How a Poem Moves: A Field Guide for Readers of Poetry (Adam Sol)

The subtitle with the cover to support suggests the light touch Sol will take with this project, and this approach serves him quite well.

A digression: When I was in college, we had been assigned to start reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I came to class all fired up, passages marked, questions ready and so on. The first question from the professor: What did you notice in the Table of Contents?

The Table of Contents? Who notices the Table of Contents, except perhaps as a way of making sure you’re completing the reading assignment properly? I paged backwards as our professor made her point about the way the different names Malcolm gave himself throughout life would say something about his personal and political evolution.

Since then, I do not overlook the Table of Contents. And Sol’s is great. The titles of his essays set the stage for this inviting book – “How a Poem Tries to Connect Us, Despite,” “How a Poem Seduces Us with Outlandishness,” etc.. And Sol is making his Table of Contents an invitation deliberately. He knows people have to be invited (back?) to poetry because it can be intimidating.

In these short essays, he revels in exploring poems from books he read as a juror for a poetry prize. He’s having fun here, clearly and carefully not saying as much as he knows, but saying enough, asking enough – again, he’s welcoming us. These are essays of enticement. And I love the wide range of poetry he covers. I made notes of several authors whose work I will pursue.

If I have quibbles, they are minor. I wish there had been a way to locate the poems in each essay in a way that would prevent the disruption of having to flip the pages back and forth to connect his commentary to the poems themselves. I can picture what I’m after, but I’m sure it would be difficult and expensive to execute. The other adjustment I longed for is one that could be more easily accomplished – and I’ve made this note about other collections before. Order has to matter. Otherwise, it’s just essay after essay after essay. In a few of the final ones, Sol himself seems to acknowledge this with frequent references to essays that are elsewhere in the book. Sections like, “Poems that Nod to a Form” could have served him well, I think.

In his conclusion, Sol comments that he noticed, as he was revising the book, that he used the word ‘delight’ a lot. That’s fine with me. That’s part of what makes its spirit so engaging and contagious. I also appreciated another idea that he laid out explicitly once and used consistently throughout the essays – that of being in the “vicinity” of the truth. I think that’s the ideal approach to poetry – to life, in fact. It’s the search that we should treasure and we should relish the pursuit.

Charles Ellenbogen is the author of the teaching memoir, THIS ISN’T THE MOVIES: 25 YEARS IN THE CLASSROOM, and teaches high school English in Cleveland, Ohio. He lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio with Kirsten, his wife, Zoe, their daughter, Ezra, their son, Lincoln, their dog, and Chocolate Scales, their snake

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