Monday, January 1, 2018

Compulsive Reader Newsletter for January

Hello readers and happy new year!  The January Compulsive Reader Newsletter has now been fully delivered and contains the usual 10 fresh pieces including an overview of the Wollongong Writers Festival, Earthly Remains by Donna Leon, These Wild Houses by Omar Sakr, A Jarful of Moonlight by Nazanin Mirsadeghi, and lots more, as well as a great new giveaway (we had a surprise extra give-away last month and that may happen again sometime...), and the round-up of literary news, prizes and events.
If you haven’t received your copy, you can check it out in the public archive here: Compulsive Reader Jan Newsletter

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

CR Newsletter for Dec is out

The Compulsive Reader Newsletter for December has now been fully distributed.  We’ve got 10 new reviews including Lynette Washington’s criticalAppalachian Fall by Jennifer Maidenly acclaimed Plane Tree Drive, 81 Migrations by W.K. Buckley, a piece on on Faber’s Sarah Menary, an interview with Lex Hirst, a great new giveaway for Appalachian Fall by Jennifer Maiden.
If for some reason you didn’t get one, just grab a copy here:

If you’d like to subscribe, visit:

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Frank O’Hara’s Personal Poem

Following is my third ModPo, essay, written on Frank O’Hara’s “Personal Poem” from his 1964 book Lunch Poems.  The full text of the poem, which is rather wonderful, can be found here:

Frank O’Hara’s New York City is an absolute realm, an “urban world of fantasy” as Ashbery wrote in his introduction to O’Hara’s Collected Poems. Though “Personal Poem” seems spontaneous, the verisimilitude is constructed, pulling the reader into an imaginary present that feels real. There is serendipity here, as if the present tense could be continually refreshed through the artful innocence of the storyteller’s narrative. The poem’s title references O’Hara’s literary genre “Personism”, which imagines a conversation between two people, with an identifiable “I do this I do that” structure to mirror physical progression. The speaker invites the reader to walk with him during lunchtime in midtown Manhattan around 53rd Street, as referenced by The House of Seagrams. The “luminous humidity” evokes summer. Google Maps couldn’t give us a clearer sense of this world as we walk past buildings under construction and into Moriarty’s where the speaker is meeting LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) for lunch. The city is vividly evoked through action rather than imagery: “I get to Moriarty's”, “I shake hands with LeRoi…and go back to work”.

Despite O’Hara’s claims that Personism doesn’t use literary techniques, many are at work here. The ‘names’ O’Hara drops through the poem are carefully chosen. The abstract expressionist painter Mike Kanemitsu’s coin becomes a charm for the poem, functioning as synecdoche for the abstract expressionist artworld that anchors the speaker “in New York against coercion” (coupled with a broken travel bag). The silver construction hats also function as synecdoche, representing a working life that the speaker is both part of and free from as a successful poet in New York: “we don’t want to be in the poets’ walk in/San Francisco even we just want to be rich/and walk on girders in our silver hats”.

The meeting with the poet LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) is pivotal. Just stating the name LeRoi brings in an activist energy that speaks of Jazz and black rights, further enhanced by the reference to the clubbing of Miles Davis. Though the two meet in friendship and a literary congruence that feels luxurious, there is also a reminder here of O’Hara’s privilege and the sad political reality that separates the friends. O’Hara doesn’t have to fear clubbing by cops, while Baraka, like Davis, was beaten by cops a few years after this poem was published.

The rhythm creates a circular narrative designed to feel colloquial, with a carefully constructed rolling pace through the inclusion of only two pauses – one stanza break (a red light crossing pause?), and a single comma in the second stanza.There is no other punctuation. The poem starts with “Now” and ends with “so”, a circular progression that loops back to the start, the action ending abruptly but not conclusively.The minimal punctuation combines with enjambment (“never brought me/much luck”) to create a breathless sense of fast walking, with lots of conjunctions (and, but, and so) to keep the poem in motion as it swirls past a constructed city, the politics of race and class, while touching on the nature of fame, death and immortality, working naturally from the personal to the universal in a way that feels like a recount but also reminds the reader, metapoetically, that they are the one person in eight million thinking of O'Hara.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

CR News is out for November

Hello readers, I’m pleased to report that all issues of Compulsive Reader newsletter have been marked as “delivered”.  You should have your copy now.  If for some reason it got trapped in spamville, you can grab a copy in the archive here: Compulsive Reader News

This month we’ve got 10 great new books featured including Shriek by Davide A. Cotton, Broken Branches by M Jonathan Lee, The Last Days of Jeanne D’Arc by Ali Alizadeh, Nevermoor by Jessica Townsend (and check out my interview with Jessica at Compulsive Reader Talks), interviews with Jane Owen, Monica Jephcott Thomas, Daniel Findlay, Pip Harry, and lots more, plus a roundup of the literary news, another great giveaway and plenty more. If you aren’t a subscriber, go now to and sign up for free (upper right hand corner).

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The single space of the present moment (Nantucket is for lovers)

Here’s another essay from ModPo, this time on William Carlos Williams’ “Nantucket” - because I don’t post poetry essays here nearly enough.

The poem can be read in its entirety here:

The most striking aspect of William Carlos Williams’ poem “Nantucket” is the lack of a poetic speaker. The poem is written entirely in present tense and moves like a camera across a fixed, silent tableau. We have a lyrical description of a room: flowers against the curtains, with sun shining in. There is no sign of human habitation but we know, by the readiness, the pitcher and tumbler, and the tidy presentation, that the room has been set up. We know it is late afternoon, and that the room is unoccupied (“immaculate”), private (the phallic, prone “key”) and that occupation is imminent. The images are crisp, richly coloured, concrete and very visual, with a strong sensuality conveyed by scent (“Smell of cleanliness”), sight (lavender, yellow, white), and feel (sunshine). This is a poem that presents a classic example of Imagism. There is no sentiment expressed. Williams’ language is economic and clear, focusing only on this single space of the present moment: a self-contained room. Most of the scene is set using nouns: flowers, curtains, sunshine, a glass of water, a key, a bed.
In spite of the pristine nature of the poem’s imagery and the lack of a narrative, there is a dynamic quality to the work. A judicious use of transitive verbs: “changed”, “turned down”, “lying”, charge the nouns with a strong sensual quality, as if these items were readying themselves for something to follow, and contained by the clear space of the room with its obvious borders. There is a strong sense of distinction between the self-contained world inside the room (white on white), and outside of the room (colour on colour). Additional motion is conveyed by the use prepositional phrases like “through the”, “changed by”, “on the”, “by which” and “is lying” which give the nouns a sense of agency and connection, so that each one’s placement is part of the meaning of the other and exists only in conjunction with its precedent.
The poem has a very consistent structure and rhythm, which also provides a motion that contrasts strongly with the static nature of the imagery. The five two line stanzas don’t rhyme but have a very regular syllabic pattern of 6/6, 6/5, 7/4, 7/4, 7/6, heighted by the way the syllables are accented, swapping between iambic and trochaic rhythm which also creates a kind of motion - like a dance between alternating stresses. You don’t need to read these stresses with overt iambic and trochaic patters, but the ghost of that rhythm keeps the work light and bouncy. Enjambment, particularly in the second half of the poem, and dashes are both used to introduce a sense of emotive progression as the reader’s eye moves down the page from the window to the bed, preceded by the dash and capitalised preposition “And the”, as if the bed were our destination, and the slow progression from window to bed was one of desire and consummation.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Compulsive Reader Newsletter out for Oct

Hello readers.  Our October newsletter has now gone out with the usual bevy of brand new reviews and interviews, a fantastic new giveaway, the full round-up of literary news, and lots more delivered free to your in-box.  If you haven’t received it yet, you can grab a copy here:
Compulsive Reader Archive
If you haven’t subscribed, just toddle over to and sign up.

photo credit: marksmorton Biblio via photopin (license)

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Emily again: Love reckons by itself — alone

If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll know about my annual affair with UPenn’s Modern and Contemporary American Poetry course (“ModPo”) taught by the great Al Filreis. I’m on my sixth year.  This is no impersonal MOOC, though I share the course with some 30,000+ students, most of whom will return every year to re-engage with old and new poems, as the course is constantly changing, growing, and offering new ways to interact with both classic and very recent poetry and poets. The course runs for 10 weeks but remains open throughout the year with discussion groups, ongoing interpretations, regular ongoing meet ups and crowdsourced close readings, teacher and student resources and constantly good conversation.  The course always begins with Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, effectively the mother and father of modernism - both representing separate stylistic poles that link and underpin all of the work that follows.  Nothing is mandatory, but I like to do the essays each year, especially as they’re always a little different.  And if you search the blog, you’ll see that I’ve posted each essay up here.  This week’s is a brief 500 word analysis of Emily Dickinson’s "Love reckons by itself--alone”.  Feel free to chime in with your own comments if you’re taken, or just read and enjoy the poem.  Poetry talk is always welcome.  
Love reckons by itself — alone —
"As large as I" — relate the Sun
To One who never felt it blaze —
Itself is all the like it has —
As with many of Emily Dickinson’s poems, “Love reckons by itself – alone”, begins with an almost puritanical constriction, appearing to spiral inward and tighten, but with each reading the work becomes more expansive, inflationary, even explosive and sensual.  Even by Dickinson’s standards, this is a short poem of a single stanza, and appears, as her poems often do, to be a simple explication about the nature of Love’s grandeur and self-containment.  The closer you look, the less simple the poem becomes, each word informed and changed by the structural context, the Dickinsonian punctuation, the unusual rhythm where tradition and atonality work side-by-side, and the multiple meaning of each word.
The poem begins with one of poetry’s most overused words, and Dickinson throws it straight out there - charging and distorting the word Love through personification, slant rhyme, and odd conjunctions undermining a saccharine sense of romantic love.  Dickinson’s Love with a capital L could be God, or the equal of God in sensuality, or could be the human imagination or Poetry, or our ability to empathise and move beyond our individual selves. Following the word with the verb ‘reckons” turns Love from an abstract idea into a self-referential character, recursive – turning back onto itself as in resolving, self-contained and entire.  Dickinson uses the dashes to set the word “alone” off, making the quality of this self-containment visual.  Then she gives Love a voice, putting the next line in quotations and allowing Love to talk about how large it is, relating the heat of Love to the heat of the Sun, and how that blaze is both the perpetuator of life, and unknowable. Because it’s unknowable, we can only imagine it, even if we think we’ve experienced it, thereby undermining experience. 

There are particular rhythms and rhymes in this poem.  One of the more obvious is the equation of all the capitalised nouns: Love, Sun, One – each of these things not only rhyming but moving forward and backwards on the page to create a rhythm of motion and inevitability.  There is a heavy use of alliteration, particularly the L sound which creates a somewhat languid but progressive rhythm from Love to itself, alone, large, relate, blaze, all, and like.  The dashes not only set off the word “alone”, but then create a series of gaps or pauses which invite the reader to reflect for a brief moment, in those connective spaces.  The ending on the last space leaves the poem open ended, on a sentence which is cryptic enough to allow for multiple interpretation, multiple reading.  Free otherwise of punctuation, the poem is presented as iambic tetrameter, which is subverted by the dashes at the end of the first, third and forth lines.  The second line could be enjambment with the following line (relating the sun to one), or more likely the lack of a dash functions as a full stop/period, as evidenced by the capitalisation of the word “To” next to One.  This allows the third line to mirror poems like “Volcanoes be in Sicily”: a celebration of imagination rather than a celebration of experience.  We don’t need to experience to know what Love feels like (in fact, we can’t get at this through the visceral).  Instead we have all the correspondence (the ‘reckoning’) we need in our imagination.