Blair Mahoney: Poetry Reloaded

Mahoney, Blair (2009), Poetry Reloaded, Cambridge University Press
ISBN 9780521746618

If you know me, you know I collect and recommend books on poetry; I keep recommending especially introductions to poetry. Good introductions are hard to come by, especially as my chosen field of specialty is often not well served by critics. And it’s worse for children. The few good introductions and guides I know are targeted at adults and mostly not fit to be used with younger kids. The only book I ever found commendable for children was Randall Jarrell’s effulgent The Bat-Poet, which remains highly recommended to all and any. There is now, however, a new book that I would add to said list.

An Australian teacher called Blair Mahoney has just published Poetry Reloaded, which is, strictly speaking, a textbook for teenage students, but it’s actually a great introduction into poetry that I recommend to anyone who might be interested in it. It’s fresh, well conceived and very well written. But, oh, you don’t have to take my word for it. If you follow this link, you’ll land at the publisher’s page that allows you to view a couple of sample pages and a plethora of other kinds of information. In a field where even decent publications are few and far between, a book like Mahoney’s is not just welcome, it’s necessary.

In this country, as in others (see Stanley Fish’s commentary), the uselessness of the Humanities is frequently claimed, an assertion that supports and provides the rationale behind cuts at universities and schools. As someone who’s currently preparing a phd on American poetry, my everyday concerns can seem downright quixotic when I look at the syllabus of our department and its academic priorities. Poetry matters! He shouts at the windmills. But appreciation of poetry doesn’t just fall into yr lap just like that, or it doesn’t usually. Reading poetry, properly appreciating it required a special kind of knowledge. To instil this knowledge, this capability of appreciating poems we often, and rightly so, turn to introductions, simple as this may sound.

For adults, who are ready to invest work on their own accord, who may see the worth of acquiring a knowledge of poetry, good introductions abound, by poets and critics both. There is mediocre poet Timothy Steele’s (for sentimental reasons, I think, Steele’s even less accomplished student Vikram Seth has been granted a place in Mahoney’s book) very good introduction, there is The Making of a Poem , Mark Strand’s and Eavan Boland’s amazing anthology, there are various books by Mary Oliver and Mary Kinzie, both highly accomplished poets in their own right. And then there are other books, collections of critical writings or interviews that can be enlightening, as well (J.D. McClatchy would be an example of such an enlightening writer).

But kids? Of all my close high school friends I was the only one who stuck with poetry and made it his life. The poetry classes at university tend to be rather empty; it gets so bad that a friend of mine suggested reading Billy Collins in school to get kids to like poetry. We need to have writers and books who both seduce children into liking poetry and challenge them at the same time. We don’t need to push the likes of Collins on kids, assuming they’re too dense to understand anything else. What we need are books like Poetry Reloaded. Blair Mahoney uses poems by the divine John Donne, he may start a chapter with a poem by Collins but proceeds, in the same chapter, to use Sandburg, Plath and Hardy. He may put in Seth’s waffle but the poem used just before is Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”. If I had world enough and time, I’d go into further details, but suffice to say that Mahoney’s project is remarkable and the end result, as far as I see it, is terrific.

So, if you feel the need to turn to an introduction, if you have someone to introduce to poetry, I advise you to turn to Blair Mahoney’s fine and lively introduction, born from many years’ experience as a teacher, according to the bio on the publicity page I linked above. Poetry matters, remember. A mind is a terrible thing to waste. Mahoney’s book is out this week. Don’t miss it. I’ll close with the first lines of another great text that is used in the book, Beddoes’s “Last Man”:

Sing on, sing ever, and let sobs arise
Beneath the current of your harmony,
Breaking its silvery stillness into gushes
Of stealing sadness: let tears fall upon it,
And burst with such a sound, as when a lute-string,
Torn by the passion of its melody,
Gasps its whole soul of music in one sound,
And dies beneath the waves of its own voice!

mahoney