Two books by Jack Butler

West of Hollywood
Copyright 1980
Checked out 1 time in 30 years
Last checked out 10 years ago

The Kid Who Wanted To Be A Spaceman
Copyright 1984
Checked out 2 times in 26 years
Last checked out 12 years ago

The poetry in these two volumes is very engaging. Each poem is its own kaleidescope of images and sounds.

First lines of “Ways of Loving:”
I
And so we wandered out into the changes,
Lynnice, Lynnika, and I,
our several collectible selves,
out into the ragged blues of a dying evening,
the serried few thin clouds
over the westward and rising edge of the world,
and how the trees were rivering cracks of black
in all that red-orange failure of
rimfire,
and pink rays that took their root there
fanning upward and outward from the flaws of snaggled clouds

Butler is from the South and the subject matter is rural (there’s even a poem that mentions a chicken plant). He particularly loves the sky (as the title of his second volume hints) at sunset or at night. His fascination with his wife and baby daughter are palpable. Both volumes contain both formal poetry and free verse. The rhyming is deft and subtle rather than beating readers over the head. His off-rhymes are clever. I recommend that the library keep both of these volumes.

It took me several days to assess these two books. Not because the quality of the poetry was in question, or even their appropriateness for the library, but because, as a poet myself, I sensed a struggle going on, and I was watching the changes in the poetry, what Butler was keeping and discarding in his technique. In a preface to the second book, Butler states the struggle outright as one between the musical and formal language that he loved and the predominance of free verse at that time in academia. However, his poetry in that second volume seems a degree or two removed from the cadences, playfulness and music of the earlier book. So at the time he states his allegiance to forms, he seems to have lost some of his joy in them.

The first book, West of Hollywood, has its flaws. It has three sections. The first seems like student work.  The second is not quite verse for children but is more for them than for adults. I wish he’d have written more children’s verse. It’s a place where poets can give playfulness and music free rein. However, Butler didn’t choose to go that route. The poet who was eventually able to bravely bridge the academic/children’s poetry divide was X.J. Kennedy.

Here is an excerpt from “Blues for Lynnika at Two:”
You gone blue write?
You doggone right I gone blue write, blue girl
at such a sleepy loss
at my armchair’s arm–
I gone take this yellow pencil (why did you
say blue?)
I gone write you, I gone write,
I gone blue write, all right,
blue like stars
come out in deepening blue
over the bare black,
over the sharp black
idiograms of trees,
untranslatable–raw oak sorrow, perhaps,
dotted gaities of gum?

The poetry in the last section of the West of Hollywood is my favorite of all of his poetry. It’s more mature than the first section of the book but is still musical and hasn’t become as concerned about subject matter or a stately, considered tone as the poetry in Spaceman.

The first stanza of “Two Part Descent:”
My shiny dark-brown coffee-cup
Foundering in bright grass
At five o’clock of this April afternoon
Has filled almost completely up
With shadow: in green tide tilted, it wallows,
Brims blackly, exactly as
The world’s footprints, ravines, and hollows
Brim, or will be brimming soon.

It’s a shame Jack Butler didn’t hang on to form a little longer and become one of the champions of what became known as the New Formalism in the later 80s and 90s. Thankfully, academia is now more open to students who want to work in rhyme and meter, though still not exactly welcoming, in part because to truly succeed in it, you have to be very good.

But again, Butler didn’t go that route. Instead, despite having achieved what most young poets would consider wild success (2 books published and individual poems published in The New Yorker, Altantic, and Poetry), he changed genres and became a writer of fiction (surprisingly, the Albertville library doesn’t have any of his fiction). And, from a cursory look at some information that popped up on a google search, he appears to have dedicated himself primarily to teaching rather than writing. Though I can’t fault this decision on a practical level, as a reader of poetry, I regret that he didn’t persist as a writer of poetry.

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About jppoetryreader

Poetry reviewer and poetry consultant for libraries
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