Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 1, 2022

Actions & Travels, How Poetry Works (2022), by Anna Jackson

This lovely book feels as if it were written just for me…

Anna Jackson may be familiar to some readers as the New Zealand author of The Bedmaking Competition, which won the 2018 Viva La Novella competition and the 2019 Mascara Avant-garde award for fiction. I reviewed it here. But Jackson is also a poet with a DPhil from Oxford and she’s an associate professor at Victoria University of Wellington.  Auckland University Press has published her six poetry collections, and she’s also the author of a couple of impressive-sounding academic texts published by Routledge.  But Actions and Travels, How Poetry Works is not an academic text.  It’s written for people like me, who don’t feel confident about discussing poetry. This is the blurb:

Through illuminating readings of one hundred poems – from Catullus to Alice Oswald, Shakespeare to Hera Lindsay Bird – Actions & Travels is an engaging introduction to how poetry works. Ten chapters explore simplicity and resonance, imagery and form, letters and odes, and much more. In Actions & Travels Anna Jackson explains how we can all read (and even write) poetry.

It comes with this endorsement:

‘From a thoughtful and zestful poet, Actions & Travels is an open-minded look at one of humanity’s dazzling arts. Every sentence brims over with Anna Jackson’s informed love of poetry, its fun and its gravity, its wildness and its variety. Ranging from the ancient to the tweeted, she helps novices without sounding like a primer, and tosses the experts bones to quarrel over. If you read just one book about poetry this year, this should be the one.’ — Michael Hulse

The Intro begins by acknowledging the doubts felt by the uninitiated:

For some readers, contemporary poetry can seem icier in its unknowability then the poetry of the past.  Written without rhyme or metre, what even makes it poetry?  The line break?  For other readers, contemporary poetry is just another form of conversation between friends — including strangers befriending themselves to their readers through their poetry — while poetry of the past seems unapproachable without a knowledge of metrical scansion or historical context.  (p.2)

She goes on to reassure the reader that no particular scholarly knowledge is needed to read any of the poems… and that her discussions about them are not themselves very scholarly.   She writes about the poems she loves, through the lens of the her chapter headings.  The poems range from canonical works to contemporary works, and include the lesser-known as well as the famous. The poems under discussion are printed in the book, but you can also read them at her website.

Chapter One: Simplicity & Resonance is about those poems that cast a spell on the reader.  A poetic resonance holds a moment open, binding both the reader and the poem’s speaker in time and space.  I liked most of her choices which included Emily Brontë’s ‘Spellbound’, Robert Frost’s, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ and ‘After Apple-Picking’ and Bill Manhire’s, ‘Across Brooklyn’ but we nearly parted company over Rebecca Gayle Howell’s ‘A Catalogue of What You Do Not Have’ which apparently went viral on Twitter during the pandemic.  Jackson says that its absolute simplicity spoke to how undefined but how vast the sense of loss, and lack, has been for so many people.  The poem consists only of its title, and one word: ‘enough‘.  I absolutely cannot be bothered with something like that masquerading as poetry.

(Clearly, I am no expert, but this is ‘a bone’ I will quarrel over, and it’s not the only one!)

A poem that has resonance for me is by Subhash Jaireth. It’s dedicated to Tibetan monks and it’s in his collection Aflame.

Moving on…

I had a lovely time reading Chapter Two: The ornate & the sumptuous.   It is indeed a surprise to find that Beckett (yes, that Beckett, master of bleak modernism) liked reading Keats.

‘I like the crouching brooding quality in Keats — squatting on the moss, crushing a petal, licking his lips & rubbing his hands, “counting the last oozings, hours by hours”… I like that awful sweetness and thick soft damp green richness.’ (p.25)

This chapter brings a discussion of Shakespeare and his sonnets, Sonnet 30 in particular.  The one that begins:

when to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past (p.28)

I like what Jackson says about the poem’s possibility of finding beauty in sorrow from the beginning, with the phrase ‘sessions of sweet silent thought’ beautiful in its alliteration and its syncopated rhythm slowing down the pentameter line.  

The beauty of the phrase suggests the lure of the unhappiness that could be never-ending, never cancelled out, if it were not for the happiness the thought of the loved friend brings. (p.29)

Sonnet 30 resonates for me, just as discussed in Chapter One.

Chapter Two also discusses one of my all-time favourites Coleridge’s Kubla Khan. This is possibly because #ResonanceAgain Aunty Dottie used to quote it in its entirety over a G&T (or two) when she came to stay. She was not really my aunt but I didn’t have any so we adopted her, and anyway she was exactly the sort of eccentric aunt that everyone should have.  She was sumptuous, like the poem.

I wasn’t familiar with any of the poems in Chapter Three: Concision, composition & the image, not even Ezra Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’ which is apparently one of most famous poems in the English language.  Jackson introduces this chapter with a challenge:

To revel today in the pleasures of the ornate and the sumptuous, to build poetry out of surface flourishes and words that are simply gorgeous words, is to turn away from the modernist principles that transformed poetry so dramatically at the start of the twentieth century.  (p.41)

Hmpf.  She offers ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ by William Carlos Williams as a model for how poetry might look on the page and sound to the ear.  Well, read it and see what you think.  I can’t get excited about an image of a wet wheelbarrow and some chickens.  Apparently his editing was about creating a visual rhythm, and focussed on the line breaks and stanza forms, the arrangement of type.  FWIW I think he’s edited it into pointlessness.

But, I hasten to add, I certainly do like some forms of modernism. I love Beckett’s plays, and I loved Worstword Ho! But as you can see from my engagement with that text here, Worstword Ho! took me on an intellectual journey exploring philosophical ideas.  To quote my own review…

…the reader witnesses the author trying to say the absolute minimum.  Obviously there has to be something to say, or the task/quest/game can’t be done at all, it would be an empty page or maybe not even that.  But to fit Beckett’s self-imposed brief, the fiction needs to be the very least it can be and yet not be nothing.

It’s not just a wheelbarrow in the rain and some chickens.

OTOH I did like ‘Being a Poet’ by NZ poet Jenny Bornholdt’s ‘Being a Poet’ which captures the surreal banality of everyday life in succinct images:

Friends ask
what I’m reading.
By the bed is Go, dog. Go. 

Maybe the reason I often like modern poetry by women is that I recognise the subtexts that escape me with wheelbarrows and chickens?

I was back on firmer ground in Chapter Four: ‘Sprawl‘:

The reader wanting the vast vistas an metaphysical reach of poems such as Homer’s Odyssey or Iliad, or Milton’s Paradise Lost, is more likely today to turn to novelist Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy than to poetry.  Sprawl lacks the architecture and ambition of epic. (p.19)

(I’ve never read Pullman, but for contemporary epic, I thought of Blindness and Rage, a Phantasmagoria by Brian Castro.  It even has cantos! And it’s very droll.)

I’m not keen on Walt Whitman or Alan Ginsberg, but I do like this quotation that shows Alan Ginsberg’s shift from the constraints of modernism:

By 1955 I wrote poetry adapted from prose seeds, journals, scratchings, arranged by phrasing or breath groups into little short-line patterns according to the ideas of measure of American speech I’d picked up from W C Williams’s imagist preoccupations.  I suddenly turned aside in San Francisco… to follow my romantic inspiration — Hebraic-Melvillian bardic breath, I thought I wouldn’t write a poem, but just write what I wanted to without fear. (p.63)

I think Noongar and Yawuru woman Elfie Shiosake’s Homecoming is an example of sprawl. The form allows a profoundly moving story to be told.  See here to see what I mean.  Ali Cobby Eckermann’s verse novel Ruby Moonlight is necessarily expansive in form too.  See here.

I learned more about ‘form’ in the next chapter, and as you can see from the Table of Contents, there was more to learn after that.

  • Chapter Five               Form
  • Chapter Six                 Argument & conversation
  • Chapter Seven            Conversations with the past (my favourite chapter)
  • Chapter Eight             Poetry in a house on fire
  • Chapter Nine              Letters & odes
  • Chapter Ten                Poetry & the afterlife
  • Writing suggestions   (I skipped this chapter)
  • The poets
  • Notes and references, acknowledgements and an index

Some of my responses to this book are rebellious, but I think that’s part of its value because it made me think about what I like and why I like it!

Author: Anna Jackson
Title: Actions & Travels, How Poetry Works
Publisher: Auckland University Press, 2022
Book design by Katie Kerr, Cover image: Richard McWhannell, Pig Island Postal Service, 2016,
ISBN: 9781869409180, pbk., 300 pages including Writing Suggestions, The Poets, Notes and References, Acknowledgments and an Index.
Review copy courtesy of Auckland University Press, via Karen McKenzie at Lighthouse PR.


  1. Thanks so much for this review. I was wondering what the mystery of ten is? Jane Hirschfield’s Ten Windows: How great poems transform the world (2017) seems to have a similar ambition (a lay-person’s intro into the forbidding world of poetry) – and includes discussion a number of similar poems including ‘in the station of the metro’ & the wheelbarrow & chickens poem…


  2. This sounds like it might be a good companion book to have with Sarah Holland-Batt’s ‘Fishing For Lightning’


    • I have to admit that her poetry usually defeats me. She had (has?) a poem in the Australian’s book review pages, but I could never make any sense of them and eventually I gave up. I feel bad about this because, since this is a LitBlog, there is this pressure to do poetry too. But ultimately I feel that it’s up to poets who know what they are talking about to have their own site for reviews…


  3. This sounds like a good one, I’m not very good at reading poetry, even though I have an English Lit degree, and even worse at writing about it, even though, etc.!


    • *chuckle*
      I hear you!
      For me, it’s like modern art… or any art really, but especially strange modern things that don’t make sense to me. I always enjoy it more when a little effort reveals its secrets. But there is a limit to how much effort I’m willing to invest when my main interests lie elsewhere.

      Liked by 1 person

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