Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Writing the Life Poetic

Sage Cohen lied to me. To us! Or is this that "poetic license" they're always talking about?

I'd challenged myself to give poetry more thought—it being national poetry month and all—so I went to see Sage Cohen speak at the April Willamette Writer's meeting. She talked about poetry as a process, something you don't need to be "good at" to enjoy. She read some poems, gave examples of ways to spark creativity, and gave the audience a writing exercise. Afterward she signed copies of her just-released book, Writing the Life Poetic, and I didn't buy one. It was a good talk and all, but right now I need to focus my writing in other directions. I was intrigued enough, though, to put a hold on the book at the library.

When Gabe Barber interviewed Sage on Reading Local: Portland, he asked who the book was written for--and here's where the lying comes in, ready for it?

Sage responded, "Practicing poets, aspiring poets, and teachers of writing in a variety of settings can use Writing the Life Poetic to write, read, and enjoy poems; it works equally well as a self-study companion or as a classroom guide. Both practical and inspirational, it will leave readers with a greater appreciation for the poetry they read and a greater sense of possibility for the poetry they write."

Nice answer right? But not even close to the truth.

I'll grant you that this book will be treasured by the poets, and the poet-teachers, and the poet-wannabes. They'll use its exercises to help themselves blossom, to fight their way out of writer's block. They'll quote passages to each other and nod wisely or laugh in community.

But what about the rest of us? Those of us who Don't Write Poetry? Are we not equally deserving of Ms. Cohen's wisdom? Is she trying to keep it from us by hiding it inside a book that says POETRY on the cover?

Take chapter 78, Keeping Your Wilderness Alive (posted in its entirety on the Writing the Life Poetic website. In this chapter, Sage describes the day she got locked out of her house without a car, an inconvenience which led her to try out a café she'd always been too busy to stop into. The experience was profound.
I tasted, marveled, and wrote some more. And as I did, I was transported to the life and times of Sage of yesteryear. This Sage had free time. With little income and minimal expenses, she lived for the indulgence of her weekend café breakfasts. . . . This old Sage was spontaneous. Not yet the precariously over-committed and over-scheduled adult she would grow up to be, this young woman had room for surprises.
This chapter will have you ready to do what it takes to find your own wilderness. Sage is very convincing, saying, "Your poetry depends on it." I say, if that's poetry, sign me up.

Which is, I believe, the whole stinkin' point of her book. And if poetry is, as she says, a way of looking at the world, then it follows that there isn't a person alive who couldn't benefit from Writing the Life Poetic. But you'd have had to read the book or hear Sage talk to get that.

Until now. Because I'm here to tell you, Sage Cohen lied to us. The correct answer to the question "Who is Writing the Life Poetic for?"


My copy goes back to the library on Friday. I'll be buying one to replace it with.

By Alison Jakel


  1. I love the way your wrote this review. It made me chuckle, but your love of the work you reviewed was evident.

  2. Thanks, Kathy! I also wrote a more serious review of the book, which I think will be published on Reading Local:Portland soon. I'll put the link up when it is.

  3. Ali,

    I was so scared when I read your first sentence. I thought: "Oh no, I promised something in my book that I didn't deliver. And now someone is mad!"

    What a relief to find myself laughing through your insightful and witty review of WTLP. I'm THRILLED that this has been a meaningful read for you.

    Sounds like I need to revise my description of readers of this book. You've helped me see it through new eyes!

    Many, many thanks!

    Yours in poetry,
    Sage Cohen

  4. Sorry about that. I meant for the first sentence to be an attention grabber, but didn't really think about the fact that it might cause an author heart attack. Glad you recovered enough to read the rest!

    Thanks for a great book!

  5. You tricked me... but in a good way. WTLP isn't a book I'd normally have ever thought to look at, but your review got my attention and perked my interest.

    Thanks for the review!

  6. Based on this review, I want this book.

  7. I also wasn't sure where you were going with that first paragraph, but based on your review, this book is now on my wish list. I've been toying with the idea of writing poetry again and this seems like a good place to start!

  8. This is the best type of review. You entertained me and left me intrigued enough to go get the book. Thanks!

  9. Great review! I have had my eye on this book. Once in a blue moon I write a poem and I would love to gain some insight into the poetic process. You have confirmed that it is a book worth spending my time on. It was nice to read a distinctive voice in your review too!