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Book Reviews

How a Poem Moves: A Field Guide for Readers of Poetry

by Adam Sol

Adam Sol’s
new book comprises 35 short essays about poetry that originated as blog posts. The audience imagined here comprises readers who might be intimidated by poetry, although, as Sol acknowledges in his introduction, “insiders” may also find the essays enlightening. The procedure is straightforward: in each piece, Sol provides biographical or contextual information about one poet and poem. He reprints the poem itself and then explicates it, carefully and self-reflexively outlining his interpretive process. As he puts it, “the best way to learn about a subject is to watch someone do it, so you can see that it’s not as hard as it may seem.” The essays aspire to move from the hermeneutic to the heuristic, as readers presumably learn from Sol’s insights, while developing interpretive models of their own.

Despite the collection’s title, the essays are as much about a reader’s conceptual movements through poems as about the movement of the poems themselves. Sol’s method is interrogatory and speculative, asking questions and positing answers, while encouraging readers to imagine other possibilities. His tastes tend to the more obscure or surreal, which might reinforce notions that reading poetry is like solving a riddle. As Sol writes, “Readers who are not comfortable with poetry tend to feel they don’t ‘get it,’ partially because they’re looking for the kinds of answers that many poems refuse to provide.” Sol convincingly posits poetry as a complexity which invites (and rewards) productive contemplation, and he readily admits when a poem leaves him with unanswered questions.

Although Sol manages to cover a wide range of genres – including elegy, sonnet, ghazal, aubade, and villanelle – all ultimately fit into the lyric category. This is somewhat unsurprising, considering the limitations of the blog-post format: “For the sake of keeping my essays readably short,” Sol writes, “I’ve needed to stick with shorter pieces.” That said, Sol does not shy away from approaching so-called experimental work he is less familiar with. While generous and insightful in his readings of such work, he also integrates it into a wider category of poetry writ large, noting, for instance, that constraint-based methods strike him “as being very similar in practice” to the formal constraints of lyric poetry.

The blog format may in fact be the best fit for Sol’s project; reading these one after the other in book form can overwhelm. One wants to reread the poems, linger over Sol’s arguments; the best way to approach the book would be to read one or two essays a day. How a Poem Moves certainly revealed exciting new work to this reader of contemporary poetry, and it evinces the dizzying numbers and varieties of poems produced in North America today. We need more of this kind of thing, and Sol’s project might move more of us to make public our readings as much as poets make public their poems.