Juvenalia by Reid McGrath, Kelsay Books, 2019

by James Sale

Regular readers of The Society of Classical Poets’ pages will be familiar with the name of Reid McGrath; he has been extensively published here, and in 2015 won First Prize in its annual poetry competition. This collection of his work, Juvenalia, charts his progress and his journey over the last few years. What, then, do we find?

The first thing to comment on is of course the title, which it is easy to miss or misinterpret: I looked at it and thought, “Why is the poet describing his own poetry as juvenilia, a word we are all familiar with?” I looked again and then spotted that juvenilia was in fact juvenalia—a subtle substitution of an “a” for an “i.” This subtlety is, I think, a distinguishing mark of McGrath’s poetry, of which more later. But the juvenalia refers to the exact opposite of juvenilia, since it refers to the games instituted in AD 59 by the Emperor Nero which marked—in the shaving of the beard for the first time—that one had passed from youth to manhood. I suspect, too, that there is a play on words here with a reference to Juvenal, the Latin satiric poet; there is certainly plenty of satiric bite in his work.

This bite begins early on in the collection: titles like “The Backwards Romantic” or “Ars Poetica” immediately let you know that the poet has something to say about the contemporary scene. One of the epigraphs to “Ars Poetica” is Ezra Pound’s “Make it new” and the penultimate stanza of the poem seems withering in its understated way:

 

And we will go and we will build something
that has some form, that took some tinkering.
It will be “new” just like a snowflake is,
how every orchid’s different from all orchises.

 

What is clever here are the slightly off metrical and rhyming schemes: McGrath is attempting to move poetry away from formlessness, but it seems to me that to jump from free verse to wholly regular metrics and rhyme is too big, so instead he explores form and moves in a subtler and more cunning way. The final couplet contains a line with anapestic substitutions before nailing the point in almost perfect iambic meter, though the final, fifth foot is weak but its rhyme carries it:

 

It’ll be as symmetrical as it can be
to frame the chaos of our history.

 

All this seems highly wrought and powerful. McGrath is a poet who understands form, and who understands meter and rhyme, not in a mechanical and di-dum, di-dum or sweet/tweet way that some advocate; but in a way that is highly expressive and draws on the potential inherent in the language.

Indeed, on the subject of rhyme, McGrath is somewhat of a master. You may have thought that is/orchises was recherché enough, but there is plenty more: from “Juxtaposition” we have man/elan, from “Sportsmanship” law/Hoorah and—to give one more, extreme example—from “The Holistic Physician” Go/sano where a Latin tag is invoked.

But given this capability for the more abstruse rhyming, I am pleased to report that McGrath can breathe new life into the old rhyming clichés, which actually, only master poets should attempt; for in lesser hands stale rhymes give formal poetry that bad name which modernists are always wanting to foist on us. Take, however, McGrath’s apparently clichéd sonnet, “Valentine.” First, the title itself and its subject matter might seem typically sentimental; it is a poem about his love for his wife, after all. Consider, though, the final sestet;

 

You have refreshed; you irrigate my heart.
You’re water and you’re sunshine and you’re air
that’s unpolluted: cool then warm. You part
the darkness of my isolated lair.
Now fertile is my chest; and a Love grows,
and now you are my Heart; you are my Rose.

 

I would argue there is a compelling power in these lines. Note the first two lines and the five repetitions of “you”; the build-up of antinomies; the use and dis-use of capitals (one of his subtleties), especially with the first “Now” where the capitalisation here seems less to do with the beginning of the line, since the preceding two lines have foregone it, but more to do with a spondaic substitution that prepares us for a hammer-blow second “now” in the final line where perfect iambic is absolutely restored. That “heart” in the first line has now become “Heart” indicates, perhaps, the world of Platonic ideals—forms—that the poet has now reached. In this context “grows” and “Rose” seems exactly right.

My favourite poem in the collection is probably, “Lines Composed Before Finding The Society of Classical Poets.”

 

Savants like to arrange their stars
and push their poets into piles:
marble-misers who assign the jars
according to the artists’ styles.
They line them in their fusty den
when they deem an era’s past,
and deign to burp them now and then,
but work to invent a ‘new’ cast.

Classicists have since ceased to be,
and Rhyme is out of fashion now,
but she still moves me like the sea
rocks a sun-soaked splintered scow.
All good men have come from men,
like oaks which out the leafmeal sprout;
what once was old appears again:
It is an everlasting fount.

 

It may seem somewhat self-serving in that our own dear SCP gets a poem to itself! But here McGrath addresses our perennial issue of why we write as we do; why we ignore the “fashion” in which “Rhyme is out” (notice the capital here too, as McGrath effectively hypostatises rhyme); and instead insist, like “All good men,” that “She” (the Muse?) is “an everlasting fount.” Wonderful.

If McGrath stays with poetry—and does not subside into domestic bliss, as gorgeous as that can be (Beware the Valentine, McGrath/May lead you from the Muse’s path!)—I believe that in the years to come he will produce even greater works of poetry. This is certainly a great start and I recommend it to all true poetry lovers.

 

 


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12 Responses

  1. Leo Zoutewelle

    With the enlargement of James’ commentary this poem contains more words than can be digested in one day! Wow.

    Reply
  2. Theresa Rodriguez

    Thank you, James, for providing us with such an engaging review! I will have to order a copy of Mr. McGrath’s book.

    Reply
  3. james sale

    Reid is a very fine poet indeed, so I hope this review provides a more extensive readership for his powerful work. Thank you for commenting Leo and Theresa – it’s good to have a perceptive audience for real poetry.

    Reply
  4. Joseph S. Salemi

    McGrath is an excellent poet who deserves more recognition. Let’s hope this perceptive review of the man’s work will generate some of that.

    Reply
  5. Andrew Benson Brown

    Love the subtle play on the title. Interesting observation too, James, about masters reworking the old rhyming clichés. I found the ‘Valentine’ sestet quite moving and not at all formulaic, which is hard to pull off when you’re dealing with a topic that has been done literally millions of times.

    I have just ordered a copy of this.

    Reply
  6. james sale

    Thanks Andrew – there is almost nothing an author likes to hear more – especially poets – than the sentence: “I am buying your book”. I am sure Reid will be delighted to learn this, particularly as you are a formidable poet yourself. The greatest compliments are always from our peers!

    Reply
  7. sally Cook

    I agree on the excellence of this poet;s work. Cursed E-mail prevents me writing more.

    Reply
  8. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    James, this is a wonderful book review. Recently, I have had the pleasure of reading some of this fine poet’s works, and Mr. McGrath’s writing is intriguing, inspirational, and exceptional. I will definitely be checking “Juvenalia” out. Thank you!

    Reply
  9. BDW

    Three qualities distinguish the poetry of Mr. McGrath from his contemporaries: his texture-rich diction, his novelistic vision, and his goodness imbued with common sense. His athletic approach to existence has suggested my single contemporary charichord: Wes Cuebal Reid.

    The Poetry of Reid McGrath
    by Cadwel E. Bruise
    “…what art could twist the sinews of thy heart?”
    —William Blake, “The Tyger”

    His poems are full of raw energy,
    linguistic power, and remarkable,
    strong phrases that spill over everywhere.
    His art, like rock, is hard and durable;
    its truths are blunt; and Winslow Homer is
    a kindrid spirit in that bleak landscape.
    His world, indeed, at times, is onerous,
    like karst escarpments, easy to be scraped.
    It is sincere as mountains, and as staid.
    His lines are sober, somber, serious,
    like rushing rivers, not easy to wade;
    they run the gamut, calm to furious.
    His verbal structures seem like mighty walls,
    or waterfalls of hardy howls and bawls.

    Reply

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