I have always considered myself to be something of a poetry fan. After all, I spent as much time as possible at university studying the poetry of the Romantic period. I’m a massive fan of the work of Byron and Shelley. T.S Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” shares the title of my favourite poem along with ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. If anyone were to ask me, I’d confidently say that I was a poetry buff. However, the more I think about it the more I realise that this isn’t exactly true. Or, at least, not anymore. As anyone who reads my weekly rundowns will know, I’m not exactly great at reading novels let alone anything else. Every so often I will become a bit too self-aware and realise my inadequacies as a reader. Last year I decided I needed to read more non-fiction so bought some interesting books. I still haven’t read them. Every time the Man Booker International lists comes out I feel a pang of guilt for not reading enough foreign literature so I buy a few of the books or add them to my Amazon cart and promptly ignore them forever. I have so many books to read that it just becomes struggle to fit it all in. But poetry is something I figure I can embrace again and still manage to keep going with my normal reading. After all, a few poems here and there aren’t going to distract me too much. And there’s a whole world of contemporary poetry just waiting for me to explore. So that’s what I’ve been trying to do.
Over the last few months I’ve bought quite a few poetry collections from contemporary poets. I’ve seen mixed results with most of these and it’s kind of put me off. I tend to be a bit of a traditionalist and this new era of Instapoetry just doesn’t do it for me. Give me a sonnet structure any day. However, when I first saw Sabrina Benaim’s poetry collection I knew I had to give it a try. Titled Depression & Other Magic Tricks, it offered a range of poems dealing with issues like mental health, love, and family. It supposedly documented the daily struggles and triumphs of modern life. And, quite frankly, that’s the kind of bold claim that’s going to get me to pick up your book.
Sabrina Benaim is a performance artist and her spoken word poem ‘explaining my depression to my mother’ has been viewed on YouTube millions of times at this point. There was a hell of a lot of hype surrounding the release of her first book collection. Of course, I knew none of this when I ordered the book so went in to this without any expectations, which is probably a good thing. There are a few poems that stand out within the book but there are a lot that just don’t live up to their brilliance. I agree that ‘explaining depression to my mother’ is a fantastic and powerful but, having since seen a video of Benaim perform it live, think it lacks passion and strength on the page. I’m not entirely sure her performance style really works in written form.
I think a lot of this collection comes down to style over substance. Benaim is obviously a poet who relies on performance and tone to get her point across. I think there was a problem translating that onto a page. A lot of the poems are just a long stream of words, thoughts and phrases that take up a whole page. I get the idea of stream of consciousness but without the poet’s voice I feel like it’s a bit meaningless. Or not meaningless but gimmicky. Like the poem ‘the loneliest sweet potato’. I get what this poem is trying to achieve as it moves quickly through the speaker’s thought process but, in being written in a book, it just feels a bit too stilted to be really effective.
But that’s not to say that I hated this book; there were some great poems hidden amongst the rest. Along with Benaim’s most famous piece, there were a number that I enjoyed reading. Although that seems like the wrong way to describe the sensation consider the subject matter. ‘the other side of a memory’ is one that really resonated with me. It is a poignant and powerful view on the dual perspectives of our personal histories. Yes, I thought the ending was a bit disappointing but it is certainly a standout in a field of otherwise mediocre works.
Because, really, Benaim’s work isn’t bad. It’s just that it doesn’t necessarily work in this setting. It feels like she started with a handful of strong poems and then had to try to fill space. I know that you might want to have peaks and troughs as you go along to create a certain mood or reaction but it never feels as if there’s any rhyme or reason to any of it. It just feels like a random bunch of poems shoved into a book.
I applaud what Benaim is doing with her poetry and think the themes she tackles are great. The best poems are the ones that directly deal with her depression and mental health. She is able to put across her inner feelings in such a beautiful and musical way. At the start of the collection she puts across her hope that the book will be “a friend, a reminder, a testament’ and I think some of the poems will do that. Some of the poems will allow people to see that they are not alone in feeling a certain way. They will see themselves in the words and feel connected to someone or something else.
Then there are the poems that read a bit like a teenage girl’s diary where the speaker spends loads of time dissecting past relationships. I get that love and mental health are connected but these feel much less powerful than the others. They feel like the kind of poems we’ve seen thousands of times before… mostly on Instagram. And I think that’s my main issue with this collection. I was genuinely excited to read a collection of contemporary poetry but, in the end, it just ended up fulfilling my limited expectations of what that would be. There is a lot of random line breaks and unnecessary punctuation going on that seem to be completely random and meaningless. There are a lot of poems that just read as a what a teenager in a creative writing class thinks poetry is. It feels lie someone taking the easy option. And, considering the quality of some of the poems here, it feels like even more of an insult.