I dabble in writing poetry, so years ago a now-deceased poet-acquaintance recommended I pick up a copy of Steve Kowit’s book. At the time, I couldn’t get more than a few chapters into Palm because I wasn’t ready for it. It went back on the shelf.
Since then, my poems have been well received, even sweeping the poetry awards at a local writers’ conference last year. So a few months ago, I decided it was time to give the book another try. Four chapters in, I stalled out again, but after a few weeks away from it, I decided to keep going. I’m glad I did.
The book’s two subtitles, “The poet’s portable workshop,” and “A lively and illuminating guide for the practicing poet” turned out to be accurate. Chapters 2 to 27 (of 30) end with exercises to encourage the reader to practice the topics discussed, and it was the exercises in chapters 2-4 that caused me to put the book down. Kowit was asking me to do things I wasn’t comfortable doing, dredging up old, perhaps unhappy memories. While this sort of material can certainly produce powerful poetry, this demand this early in the book is one of my few major complaints. Perhaps for the “practicing poet,” this kind of work is less challenging, but for the novice, particularly someone uninterested in revisiting those times, this can be intimidating enough to cause him or her to stop reading and stop trying. It would have been better, for this reader anyway, if these chapters had been placed later in the book.
That aside, the book’s contents are very approachable. Kowit’s style is easy and comfortable to read, and the short but well-focused chapters keep the topics to a manageable size. While the author does get deep into some techniques that can really be eye-opening for the novice poet, he never gets overly academic. Only a few chapters deal with the kinds of poetry that academic poets seem to write only to impress each other with their cleverness, and even this material is balanced with a chapter on limericks and other humorous forms.
While most of the material in the book is timeless, because it was published in 2007, some of the material in the final chapters is dated. Kowit mentions publisher and magazine web sites, but he couldn’t have anticipated how much these organizations have since moved into digital media, or how important web and independent publishing, social media, and more recently, video conferencing, have become.
For the novice poet, In the Palm of Your Hand will definitely be a boundary-stretcher, but for the practicing poet, it should be a valuable addition to the reference library. Recommended.