Thursday, February 10, 2011

More Contemporary Poetry

Book Reviewed: The Common Man, by Maurice Manning

When I was writing up my review for Richard Siken's Crush last week, I realized just how important the Yale Series for Younger Poets has been in my contemporary poetry education. Siken, Jay Hopler, and Maurice Manning - three of my four favorite contemporary poets (Anne Carson being the other) - all had books that were chosen to be part of the series. If you're looking to get into contemporary poetry (an admittedly tough area to dive into by yourself), you really can't go wrong by picking up a book from the Series. Some are better than others, obviously, but there's a reason these books get chosen as the best fare from young poets in America. They are interesting and different and new. It really is a fantastic literary award.

Anyway, that's all a tangent of this review of Maurice Manning's latest book, The Common Man. All of Manning's books have a standalone structure that unites all the poems in the book. These interconnected poems tell a bigger story about a place or a person. I love Manning because of his 2007 collection, Bucolics, which was a series of poems about the relationship between the speaker - an ordinary farmer with a deep connection to nature - and God. It's an absolutely beautiful book full of original and meaningful images. The language is rooted in the speaker's southern rural voice, and all the images come from the land and its creatures. For anyone looking to get into poetry, it's one of the first I'd recommend.

So obviously, I was super-excited for The Common Man. At a reading Manning did at my alma mater a few years ago, he read some of these poems as he was working on them. These are poems about the world Manning knows best - rural Kentucky, where he was raised and still lives today. The poems seem to share a single speaker, someone who's lived in this world forever but has enough distance to look right at it and commentate on it. The language splits its time between being tried-and-true rural, full of expressions and sayings, and being a little removed from the world, a little bit more formal. I'm not sure that split between the language quite works here.

I'm sad to say that I didn't enjoy this book nearly as much as I'd hoped. I still think Manning sets up settings and scenes better than just about any poet out there, but this book seems to lack whatever it was that made Bucolics so special. I think a major problem is the poetic forms. Every poem has the same two-line structure where lines bled into each other almost like prose. In fact, maybe a little too much like prose. With the exception of the interesting language and some of the profound moments of the best poems, this book isn't quite poetic enough. There doesn't seem to be a lot of reasoning between the line or stanza breaks. I felt pretty disconnected to a lot of the work here. It seems to be missing something essential.

That doesn't mean that the book is a failure, though. There are a few poems in here that were absolutely fantastic. Manning knows how to properly end his poems, and his endings often make the best poems here, poems like "The Pupil" and "Three Truths, One Story." For some reason, the book's second half was much better than the first half. The last few poems in the book explore life and death, spirituality and nature as well as anything in Bucolics. The language in these poems is heightened and the imagery is startling and lovely. There's also more of the poetic in these pieces. "The Burthen of the Mystery Indeed," "A Panegyric Against the Consolationof Grief," "Old-Time Preachin' on a Scripture Taken from a Tree," and the gorgeous "Where Sadness Comes From." My favorite, though, was the final poem, "The Common Man." It's a wonderful wrap-up to the entire book.

Looking back on the best poems of this collection is actually making me wonder if I haven't been a bit unkind to this book. After all, the poems I listed above are really something special. I just wish the rest of the book had lived up to them a bit more.

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