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Lives of the Poem - Community & Connection in a Writing Life by Richard Hague

Liesl Jobson for Per Contra Reviews

The central premise of Richard Hague's poetic practice is that the poem exists as a separate and sentient being. He offers the writer the conceptual possibility of encountering the poem as an entity with a life and energy independent of the author, and a purpose that is part of a broader community. Hague proposes that the writer needs to befriend, respect, engage with, but also must give space to the poem at each stage of its development - from conception, gestation and birth, to publication and reception (or rejection) in the world.

The text is ambitious and all-encompassing, simultaneously poetry volume, writing manual, teacher's guide, autobiography and philosophical reflection on the nature of poetry and the writing life.

Significantly, every poem in the book is a poem about poetry. The exception to this is his students' work, which is presented in a section on encountering the workshop, and offers generous and insightful advice on editing, teaching, and how to benefit from a workshop.

The reflexive nature of this narrative is distilled in some of the chapter and poem titles, which are in turn provocative, jeering, cautionary and wise:

  • Things To Learn While Waiting For The Poem
  • In The Bedroom Of The Poem
  • The Poem Braids Its Lover's Hair
  • The Poem Turns Back Toward Familiar Territory And Fails
  • The Poem Turns Mean
  • What You Should Eat Before Reading The Poem
  • The Poem Does Lunch Out East
  • Poems: Do Not Fold

The cover artwork has its own fascinating story: Cincinanati ceramicist Terri Kern hand painted her interpretation of Hague's poetry in clay tiles, using multiple layers of underglaze, combining brushwork and sgraffito techniques, and firing them with a clear glaze.

Hague refers to the texts that inspired him: Robert Frosts' Education by Poetry, James Gleick's Chaos: The Making Of A New Science and Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Of these works, he writes: "Sometimes you read books that speak so clearly and so excitingly to you -and it seems, to you so personally and privately- that they change your life, they change the way you see the world: they shift your paradigms. I would go so far as to say that if you've never been knocked to the floor by a book, your education is not complete."

Lives of the Poem is just such a book. It has befriended me as writer, engaged me as reader, and challenged the teacher I am to re-imagine my doctrines and dogmas. I am rethinking how and why I read and write poetry, and in its pages, I have found balm and wit for the broken parts of my own head, heart and writing life.

"Lives of the Poem - Community & Connection in a Writing Life," by Richard Hague. Nicholasville, KY: Wind Publications, 2005, 324 pages, Hardcover $29.00, Paperback $19.00