At its heart, this is a collection of the poems of Jane Tyson Clement, who lived from 1917 to 2000, but there’s more going on in the book than the poetry. As the subtitle, “A Life in Poetry,” hints, the poems range over the almost sixty-year writing career of this author and poet. Having a selection of verse that runs from Clement’s teenage years into her seventies, offers the reader an opportunity to watch the growth of this poet and to see how the dictates of life influenced the style and content of her poems. The poems cover a range of topics, including: relationships, art, and nature. I found the nature poems particularly evocative, but they are all skillfully composed and endearing. Also, it should be noted that the Prelude and commentaries were presented by a musician and songwriter, Becca Stevens, and her interest skews to the artistically oriented works. While I’ll discuss at length how these poems were spread across the life of a little known but skillful 20th century poet, I should point out that the poems don’t feel dated or obsolete. Dealing in fundamental issues of humanity, the selections have aged well.
The collection is divided into five chapters. There is a roughly chronological progression to the collection, but chronology isn’t strictly followed in favor of supporting each chapter’s theme. (Though the themes are informed by what was going on in the poet’s life during various points.) The first chapter presents poems written between 1935 and 1939 (age 18 to 22.) The second picks up in 1939 and while it ends on a poem from 1953, mostly covers a period to 1941. Chapter three includes selections from 1940 to 1953 (ages 23 to 36.) The penultimate chapter includes poems from 1954 and 1955. The last chapter is stretched out from 1955 to 1991 with much less temporal density to the poems than is seen in earlier chapters.
I said in the introductory paragraph that there was more going on than the poems. Here I’ll discuss what these ancillary additions were, ranging from what I found to be most to least beneficial to the work overall. First, there are photographs throughout the book that are warm, heavily oriented toward nautical-coastal themes, and which create a retro vibe appropriate to a book on the life of a twentieth century poet. Besides the coastal and nautical photographs, there are many that revolve around music, including photos of Stevens but also more artsy still-lifes.
Second, each chapter begins with a brief biographical statement of where Tyson Clement was at during the period in question in terms of relationships, family, religious beliefs, where she was living, and what else was occupying her time besides poetry writing. It was interesting to see what was going on with the poet as she was composing the selected works.
Finally, there are commentaries interspersed amid the poems here and there, presented as though Becca Stevens is letting the reader into her head as she ruminates on some of the poems. At this point I’ll confess my own bias. I’m not a big fan of commentaries in poetry collections. There is a famous saying by E.B. White about humor that I think equally applies to poetry: “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” I’m not saying that Stevens didn’t offer insight, particularly related to her life as a musical artist. She is certainly articulate and thoughtful. Still, I think commentary detracts from the poetry reading experience by overwriting what the reader takes from a piece with the commentator’s thoughts. But, your mileage may vary.
I would recommend this work for poetry readers. The poems are evocative and the language is beautiful. The poems are readable and have aged well.