A case for prefacing poetry

Posted July 11, 2010, at 5:58 p.m.

“Stone Whisperer: Poems” by Hendrik D. Gideonse; The Gandalf Press, Brooklin, Maine, 2010; 182 pages, trade paperback, $17.95.

In poetry readings for at least six decades, poets standing before compliant audiences have made a practice of providing prefaces to their poems. They comment, sometimes extensively, on people, places, events and stray thoughts unmentioned in the poem but — in the poet’s mind, at least — present there anyway. I had a colleague in graduate school eons ago who was famous for delivering his prefaces in such a way that you could not tell where the notes left off and the poem began.

To me this always seemed sort of problematic. If the poem required explanation before it was even read, then was it complete in the first place? If pre-footnotes were necessary during the reading, then did you get shortchanged when you read the poem in a book? Are the notes part of the poem, or aren’t they?

Well, Hendrik Gideonse of Brooklin has sort of solved this problem, if problem it is, in his lengthy collection “Stone Whisperer.” On top of each poem is a graphic box containing italicized text of notes he might provide before reading the poem to an audience. To my mind, this is an upfront, honest way of calling attention, first, to the highly personal nature of the works, and second, to the irony inherent in the practice of adding words to works that presumably are already complete in themselves.

The poems in this collection range from three lines to multiple pages, and the majority are highly personal reflections on family, friends and moments of personal cognizance. They also are largely quite prosaic in diction and rhythm, making the addition of the boxed notes an appropriate experiment. “Eliot Coleman is a hero to many,” begins the box to “In Praise of Small Packages,” and continues: “even I think so and I don’t have to discount his graduation from Williams to do so.” After more observation on Eliot, the poem starts:

So there he was, this impish little boy masquerading as a man,

Standing before the fireplace with its large stone heart.

In the poem proper, the diction grows somewhat more formal, but the material is simply an extension of what the typography sets off: an expression of a narrowly personal moment delivered so straight that the notes are fundamentally part of the poem, like the vocalized works of my fellow student from 1983. And Gideonse’s writings are squarely within that same current of American poetry, now some 60-plus years deep into itself, that stresses the expression of personal experience. People who appreciate the personal notes at poetry readings will appreciate these poems.

Hendrik Gideonse is a member of the Deer Isle Writers Group, one of many such groups active in Maine. “Stone Whisperer,” his first collection, is available through www.lulu.com.

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