We had considerable conversation, and a little controversy, around my post two weeks ago, The 6 Most Overused Words in Poetry Reviews. I didn’t realize poetry reviews were such a hot topic.
A common question arose: “OK, so you have six overused words in poetry reviews and three more that are contenders for the list of most overused. Just how do you go about writing a poetry review?”
I consider poetry and book reviews highly subjective endeavors. It is someone’s opinion, after all, of someone else’s creative work. There’s no textbook approach I could cite that would meet all conditions and situations.
But I can explain how to write a poetry review by describing how I do poetry reviews myself.
Walter Lippmann (1889-1974)
And you can blame Walter Lippmann (1889 – 1974).
Lippmann wrote a book entitled Public Opinion (1922) that was likely the most influential book on journalism until Marshall McLuhan came along more than 40 years later with Understanding Media (1964). Lippmann was a modernist, strongly influenced by science and the scientific method, and saw journalists as a key link between government and the public. He recognized that people bring preconceived ideas with them (we call them worldviews today) and it was critical to present the facts before those preconceived ideas could harden.
What flowed from Lippmann’s ideas was the notion of objectivity in journalism. What also developed was a journalistic approach known as “The Five Ws” or “The Five Ws and One H”—who, what, when, where, why and how. This is what I learned in journalism school in college, even as the ideas were becoming much more fluid with the impact of television (McLuhan) and the Watergate scandal. A decade later, the influence of post-modernism would begin to make an impact as well.
As an aside, Lippmann was a co-founder of The New Republic; won two Pulitzer Prizes for journalism and reporting; helped Woodrow Wilson draft the Fourteen Points speech; coined the phrase Cold War; feuded with Lyndon Johnson over the Vietnam War; and is considered today to be the father of modern journalism.
But those “Five Ws and One H”—that’s generally how I write poetry reviews. It was how I learned to write news stories in college, and how I learned to write first music and fiction reviews and later poetry reviews.
Who: I like to know who the poet is, what (if anything) has been previously published, if they have a website and how they describe themselves, and, if available, to see a photo. This is information that helps shape a review, and it’s important for a reader to know. The “who, ” even if brief, places a personality around the poems under consideration.
What: What kind of poetry is it? What form does it follow (or does it have a form)? What is the subject of the poems in the collection?
When: Is this the poet’s first collection? A chapbook? Where does it fall in the poet’s writing career? Does the collection make use of childhood or old-age themes and ideas? Is time an important factor in the poems?
Where: Does the volume have a geography? Robert Frost has New England, Carl Sandburg had Chicago, Walt Whitman had the Civil War hospitals of Washington and his home in New York, and Emily Dickinson had Amherst, Massachusetts. Is geography or a sense of place a strong element in the collection being reviewed?
Why: What is the poet trying to accomplish? What are the themes and ideas the poet is attempting to communicate?
How: How does the poet use language? What are the key metaphors (and there are almost always key metaphors)? What images are employed? What does all of this tell us about what’s going on in these poems?
While I always believe in providing context for a review, the fact is that a book of poetry can be evaluated simply on the basis of itself. It can also be evaluated by focusing solely on any one (or two) of the Five Ws and One H.
I’m not sure if Walter Lippmann ever thought his influence would extend to the writing of poetry reviews, but I don’t think he would be surprised.
Photo by Mike Locke, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Glynn Young, author of the novels Dancing Priest and A Light Shining, and Poetry at Work.
Filed Under: Blog, book reviews, How to Write a Review, poetry reviews, poetry teaching resources
By Carol Smallwood
The pantoum is a poetry form that originated in 15th century Malaysia and drifted West in the 19th century with French writer Victor Hugo, among others. While it never quite took off like the Haiku, it never fully went away either and has been steadily blossoming among English poets.
Unlike the 14-line sonnet, pantoums do not have to be a certain length. The challenge comes with the repetition of two lines from the first stanza in the following stanza. Additionally, in the traditional Pantoum form that I prefer, the first line becomes the last line and the third line becomes the third from last. The payoff of a well executed pantoum is a picture-like poem that seems to dance in circles outside the boundaries of time.
This is the format I use:
4 lines, ABAB rhyme scheme
Line 5 (repeat of line 2 in stanza 1)
Line 6 (new line)
Line 7 (repeat of line 4 in stanza 1)
Line 8 (new line)
Last Stanza (This is the format for the last stanza regardless of how many preceding stanzas exist):
Line 9 (line 2 of the previous stanza)
Line 10 (line 3 of the first stanza)
Line 11 (line 4 of the previous stanza)
Line 12 (line 1 of the first stanza)
As with other formal poems, one must not let the form drive the poem and select topics carefully: like when Goldilocks is looking for a bed in three bears’ house, it must be just right. Other types of pantoums can be found here.
My example pantoum, “Near the Porch Rails,” began when I noticed a red weed growing I hadn’t seen before. Curious, I looked at it closely, and smiled as it seemed like beads and tried to find the name of it but couldn’t online. However, names of others were delightful and decided to write about them as summer progressed.
Near the Porch Rails
New weeds bring surprise—like one with red bead-like leaves this spring
nameless yet; weeds were often used by ancestors for medicine or dye—
secure in ground in sun near the porch rails, green life brings a new zing.
Nearby, white delicate Queen Anne’s Lace (Wild Carrot), stretches to sky.
Nameless yet, weeds were often used by ancestors for medicine or dye;
Calling one, Heal All, is better than Prunella vulgaris, its scientific name.
Nearby, white delicate Queen Anne’s Lace (Wild Carrot) stretches to sky.
Even if families grow next to one another, they’re never exactly the same.
Calling one, Heal All is better than Prunella vulgaris, its scientific name;
Mouseear Chickweed, Bull Thistle, Shepherd’s Purse are common weeds.
Even if families grow next to one another, they’re never exactly the same—
spring arrivals from year to year are capable of sowing many seeds.
Mouseear Chickweed, Bull Thistle, Shepherd’s Purse are common weeds;
secure in ground in sun near the porch rails, green life brings a new zing;
spring arrivals from year to year are capable of sowing many seeds.
New weeds bring surprise—like one with red bead-like leaves this spring.
Paste your pantoums in the comments sections below.
One of Carol Smallwood pantoum’s just won an Honorable Mention in the Thirteenth Annual International Ultra-Short Competition sponsored by The Binnacle at The University of Maine at Machias, 2016. Her over four dozen books include Women on Poetry: Writing, Revising, Publishing and Teaching, which is on Poets & Writers Magazine list of Best Books for Writers. Water, Earth, Air, Fire, and Picket Fences is a 2014 collection from Lamar University Press; Divining the Prime Meridian, is a 2015 collection from WordTech Editions.