Wednesday, January 4, 2017



Booker's Point by Megan Grumbling
(University of North Texas Press, Denton, Texas, 2015)

A master of speech rhythms in poetry

Hal Holbrook, a widely admired actor and narrator, in the 1960s recorded poems by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow for Caedmon, which some readers may remember as the era's most high-profile producer of poetry readings on vinyl. In recent years the recordings have been digitized, so now for 99 cents you can download poems like “Paul Revere's Ride” and “The Arrow and the Song” (“I shot an arrow into the air, / It fell to earth, I knew not where”), which I did and got startled.

In Longfellow's poetry, the rhythms are regular and emphatic (see the lines above), and the rhymes are prominent features. Nowadays, though, we tend to think of prominently measured rhythms and rhymes as suspiciously sing-songy. This is because about a hundred years ago, brash young modernists were urging poets to “compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome,” as Ezra Pound put it; they wanted fresh poetry made of phrases people naturally speak instead of diction unnaturally twisted to fit set, stale rhythm patterns (aka meters) and the often forced, awkward rhyming conventional in the nineteenth century. As a result, most of the millions of poems written in American English since about 1950 or so flattened the sing-song, metronomic rhythms preferred in the nineteenth century into the far subtler rhythms of our everyday talk. Hence the phrase, “free verse.”

By the 1960s, Holbrook came to the Caedmon studios with the well-educated view that good poetry sounds like everyday speech – i.e., abstains from meter and rhyme. So his reading practically eliminates Longfellow's bouncing rhythms and de-emphasizes the rhymes. This startled me, because I love Longfellow's music. But it didn't seem anomalous to me because even now, fifty years on, we conventionally value mostly understated rhythms and rhymes.

Now “Booker's Point” by Megan Grumbling, who lives in Portland, Maine, features – true to the preferences of our time – whole poems cast in phrasing and diction natural to voices clearly identifiable (by those of us who live here, anyway) in Maine's backwoods. But what's startling is the extraordinary precision and coherence in the rhythmic structures of practically every line and passage.

The book's first few poems shape the voices of Maine storytellers with unsettling accuracy. The first two lines in “Some Kind of Hunter,” the opening poem, are for all intents and poetic purposes, perfectly made:

He coaxed a pregnant woman right across
the river, and it weren't no easy bridge.

It's almost like I've heard this actual sentence spoken at the checkout counter in Troy General Store, just down the road from my house in the Maine woods. The poem goes on in this storyteller's voice to draw an anecdotal portrait of “Bernard A. Booker, 1922-2008: Unofficial mayor of Ell Pond, Maine” (a real place in western Maine). In the narrative, Booker takes a pregnant woman from Vermont into the woods and, in his shrewd backwoods way, gets her to cross a cable bridge while carrying a hunting rifle.

The story is funny, and the following poems about Booker and about the speaker's recollections of him and her own (I guess it's often the poet herself recounting) contiguous autobiographical events, are pretty much uniformly vivid with woodsy, often mucky details, wry good humor and sometimes wistfulness.

But the fascinating dimension is Grumbling's handling of the rhythms and sounds of the voices that deliver the stories. In these poems, the rhythms, though mostly patterned on speech not meters, are yet so tightly coherent that you feel the lines break at their perfectly natural rhythmic points. This is not true of much contemporary poetry: Most of it is working highly fluid, subtle rhythms that might break a phrase one way, or maybe another and still not violate the poem's rhythmic flow. The rhythms in “Booker's Point” arise uncommonly precisely, like the rhythms of high jazz. Megan Grumbling is a master of fashioning natural speech rhythms into lines of formal poetry.

Even the poems of H.R. Coursen – who wrote some of the most rhythmically intricate and coherent verse in postwar Maine – rarely contain anything as tight in rhythm and perfect in diction as the opening of “Measures”:

White oak flesh grew up whorly all around
the slit where Booker fit a wooden plank,
knife-scored, to measure off his hauled-in fish.
For forty years, this notch between the oaks
has been the rule of fishing, neatly scratched
by two's from six to twelve, then every inch.

The poem goes on to talk about all kinds of measures of trees, fish, structures and time. But underneath, it's the iambic tendencies of our speech that are evoking the deepest sense of how Booker and all of us measure out our lives. This is form, to paraphrase Robert Creeley, extending exquisitely from content.

I'm not saying all these poems are easy reading. There are numerous passages containing what I've elsewhere called the high poetic diction of our time, which can trip up some readers. But it would be a great pleasure, for anybody, to hear Hal Holbrook read this poetry, if he was still doing that kind of thing. If you value backwoods characters and, moreover, their language handled at the highest range of skill, you should pick up this book.


Dana Wilde's reviews of poetry and fiction by Maine writers appear regularly in the Off Radar column in the newspapers. Hisrecent book is Summer to Fall: Notes and Numina from the Maine Woods.

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