On On Poetry by Jackie Wills

I’ve been saving this up as my last non-collection/pamphlet read of the year. I bought and much enjoyed Wills’ collection Woman’s Head as a Jug (Arc) 10 years ago, and during the pandemic I got copies of three of her other five collections, which I also really enjoyed. So I had to buy a copy of On Poetry, curiously the second excellent book with that title to be published by Smith Doorstop in the last couple of years, after Jonathan Davidson’s. This one, though, seems implicitly to have a different book – Glyn Maxwell’s brilliant, but somewhat didactic classic – its sights.

Wills’ book is subtitled ‘Reading, writing & working with poems’ and illustrates her points with poems which all bar two (Donne’s ‘The Flea’ and Edward Thomas’s ‘Digging’) are not written by White men, thus providing a necessary corrective to Maxwell’s and other ‘how-to-write-poetry’ books. For example, Wills’ unpacking of Patience Agbabi’s superb poem ‘The Doll’s House’ – available here – is a lesson itself in how to read poetry and tease out its subtleties and gifts.

A key feature of Wills’ ideas is the centrality of metaphor. She approvingly cites Susan Sontag’s line that, ‘A great poet is one who refines and elaborates the great historical store of metaphors and adds to our stock of metaphors.’ I often find metaphors hard to grasp and use them sparingly in my own poems, so this is a little challenging for me. However, it’s good to be challenged, and essential, I think, for any creative person to reassess their own thoughts and practice in the light of others’.

I’m only halfway through the book, but I’m enjoying it so much that I’m having to take it slowly so I can fully savour it. You can buy a copy on the Poetry Business website, here.

I should mention too that Wills maintains an always highly readable blog, here, and that her latest collection, A Friable Earth (2019), and three of its predecessors are available to buy on the Arc website, here.

3 thoughts on “On On Poetry by Jackie Wills

  1. Jackie Wills seems to have been an important voice in poetry for such a long time and yet still seems to slip under the radar – no bad thing maybe, but I’m glad you’ve given her some coverage here!
    Julie x
    PS I like her links between poetry and gardening.

  2. This was timely, as I’m also partway through reading the book, also taking it slowly as it’s sending me off to read/reread poets she refers to. Just one quote from the section on reading poetry: “Reading is also an act of solidarity.”

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