in the sticks.” The carriage return, or line break, after “for faces not yet set” is not really necessary to give any reasonably sensitive reader the image of a bored, dreamy middle-schooler turning the battered piece of metal in her hands, discovering, from certain peculiar angles, the illusion of grown-up facial bones in her unformed little-kid face. We have so been there…and we can get back there, in memory, without superfluous line breaks.

But that’s a quibble. The purpose of a middle school “poetry” session is to remind children to take time out from the drudgery of learning to shape neat letters and use correct punctuation, and get back into touch with the idea of writing for the pleasure of self-expression. For that purpose, whether we use “poems” or “short prose exercises” to describe the things kids write in their too-short, too-few breaks from the public school routine probably doesn’t matter. If using this book with children (or English as a Second Language) students I think I’d go ahead and say “poems,” even though what I’d mean, in that context, would really be closer to “coffee breaks for the brain.”

Among adults, especially among writers, I think a clear distinction between poems, mindful self-expressive prose, and simply informative prose is useful. But I’m ranting about this because I think Lyon’s book can be as useful to adult writing groups as it is to middle school groups. Serious writers can note that it contains serviceable examples of formed poems, sometimes in new forms—

        blue bumps
        tightening the forehead
        pump knots
        stretching the scalp
        beaded knees
        grazed on a steel mat”

—and also of typographical-twirk-infested, mindfully written prose, and work from there, for pleasure and perhaps for profit. This book offers something for everybody.

Readers do need to accept a certain amount of subcultural pride. “Soup-Bean Supper,” not “bean soup for supper.” “Pump knots,” not “contusions.” People in Kentucky use those words and Lyon insists that readers concede that they belong in poems, right up there with

        “We real cool. We
        Left school.…”

and the whole idea of trying to write haiku in English. Which the position of this web site is, most definitely, that they do. 

(Why did Amazon accept "we," but not "We real cool," as a word to which to link a collection of Gwendolyn Brooks' poems? I have no idea.)

Where I'm From is a Fair Trade Book, meaning that when you buy a used copy here ($5 per book, $5 per package, $1 per online payment) we send $1 to Lyon or a charity of her choice. If you buy eight copies, assuming that the Post Office still uses packages into which I can wedge eight books by that time, you send $45 (U.S. postal order) or $46 (Paypal) to either address at the very bottom of the screen (below the Amazon gift cards widget), and Lyon or her charity gets $8. If you buy one copy of Where I'm From and ask for copies of Lyon's other books, prices vary--generally, as long as a book is primarily being sold as "new," this web site will ask you to buy a "new" copy since our purpose is to encourage writers. You may, however, order any combination of books that can be squeezed into one package, by any combination of past and present writers, whether you've found posts about the books here or not.