Approaching new poetry: biases and hurdles

The other day I decided it was time to search out some new poetry.

Here’s the stack of contenders that await exploration beside my reading chair.

Nine slim volumes.

Nine slim volumes.

My usual habit is to skim new books, pick a few lines that catch my eye, read a short poem (often somewhere in the middle of the book), then shuffle the deck and dig in.

As I started cracking these slim (65 – 120 page) volumes, I quickly was drawn to some more than others. I did a quick mental check of my perceptions and preferences (otherwise known as biases). What am I really looking for when I open a new-to-me book of poetry?

I suspect that most readers, like me, are secretly in search of words, images, thoughts and discoveries that are somehow in harmony with where the reader is at, at that particular moment in life. Yet I also realized that I have an unspoken list of turn-offs. I go through a quick process of elimination – which of these books and poems will I simply turn aside, rather than really reading?

It’s not an exhaustive list but here are three or four of the hurdles a collection needs to get over before it engages me.

I realize that I’m looking for poems that are a bit deceptive – that lead gently. Poems that explode with shock and awe and raw tragedy right from the fist line – especially if I see that repeated stanza after stanza, poem after poem – typically send me running for cover. As in closing the cover of the book. Dropping it into the Returns bin at the library with a cold thunk.

Our highly mediated daily lives in 2013 deliver more than enough atrocity and bald anguish. If a poet wants to lead me in that direction, he or she first has to hold out a reasonably gentle hand, has to build a little human trust. I’m a reader, not a social worker, police officer or political crusader. I only  go down the dark alleys if I can see I will be able to come out intact, wiser, and at least as healthy as when I went in. Poetry can disrupt and challenge but for this reader there must be nuance and some safe common ground.

Another hurdle can be vocabulary. I’m university educated but retain a strong preference for the clean and clear language of the books of my childhood. If a poet’s vocabulary is so much more complex than mine that I have to spend as much time in the dictionary as on the pages of his/her book itself, then it’s written for a different reader than me. 

And it’s not always a deal breaker but when the words of a poem scatter across the pages like unconnected Lego blocks my gut reaction is to skim a few scatterings and move on. I appreciate the value of experimentations in form but most of the time I am looking for insights into emotion, psyche and human experience. 

Finally, I find it hard to engage with collections where the poet has set out to work his or her way through an arbitrary poetic task. Ten poems of ten lines each, each line ten words, each ending in a ten-letter word. Whatever. Fun for creative writing instructors to assign to students, less fun to read.

So: those are my most obvious biases. Beyond those hurdles is the much more positive invitation for each book to grab me, tantalize, surprise and delight.

As I start through my stack of nine books, I immediately find myself sorting the stack. Emily McGiffin’s ‘between dusk and night’ is the first one of these that has really drawn me in. More on that once I have had time to read more thoroughly, re-read and absorb.

So, what are your reading biases?



  1. Thanks for the challenge, Lorne. If it smells like creative writing, I put it down. Since 99% of the things smell like creative writing, this is easy. Let me explain: to me, poetry is an ancient art, that predates literature. If it’s literature, I am wary. But I do like those things scattered across the page. Creative writing departments hate that stuff, and Ferlinghetti loved it, so that piques my interest. Occasionally they work, in a dialogue with space and silence. I like poetry as sculpture. As for literature, whoa, line breaks, commas, participles, simple things, those are all clues to culturally-specific stances. I look back at my early poetry and feel the same way,ugh, with one caveat. I had it right about many things, but was dissuaded from that path by many editors over many years. This is ironic, because I edit poetry now. I pray to the goddess that I get it right at least as often as I get it wrong. Oh, and if it has a soft, floppy POD cover? End of our relationship. I want poetry I can go back to 100 times and be challenged by each time,like Merwin’s mid-career books, The Cantos or Dart, and not something that smells of low-end print technology. Increasingly, I look to Norwegian poetry, German poetry, French poetry, anything but the North American versions. And Icelandic. Iceland is just the greatest. They have magical horses.

    • Lorne Daniel says:

      Ha – I better not let you look at some of my books, Harold. I do like your take on “creative writing” though and am especially put off by the extremely mannered stuff that comes out of many university degree programs. I think of the wild profusion of writing that we saw in Canadian poetry in the 1970s and don’t see that range of expression being published now. I’m intrigued by Iceland. Set foot on it for about one hour this year and would love to go back in search of magical horses. Apparently 1 in 10 Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetime.

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