A review of The Strategic Poet edited by Diane Lockward

Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

The Strategic Poet: Honing the Craft
Edited by Diane Lockward
Terrapin Books
Oct 2021, Paperback, 326 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1947896482

For aspiring or developing writers of poetry, The Strategic Poet: Honing the Craft (Terrapin Books 2021) will be a useful, educational, and agreeable book. Edited by renowned poet Diane Lockward and containing commentaries by a variety of writers, the book is well organized and filled with poetry which is aptly used to demonstrate the lessons involved. Aside from the illuminating value of the poetry, these modern poems are a pleasure to read. While specifically published as a teaching tool for writers of poetry, anyone who appreciates contemporary poetry should find The Strategic Poet to be a valuable addition to a personal library. On top of everything else, it’s both a challenging and a fun book to study with, filled with insight, imagination, rewarding tasks, and exceptionally fine writing.  

Organized into thirteen sections which are designed to “hone” a poet’s abilities, each section is dedicated to a specific poetic strategy or device. Each of these thirteen sections contains a “craft talk,” “poem and prompt” and sample poems which are illustrative of the topic and the prompt. For example, in the first chapter, “Descriptive Details,” the craft talk by Ellen Bass speaks of the importance of utilizing all the senses to “enact an experience.” After observing that it is a poet’s job description to evoke sensation, Bass quotes E. L. Doctorow that good writing evokes “not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.”

This initial craft talk in many ways sets the tone for the rest of the book by expressing the goal and offering practical advice and examples to achieve the goal. Bass’s lessons are as apt for poets as for any writers, and like most of the contributors, she uses a common-sense, low-key style to convey her ideas. For example, she writes “If I could give just one suggestion to beginning and developing writers, it would be to slow down. If you don’t rush through what you see or what you want to convey, you have a better shot at delivering a real and vivid experience.”

Subsequent chapters address topics of “Diction,” “Imagery,” “Sound Devices,” “Repetition,” “Syntax,” “Sonnet,” and “Odd Forms.” There are also several chapters under the heading of “Figurative Language,” which speak to simile, metaphor, personification, hyperbole, and apostrophe. Authors of the craft talks include Bass as well as W. Todd Kaneko, Lauren Camp, Annie Finch, David Graham, Danusha Laméris, Jan Beatty, Meg Kearney, Peter E. Murphy, Dion O’Reilly, Marilyn L. Taylor, Diane Seuss, and Tami Haaland. In addition to these contributors and their essays on the craft, the book contains 72 poems.

In her introduction, editor Diane Lockward shares her belief that “craft can be taught and the best teacher of craft is a good poem.” She also cautions that this book, which is the fourth in a series of books she has edited on the craft of poetry, “assumes a knowledgeable reader, that is, one who already knows the language of poetry and already practices the craft.” Thus, Lockward indicates this is not an introduction to modern poetry for a casual reader—yet, somehow this reviewer thinks that anyone of any level of knowledge would find something to delight, evoke and (or) inspire in reading the 72 poems. 

The book also contains a detailed index, brief bios of the over 100 contributors, and credits for the previous published poems and other materials.

Diane Lockward’s poetry collections include What Feeds Us (Wind Books 2006) as well as two previous collections, Eve’s Red Dress (Wind Publications 2003) and a chapbook, Against Perfection (Poets Forum Press, 1998).  Lockward has also edited The Practicing Poet: Writing Beyond the Basics (Terrapin Books, 2018) as well as The Crafty Poet II: A Portable Workshop and The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop (Terrapin Books). Lockward’s many awards include the Quentin R. Howard Poetry Prize, a poetry fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, and a Woman of Achievement Award. Her poems have been included in such journals as Harvard Review, Southern Poetry Review, and Prairie Schooner. 

All in all, The Strategic Poet is a worthwhile, high-quality book containing a wide array of information, teaching prompts, styles, and poems, all of which should educate and delight its readers as it helps them hone their craft. The contents are universally insightful, helpful, and informative. The book lives up to its title and is an excellent source of knowledge and is impeccably edited and organized. 

About the reviewer: Claire Hamner Matturro, a former lawyer and college faculty member, has only lately returned to her first literary love—poetry. She found The Strategic Poet to be most helpful in her new pursuit. Claire’s poems have recently appeared in in New Verse News, Muddy River Literary Review, Topical Poetry, Flora Fiction, One Art and come July, The Tiger Moth Review. She is also the author of seven novels including Skinny-dipping (HarperCollins 2001) and co-author of Wayward Girls (Red Adept Publishing 2021).