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Ordinary Genius: A Guide for the Poet Within
W. W. Norton ISBN: 0393334163 288 pages
First of all, I love The Poet’s Companion. This “Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry” by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux is my favorite Creative Writing text; in fact, it’s the only one I’ve been happy with for the last few years. Good Creative Writing textbooks aren’t easy to find. So many feel textbooky — dry manuals that would have made me in my student-days want to enroll in Organic Chemistry and never again try my hand at poetry. The Poet’s Companion, on the other hand, feels like it was written by good poets — which it is. The guide is smart and clear with intelligent exercises and sharp observations along the way. How good is it? My copy is falling apart in my hands.
And so when I received a copy of Addonizio’s Ordinary Genius: A Guide for the Poet Within, I immediately sat down to read it, glad to have a companion to The Poet’s Companion. And I think… it’s good. Enough so that I’m making it required reading for my undergraduate poetry workshop this fall. Not for nothing, as they say in Rhode Island, but the guide, like its predecessor, is modestly priced. Perhaps this seems like faint praise, but I have been aghast at how much more boring, staid, and traditional Creative Writing guides cost.
Clearly, I’m responding here as a teacher of workshops, looking at these titles as potential textbooks, not as personal guides for a lone twenty-something, sighing out poems in a back bedroom. For that lone twenty-something, Ordinary Genius might be an even better fit than The Poet’s Companion. Addonizio’s solo effort suggests to me that hers is the right brain of the Addonizio/Laux team. Ordinary Genius is looser, wider, and more discursive than The Poet’s Companion. The author includes helpful appendices of recommended books and website but foregoes an index, which I would have found even more helpful.
But perhaps the lack of index is meant to indicate that Ordinary Genius isn’t that sort of guide to poetry. Addonizio speaks more personally here than in The Poet’s Companion; she refers to (and includes) her poems and shares a few of her own travails, including a page of her rejection slips, on the road to Successful Poet. As she does so, Addonizio isn’t pretentious or pompous; I hear a hard-working, plain-spoken poet here. Indeed, her tone is, at times, rather casual, even ballsy, which I appreciate, as might my imaginary young poet at home alone. “Poetry is a bitch,” comments the author. She also is comfortable including poems that are a bit more overtly sexual than the usual textbook fare, such as Stephen Dunn’s “Desire,” in which “the cock, that toothless worm, stirs in its sleep.”
While I think some poetic raciness is fine for college students as well as for the lone twenty-something bedroom-poet, I worried a bit over a few of Addonizio’s assertions about poetry, for example: “Poetry’s true subject is the spirit, the divine, the sacred, the ineffable.” Fair enough for her to say and think, obviously, but to me this moves the text more towards the genre of spiritual or touchy-feeling poetry guidebooks, which don’t seem all that helpful in the kinds of workshops I run, secular academic that I am.
I also felt a little uneasy about Addonizio’s suggestions to write a love poem, a sex poem, about one’s “pain body,” one’s gender, and one’s race. I see a swarm of murky and abstract student poems headed my way. Or I see students weeping over what they’ve put into words after, for example, following the directions of “self-loathing, self-love” to “Study yourself in a full-length mirror, naked. Write about what you love and what you hate about your body.”
However, Addonizio more often seems to me spot on with her instructions and observations. She says bluntly, “If you don’t read, your writing is going to suck.” Yeah, baby! And I love the short chapter entitled “First Thought, Worst Thought,” a helpful corrective of that old Beat mantra. Ordinary Genius also has lots and lots of what seem to me both fun and productive poem prompts — from exchanging lines to reinventing fairy tales.
I appreciate Addonizio’s poetic taste as well as most of her takes on poetry. I’d like to see even more contemporary poems included here, but I like the choices she’s made. I think my lone twenty-something poet will like them too — and will benefit from Addonizio’s advice.
Now I’ll see what happens when I unleash it on my students.
Cathleen Calbert’s short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in many publications, including Ms. Magazine, The New Republic, and The Southern Review. She is the author of three books of poetry: Lessons in Space (University of Florida Press), Bad Judgment (Sarabande Books), and Sleeping with a Famous Poet (C.W. Books). Her awards include The Nation Discovery Award, a Pushcart Prize, and the Tucker Thorp Professorship at Rhode Island College, where she currently teaches.