Book Review: “Sonnets: 150 Contemporary Sonnets” by William Baer

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William Baer Sonnets

William Baer’s 150 Contemporary Sonnets

As a kid, I was, I admit, a little gullible. No, one could not play tricks on me, or generate obvious lies in the hope that I’d believe them, for such things — please excuse the pun — were mere child’s play, and always level with the world. Not so with poetry, I thought. Here were smart people, most of whom were a lot more experienced than I was, and were, therefore, in the position to guide me. I was willing. I was receptive. And I wanted to learn, for — despite the burgeoning ego of adolescence — I was quite serious, too, and needed help to connect memories, this or that minor experience, some fleeting, ill-remembered word into a system that mattered. I wanted, in short, to be a writer, here were people that were doing it, and every force, from awards, to reputation, personality, popularity, and, at times, the opaqueness of how such things were judged, in the first place, seemed to imply that they were doing it quite well.

That was on the one hand. On the other, I was also discerning enough to realize that the advent of free verse helped engender poetry that slipped, well, into total formlessness. This was not ‘freedom’ (as the phrase might imply), since to be free also implies to be in (and under) the control of something, to allow good expression to flow. The crowd did not heed this, and my automatic reaction was, well, reaction: that if free verse wasn’t doing it right, something else was, and that something must have been its diametric opposite, i.e., New Formalism. This is, of course, an example of extreme thinking, and showed my inability to make some nicer distinctions. But the New Formalists nonetheless struck me as the good guys who, fed up with laziness and schlock, wanted to bring poetry back to its source, and were, in fact, quite rebellious in their aesthetic conservatism — ironic given that art moves forward, not back, with the New Formalists merely substituting one bad side-step for another. And yet… ‘poetry at its source’. I liked the ring of it, and before I knew it, was lost in a fug of syllables and feet that had remarkably little to do with the source itself.

Of course, the issue here is that a poetic form is NOT poetry, but a method, and New Formalism a mere aesthetic preference that may or may not lead to good writing. Now, I shed my fixations as soon as I realized this, but not before acquiring a few documents in the midst of this (short) foray. One such document is William Baer’s 150 Contemporary Sonnets, an anthology that was put together from submissions to the now-defunct The Formalist journal (edited by Baer) as well as other publications. Yet despite having claimed to have published over 500 “talented sonneteers,” Baer’s anthology does not include a single truly great sonnet a … Continue reading →

Review Of Haruki Murakami’s “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki And His Years Of Pilgrimage”

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Haruki Murakami Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki And His Years Of Pilgrimage

Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki And His Years Of Pilgrimage just doesn’t work.

Although I’d read a number of Japanese novels as a kid, I only became interested in Japanese literature in earnest via Jessica Schneider, who’s reviewed a number of Japanese classics for PopMatters, and elsewhere. Compared to the West — at least in the past century or so — Japanese art has always struck me as a little more mature. No, this does not necessarily mean that it’s always better, but merely that, if you look at the subject matter, it aims a lot higher, and either succeeds, or fails, but fails nobly. This is true of books, film, and even Japanese anime, wherein shows like Neon Genesis Evangelion and Cowboy Bebop, while delivered by solid/good directors who simply never grew up, have enough moments of poesy to keep things interesting and fresh, despite such films’ more obvious lacks.

That said, Haruki Murakami is one of those writers I’d suspect to be better in his short stories than long novels, and his latest book (quite the best-seller, today) is no exception. This is because, on the plus side, he attempts philosophy, and sometimes even poesy; he tries to get to the bottom of this or that idea, and, more importantly, see how characters might live this idea out, in real-time, which is really the difference between philosophy and art. Some of his situations are innately interesting (fantastical plot-points in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; the melding of waking and dream in Kafka On The Shore), and he doesn’t necessarily go with the most obvious trajectory. On the negative side, however, some of his novels go on too long, have many pointless details (the taste of coffee and croissants; lots and lots of ‘characterizing’ description, yet without the interaction to make it real), half-assed attempts at philosophy (Chronicle’s opening: “When the phone rang I was in the kitchen, boiling a potful of spaghetti and whistling along to an FM broadcast of the overture to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie, which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta”), and other flaws that, had they simply been concentrated into a far shorter burst, via a story or novella, would naturally trim Murakami’s worst tendencies, and force him into a poesy that more often comes out in Murakami’s structure and juxtapostions, rather than any innate feature of the prose itself.

So Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki And His Years Of Pilgrimage is long — too long — and is simply not a good book in its duration. Its biggest weakness, by far, is its over-reliance on a group of 5 high school friends to both form the narrative, as well as the narrative’s purported reason. Yet despite how deeply affected the 5 characters are by their friendship, one NEVER sees any genuine, much less affecting, interaction between them, at all, merely a bland, mechanical, and rote description of what they’re like and what they do early … Continue reading →