One advantages to the rich offerings of poetry in my area is the opportunity to build my collection of full-length books and chapbooks from poets at all stages of their writing careers. Once a month at Poetry Hickory, a second Tuesday night event at Taste Full Beans, a local coffee shop, I am treated to short readings from the semi-open mic session followed by a couple of featured poets. If I arrange my schedule to arrive in time, I get a chance to share in the discussion with other poets too or to participate in a writing workshop before the readings.
While it's all too easy to let novels sit unread on the shelf, waiting until I have time to read them, books of poetry provide the perfect reading climate. Aside from Dante's Inferno or Milton's Paradise Lost, books of poems, especially chapbooks, can be read in one sitting or they can be read a few at a time--while I wait for a traffic light or an appointment.
When I read fiction, I often mean to go back and find a passage I particularly enjoyed, but if I fail to leave behind a post-it note, those readings are often lost forever. Poems, however, have those convenient titles. Returning again and again is an option I choose over and over.
Last week, at the second event in Lenoir-Rhyne University's Visiting Writes Series, I picked up a couple of books of poetry by Cathy Smith Bowers, recently named the new poet laureate of North Carolina. I had read her work before, but only a poem here and there. I took home my copies of The Candle I Hold Up to See You and The Books of Minutes and read them almost immediately. In the first, I was pleased to find two or three of the particularly poignant or humorous poems she had read for us that night. One of my particular favorites "Syntax" had appeared in The English Journal, the NCTE publication I have read for years. This poem serves as a warning for any teacher, particularly anyone who professes to teach creative writing. Another poem in the same volume "The Napkin" packed that lovely punch in the end. (One of the best things about attending a poetry reading is being able to observe the physical response of an audience to a poem.)
The other collection of poems by Bowers was set up in the format of The Book of Hours. Throughout the book, she uses a clever fixed form called, of course, the minute. These poems contain sixty syllables in three stanzas: 8-4-4-4, 8-4-4-4, 8-4-4-4. Within the limitations of the form, though, she achieved such a variety of effects. I'll admit that this was the first book of poems I had stayed up to finish while reading in bed.
I'm not sure how people gauge their responses to other people's poetry, but one litmus test of mine is that the poems inspire me to write poems of my own in response. As Keats said, "Poetry ...should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts and appear almost as a remembrance." I find that my notes from poetry readings often contain all the margin notes, bits and pieces of memories just waiting to be set down on paper in just the right shape.