Jordie Albiston, ‘The Weekly Poem’ in Rochford Street Review
Even Poetic Exercises are Good for You: B. J. Muirhead Reviews The Weekly Poem edited by Jordie Albistonn
The Weekly Poem is a book of poetic exercises, one for each week of the year. Designed for teachers and students it is structured simplistically as an alphabetical list of poetic forms, for example: elegy, haiku, concrete poetry, prose poetry, and so on. Also included are thematic exercises such as childhood, love and coming of age poems.
Each exercise comes with a suggested subject, form, rhyme scheme, metre, line and poem lengths. Following this are notes on the form, and the task, suggested readings and examples. In the introduction Albiston says that the exercises are “formatted in shorthand”, by which is meant bullet points.
Bullet points are absolutely completely and utterly my least favourite method of passing on information. None the less, they are effective, especially for students, at whom this book is primarily aimed. Indeed, the first books I read about poetry and writing poetry were, quite frankly, frightening in their detailed discussion of prosody and poetic forms. I was thirteen at the time, so it should be no surprise that I quickly decided that free verse was the best path for me to follow. A few years later I discovered syllabic verse and although I never could decide how to count diphthongs, I counted anyway.
The Weekly Poem provides the answer to my childhood problem—diphthongs can be counted as one or two syllables, which is nice to know even though I no longer write syllabic verse. The book is full of small bits of information and cross references which enable a student to pursue their knowledge of poetic forms and tricks a little deeper, and which answer many questions that can confuse beginning and experienced writers alike. It also has a small but functional glossary which most likely is more than enough for a high school student.
Having said this, it also lacks in a few important ways. The “coming of age” exercise, for example, suggest all that the other exercises suggest: a rhyme scheme, stanza type (tercets, to be “used as stepping-stones along path of self-development) and a maximum length of fifteen lines. None of the examples for this exercise, however, match these criteria. In itself this is not a major problem, and in many of the exercises it is not relevant, but an example which matches the criteria completely makes it easier for a beginner to understand just how the criteria can be used to create a poem.
Small pieces of analysis, highlighting the application of the criteria and the different manners in which poets whose work is used as examples of the exercise also would have been useful, if only because it is a mistake to assume that all teachers will be able to provide sensible, extra information. I base this view, perhaps unfairly, on my current experience of having a child in year eleven and another in year nine, and the frequent nonsense they are taught about poetry and fiction, especially when they are writing something for assessment. (One child was told that poetry cannot be in prose form, and the other was told that conversation should be avoided in a short story, that the form itself was based description and plot and did not leave room for conversation.)
As a basic workbook, however, The Weekly Poem is very effective and can be used by inexperienced and experienced poets to spur creation in moments when a push in one way or another is needed or sought. I have not had the book for long enough to do more than a few exercises in it, but it already has proved useful to me. The exercise “Monochord”, for example, to produce a single line of poetic writing on a theme of longing, fascinated me.
Even though I have read many monochords, I had never considered writing them myself. But I set about to doing Albiston’s exercise, and found myself challenged in a manner to which I am not accustomed. Pleasingly enough for me, the monochord produced not only worked well, but has been accepted for publication in the near future. To me, on a purely personal level, this shows the value of the book in that it challenged me to look at my poetic practice in a different manner.
Viewed from a different angle, it also functions as a basic reference book which, if a student begins to take poetry seriously as an activity, provides an adequate foundation for future efforts.
It doesn’t have the verve of a book like Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled, which carries the reader and prospective poet through Fry’s joy and the potential humour of taking a poetic thought for a ride, but it doesn’t aim to do this. In its aim of being a work book, with basic information about poetry and structured exercises, it has succeeded in being a valuable, functional resource that will not be out of date at any time in the near future.
– B. J. Muirhead