Two Books: A review of Adelaide Crapsey - On the Life and Work of an American Master and Jiggery-Pokery Semicentennial

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book review

Brooke Clark

Two Books:

Adelaide Crapsey: On the Life and Work of an American Master
Edited by Jenny Molberg and Christian Bancroft
Warrensburg, Missouri, USA: Pleiades Press, 2018
ISBN 978-0-9970994-0-9, 224 pp., USA $16.00, paperback

Jiggery-Pokery Semicentennial
Edited by Daniel Groves and Greg Williamson
Church Enstone, Oxfordshire, UK: Waywiser Press, 2016
ISBN 978-1-904130-88-8, 112 pp., USA $18.00, paperback





If you’re like me you’ve probably heard of Adelaide Crapsey, if you’ve heard of her at all, as the inventor of the “cinquain,” a five-line poetic form reminiscent of the haiku or tanka. With only that bit of knowledge to go on, I was somewhat taken aback by the quotes on the back of this book, which describe Crapsey’s work as “the lost ligament between the essaying narratives of the nineteenth century and the spare, imagist experiments of the twentieth,” say that she “laid the groundwork for modernist poetics,” and compare her to Keats, Pound and Rilke.
  This volume, edited by Jenny Molberg and Christian Bancroft and part of the “unsung masters” series, sets out to prove that Crapsey’s work is worthy of these sweeping claims. The book contains a selection of Crapsey’s verse, a short excerpt from a study on English prosody that she left unfinished at her early death from tuberculosis, and around a dozen of her letters. The letters have no interest that I could discern: the earlier ones, from her travels in Europe, are more or less what one would expect from a bright, educated woman traveling abroad, and I certainly could have done without the pages devoted to an accounting of her expenses; the later ones mainly chronicle her frustrations with her illness. There isn’t enough of the treatise on prosody included here to reach a judgment on its merit; from what I could gather, Crapsey was interested in the way the divisions between feet in a poetic line interacted with the divisions between words, and she developed a system of categorizing writers based on the relative complexity of their language by calculating the percentage of polysyllabic words they used. The results, in brief: Milton, high complexity; Pope, medium complexity; Swinburne, complexity roughly equivalent to that of nursery rhymes. It’s hard to say where all this might have led had she lived to complete it.
  One’s judgment of Crapsey, ultimately, will come down to her poetry. In her introduction to the book, Molberg continues the . . .
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