poetry book reviews

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2018: The Year in Poetry Books

At the beginning of 2018, I vowed to become more well-read in poetry books, both classic and contemporary. Probably I did better in contemporary, if only because it is more fluid with free verse than the more form-conscious classics.

For those interested in similar vows for 2019, here’s a list of my 2018 poetry book reviews on Goodreads, listed chronologically from January (total: 36 plus one constantly-critical reread). If interested in possibly reading any on the list, give it a click and you’ll be down that good rabbit hole:

  1. Stag’s Leap (Sharon Olds)
  2. Zen Master Poems (Dick Allen)
  3. Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God: Poems (Tony Hoagland)
  4. The Night Parade (Edward Hirsch)
  5. What Work Is (Philip Levine)
  6. Letters to a Young Poet (Rainier Maria Rilke)
  7. What About This: Collected Poems of Frank Stanford
  8. Falling Awake (Alice Oswald)
  9. Magdalene (Marie Howe)
  10. What the Living Do: Poems (Marie Howe)
  11. The Good Thief (Marie Howe)
  12. Blood Pages (George Bilgere)
  13. The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches (Matsuo Basho)
  14. Death of a Naturalist (Seamus Heaney)
  15. Best American Poetry 2017 (Natasha Trethewey, Ed.)
  16. Wade in the Water (Tracy K. Smith)
  17. Brown: Poems (Kevin Young)
  18. Burn Lake (Carrie Fountain)
  19. Plainwater: Essays and Poetry (Anne Carson)
  20. More (Barbara Crooker)
  21. Life on Mars (Tracy K. Smith)
  22. Like a Beggar (Ellen Bass)
  23. Blind Huber (Nick Flynn)
  24. Sinners Welcome (Mary Karr)
  25. Praise (Robert Haas)
  26. Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl (Diane Seuss)
  27. The Selected Poems of Donald Hall
  28. The Carrying: Poems (Ada Limon)
  29. Not Here (Hieu Minh Nguyen)
  30. The Complete Cold Mountain: Poems of the Legendary Hermit Hanshan
  31. Tremulous Hinge (Adam Giannelli)
  32. Don’t Call Us Dead (Danez Smith)
  33. Portrait of the Alcoholic (Kaveh Akbar)
  34. He Held Radical Light (Christian Wiman)
  35. Made Flesh (Craig Arnold)
  36. Poetry as Survival (Gregory Orr)
  37. Lost Sherpa of Happiness (Ken Craft)

How To Review a Poetry Collection


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 the difference between dactyls and ducks, blank verse and bearcats, pentameter and porcupines. 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!