by James Sale

Carol Smallwood

In the Measuring is a substantial new collection of 77 poems by Carol Smallwood. Carol is well-known to readers of The Society of Classical Poets, as her poems regularly appear on its site; and furthermore, she is a well-respected and widely published poet throughout the USA too: there is a long acknowledgements list as to where many of these poems first appeared.

The first thing I’d like to comment on is, of course, the number of poems in the collection. My last review had 88 poems and the one before 33, so for some odd reason I seemed to be faced with not only literate poets but numerate ones too, or at least ones who wish to use numerology in the same arcane way that they will wish to use words. What, then, does 77 mean? I cannot of course be certain, but 7 is the perfect number combining the totality of heaven (always represented by 3) and Earth (represented by 4 – the four corners, the four winds, etc.). And so double 7, or 77, is a double measure of that span: an overflowing of those sublime things above, and those more mundane, quotidian, things below. But I also think that 77 is a reference to Jesus’ words in Matthew 18.22 when asked how many times we had to forgive our neighbour: not 7 times, but 77 (Hugh J Schonfield translation – some have 70×7). The point is, whereas the title of the poem ‘measuring’ implies judgement, the numbering sets mercy against it. There is in Smallwood’s work an infusion of compassion for all the stark observations that the poet notes or makes.

The book is divided into 6 sections: Prelude, The Domestic, Sea-Change, Slant, In Passing, Epilogue. The Prelude and Epilogue are only one poem each, and so the bulk of the work is in the four main sections. Perceptive readers will already note that the titles of the four sections intimate something of the heaven/earth dichotomy, link or measure, that I alluded to earlier. The Domestic, for example, having a very ‘earth’ or mundane feel to it, whilst Sea-Change (with its understated nod to Shakespeare’s The Tempest) deals with something more elevated.

Thus, as a reader, I find myself little interested in poems like:

Black Ants Came

to check my kitchen around the
6 o’clock news, plump as ripe blackberries.

Where they came from I do not know but
they were gone by midnight news and
Memorial Day mattress sales.

Which seems inconsequential, even as an observational point. But in contrast, I think her poem “A Brief Look” truly wonderful:

A Brief Look

Beauty comes at ordinary moments full grown, unexpected
and leaves us gasping – suspended – caught off guard.
We try to grasp it again and when we can’t are rejected
and pursue in desperate, determined disregard.

Our dullness removed by a brief look at the sublime,
we try to grasp it again and when we can’t are rejected,
crave for any insight, revelation – the meaning of the time.
Beauty comes at ordinary moments full grown, unexpected.

From the first line, which I love, the whole poem comes round to re-stating its final line; it’s as if what has been stated is so true, so beautiful in itself, the only way to develop the idea is to say it again! And, of course, the idea that beauty comes in ‘ordinary moments full grown’ hints at epiphanies, the mystical, and the goddess Pallas Athene herself – wisdom – springing fully-armoured and fully grown from the head of Zeus. In other words, what the poem asserts is that beauty (like wisdom) is axiomatic and so needs no proof, but instead arrests the viewer. Truly, a revelation of a poem – itself full of insight.

And this leads on to an overview of Smallwood’s collection. Yes, there are several poems in it that I don’t rate much at all, but there are many masterful (if she will forgive that gender-specific adjective) gems which really shine. Her best poems are those which display mastery of form, rhyme, refrain and what I would call an intense concentration of language and ideas. She really is like, to take an analogy, one of those sword smiths who hammer the metal again and again and again till it becomes unbreakably hard, and sharp, and so is fit for purpose.

Let me now, therefore, just point to a few beauties in her work that I particularly admire. Her poem, “How Could Early Life” is a short poem of 5 lines but its second stanza creates a sense of awe:

Seeing stromatolites living today makes
one stare in equal fear and longing –
to fathom the beginning.

This perfectly encapsulates a certain sense of wonder at life, even considering the smallest of things. Further, there is, I think, a marvellous technical point – a sort of mimesis – in the pararhyming of “longing/beginning”: the rhyme aches to be a full rhyme but isn’t, just as we ache to know our beginning, but can’t. Certainly, Smallwood’s poetry is measured to an exact and exacting degree.

“Catching On” demonstrates in its very title a mindful ambiguity in the title. Do we ever really ‘catch on’ to – and genuinely feel philosophies like Copernicus’, or Darwin’s, or “women’s equality”, or do they all simply remain fads that we pay lip service to whilst we remain the ego at the centre of our own universe?

Clearly, reading the whole collection, Carol Smallwood is a feminist, but not an ideologist who as a result of their ideology has sacrificed all their intelligence and so ends up in the Orwellian position of bleating “four legs good, two legs bad” (for which read: women good, men bad, or any other binary opposition). A great example of her intelligence and perceptiveness is in her poem, “Examples.” Smallwood indeed observes that in China women’s feet are bound (painfully) so that they may have small feet and marry well; seemingly a protest then? Maybe, but then we learn:

Western women believe themselves free
of such things…

And she then begins to detail her own enslavement to wanting to match the stiletto heels worn on Netflix’s House of Cards. It’s insightful, it packs a punch, especially given she gets at the heart of the problem, if problem it is: namely,

our tale
of Cinderella’s small slipper.

In other words, myth, or the archetypes of who we are. The implications of this are not spelt out directly, but from this reader’s perspective they seem very clear: you can mount a ‘Me-Too’ campaign andwith luckshut down women in China binding their daughters’ feet. But as you shut it down the same mythor realityunderlying human nature will pop up elsewhere and manifest itself in another form, another ritual. The fundamental flaw of feminism is that it is purely political; it never addresses the issue of human nature, and the flaws running through both genders. Put another way, it’s utopian, and like all utopias, it will fail. Of course, I fully accept that Carol Smallwood may never accept my interpretation of her poem in this way, but the fact that I can make it is why her poems are so interesting.

This issue of gender and of myth is also explored poems such as “Sleeping Beauty,” “Why Do Women Ask First,” “Waiting for the Dental Hygienist,” and “I, Divine.” Space prohibits my exploring them in much more detail, which they deserve; suffice to say, I recommend them to all readers of her work. And one great line of hers that says so much and seems to be a measuring line itself is: “It’s wise to detect differences in what seems the same” from “Seeing the Whole.” The whole collection is full of these “detections.”

Thus, I am a great admirer of Carol Smallwood’s poetry, although I scarcely can say that I share her philosophy or feminism. But her writing is structured, powerful, insightful and oftentimes surprising. I found myself quite frequently finding a line or two that would take me aback, and I’d say to myself, “what a great line!” To end, then, with one of them – from “Knowing”:

Venus, the admired morning star, is a sulphuric hell

That is so good – literally, as a description of Venus, the planet, but also it hints that love itself can be just that: a sulphuric hell. I imagine Carol Smallwood must be a very grounded, and very droll person! Do get a copy of her book and enjoy it for yourself.

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12 Responses

  1. James A. Tweedie

    “Certainly, Smallwood’s poetry is measured to an exact and exacting degree.” James Sale

    “I have measured out my life in coffee spoons.” T.S. Eliot

    It is a brave thing to attempt to take the measure of someone or of someone’s poetry. Mr. Sale bravely does it once again with Ms. Smallwoods latest collection. It always interests me to see how much we can see in so little! Eliot measures his entire life in coffee spoons and yet we can discern eternity in a wildflower, or in a five line poem! Mr. Sale has the gifted eye to see what is quite invisible to me. This is not to say that such things as he describes in his review are not actually there, but it does point out how subjective the reading of modern poetry can be. Sometimes the emperor has no clothes and sometimes he does. What I see is not necessarily what someone else sees nor even what the poet saw when he/she put the words on paper.

    Some of the poems cited here appear to me to be like small windows cut through a cell wall, giving us (the readers) a small glimpse of the world beyond. Our imaginations then fill in the larger landscape and place a story in it and then embrace whatever meaning we find in the story (which is our story as
    much or more than it is the poet’s story). Modern/post-modern poetry invites the reader to create the meaning. Classical poetry, it seems to me, presents the reader with an actual meaning or story for the reader to ponder. The well-crafted poems that Ms. Smallwood posts here at SCP fall clearly in this latter categaory. The ones cited by Mr. Sales appear to be more aligned with the former. In this case, beauty (whether sprung full-blown or not) is in the eye of the beholder and coffee spoons become inadequate to the task of measuring whatever it may mean.

    None of this, of course, is intended to take anything away from Mr. Sales’ review (which is excellent and insightful) or Ms. Smallwood’s poetry) which I also find compelling).

    Reply
  2. James Sale

    Thanks James for your comments. I have long admired your poetry; and your comments are always balanced, measured and without rancour and that is a major achievement. And here you hit one nail on the head. Yes, the problems of modernism and post modernism, and the possibility that one is simply projecting one’s own fantasies into the poetry! Like you, I am a formalist, preferring form to free verse, believing that meter is superior to prose, and that iambic meter specifically is ideal in the English language for all the greatest statements that poetry can make. However, I make it a point of principle not to dismiss any poetry or poet in advance of studying their work in order to establish by investigation whether they be a poet or not. This seems to me a Johnsonian principle, for as the great man said, ‘It is the duty of criticism to establish that which is right, from that which is right merely because it is established.’ On that basis, then, whilst – as a right-wing, Christian, formalist – I am in principle against left-wing, atheistic, free verse, I do not discount the possibility that in God’ world a great writer may emerge with a value system plumb counter to my own. And my duty is to give credit for what is good in it – to find the good in it – whilst simultaneously proclaiming the good, the true and the beautiful. A good example of a great left-wing, atheistic writer I am opposed to in principle, but who I deeply admire would be George Orwell (not a poet in this case). His prose, like his mind, has deep and yet imaginative clarity. So, to return to the case in point, whereas as I make clear, I am not enamoured of feminism and perhaps some other aspects of Carole Smallwood’s belief, yet I think there is a tremendous poetic talent here and I have tried to show where and why. Indeed, your point about the emperor’s new clothes is exactly why I take two of her poems in full in order to express severe doubts about one, and yet point to the glories of the other. If I failed to convey the glory of it to you, then the fault is not Carol Smallwood’s but my own as a sufficient critic. But thank you for your comments; they are great and insightful, and have got me thinking about first principles again!

    Reply
    • Monty

      Being one, James, whose lifelong aversion and indifference to politics has been so successful that, at 55, I’m still not certain of the meaning of the terms ‘left-wing’ and ‘right-wing’ . . . I can only say – after reading your above views – that I find myself most grateful that I am of such flagrant ignorance. Otherwise, I might’ve began to make sense of your claim that ‘righties’ read and write a certain form(s) of poetry; and ‘lefties’ another . . with, seemingly, the proverbial line drawn in the sand.

      Fortunately (not knowing my left from my right) I’m only able to generalise; and thus find myself incredulous to’ve read that a person’s political leanings would indicate which form(s) of poetry they’d read/write . . and which form(s) they wouldn’t (or ‘couldn’t’, on principle). Am I to believe that all “right-wing christians” deal only in formalist poetry; and “left-wing atheists” only in free-verse?

      Poetry and politics are, as they should be, polar opposites: never the twain shall meet . . and I feel that for anyone to allow their political or religious beliefs to determine which form(s) of poetry they should or shouldn’t read . . is doing a disservice to poetry. Poetry’s about freedom of mind and freedom of speech; politics is about anything but . . and if I had my way, the two words would never meet in the same sentence.

      An example of this is shown perfectly in your seemingly-anomalous assertion that you “deeply admire a certain writer to whom you’re opposed”. While I realise that it’s not impossible to simultaneously “admire and oppose” the same writer . . would it not be the case that in a ideal world, one could just deeply admire a writer for his writing; regardless of how that writer ‘sees things’?

      I must thank ya for introducing me to Johnson’s aphorism concerning the ‘duty of criticism’: that’s an absolute gem.

      Reply
  3. James A. Tweedie

    Heavens to Betsy, James! You are one of the finest communicators in the world! And, as I said, I, too, found the poem(s) “compelling” (if not glorious), and your review “excellent and insightful.” If it appeared as if I suggested or implied anything else, then I am the one who failed to make himself clear. I also fully embrace the inspired genius of artists such as Picasso along with the pre-conversion (atheist/agnostic) poetry and music of Eliot and Stravinsky respectively, nor are genius and inspiration restricted to either iambic pentameter and rhyme or to “all things classical” (although such is also my default preference).

    Reply
  4. James Sale

    It would Monty, but sadly we are not in an ideal world. But I totally agree with you, and I thought was making that very point: that we can admire good/great writers even if we do not share their political/religious/philosophical viewpoint, and we need to make an especial effort in such cases to see where they are coming from, rather than simple dislike or discount without proper evaluation. Of course, it is entirely possible for atheists to write in formal verse – witness Shelley to name but one – and theists to write in so-called ‘free verse’, but the history of the C20th has put a special on this whereby the choice to not use form is seen as a political statement. So that, in a supreme act of virtue-signalling, writes formless rubbish because they are doing away with old-fashioned constraints, with the ‘rules, man’, with … you get my drift? I am glad you like Dr Johnson – he has many gems. All the best, Monty.

    Reply
    • Monty

      Yeah, I recognised that ya were making that very point (about the act of admiring and opposing the same writer); to which I concurred when I said “it’s not impossible” to do so . . . but, at that same time, I also found myself mulling over that very act; and I tried to imagine two readers: Reader a/ is reading some work by a writer he/she deeply admires: and absorbing it unconditionally. Reader b/ is reading the same work by the same writer, who he/she also deeply admires: but they oppose the writer’s beliefs/politics/religion (or lack of)/views, etc . . . Can Reader b/ read the same piece with the same zest as Reader a/ (especially if the constituents of Reader b/’s opposition are reflected in the very writer’s work that they’re reading!)? I fervently hope that I never find myself in such an unenviable position.

      I must tell ya, James: I had a slightly uneasy feeling when I read the following sentence in your last missive: “Of course, it’s entirely possible for atheists to write in formal verse”.. and ya then felt the need to name one, as proof. Not only did it not require proof.. it surely didn’t even require saying; in the sense that we all know that any human (including atheists) can possess the ability to write in formal verse . . my point being that that ability would already have been inside them: long before society attributed a label to them (or they to themselves).

      It may’ve just been the way I read it, but that one sentence sounded to me ever-so-slightly protocolic (as in one being obliged to say something even if they have no firm belief in it: just to tow the party line) . . in the same sense that a bigoted MP might’ve said in the 60’s: “Of course it’s entirely possible for black people to assimilate into british society” (perhaps through gritted teeth).

      But regardless of my right or wrong perception of that sentence, it just pains me in general to hear that poetry is, for some, embroiled in politics and religion. To which I must ask: To where are ya relating when ya said above that one’s poetry-form preference is “seen as a political statement”? Britain? America? Both? The english-speaking world in general? Where is this happening? And, shudderingly, how has it been allowed to happen to the innocence of poetry?

      Reply
      • Monty

        . . and regarding The Doc’, I was just about to say that I’d previously read a small fraction of his work, but then it occurred to me that hundreds of millions of humans must’ve read a small fraction of his work . . whenever they referred to a dictionary.

        He first came to my attention about 20 years ago, when I heard through the grapevine that his poem ‘London’ is considered to be the first widely-published blatantly anti-establishment poem (as oppossed to the compliance and obsequiousness of widely-published poets from the previous century: e.g. Shakepeare). So, I jumped straight on ‘London’, simultaneously discovering ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes’ (equally anti-) and several essays. But it was around this time, in my early 30’s, that the whole universe of literature was starting to unfold for me; and with it the discovery of so many quality writers . . and it seems I allowed Johnson to slip out of the net (apart from subsequently reading many of his aphorisms in books on such). This could be just the jolt I needed to acquaint myself with more of his work; to make an appointment to see the doctor!

        I should tell ya how affected I was by his words on criticism which ya quoted above; although they were hitherto unknown to me, I immediately deemed them to be a/ A compulsory mantra for all critics.. b/ The foremost statement on criticism in general. What powerful and sensible words they are . . all the more so in these days of the public majority staying safely within the parameters of familiarity; hence ‘established’ writers are able to avoid criticisms, and hide behind their popularity.

      • James Sale

        You raise so many interesting points, Monty, that it would take a full-on essay to respond properly to them; but, to quote a mutual favourite of ours, the Doc, ‘the mind can only repose on the stability of truth’, and truth is what we want. Briefly, two points I would make. The first is that there is, anyway, a kind of echo, or mimesis, in the choice, or not, of form. Atheism in its nature, since it rejects creation, and favours chance, therefore has a predilection for very libra, which in the C20th with the advent of mainstream ant-theistic ideologies; this, by its nature, responding to creation and creation’s beauty, more readily accepts and wants form. That is one observation. The second, as you rightly comment, is that there is nothing at all to stop an atheist using form. Indeed, one aspect of this issue, less commented on, would be the subconscious and the conscience: in other words the situation in which somebody has overt – explicit – beliefs, but at some deeper level of their psyche they rebel against them, and so consciously seek form despite overtly believing in the god of chance and materialism. I hope that makes sense. How, however, poetry has been overtaken by issues that are not poetry specifically is another issue altogether and – wow! – you do ask them!!!! But let’s not forget Carol Smallwood’s poetry – take a look and see what you think.

    • Monty

      I can assure ya, James, that I’d already pored over the examples ya gave of the poet’s work, before we entered into this discourse; and didn’t feel sufficiently moved to pass comment . . so didn’t. But seeing as ya ask . .
      . . I can tell ya that before I’d even finished reading ‘Ants’, my mind was already forming the notion that she must’ve been in the kitchen when the ants came: and witnessed their arrival . . otherwise, how would she know that they came around 6 o’clock? And as for: “Where they came from I do not know” . . I do know: Outside!

      With ‘A Brief Look’: I felt the diction to be a tad unconsidered. Note 7 consecutive words in lines 3 and 4: ‘when we can’t are rejected and pursue’. I realise they look worse out of context; but those words don’t sit well together. The 2 lines would seem much clearer if they read, for example:
      ‘We try to grasp it again; and when we can’t, we’re rejected,/But still pursue in desperate, determined disregard’.
      If line 6 was also to end with ‘we’re rejected’, then line 7 could begin – as it does – with the word ‘crave’; but as it reads ‘are rejected’, then line 7 should begin: ‘We crave’.
      If the poet had chosen to write a metered poem, I wouldn’t be making these observations; but the fact that it’s so patently unmetered means that the poet was afforded abundant scope in which to make the diction clear (so many syllables to play with) . . and I feel that the poet didn’t take advantage of such a luxury.
      So, I have to say, James, that I feel no inclination to commit to a further investigation of the poet’s work.

      Regarding our previous discourse above: I wouldn’t otherwise have felt the need to continue with it.. but one sentence in your last missive positively smacked me right in the face: “Atheism, in its nature . . rejects creation, and favours chance”. What a preposterous claim to make! How can ANY human reject creation, knowing that we wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for creation?

      Some humans feel that a god created all; others feel that we must’ve came from plants (simple biology). If the ‘god’ thing’s right, we were created by god; if the ‘plant’ thing’s right, we were created by plants; either way, it’s STILL creation! If a seed falls from a tree, gets blown 200 yards, settles, and eventually evolves into a new tree . . that’s creation: a new tree’s created. An atheist may live on that very piece of land, and is witness to the growth of the new tree – the creation. So, if he’s watching creation happen . . HOW CAN HE REJECT IT?

      Ya say that atheists favour ‘chance’.. what chance? Even if one tried to define the word ‘chance’ in this context, it’d still be such a loose, ambiguous and nonsensical word to use. Are ya saying that the atheist watching the tree grow in his garden will dismiss it as ‘chance’, and not creation? And even if he did, he wouldn’t be wrong, because creation IS chance, or more accurately, creation is BY chance. The wind may blow 8 seeds into the atheist’s garden: but, by chance, only 3 seeds survive to become new trees. The bird lays 6 eggs; only 4 survive to become new birds. Nature creates by chance. It can’t create in any other way!
      So there it is, those 3 words in the same sentence: Nature.. Creation.. Chance. And all 3 of those things were happening long before humans existed, let alone before humans started to attribute religious labels to themselves.

      I feel that if all humans who believed in god were content to just BELIEVE, then religion wouldn’t be half the problem it is. But they’re not content to just believe . . they also feel their belief gives them the right to disparage and belittle non-believers. “Atheists reject this”; “atheists can’t do this”; “atheists can’t see that”; “atheists are not worthy”; “atheists only recognise that, and not this”. It seems that many believers get more of a kick from disparaging the ‘enemy’ than they do from actually believing!

      And now I gather that this major hindrance to human harmony has pervaded POETRY; one of the few things, along with music, that I’ve always deemed to be above human follies. Hence, poor innocent poetry is now to be subjected to all the aimless squabbles, large and small, that have so disharmonised the human existence.

      I feel robbed . .

      Reply
  5. B. S. Eliud Acrewe

    Mr. Sale is one of those fairly fearless, and not particularly feckless, reviewers, who casts about for poetry he can relate to. So, therefore, I do not think his review of Ms. Smallwood’s poems fits as one of Mr. MacKenzie’s “two poorly written reviews posted in this very venue praising the very kind of “poets”…Salemi describes.”

    First off, Mr. Sale’s review, if relatively shallow, at least introduces SCP to another voice. That is admirable.

    Secondly, whatever one might say about Mr. Sale’s reviews, they are the best upon this site for chasing down contemporary figures. Who else has taken on Glaysher, or Turner, or even figures, like Robin, MacKenzie, Salemi and Smallwood?

    Thirdly, he reveals where he differs from the poets he is discussing. He does not praise the poets he investigates, nor succumb (or suck-up) to either their inimitable manners or their liberating truths. I like that; though I must admit I wish he could even be more distant from the poets he reviews, and even his own poetry.

    Finally, he admires Samuel Johnson (though I wonder how much). But that alone makes me want to peruse his reviews; for this benighted literary period could do with more of Johnson’s grit and spit.

    So, I say, write on, Mr. Sale; the next time you might hit the nail on the head.

    Reply
  6. James Sale

    Thank you for your qualified support, BS, much appreciated. I am going to try in future to make my reviews less shallow; we all want depth, except of course the superficial. My bigger problem is understanding how I can be more distant from the poets I review, and even from my own poetry. On the former case, I don’t personally know any of these poets, and on the latter I think I avoid talking about my own poetry when reviewing others. So honestly I am not clear about how I can do what you say. On the topic, however, of how the poets to review are chosen I think I should comment, since I would not want you to think me feckless. There are three basic ways the books come to be reviewed: one, I am asked to review by the editor; two, a poet specifically asks me to review their work; and three, and least common, I ask to review a particular poet. In this last category comes William Ruleman, whom I am reviewing next; I asked if I could review him and he kindly agreed. So you see that there is in all this not a coherent or logical pattern, but rather a series of unexpected books/poems that get looked at. I quite like this random, eclectic-ness, because it seems to me less doctrinaire, and more respecting of the poets and the poems. But I take heart from your final comment: ‘write on, Mr Sale’. Yes, yes, yes: I will Bruce and I am going to try to hit that nail squarely on the head. You, I hope, will also continue to contribute your rather unusual view of the world, which I much like even when I disagree with it!

    Reply

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