Book Review – Talking Back to Poems: A Working Guide for the Aspiring Poet, by Daniel Alderson

Reading poetry is a vital part of writing poetry. Alderson takes it a step further, however, by suggesting that poets not only read poetry, but respond to it, to talk back to poetry with poems of their own. Part I presents four short sections that briefly introduce the aspects of Sound, Image, Form, and Meaning in poetry, while Part II follows with a collection of poems, each followed with instructions to copy the poem by hand, note down what you notice about the poem, and then a prompt for writing your own poem in response to it.

There is a long history of poets writing in response to poets, and I’ve even written a few poetic responses myself. However I was not very impressed with the prompts in this book as Alderson presents them. His idea of talking back to poems is far too much like mimicry to me. In the examples of his students’ writing that he includes in the book, the students (using their own themes and ideas) echo almost exactly the form and flow of the poem being responded to. This is far too restrictive for me, especially when it comes to mimicking strict forms, such as sonnets that have tight rhyme schemes. This restriction of form often has the tendency of causing me to freeze up when I’m writing rather than opening up and becoming loose as one would hope.

My experience with writing in response to poetry involves not mimicry, but a playful dialogue. The few poetic responses I’ve written have little relation to the original poem (one example is here), but is rather reacts to the subject matter of the poem in kind of debate. Of course, this is not the only way to go about this, and Alderman’s way of talking back to poetry is equally valid. Just as there are many poets who comfortably play in rhyme and strict forms, which I do not.

The practice of handwriting out a poets previous work also did not appeal to me. Though I understand his reasoning for having a writer first copy the poem by hand (in order to get a feel for the rhythms and voice of the poem), I did not feel that it helped me gain any greater sense of the poem. Rather, I found that reading the poem out loud was a much better way to get a feel for the rhythm and sound, as well as a sense of the residual meaning.

I’m sure that there are many poets out there who would find this book very valuable and inspiring, however I am not one of them. Of the 20 or 30 poetry prompts in the book, I found myself interested in responding to only a handful of them. And when I did respond, I often found myself jumping outside of the prompts and guidelines, coloring outside the lines as it were, and responding to the poems as I damn well felt like it — which is really how it should be anyway.

[Cross-posted to my livejournal. If you feel inclined, you can comment either here or there.]