Ok, a confession to begin with. I was somewhat taken aback by Jenny Bornholdt’s ‘assemble your own poem’ piece in “These Days”, and have been somewhat leery of her ever since. But I did try with this one, honest, I really did. (Several hours of my life that I’ll never get back.)
Why on earth is this book being sold as poetry?!
I’m not the only one to ask this. At some point I remember someone commenting on an earlier poem of mine, which resembles this one, saying some people might think it’s not poetry. Well … everything in this paragraph from the first full stop to the ellipsis was directly lifted from her ‘poem’ “Fitter Turner”.
And the whole book is like that. Ok, I accept that ‘long poems’ (and this book is six of them – two of which have appeared in previous collections) tend to be more expansive, more rambling, more discursive. But, dear god, they should at least still be poetic! Rhythm, word-music, patterned language … there’s no end to the list of poetic devices she avoids.
Her subject matter is almost exclusively personal: her father dies; she builds a shed; her kid gets sick; she gets sick; other people get sick; she moves plants around her garden; she makes bread; she wears pants. (Her own words: “I was thinking about personal poetry and how its not given much time of day any more,” (from ”Confessional”) – why is that, I wonder? A personal aside: try and guess where the line breaks go.)
Why pretend these are poems? There is a genre that they fit into much better – the memoir. Start looking at them this way and the arbitrary linebreaks actually harm the work. And it’s not a bad genre – one of my favourite Australian poets, Kate Llewellyn, has published glorious memoirs, which sell extremely well! So why insist on shoving these observations into too-tight shoes and whalebone corsets and calling them poetry?
Looking back at the Montana Judging Guidelines:
i) Language: What does the poet do with language? Is language used in original ways to fasten the poetry in the imagination and memory?
Ah, no. Language is used extremely flatly, and there are very few memorable images, let alone lines.
ii) Technique: Is the poet proficient in the use of form, patterning, rhyme scheme and lineation?
Not on the basis of this collection, no.
iii) Originality: Does the overall aesthetic effect and appeal of the work go beyond technical proficiency? Are issues explored in real depth in nuanced tones?
No. There is no attempt to go beyond the quotidian. Quite the opposite in fact (see quote from “Confessional” above).
iv) Integrated whole: Does the work produce a whole greater than the sum of its parts? Do the poems work together harmoniously to create a sense of unity, clarity and completeness? Are themes developed coherently?
It doesn’t manage to equal the sum of its own parts. You could, if feeling charitable, give it half a tick for tonal and thematic homogeneity. But bland on bland isn’t exactly a virtue. So no.
I think the thing that gets me the most is the feeling that it’s all some elaborate con-job. Which would be preferable to the idea that she is such a highly regarded poet in New Zealand because the people with influence have no idea what a poem actually is.
It’ll probably win the award.