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Brief Inheritance (1952): Fun with Sonnets

Daniel Smythe, Brief Inheritance (Prairie Press, 1952)


photo credit: mememe

Obviously, my picture-taking skills have improved tremendously…

Every year that I attend Box Day at the annual Case Western Reserve University Book Sale (if you’ve never been and you’re within driving distance of Cleveland, it’s something to experience—it takes up an entire massive gymnasium, and on box day—always the first Tuesday in June—you bring your boxes and you fill each and they charge you five bucks per, with the only size restriction being that you must be able to carry the filled box over the threshold unaided), the first table I hit is the poetry table, and I can usually fill half a box with stuff from it I don’t have. That usually leads me to having half a shelf more of godawful vanity-published silliness every year to wade through. It’s worth wading through the fertilizer to grasp the gems therein, at least for me. I’ve discovered some of my favorite books through random grabbing at Box Day. Brief Inheritance, one of the two Prairie Press books I picked up this year, isn’t one of the all-time greats, but neither is it fertilizer, and with that I am content.

Iowa-based Prairie Press, the brainchild of typographer Carroll Coleman (“probably the first private press ever to operate in Iowa”, says Prairie Press biographer L. O. Cheever in “The Prairie Press: A Thirty-Year Record”, which can be found online at the University of Iowa’s website), seems to have focused primarily on formal poetry, judging by the samples of their work I have been able to dig up and the two books I own published by them. But there is formal poetry and there is formal poetry, and Smythe, at least, does his doggonedest to avoid falling into Helen Steiner Rice-dom:

“The furniture was set just so
With pride and trial years ago
Hands and their warmth that light shone through
Arranged these things when they were new—
The long, clear mirror, dishes, globes,
The ornate lamp with glassy lobes
Hung form the wall (what hands now slack
Once placed it there and then stepped back.)…”
(–‘The Front Room”)

It’s certainly not perfect (shouldn’t that be a question mark at the end of line eight?), but despite being whacked over the head at the end of every other line by the meter, Smythe does at least attempt some enjambment and other pacing tricks that make this sound a bit more natural than much poetry of this sort, especially poetry of this sort written in early-Ike era. It’s not necessarily something to go seeking out, especially given its probably rarity half a century-plus later, but if a copy happens to fall into your lap on Box Day, it’s not one you want to pass up. ** ½


About Robert "Goat" Beveridge

Media critic (amateur, semi-pro, and for one brief shining moment in 2000 pro) since 1986. Guy behind noise/powerelectronics band XTerminal (after many small stints in jazz, rock, and metal bands). Known for being tactless but honest.

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