Reviewed for Booksellers NZ, a version first published on 16 April 2019
Poets like to say that content is form and form is content. It gets said enough to be true, but reading Erik Kennedy’s There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime reminded me that to the average reader (and I’m not sure how many are left given that we go around declaring nuggets like the one above) – the average reader will find a difference between poetic craft and poetic content. They will respond to them differently. Poetic content is more personal – it’s going to be harder to respond to in a neutral, analytical way. Form on the other hand comes with guidelines. So let’s start there.
It’s indeed where Kennedy starts – his title and first poem in the collection is undoubtedly a sonnet. Its fourteen lines follow a slant petrarchan rhyme scheme and begin with a grandiose private contemplation of nature before a sudden turn in the eighth line “Wait, am I thinking of the internet? / Oh, maybe not, but what I’m thinking of / is desperate and very, very like it.” I think form is where Kennedy likes to play. In an interview with his publisher about this Kennedy replied, “there’s nothing like conquering a form. Every time I complete a poem that obeys rules I feel like Edmund Hillary.”
Kennedy’s collection is a finalist in the Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry in the 2019 Ockham’s (New Zealand Book Awards) and his attention to form and rhyme will be a big reason why. The shortlists often drive people to the shops to find the ‘good stuff’ which they sometimes then decry because it wasn’t what they expected. But what content do readers expect from poets these days? Is it to ‘feel’ something?
The risk in Kennedy collection lies here – in the reader feeling belittled. His irony could be read as condescension; his satire as mocking. In ‘Double Saw Final at the Canterbury A&P Show’ for example the poet’s eye could be read as ridicule; ‘I’m Impressed’ as a poem which praises foolishness.
I don’t think this is Kennedy’s intention, but it can happen in poems where Kennedy appears pleased with his own detachment, a smug onlooker. When he becomes more involved in the poem, engages and relates to the content, it couples with his form to create memorable poems. In ‘Four Directions at the Beach,’ Kennedy makes you look differently at a classic New Zealand scene. ‘Remembering America’ is like a sad country and western heartbreaker song. ‘The School of Naps’ a self-examination.
I have a close friend who on first meeting I detested; it was because I misunderstood her. I was like that with There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime. When I began reading it I felt like Kennedy wanted to make fun of me. If you feel like that too go back and try again and look at everything he is doing in each poem; you might find something else there which leads you to become close friends.