Corrections or additions?
This article by Pat Summers was prepared for the July 11, 2001
edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
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
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
"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
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,"
National Parks," "Beauty," "Carpentry,"
"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
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
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
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
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,
and when a "poem" isn’t a poem — or
It’s not enough
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
And, he adds, "Just talking about your feelings is not poetry.
Neither is just describing the natural world, no matter how
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:
one deer licks
snow from the other’s
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
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
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
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
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
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,
says. The first part is about reading and interpreting poetry. A
style there and throughout makes it easy going: "Why you need
to snuggle up to language," "Mouth-to-mouth
"An intelligent hustle through poetic history," and
until it hurts a lot better," prompt a reader’s belief that
aren’t rules; they’re guidelines. Pick and choose!"
The second part sketches the history of poetry, naming names and
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
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
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
So he writes in traditional verse forms — including those of other
cultures. He won a prize at Stanford for his poem in a Welsh
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
in the back of your mind. That’s how it should be." With
for Dummies" he’s got half of that covered. Then there’s always
"Vegetable Gardening for Dummies."
— Pat Summers
The author of "Poetry for Dummies" talks about his latest
Corrections or additions?
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