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This article by Pat Summers was prepared for the July 11, 2001

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Smart Readers, New Dummies

Most of us came to know the "For Dummies" books

because of such computer-related guides as "Microsoft Windows

Me Millennium Edition for Dummies" and "Word 2000 for Windows

for Dummies." I’m now facing both of them, dressed in their

drastic

black and yellow covers. I bought both books involuntarily at the

urging of a computer consultant who helped me upgrade my PC.

And now, guess what — I use them. Why? They help me out when I

need to use superscript, or change the character set, or create a

bookmark. And for all the manuals that came with my new computer

system?

"The whip! the whip!"

There’s no doubt that Hungry Minds, publisher of the "Dummies"

series, continue to do something right. As of March, about 900 of

the 1,200 different Dummies books in print concern technology or

business

and finance. The 300 others are "General Interest" — a

term that encompasses "101 Crossword Puzzles for Dummies"

(in five volumes); "Allergies and Asthma for Dummies,"

"America’s

National Parks," "Beauty," "Carpentry,"

"Europe,"

"Sex," and "Weather for Dummies." You name it. And

some of these are in their fourth editions.

A new member joined this growing Dummies family in May: "Poetry

for Dummies." And John Timpane, who with the Poetry Center at

San Francisco State University and literary agent-writer Maureen

Watts,

wrote it, believes that poetry in particular and the arts in general

are fertile ground for the Dummies series.

"In the past 10 years, there has been a real movement in pop

culture

toward poetry, and it’s sort of cool among young folks," says

Timpane. "In fact, if you count rap and hip-hop, in the past 20

years there’s been a movement toward paying attention to

language."

To Timpane — poet, author, teacher, journalist — that’s all

to the good. He is also author of "It Could be Verse: Anybody’s

Guide to Poetry" (Boaz Publishing, 1995). Timpane will talk about

his "Poetry for Dummies" on Tuesday, July 17, at Barnes &

Noble, MarketFair, at 7 p.m.

Timpane is kind of wiry, wears glasses, and rattles

on merrily (with easily-digested erudition) about his subject. He

is not "Miss Grundy," the archetypically awful school teacher

many of us remember, who told us we were somehow wrong about poetry

and helped us fear and hate it. His comfortable, everyday guy-ness

helps make poetry seem as everyday as it actually is — or can

be.

An hour’s conversation about poetry and the new book quickly turns

into a delightful monologue, with Timpane alluding to the worldwide

wave of poetry slams, the best way to read poetry (aloud, aloud,

aloud),

and when a "poem" isn’t a poem — or

It’s not enough

to

sprinkle

words

down

the

page

and

call it

poetry.

In a poem, he says, "an event takes place; something

happens.

The poet makes something new and different and unexpected occur. It

may be a shock, a realization, or just something nice — many poems

are quite trivial. They don’t always have to be bottomlessly

profound."

And, he adds, "Just talking about your feelings is not poetry.

Neither is just describing the natural world, no matter how

beautifully

you do it. But, if something happens in that description to make us

feel the scene or see a truth about the natural world."

He quotes from Basho:

Morning:

one deer licks

snow from the other’s

coat.

"Now that is a poem," he says. "It’s surprising

because it makes you feel the cold, and it’s about something you don’t

see. Suddenly, it makes you realize that the deer have this kind of

life, living in the open."

"The whole premise of the Dummies books is that the person reading

them isn’t dumb," Timpane says. "They’re directed at the smart

person who wants to get smarter at something they may not necessarily

be smart about now, but they will be soon." And so, there’s VW

Repair, and Art, and Wine for Dummies. "You see the Dummies books

everywhere for that reason: people can trust them to reveal the whole

world to them accessibly and get them started."

Timpane, 48, earned his master’s and doctorate in English and the

humanities from Stanford University, was a Fulbright scholar, and

taught for years at the college level. Originally from Schenectady,

New York, he was the oldest of nine children born to "very

literate

parents." His mother was a nurse with a writing background, and

he remembers his doctor-dad as a speed reader who always read poetry.

He moved from California to New Jersey in 1981, to Princeton in 1987,

and since 1988 has lived with his wife, Maria-Christina Keller, copy

manager for Scientific American, and their daughter, Pilar, and son,

Conor, in Lawrenceville.

Astonishingly, Timpane also has a day job: for about four years, he

has worked as commentary page editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer.

He credits his lifetime poetry immersion as an aid to his prose

editing

and writing: long practice at its condensed language helps him get

to the point, move people, and take risks.

"The thing about the arts is they make people feel stupid, for

reasons that are complicated," says Timpane. "Partly it’s

cultural: In America we’re encouraged to make a distinction between

our practical lives and our spiritual, or emotional, lives. The two

aren’t supposed to interrelate. That’s not inevitable — that’s

just the way Americans do it." He contrasts this culture with

that of Chile, "an economic powerhouse where even businessmen

read poetry assiduously," and Japan, where poetry is a way of

life. And yet, he exclaims, we live in New Jersey, home of Walt

Whitman

and William Carlos Williams, who wrote an epic poem about Paterson!

To the dismay of those of us left hopelessly inhibited by the Miss

Grundys, or Dr. Brandburys, of the academic world, Timpane espouses

a scary approach to poetry — while admittedly one that makes

perfect

sense: Read it out loud. "Poetry is about sounds," he says,

"the way words run together and feel, and rhythm." And if

"All poems are meant to be given voice," then it follows that

"If you don’t read poetry aloud, you don’t get most of what’s

going on."

But take heart: the book offers help with reading and interpreting

poetry, which, unlike most of the things we read every day, "tries

to establish an intense emotional experience in a short space and

draw our attention to something in the universe that’s not attended

to." To read poetry silently, fast, and without concentrating

is "like having a great sculpture in the house, but keeping it

in the dark."

All of "Poetry for Dummies" is divided into three parts,

Timpane

says. The first part is about reading and interpreting poetry. A

lively

style there and throughout makes it easy going: "Why you need

to snuggle up to language," "Mouth-to-mouth

poetification,"

"An intelligent hustle through poetic history," and

"Rewriting

until it hurts a lot better," prompt a reader’s belief that

"These

aren’t rules; they’re guidelines. Pick and choose!"

The second part sketches the history of poetry, naming names and

giving

examples. "Most people have never read Rimbaud (`Ram-BO’)."

They know the name if only from the movies. "They don’t realize

that he (Rimbaud, that is) is a hurtfully good poet, woundingly

good,"

Timpane says, poetically, of the French poet whose work was among

his translations for "Poetry for Dummies."

The book’s final section deals with how to be a poet. "I’m excited

about this," Timpane says. Here, the authors deal with attitudes

and habits of poetry writers, offering suggestions for how to go about

it. Among their suggestions: Read widely; write every day; keep a

journal; and rewrite. Here, too, are specific directions for writing

five different forms: ballad, psalm, sonnet, ghazal (an Arabic form),

and tanka (a Japanese form).

So far, then, "Poetry for Dummies" is an anthology, citing

countless poems or excerpts over 5,000 years; it’s a reference tool,

with definitions and explanations; it’s a tutorial, with how-to’s

for specific verse forms. It’s also readable, thanks in large part

to the friendly-informed tone (there never is heard a pedantic —

or obscure or supercilious — word), but due also to conventions

of the Dummies books: ample white space, bold face type, screened

boxes, icons, and other graphics to break up text; and every-time

elements, like "The Part of Tens," including 10 myths and

misconceptions about the subject — and, in this case, 10 poems

worth memorizing and 10 love poems. Formulaic, yes, Timpane says,

"but the discipline it enforced was very good for all of us: a

straitjacket we crazies needed to wear."

Timpane acknowledges two sides to his own poetry. "I’ve always

felt that in order to earn your title as a poet, you should master

many of the traditional forms — pay your dues." Also a jazz

flutist and a zydeco bassist for the area group Snapperhead, he cites

musicians as examples of dues-payers: they may play the small clubs,

take bad paying jobs, and rock all night so some day they’ll get

really

good, and get better gigs.

"Poets," he says, "have got to learn the great tradition.

If you can’t write a sonnet, I don’t think you can write free

verse."

So he writes in traditional verse forms — including those of other

cultures. He won a prize at Stanford for his poem in a Welsh

"engyly,"

and he’s now at work on a "tanka diary" of 365 poems in that

Japanese form. Timpane also writes in free verse and open verse. (Not

sure what they are? See "Poetry for Dummies")

This year for the first time, Timpane has planted tomatoes and he’s

anxious about them. "It’s something you started, and you want

it to work." A poem is like that, he says, "It’s always

running

in the back of your mind. That’s how it should be." With

"Poetry

for Dummies" he’s got half of that covered. Then there’s always

"Vegetable Gardening for Dummies."

— Pat Summers

John Timpane , Barnes & Noble, MarketFair,

609-897-9250.

The author of "Poetry for Dummies" talks about his latest

book. Free. Tuesday, July 17, 7 p.m.


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