Make Us Wave Back: Essays on Poetry and Influence
Collections of essays are almost always hit or miss. At their best, they can be unique insights into a particular writer's creative process; at their worst, they can be haphazard collages of material reprinted for no particular reason other than to put another book out on the market. It's difficult to say why exactly Michael Collier, Maryland's former poet laureate, felt the need to publish Make Us Wave Back: Essays on Poetry and Influence, but the end result reads like a dumping ground for academic studies, all-too-brief personal essays, lengthy reportage, and even an interview. Collier hints as much in his introduction, taking his inspiration for this collection from the Roman historian Ninius' penchant for making personal history from a heap of found material.
As befitting a heap, we leap into an essay on Emerson and the universality of poetic influence, crawl through a recollection of Collier's first meeting with his poetic mentor William Meredith, trudge through a somewhat captivating piece on the artistic resurrection of the writer and critic Louise Bogan from the throes of an emotional crisis, and hike through a lengthy essay on the Wesleyan poetry program and the community of poets it fosters, resurfacing at the end and wondering what to make of all we've just read. This is, of course, to say nothing of the collection's self-promoting third section: an in-depth interview with Collier culled from The Grove Review in which the subject spells out themes we've inferred from the preceding essays.
If there is one overarching theme in the collection, it is how essential experience is to the craft of reading and writing poetry. Collier notes how Philip Sidney, in his sonnet cycle "Astrophel and Stella," saw a connection between the experience of falling in love and the need to use language as a means of depicting that experience. Poetry, Collier suggests, can neither be written nor read in hyperbaric chambers but must be engaged with in the context of an entire life; this explains why his reflections on his own poetic education and experience as poet laureate read like breaths of fresh air between waves of dense academic works on writers such as Jorge Luis Borges, Walt Whitman, and Hart Crane. The snippets we get of Collier's own song of experience are certainly worth waiting for; if only they didn't require us to struggle under the weight of so much dense, uninspiring bric-a-brac.