Acting Lessons

May 11, 2009
  Acting Lessons 

  by John Lehman

  Parallel Press

  University of Wisconsin-Madison,

  2008, 38 pages    

  ISBN 978-1-934795- 04-0

  $10 (shipping & tax free) = $10   


Dreaming in Black and White: Wisconsin Noir and the Justified Poem

Here’s the hard-boiled crime genre being worked by Madison area poet John Lehman, who recently published a book of verse noir—Acting Lessons, Parallel Press, 2008.  Filled with murky mazes and existential ambushes, the work is in a short form devised by Lehman a few years ago, called the Wisconsin Justified Poem.


Looking like cubes of newspaper column, the poems are defined not just by their form, but also by a noir-ish feel and tone. They usually explore Wisconsin topics, are often rural, and at heart “inspired” by Wisconsin winters.


“They give the impression of a rigid form,” Lehman explains, “so that the language within the poem can be casual and conversa-tional…more Midwest, and yes, more Wisconsin. They resemble prose poems.”


The Wisconsin Justified Poem, unlike the standard prose poem, pays attention to line breaks and their relationship to sentences. It pulls the reader around the corner and only stops movement when the end of a line corresponds with the end of a sentence. In addition, the lines seldom end with prepositions or articles, but with nouns, adverbs and verbs.


As forms go, it’s a soft one. The rules are few and fluid: conversational style, noir-ish tone, Wisconsin-ish topic. Justify the text, and keep it short.


“I think its informality seems particularly suited to the voice of a Wisconsin narrator who might romanticize a little more if the winters weren’t so long and so dark,” observes Lehman. “The mutterings of someone in a farmhouse kitchen alone, late at night listening to the wind.”


That’s the way these poems work. But how well do they work? Does it feel right? That’s the final test…and something only poets and readers and time can decide. The best test of any form is whether the force it contains could manifest as well in any other shape.


Here’s hoping more Wisconsin poets add to this new genre—a form and tone unique to where we live.


φ φ φ φ (four roses out of five)        – Michael Kriesel


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