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Filtering by Tag: Coffee House Press

Poetry is Pretentious

Two transformative events occurred to me this April, this National Poetry Month. The first was an enraptured reading of Dan Fox’s new book from Coffee House Press called Pretentiousness: Why it Matters. The second was rediscovering the magical word-jutsu of Saul Williams.

For most of my life, I’ve shied away from reading poetry. Not for any reason I have the ability to pinpoint, but it went at least as far back as an embarrassing ninth grade English class writing assignment. During this stretch of time, I understood poetry to be an overly simplistic and subjective art form (How horrendously misunderstood I was!) My neglect for seeking a greater understanding was two-fold: fear, and willful ignorance.

On the one hand, all the great artists who had ever emotionally stirred me were poets. Dylan, Tupac, Homer, Dante, Eliot, Whitman, Kanye. On the other hand, I disregarded any other poet as ‘preeeeteeeentioussss.’ Pitifully attempting to transmit their visceral experience through the rhythm of words. This contradiction was untenable.

Pretentious…we say that word as though it slips through the lips of Eden’s serpent. We lob that word as an insult to art forms that extend beyond our comprehension in an attempt to assuage our own self-doubt.

If not for the daring magicians who faced this accusation, of being called pretentious, with grace, bravery, and defiance, the world we inhabit would be devoid of great art. What if Picasso cowered rather than triumphed when he cubed the faces of his subjects? What if Basquiat bowed when the New York bums disgraced his cardboard canvas? What if Kanye succumbed to the pressure of his peers when they were laughin’ while he was rappin’ instead of strappin.’

We would all be lesser. Without.

There is a beautiful irony in believing that poetry is pretentious, in that it both is and is not. It is pretentious in that it stretches and extends the mind. Scribbles become words become concepts become thoughts become devoured by conscience. It is not pretentious in that it can be wholly and perfectly accomplished by everyone from a lanky, dopey ninth grader who had yet to grow into his own feet to a former mayor with a twitter feed.

Poetry is pretentious, but pretension is power.

A week from today, myself, my partner, and two lucky giveaway contest winners will be at the newly renovated James J Hill Reference Library to see Saul Williams perform his pretentious act of speaking truth to power through the art of poetry. I both hope and know that his performance will inspire me to find my voice, use these words, and become…

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing

Cover photo generously provided by Coffee House Press

Cover photo generously provided by Coffee House Press

This book has won award, after award, after award. This book has been reviewed, and reviewed, and reviewed. This book is “Joycean.” This book is “unlike anything you’ve ever read”. This book “stands shoulder-to-shoulder with The Catcher in the Rye, Lolita, and The Road as a masterpiece." This book… is tragic, haunting, and utterly fantastic.

All the accolades, all the reviews, and all the comparisons, though certainly deserving and accurate, do not even begin to scratch the surface as to why this book is an important addition to the literary landscape. McBride's innovative style captures "the moment just before language becomes formatted thought." The fragmented sentences keep the reader entrenched inside the protagonist's own experience, which at times can be difficult to share. The book is almost entirely devoid of physical and temporal details, adding only that which is immediately presented to the protagonist. And yet, despite the lack of setting, description, and dialogue, the story is captivating and beautiful.

The girl, who remains nameless throughout, is born to an unwed mother. Her brother develops a brain tumor at a very young age. Their father abandoned them. Her grandfather, a staunch Catholic, discovers that his grandchildren are being raised in a "kind of godlessness" and chastises her mother for allowing "evil in this house".
She is beaten as a child.  Her uncle sexually abuses her causing her to define her existence through her sexual encounters. As a result of McBride's unique style, the reader becomes a part of each of these experiences. The pulsating and stunted sentences create the sense that these thoughts, emotions, and terrors are your own. 

Eimear McBride is author of  A Girl is a Half-formed Thing.   Photo credit: Jemma Mickleburgh

Eimear McBride is author of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. 
Photo credit: Jemma Mickleburgh

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is a masterful literary achievement. The prose goes beyond 'stream of consciousness', almost becoming consciousness itself. Although it is a work of fiction, the universality that McBride writes with fosters the notion that this girl actually exists. And in some sense she does. For all the suffering this girl endures, and by Jove does she suffer, there are hundreds of thousands of women who have endured similar strife. McBride dispels the boundary between fictional character and historical individual. Suffering, on the scale that our protagonist goes through, happens. This realization is one that could be ignored in a typical work of fiction because the reader and the character are often kept at arm's reach through narration and dialogue. McBride, however, has torn down that wall of separation. The reader becomes the character's every thought and emotion. Every moment of fear, panic, laughter, heart break, depression, and fiery hatred is transferred from the squiggles on the page directly into the mind of the reader. 

If you desire to continue your foray into the next episode of 50 Shades of Bleh, by all means, continue. That is your prerogative. But if you so desire to challenge yourself as a reader, to plunge into a world of suffering and to come out on the other side a changed individual, then this is the book for you. Because that is what this book will do.  The beginning requires an adjustment, but as you become acquainted with the style, and allow the words to rush over you like a torrential rain, your outlook on your own existence, as well as the existence of others, will be changed. 
This book is a true piece of art in that it alters the understanding of the observer. It creates an empathetic connection between those otherwise entirely disconnected. Towards the middle, you will find yourself holding your breath as you turn each page to discover what lies beyond. And when the book is finished, and you set it on your nightstand, gasp for air, breathe deep, and be thankful.

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride was published in the U.S. by Coffee House Press

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