A Poetic Primer for Love and Seduction: Naso was my Tutor, Anthology, ed. Rachel Piercey and Emma Wright (The Emma Press - January 2014)
All publishers should be applauded for their commitment towards the printed word, and personally I would suggest that publishers of poetry should be applauded doubly hard and twice as long, because any poetry collection is a triumph in these grim times when it is rumoured that this literary form is in decline. Apparently, the average reader seems to resort to verse when faced with exceptional and life-changing circumstances: weddings, funerals or childbirth. This seems to go hand in hand with the view that poetry is a commodity best packaged in accordance with such demands, and that it is ideally placed on shelves alongside gaudy gift-books, self –help manuals, pseudo-spiritual advice and joke pocket-books. I am sure you have come across such tokens and perhaps even own one or two. Indeed, there is clearly a market for such books but I would argue that poetry is for daily life and not just for a memorial service or a christening. So, is the consumer-conscious poetry anthology a compromise worth taking or is it altogether wrong to see it as a compromise?
A Poetic Primer for Love and Seduction: Naso was my Tutor, published by The Emma Press, is a lovely gem of a gift-book with a stunning, ruby-red cover. It is beautifully illustrated and has a light-hearted touch, proclaiming to celebrate love itself with a firm nod towards the Roman poet Ovid aka Naso. Fifteen poets, some of which are widely published, have been commissioned to contribute yet it is not easy to classify this publication because there are some conflicting signals.
The preface reads: ‘Our purpose in creating this book has been to provide the average student with such knowledge and understanding as are essential to the art of love.’ I’m not sure why the editors given this book an educational spin. Although many of the writers included are indeed very competent, we are not told as to what makes them experts in the field of love or why we should take their advice when really we could just enjoy their aesthetic sensibility. Is the implication that poets are wiser in matters of love or more promiscuous than the rest of us students, and does this explain why they are fit to give counsel?
The introduction states further that the poets are to provide guidance in regard to a) ‘The Art of Love’ and b) ‘Cures of Love’. Of course, these two sections of the book, as well as the subtitle, ‘Naso was my Tutor’, are designed to invoke the work of Ovid, but like much of the book, this conceptual detail is a bit of an arm-twister. It seems that not all poets stuck closely enough to their brief to give this reference impetus as the reader is pushed to find allusions to Ovid’s actual work or metric style in this anthology. Then again, maybe the references are too subtle for the naked eye. But it seems to me that the overall theme of love and seduction provides enough of a backbone to give this booklet consistency without having to bring Ovid into the equation.
And yet, in a sense some of these poets seem to have tried too hard to stick to their brief. So instead of revealing amorous details, quite a few poems lecture the reader. Repeatedly, the universal ‘you’ is addressed which stands either for you—the lovelorn student, or you—the subject of affection. Therefore, the writing adopts a detached quality; a tone we might associate with a sermon (alas the Romans were famous for their orations but it doesn’t easily translate into modern appreciation). The juicy tattletale that frequently fuels love poetry is somewhat dampened by this. Nevertheless, the conversational quality prevails in poetic variations on a recipe for Carpaccio, or in a blueprint to transform your partner’s expensive loud speakers into a cage for a pet hamster. On the whole these poems seem to lack the empathetic and cathartic force that we often seek when reading love poetry; genuine emotion has been replaced by thought-provoking farce. Overall, these are funny instructions, amusing suggestions and extraordinary scenarios designed to conquer, corrupt and control.
By now it is obviously that it is humour rather than love that ultimately keeps this resourceful anthology together. But it cannot be denied that craft plays a part too. In one poem Rachel Piercey uses caesuras imaginatively and in another Abigail Parry experiments with structures reminiscent of concrete poetry. Furthermore, we can find more formal rhyme mixed with daring leaps of the conventional for example in a poem by Andrew Wynn Owen or in Jaqueline Saphra’s neat couplets. Indeed, there are very skilful poems by established poets such as Christopher Reid and Liane Strauss.
According to the blog on The Emma Press website, it is the editor’s aim to ‘publish the kind of writing that makes people laugh and cry’ and this anthology seems to have achieved its goal. I couldn’t say if this is the kind of poetry a reader wants to take to heart; it might just be a keepsake for a special someone, but The Emma Press does inspire a sense of promise.