Two-Way Mirror: A Poetry Notebook by David Meltzer

Reviewed By

David Meltzer’s Two-Way Mirror: A Poetry Notebook has long been a favorite book of mine. Hearing in the last year that City Lights would soon be reissuing an expanded and updated edition was one of the best poetry surprises to come my way. This is a book that decidedly more people should be reading; digging and appreciating all it has to offer. City Lights Books and editor Garrett Caples have without doubt done the poetry world a full on solid by bringing Meltzer’s book back in print. While today’s twitter-fed MFA communities may at first be puzzled by how righteously Meltzer celebrates the printed text as object this book is destined to become a regularly utilized classroom text. At the very least every creative writing program office would benefit from having a copy on hand. Poets & Writers should be all over it. The book’s value as an educational tool was after all in part the original impetus behind its initial publication.

As noted on “an insert to be sent to assorted educational facilities” along with the original edition: “This is a book of basics.” Yet it notably challenges common assumptions surrounding the teaching of poetry often clung to by both the novice and expert alike. Meltzer lightens the often daunting aspect of undertaking the study and practice of poetry. He approaches the matter as casually and every day as the opening of a door. This is a book focused upon the starting out of studying poetry, as also stated on the same original insert: “The book can be looked at as a primer, an approach to the creative principle embodied in poetry.” Yet Meltzer also seeks to inspire critical dissent as much as anything else:

[…] it’s hoped that both student and teacher will be able to find some use for this book. Or find some fault to argue with. Get mad at it or me or both or none. But by all means respond and engage with its material and find out what works for you or for your students.

Never the rigid taskmaster, Meltzer’s charismatic charm offers a welcoming open embrace into his personal poet’s world full of endless joy and wonder come from the reading and writing of poetry. Having been in Meltzer’s actual classes myself some fifteen years ago as an MA/MFA Poetics student at New College of California I’m able to attest that in person he backs up the exuberance that’s readily found upon these pages. Not surprisingly he notes, “Much of the additional writing in this book comes out of notes and talks given to classes at New College” where the Poetics program’s “intent was not to replicate other writing programs but, instead, to study the lineage and process of the poetic traditions informing us […] to concentrate on the roots and routes of making poems.” For anyone who wishes they had the chance to study poetry with Meltzer but never had the opportunity this is the book to bring you as close to the real deal of being in the classroom with him.

Meltzer’s bared down easy going “how to” poetry guide is simply a delight. He dives directly into dialoguing about the mystery of the poetic, how impossible seeming the act of writing poetry always reveals itself to him: “It’s odd to note a difficulty with language and meaning around the edges. I’m reminded of Wittgenstein’s ongoing frustration with the word ‘red’.” He’s ever unfailingly honest about his own limits. “Everyone wants to know where poems come from and I can’t really tell them.” He finds himself hopeless before the always consistent and ever contradictory quagmire every writer knows all too well:

Wanting words on the page to say more than they say.

Wanting words on the page to say exactly what they say.

Within Two-Way Mirror as well are numerous insights into the mechanical workings of a poem. For instance, how to understand the different ways of presenting a poem’s stanza upon the page and the effect(s) thereby achieved:

A stanza is like a paragraph is in prose.
It’s a row of words that stops
When a thought is stopped
In order to give you space to
Think about it.

 Take a pause. Re-read those lines, let them simmer. Okay… Meltzer continues:

Or a stanza can be
more of a

way to
get you to

a sense of
the poem’s voice,

its rhythm
or speech.

See what I mean: basics. Only Meltzer’s idea of what’s basic comes steeped in a lifetime’s worth of engagement: reading, writing, talking, looking, listening, and being otherwise eternally involved. He’s benefitted from a vast range of personal heroes whom he also happens to be lucky enough to consider friends. Namely the innumerable poets, visual artists, community organizers, criminals and booksellers, who all together form the assorted mélange of would-be as well as for real true-to-life scholars he hangs his hat with. From this motley group he’s constantly gathering information and continually turning round and releasing it back out just to see what happens as it travels marvelously transformed from source to source.

A poem is just another example of this social exchange of the imagination. “A poem is a two way mirror.” A poem forever reveals and conceals its sources. Even words, which are the very building material out of which a poem is constructed, offer nothing but conundrum. For as assuredly as “words get in the way of what is” whenever you attempt set them down on the page to describe, or otherwise share an experience, thought or act, words are also “the only way out, the only way in” to achieving the end result of having a poem at hand. “Go inside a word; surround yourself with it.” Transform as you are transforming, be the image you believe the poet to be.

Meltzer has justly been convinced for this new hardcover deluxe edition to update Two-Way Mirror with a fresh preface and several dozen new pages of material continuing in the theme of the original writing. Introducing these new sections, Meltzer notes “1977: was 40 / 2014: am 77” yet he’s as ever irrepressibly possessed by the dual act of writing and reading. He’s a die-hard lover of the imagination always down for the discovery of that “primary sense of starting all over again, constantly beginning.” Whether or not you’re interested in poetry Meltzer’s joy full of admiration and respect for the mysterious play of letters provides testament to that wondrous voyage through reading writing into becoming: this life business which begins with the lifting of a pen.


Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works at Gleeson Library for the University of San Francisco. His recent books include: from Book of Kings (Bird and Beckett Books), Drops of Rain / Drops of Wine (Spuyten Duyvil) and The Duncan Era: One Reader's Cosmology (Spuyten Duyvil). More from this author →