After putting in the request for “The After Party,” I had the sudden worry that I am not qualified to review poetry, or that I don’t know how to approach it properly, and that that would be my undoing.
And then I remembered that I was the editor-in-chief of a fine arts journal whose literature content was almost exclusively poetry this year, and I made the realization that I would be fine, and that there was no real reason why I couldn’t approach Jana Prikryl’s “The After Party” with an unbiased eye (and ear–I try to read poetry aloud as often as I can).
As is sometimes the case in poetry, you may need to look up allusions and references within the poems themselves if you want to really try to do a close reading of them. How are you going to work out the significance of a title like “It Doesn’t Work Out as I Read Roland Barthes’s Mourning Diary and Camera Lucida” if you don’t even know who Roland Barthes or what those two works are? Once you know, maybe it’s easier to make sense of a meaning.
The thing is, Prikryl has a number of those kinds of allusions in the poems presented in “The After Party,” and on the one hand, it can be fun digging them out if you don’t already know them, or it can be almost like an in-joke if you already do–but on the other hand, poetry is not something most people consider accessible in the first place. I wish they did, but the poetry that people encounter from a young age is usually Dr. Seuss (again, not a bad thing) or they’re flung into poetry that they don’t get and aren’t given the tools to understand come high school English. Frequently, I think Prikryl’s poetry reads more for the people who already engage with poetry and read poetry and possibly even write their own poetry than for anyone else.
When I read “Tumbril” aloud to my sister and her friend (both college students, one an English major herself), they laughed. I don’t think it’s supposed to be a funny poem, but that said, it reminded them of the sometimes juvenile poetry found on Tumblr. Another line that got them going, from “Landscaping,” was “…You had crooked teeth/and straw-colored hair, so that was half/the details right.” I guess the lesson here is to be careful of who your audience is.
Many of the allusions, as other reviewers have noted have to do with art, Classics, and the Soviet Union, so if you don’t know anything about any of those things, you have work to do while reading. Unlike something like “The Waste Land,” which is intentionally supposed to confuse readers with the overabundance of allusions, I feel as though Prikryl is a little more genuine when she mentions them. The problem is that sometimes, when a person makes references to too many other works or instances of art, they can run the risk of sounding a little pretentious and seeming like a show-off (Frank O’Hara at least some of the time is guilty of that).
In that regard, though, I suppose all writers of any stripe might be accused of trying to come off as clever.
I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.