I read a lot of poetry, and I read and write a lot of poetry reviews. I have a rule about reading poetry reviews, however: if I’m reviewing a book of poetry, I don’t read anyone else’s review until after I’ve written my own.
Poetry reviews come in all shapes and sizes, from the blurbs on the front and back covers of poetry books to the extended, in-depth and often footnoted reviews in Poetry Magazine and American Poets. Typically, reviews of poetry books are by other poets, most likely because most of the people reading poetry books these days tend to be other poets. (This is a corollary to my poetry theorem that only three people in the United States make a living from writing poetry, and two of them are Billy Collins.)
If you regularly read poetry reviews, after a while you begin to notice something. It’s not that all poetry reviews tend to sound alike. They don’t; they are as diverse as the people writing them and the poets the reviewers are writing about.
But reviews do tend to have something in common.
Certain words that are used to the point of overuse. Trite. Banal. Boring.
It’s almost as if you can’t write a poetry review without including at least one or two of these words.
Or, poets run out of things to say about the poetry of others, and so revert to the stereotype of the high school junior who has to write a paper on Spring and All by William Carlos Williams and finds a list of key words in an online poetry review.
I’ve identified six words, all adjectives, which I’m nominating for “The Most Overused Words in Poetry Reviews Hall of Fame.” I also have three contenders.
If one adjective wins the National Book Award for most overused word, it’s “luminous.” Some days it’s hard to find a poetry review that doesn’t use “luminous” to describe the poems, the verses, the words, the lines, or even the title. Some reviewers seem to be conscious of this overuse, and turn to a variation on the theme—instead of being luminous, a collection or a poem is “filled with luminosity.” Or they’ll fall back on the shorter and not quite as fetching word “lucent, ” or become really inventive and substitute “incandescent.”
I see the word “luminous, ” and I think light bulbs. Thomas Edison. Fluorescent lights. High school physics and formulas for measuring lumens. Halogen bulbs. The rotten light bulbs the U.S. EPA is making us replace the good ones with.
We have a strong runner-up for the most overused word in poetry reviews: “breathtaking, ” or my favorite variation on it, “literally breathtaking.” I read a poetry review this week in which the writer claimed the poems “literally took my breath away.” Unfortunately for the rest of us, the reviewer’s condition didn’t last; she survived the experience.
I have read poems that struck me with beauty and insight, or used words and metaphors in new and interesting ways. But I have yet to read a poem, any poem, which took my breath away. And no collection can take your breath away for the duration of reading it, since even the shorter collections take anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes to read. Try having your breath taken away for that long.
Another overused word is “exhilarating.” Roller coaster rides are exhilarating. So is bungee jumping. I might be impressed or moved by a poem or an entire collection, but exhilarated? I read a poem that has me racing around the block in a frenzy, frightening the neighbors? I don’t think so. Yet there it is, showing up in poetry reviews like the proverbial bad penny.
Then we have the more staid “engaging, ” as in, “Her poems are invariably engaging.” Well, yes. Tell me something I don’t know. If a poem wasn’t engaging, I would not likely be reading it, would I, and that applies to entire collections as well. Publishers of poetry generally don’t print books that aren’t engaging in some way. Telling me someone’s poetry is engaging is like telling me I need oxygen to breathe, especially after reading something breathtaking (literally).
One adjective I’ve begun to see more and more in poetry reviews is “miraculous.” It’s not the most overused word in reviews, but it may win the prize for being the most overstated. I have yet to read or hear of a poem that cured disease, won someone the $400 million lottery, or stopped planes from crashing. How this word came to find itself in poetry reviews is beyond me, unless the reviewer was overcome by luminosity to the point of having their breath taken away (literally), and read a poem that restored their breathing to normal. Then it would be okay to use “miraculous.”
When all other overused words fail, there’s always that old standby, “profound.” Of all the overused words, this one probably has the strongest element of truth in it. Poems, and their lines and images, can be profound. What usually happens with this word in reviews, however, is that the reviewer rarely tells us why a poem or collection is profound. The statement is simply thrown out there, and we’re left in complete puzzlement, or at least have our breath taken away (literally) so that we can’t ask why it’s so profound.
Three words are emerging as contenders as the most overused in poetry reviews.
I find the word “legendary” a bit presumptuous. It usually takes longer than the time for one poetry reading to determine if something is legendary. People who use this word likely spend too much time on Twitter, where any trend lasting longer than an hour becomes legendary.
“Urgent” is in the same category as miraculous. Precious few poems in this world could be called urgent, unless they’re about rushing one’s wife to the hospital to have a baby. But it’s showing up more in reviews.
And the contender I find most fascinating is “oracular.” Oracular? As in, like an oracle? Seriously?
If you find a luminous poem that takes your breath away (literally), please let me know. It would be urgent and exhilarating, not to mention miraculously profound. The writer of such an engaging poem may even become instantly legendary, or at least oracular.