There are many reasons your average bibliophile gives no “phile” to poetry collections. One, maybe he’s intimidated. Two, maybe he has a conditioned response thanks to his thankless high school English teacher. And three, maybe he wouldn’t know where to begin with a poetry book if he read one to begin with.
As the first two are out of my control, let me address the third. You don’t have to be a professor or wear black turtleneck and beret to review poetry. You don’t even have to know dactyls from ducks, blank verse from buccaneers, pentameter from the Pentagon. Writing from the basic bastion of your position as average reader works just fine, thank you. Here’s how:
- First of all, forget the myth that poetry collections cannot be read wall-to-wall (or, shall we say, cover-to-cover). Though some poems may be chewier than others, meriting a reread, confine your chewing 100 times before swallowing to ones you actually enjoy before continuing to the next. If you get a “Huh?” reaction, move on unless something in the poem compels you to try again.
- When you finish, ask yourself how much you liked the collection and why. Be honest. It’s a basic start for any review. “I enjoyed this collection because…” or “I had mixed feelings about this book because…” or even “No poetry collection can contain equally strong poems, start to finish. That said, I found….” You get the idea. Subjective starts get you out of the blocks.
- Does this poet remind you of another you’ve read and enjoyed? Who is it? What are the similarities? Or perhaps you want to explain why this collection stands alone, unique as a unicorn’s forehead.
- What are a few major themes you noticed in the book? Possible readers will be interested in this. And, if you can find a specific poem or two that illustrates the theme, quote from it and offer a few thoughts on its effectiveness.
- Quoting poetry need not be scarier than a weeklong visit from the mother-in-law. For three lines or less, simply use quotation marks and type them into the body of your sentences exactly as is, adding a space, a backward slash, and a space to signify line breaks.
- If you want to quote four lines or more, skip a line, indent 10 times, and type the lines exactly as they appear in the poem. When you’re done, skip a line again and resume your review. No quotation marks are necessary, as the indented quote serves notice that these are the poet’s words as they appeared.
- If you found a few turns of phrase, examples of figurative language, or unusual word pairings that got your heart beating faster, share them as examples of what the poet is capable of.
- Finish with overall thoughts as you leave the book. Might you read it again some year? What type of reader might like it? And, if you seldom review poetry collections, how did it feel to prove the big bad wolf was actually a Dalmatian pup?
A final word about authors of poetry collection–and this is strictly my opinion, which some might justifiably disagree with. I don’t think you should hold beginning poets to the same bar as well-known ones. That is, if you’re reviewing on a site like amazon or Goodreads, both of which employ a 5-star rating system, you don’t want to criticize Suzy Starter for not being Emily Dickinson, or Freddie First-time for not being Robert Frost. Emily and Rob had to start somewhere, too.
Be gentle, then. Find their strengths, for their strengths may well be the roots of better things to come as they continue to develop as a writer.
That said, the worst you can do is not read poetry or read and then not review a poetry collection at all. Reviews are the lifeblood that sustain poetry collections, which are living on thin air as it is. They need readers and reactions. They need support lauding the things they do well.
So don’t hold back because you want to read another same ole, same ole (Paulo Coelho, Joyce Carol Oates, Jo Nesbo). Get outside your comfort zone now and then. And review poetry with ease because, let’s face it, you don’t need any poetic license to do so. Your high school English teacher is not watching. The scanning and analyses are over.