How To Review a Poetry Collection

5star

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.

Class dismissed!

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12 thoughts on “How To Review a Poetry Collection

  1. Thank you for this. I particularly like your “be gentle” policy towards newer writers. I’ve seen too many reviews complaining about what a collection is not, when what a collection is seems more important to know.

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  2. Here’s how NOT to write a review. Poetry 101 stresses the basic concept that the speaker in a poem is not necessarily the author. Keene either ignores this chestnut of elementary poetics or never grasped it. Approaching the poems he derides with this rudimentary concept in mind, the reader will see them magically transform from autobiographical silliness and “bad faith” into nuanced satires of the speaker himself; for example, “Victim Poetry” pokes fun at the super-sensitivity of self-pitying victim poets. Keene totally misses the obvious here: “A rejected poet soothing his wounds with a midafternoon nap is silly. But the coup de grace—sinking into the coffin of a designed-for-old-folks bed as a storm batters the windows—is an expression of a poet’s bad faith.”

    Along with other basic misunderstandings about verse and some nasty ageist ridicule, this review exhibits, I believe, how NOT to review a poetry collection. Keene’s high school English teacher should have been watching.

    MOODY METAPHORS
    Poet Jefferson Carter offers a dark worldview in ‘Get Serious’
    By Jarret Keene

    Get Serious: New and Selected Poems
    By Jefferson Carter
    Chax Press
    74 pages, $15

    It has been three years since Jefferson Carter published his most-recent and deeply satisfying verse collection, My Kind of Animal. The themed poems gathered in Animal speak to the idea that man, another dumb beast, redeems himself with humor.

    Even accepting that a divine spark animates us, Carter consistently keeps his tongue in jowl. His verse in that book remains playful and poignant. You should own a copy.

    The Tucson poet’s latest collection, Get Serious: New and Selected Poems, is a different beast. The 33 brand-new poems, which precede a larger group from previously published and long-out-of-print collections, are cruel by comparison. It’s as if, minus a menagerie of creatures to lighten his tone, Carter lets a bit of nihilism creep into his recent stanzas. Serious sounds at times like an aging, embittered poet’s final testament or last verses. Previously, Carter could stare into a cat’s butthole (“Please,” included in Serious) and sniff a geriatric yogi’s fart (“Helen,” also included), and weave emotional poetry out of such indignities. With the new poems, he doesn’t bother to sugar life’s lemons into something tasty and refreshing. He squeezes in the rinds and seeds—and expects us to drink.

    Take the book’s opening poem. It’s an ugly self-portrait called “Stone Loop,” in which the instinct of writing a poem is undermined, ridiculed. Halfway through an aborted liftoff, the single stanza drifts into comic self-abnegation.

    Where was I? Not

    in the middle of my life,

    not like Dante entering

    the profound wood. More like

    a sit-down comedian, a communist

    allergic to theory, a retired

    bobsledder playing

    ping-pong with his wife.

    The funny yet pity-inducing metaphors pile up to hopeless effect. It may cause readers to ask: If writing poetry in one’s later years contradicts, and is so inherently at odds with, the joy and light of existence, why should I bother reading this book? Before, Carter could smile, even bow, to absurdity’s divine traces. He now allows concrete absurdities the final say. Sure, they resonate with a measure of truth. But these farcical moments suppurate like infected wounds in a reader’s mind.

    An example: the entirety of “Victim Poetry,” which begins with a zinger.

    Cliterature just rejected

    my latest poems.

    It’s three P.M.

    & I go back to bed.

    I wake to the sound

    of gospel-sized hail.

    I go back to sleep,

    my new Posturepedic

    mattress, custom-made

    for a bad back & thin skin,

    so comfy you’ll never

    get up again.

    The idea of a verse magazine named after a word play on women’s anatomy is humorous. A rejected poet soothing his wounds with a midafternoon nap is silly. But the coup de grace—sinking into the coffin of a designed-for-old-folks bed as a storm batters the windows—is an expression of a poet’s bad faith.

    Get up and gaze into some kitty bung, I want to tell the poet. Also, that two of Carter’s new poems end with an image of formaldehyde tempts me to urge: Do not go quietly into that embalming preserve! The bard dwells inordinately on death’s decisiveness.

    When he remembers to pop his literary Viagra, Carter is compelling. The delightful “Sunlight” illuminates a scene, years ago, when a poet recites his verse while sandwiched in bed between a girlfriend and her older sister. This, and other poems, like the randy “Mall,” brighten the book’s overall tone.

    They’re not enough to balance what should have been a triumphant collection. It’s great to encounter rich poems I hadn’t read before, like those from 1987’s impossible-to-find None of This Will Kill Me. Ovid-referencing “A Centaur,” yoga-riffing “Johnny-Jump-Up” and the flu-borne “Strep Throat” are some of the finest verse devoted to family and how the institution is a force that changes people. Often for the better, but sometimes for the worse.

    Still, the desolate humor and poetry-insider-on-the-outside approach of the first 45 pages are tough to overcome. Carter is a powerful, underestimated poet who deserves a Billy Collins-size audience. Too bad Carter doesn’t care to please an NPR-listening audience.

    He should consider sneaking Splenda into his moody lemonade.

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    • Keene seems to be keen on himself. It’s so much easier to tear down than build up. But that’s been the Critics Credo since the beginning of hyper-critical time.

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  3. This is a necessary thing to say. It seems to me that if a poet has had something published it must have some merit to someone who went to the pains of publishing it, so finding that merit is important. However, i can’t apply the same logic so easily to poets who make little effort to self criticize & then self publish expecting people to get it. i don’t know my exact feelings on this, criticism/reviews by others needs to be earned; the choice of the publisher to publish a work warrants the review.
    Your breakdown is fine advice Ken. Great read.

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    • Self-publishing is a whole ‘nother world — and nowadays, a very BIG one. And you’re right, the self-published especially have an obligation to deliver a product that respects the reader because they are author and editor and publisher rolled together.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It is a ‘nother world i don’t care to be part of. i want a published collection, pamphlet or what not as much as the next fella, however, it seems to me it needs to be earned, not just taken, which self publishing feels like to me.

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  4. Guyz, the problem with self-publishing is that there’s no check on the poet’s inherently-biased self-love.
    My editors/publishers have been really helpful in protecting me from my own inflated ego.

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    • Ha! And mine did wonders for my DEFLATED ego by telling me I was good — or at least good enough to get accepted.

      She also was a valued second eye on editing, offered counsel on order of poems, and helped with the cover.

      How important is that? (Rhetorical)

      Liked by 1 person

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