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Two-Way Mirror by David Meltzer (City Lights)

Two-Way Mirror by David Meltzer (City Lights)

The opening stanza of one of David Meltzer’s poems for Donald Allen’s landmark anthology, The New American Poetry 1945-60, sets the scene for this delightful book:

An overdose of beautiful words
keeps rushing inside my mind
but won’t relate to thought or talk.
Like balloons, they will not last long
& insist on flying out of the hand
to die in the sky—released.

The poem was dedicated to John Wieners and that seems entirely appropriate; those things which insist on escaping are in the process of evaporating or stilling themselves on paper; they become part of a two-way mirror.

When this book was first published in 1977 Meltzer had already had at least two books published by the Oyez Press run by Robert and Dorothy Hawley. It was only the previous year, 1976, that Oyez had published William Everson’s (Brother Antoninus) account of the West Coast, Archetype West, The Pacific Coast as a Literary Region, and in the acknowledgements Everson referred to Robert Hawley in terms of ‘thoughtful conversation about the problem of writing in the West’ and the provision of ‘a ceaseless flow of materials’. It would seem then highly appropriate that Meltzer should discuss with Robert Hawley the venture of writing a poetry primer.

The original edition of Two-Way Mirror contained an insert which was directed at various educational ‘facilities’ and it included the following statement:

TWO-WAY MIRROR can be read by anyone who wishes to, but it is primarily a book of texts intended for people who might be interested in reading and / or writing poetry. ..Much of the book’s parts have been effectively used in poetry workshops that I’ve conducted in high schools, both public and private, in California. Much of my concern has been to reach and activate the capacity for poetry and poem-making latent but approachable in many young people.

This book is a delight to dip into and were I to be back in the classroom I would, without any doubt at all, use it time and time again. It is crammed with statements that breathe life into discussion.

• ‘Every word a tradition, a binding’

Such a simple phrase but I would want to expand on this to examine etymology, words, their contexts, their associations, their echoes. What a splendid way of starting a lesson about poetry! It is words that bind thought together.

• ‘A poem allows you sight of what is on the surface as well as what is beneath the surface or behind it.’

• ‘A poem restores your world to a level of revelation’.

And perhaps most pertinent of all:

‘A stanza can be one or two or three or four or fifty or one hundred lines long.
A stanza can be a word.
Any poem is like a painting. It’s built up out of parts. Strokes, layers, surfaces, textures, forms that interrelate and balance and together create a whole entity.’

Time and again when students are faced with complex poems the temptation is to shrug and walk away; Meltzer’s advice is central. After all a stanza is a room. Enter it, look around, move onto the next room and then walk back to experience being in the first one again. Reading is looking, thinking and responding. This book is a boost to self-confidence and, in turn, self-esteem and I wish that every secondary school in the country would buy this book! After that, I wish that every Head of Department in the country would make it essential reading for his colleagues and use its resources as topics for departmental discussion.

Ian Brinton 24th May 2015

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