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Jenkins' prose poems appeal to prose and poetry lovers

We have become a nation of prose readers. With all the choices out there -- romances, westerns, biographies, political rants ("I Ain't Got Time to Bleed") -- chunks of words divided up into lines are too arcane, too archaic, too reminiscent of ju...

We have become a nation of prose readers. With all the choices out there -- romances, westerns, biographies, political rants ("I Ain't Got Time to Bleed") -- chunks of words divided up into lines are too arcane, too archaic, too reminiscent of junior high English class to find space in most of our heads.
It's art, for heaven's sake. It's culture.
Never mind that poetry is a relevant, living thing, that good, smart people with interesting, urgent, funny, touching, lovable, hatable things to say write it. That it has been part of humanity from the first minute language was spoken. That it is undergoing a renaissance.
It's kind of like Life cereal was billed to be in commercials when I was growing up: too good for you to be enjoyable.
Those familiar with Louis Jenkins, whose new book of prose poetry entitled "The Winter Road" goes on sale Oct. 30, have some idea where I'm going with this.
Prose poetry is just like poetry but without stanzas and line breaks -- appearing just like prose text. (This despite Jenkins' own description, in his prose poem "Prose Poem": "The prose poem is not a real poem, of course. One of the major differences is that the prose poet is simply too lazy or too stupid to break the poem into lines ....")
For the poetry-phobic, prose poetry can be an excellent stepping stone back into poetry's good graces. And "The Winter Road" is a great place to start.
One accomplished local poet recently called Jenkins the "Poet Laureate of Duluth," which seems a pretty apt description. His work has been published in numerous quality anthologies. He has published several books, some of which have won awards. He has received national acclaim for his work. And he is especially popular here.
The reasons are simple, at least in the two of his books I have read: His poetry is thoughtful, with a readable mix of sarcasm, wit and insight. He is thoughtful in his use of language. Better still, it's grounded in common experience: Jenkins writes about radios and traffic and cell phones and the wind blowing in South Dakota.
Is it a surprise that his book called "Nice Fish" won a Minnesota book award?
All of those observations are true of "The Winter Road."
One of my favorite poems from the book was the second one I read: "The Telephone."
I like it, first of all, because it's so very true. Contrasting the way telephones were in the old days ("heavy enough to fight off an intruder" in a special "shrine" in the front hallway) with the way they are today ("made of recycled plastic bags" they "might ring at you from anywhere"), Jenkins writes that we all hate telephones, and that's why they talk to each other.
In addition to the great images -- wires wrapped around Coke bottles hanging from trees and the recycled composition of the typical cell phone -- Jenkins makes his point even clearer audibly, with dialogue from each era, in ours with our computerized phones talking to each other out of boredom. This use of dialogue is a technique Jenkins uses often and to great advantage.
"The Telephone" is also very funny. When I first read this, I had to read it out loud to my wife. The construction is simple and flawlessly parallel.
This description characterizes the best in the remaining poems.
There are far too many good poems here to single them all out, but off the cuff, I'd select these as favorites:
* "Radio" has its subtle father-son conflict and its "100,000 watts of pure power," which you can almost hear coming out of the speaker.
* "Jazz Poem" makes fun of the pretensions of the hip and the intellectual. I love jazz, and I even like jazz poetry, but I get what he's talking about.
* "Bad Place," a little more serious, reminds me of the "second layer" -- anger and hatred -- that Michael J. Meade writes about in the men's poetry anthology "Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart," which also happens to have some Jenkins poems and which I also happened to be reading at the same time.
* "Pioneer Farm" takes a crisp, familiar image and waits until the very last line to turn it on its head.
There are a few clinkers. "A Hill of Beans" didn't do much for me, and I didn't get "Your Ship" at all.
But this is a very enjoyable collection of poetry. Since most Northland poetry fans will invest in this one, let me appeal to the prose fans: Try it, Mikey, you just might like it.
Kyle Eller is the Budgeteer book critic. Submit your books for review to him in care of the Budgeteer News, 222 West Superior Street, Duluth, Minn. 55802. To talk books, call him at (218) 723-1207 or send e-mail to kyle.eller@duluth.com .

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