The Art of Syntax for the Ordinary Genius.

It is as I feared: Ordinary Genius: A Guide for the Poet Within, by Kim Addonizio, while a friendly and frank-talking book, is really a book for beginners.  Addonizio is tremendously likable, and the self-deprecating manner in which she presents her own early drafts is appealing, but if you’ve been a practicing poet for some time, while you may find something useful here — it’s 300 pages after all — I found myself often wishing for something less chatty and more challenging.  From her chapter on memorization, “By Heart: A Shakespeare Sonnet”:

Why start with Shakespeare?  Why a sonnet?  Here are some reasons:

  1. He was really, really good at writing sonnets.
  2. A sonnet is only fourteen lines.  It also has meter and rhyme.  Those things make it a snap to memorize, in comparison with a lot of other poems.
  3. In memorizing, you’ll also get a sense of the sonnet’s structure.  The traditional sonnet develops an argument, and that makes it easier to learn; you can do it in chunks.
  4. You will impress everyone by being able to recite Shakespeare.
  5. I mean, everyone.

Nothing wrong with this; I like Kim Addonizio.  But I would argue, contrary to what the book jacket advertises, this is not “the perfect book for both experienced writers and beginners”.  Not even close.

On the other hand, Ellen Bryant Voigt’s The Art of Syntax: Rhythm of Thought, Rhythm of Song is just the ticket.  The language is a little out of my comfort zone (“fundament” anyone?), forcing me to stretch without alienating me altogether.  And she’s exploring an area I’ve worked through by instinct alone, validating some of the choices I make as I write, while helping me understand why and how different syntactical methods help drive a poem.  If you enjoyed diagramming sentences in sixth grade, you’ll probably enjoy this book, too.

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8 thoughts on “The Art of Syntax for the Ordinary Genius.

  1. Thanks for the reviews. I’ve added The Art of Syntax to my wishlist and will buy it soon. It sounds excellent.

  2. Oh, you mean someone really does enjoy diagramming sentences? Is it you? I wish I wrote poetry, but it is beyond me. I’d rather read and bask in its rhythm. Pins and needles waiting for your book!

  3. Well, yes, I admit it, it’s me. At least, I used to, back when I remembered how.

    Thanks, Victoria — me too! I edited galleys a couple weeks ago, and that was very cool!

  4. What an amazing title for a book about syntax. I will have to look for it. That’s always the issue, right? … writing the bridge between the minutia of grammar and the “magic” of rhythm …

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