Steve Kowit,
In the Palm of Your Hand
(Tilbury House, 1995)

Dorianne Laux states in the foreword that "the book you hold in your hands is a gift from a gifted and inspiring teacher, a way into the world of poetry, writtten by an enlightened guide who knows that world and loves it." In the Palm of Your Hand is an engaging, instructive portable poetry workbook, perfect for beginning and experienced writers.

Steve Kowit has been teaching poetry workshops for over twenty years. Assembling exercises from those years of experience, he presents them in a format that is easy to follow and moves from the simple to the challenging. He begins with the basics, easing the fears of new writers and encouraging seasoned writers to continue practicing the craft of poetry. According to Kowit, only two things are needed before beginning: a notebook and a writing schedule. Many writers and would-be writers will acknowledge that finding time to write is one of the most demanding aspects of writing -- Kowit's advice is practical without becoming discouraging.

The old adage "write what you know" drives Kowit's opening section, "Speak, Memory." Working with the idea that memory often serves as the impetus to write, Kowit devotes three chapters and eight poetry exercies to narrative structure and recovering memories. Model poems, examined by Kowit, accompany each of the poetry exercises. These first three chapters are particularly engaging, as they give writers the okay to write about anything -- in poetry, says Kowit, anything goes anymore, thanks to the courage of famous writers who made "life" their main subject.

Section Two, "The Secret of Writing," details many of the pitfalls and practices that keep many poets from producing first-rate writing. In "Awful Poems," Kowit examines the elements that many beginning poets think that poetry must have, but actually only make their poetry worse. The next chapter, "The Art of Revision," takes several model poems and walks the reader through the revision process, highlighting key issues and problems with the poems in question.

Section Three examines the formal elements of poetic tradition and includes definitions, examples, and exercises for practicing meter, rhyme, and figurative language. Section Four delves into both experiemental and formal traditions, such as cut-ups, automatic writing, villanelles and sonnets. From there, Kowit addresses the "Perennial Themes" of poetry, ranging from politics to desire and love to loss and the natural world. Kowit continues to offer exercies designed to complement the subject matter of each chapter, often relying on model poems by established writers to illustrate his points. The final chapter deals with poetry workshops, publications and resources for writers. This is perhaps the most important section of the book as the poetry market continues to become more and more difficult to enter and sustain a long-term writing career. Kowit's advice here is essential and insightful -- after all, Kowit has been in this business for over twenty years.

This isn't just one of those books you can only use once. Kowit's exercises are structured so that writers at all stages can use them and then return to them over and over as their skill increases. Kowit accomplishes just what he sets out to accomplish in the introduction: present a book that guides writers through the process of creating meaningful poetry. What's better is that Kowit does this with humor and wisdom. In the Palm of Your Hand kept me involved throughout the entire book, motivating me to push myself harder in the poetic craft.

[ by Audrey M. Clark ]

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