I have trouble writing reviews of poetry books. Poetry is so subjective. What I like and what I don’t like has as much to do with the day of the week, the weather, and what dreams I had the night before as it does the quality of the poet’s work. Sometimes I can appreciate a poem even though I don’t like it, and other times I can love a poem even while listing its flaws in my head. (And do those flaws even matter if it brought me joy?)
Even those poetry collections that I’ve given 4 or 5 stars on Goodreads haven’t impressed me completely. A poetry book does not exist (yet) in which every poem pleases. But there are some whose overall impact was positive, whose poems left me with a feeling of satisfaction or, even more memorable, a feeling of dissatisfaction—lines of verse following me on my walks and popping up, unbidden, in grocery store aisles, or lingering, tauntingly, in my sleep.
The point is, you should take my views of poetry books with a sprinkle of salt, because my opinion is small and personal and, often, changeable.
Though my views are subjective, I have a simple, reliable way of assessing a book of poetry:
- I start with a large, disposable bookmark—a post it note or receipt or crossed-off list.
- When a poem captures my attention, grips my heart, or makes me laugh out loud, I tear a strip off my bookmark and leave it there.
- I keep reading, kept tearing.
- At the end, I can tell how much I liked the book by how small my bookmark is, and how many paper breadcrumbs I’ve left behind.
Last week, I read In a Kingdom of Birds by Ken Fontenot. In general, the poems in this collection did not strike a chord with me. I didn’t feel a strong connection with the overall themes and revelations. However, certain lines stood out in several of the poems, so that by the end of the book, my ticket stub from my visit to the Longhorn Caverns was carved up into nine pieces.
Also, there were many moments during my reading of In a Kingdom of Birds when I put down Fontenot’s book in order to jot down my own ideas for poems. I even penciled the first seven or eight drafts of a haiku right into the margins of his pages. Whether I loved the contents of this collection or not, you can’t go wrong with a book of poetry that makes you want to write.
Since it was individual lines in Fontenot’s work that stuck with me, rather than each poem as a whole, I decided to try something with his book that I’d never done before.
I’ve always loved found poetry, which Wikipedia defines as “a type of poetry created by taking words, phrases, and sometimes whole passages from other sources and reframing them as poetry by making changes in spacing and lines, or by adding or deleting text, thus imparting new meaning.” When I was teaching, I used to enjoy giving the students construction paper and scissors and piles of old magazines to see what they would create (besides a giant mess). I was often surprised at some of the poignant poems they could piece together from ads for diet pills and Teen Vogue quizzes.
Another fun activity was to ask every student to underline their favorite line in the poetry folder, a collection of sixty or so poems that we read and studied over the course of the school year. Then we would stand in a circle, draw a random name for the starting point, and read our favorite lines in a clockwise motion, without pause, without comment in between. The result rarely disappointed. Often funny, at times chilling, sometimes with an unexpected refrain (if more than one student chose the same favorite line), the literary beast formed from the voices of so many diverse poets nearly always gave me goosebumps of one form or another.
So, for the first time ever, after I finished In a Kingdom of Birds, I decided to type up all the lines I marked in Fontenot’s poems, in order, to see what would happen. What happened was, in my opinion, pretty awesome.
With apologies to Mr. Fontenot, who may or may not appreciate me chopping up his poems like this and gluing them back together like my own version of Frankenstein’s monster, I give you the result of my experiment:
I cannot accurately express how much I love this.
So what’s the moral here? (For today feels like a day of morals and lessons and notes taken in crisp, fine handwriting.) The moral is to read poetry. You don’t have to like all of it. You don’t even have to try. Just read a little once in a while, and if a line or a poem catches your attention, even if you can’t explain why, underline it. Make a note in the margins. Tuck the torn-off corner of a grocery list between the pages. After a while, when your notes have accumulated and your grocery list is gone, go back and see what you have. Maybe, in finishing the book, you’ve “found” the poem you liked best after all.
If I ever publish a collection of poetry, I give all my readers permission to make monsters out of my work. In fact, I encourage you to do so.