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Poetry Book Review:

Strange Terrain: A Poetry Handbook
for the Reluctant Reader

by Alice B. Fogel

strange terrain: poetry handbook reluctant readerReluctant poetry readers sometimes feel intimidated by poets and their work. Alice B. Fogel attempts to alleviate their frustrations with a book targeted just for them - Strange Terrain: A Poetry Handbook for the Reluctant Reader.

I think the author – a widely published poet herself – does an outstanding job of bridging the divide between poet and non-poet. She is not wordy nor does she use textbook language, which would only serve to defeat the purpose. She is always accessible and cognizant of her audience's most basic fears. She does a great job of overcoming those. But that doesn't mean Strange Terrain doesn't have its weaknesses.

For starters, the title is a bit off target. Fogel explains her choice of titles in her introduction this way:
They (the steps Fogel uses to walk her readers through the “demystification” process of interpreting and understanding–and appreciating–poetry) provide a walk through the strange terrain of poetry by means of eight basic tools that I'm going to show you are already in your backpack. The reason that poetry is, in fact, approachable and effective (once you're guided into its realm) is that it employs these elements that are so–well–elemental to our existence as humans here on earth. While the poems you pass through here may not all be easy, you will become familiar with their geography–their shapes and words, their sounds and images, their narrative techniques.
Strange Terrain, she explains, is structured around three premises that a reader should become familiar with in order to appreciate poetry:
  1. Demystification
  2. Information
  3. Remystification
Alice B. Fogel does a great job of pulling all three of these elements into her discussions throughout the book as she moves her readers into discussions on shape, words, sound, images, emotion, thoughts, and the devices of fiction. She makes no effort to erase the mystery from poetry. That is to her credit. Instead, she invites her readers, gently, to embrace that mystery. In other words, she says, it's OK not to “get” it.

While Strange Terrain is outstanding and instructional, the hiking conceit is unnecessary and isn't exploited enough to really be relevant to the work. The title clearly plays on the mystique of a trail guide leading her reticent amateur hikers through the wood of poetic mystery. The book would succeed without it. Fogel's straightforward and motherly touch throughout is the evidence of that truth. A more straightforward title would have sufficed.

The second problem with Strange Terrain may not seem like a problem at all from the right perspective. All the poems used by Alice Fogel to make her points are her own, which I found to be a slight disappointment.

Fogel's poems are fine. That's not the issue. Many of them are very well written and use the latest poetic techniques, but I'd have liked to have seen a variety of voices represented.

Brock Dethier, in his Foreword, says “By not trotting out the classic poems of famous poets, Fogel avoids making readers feel that they should genuflect in front of monuments of culture, and bypasses the inevitable 'My last teacher told me this poem was about …' response.” I agree, but there are thousands of contemporary poets who are less well known who could have served as great lesson enhancers and Fogel would not have had to rely solely on her own poems. Whether this shortcoming was because of copyright concerns or something else may be a matter of academics. Fogel still approaches the topic of poetics for non-poets in a delightful down-to-earth way that makes reading poetry fun and enjoyable for the novice. Besides, her approach may have been a great marketing tactic to expand the readership of her own poems to a new audience–an idea that does have its merits.

Strange Terrain is an easy read for anyone. Established poets with their own voice and tastes will not get much from it, readers who already understand poetry and its mysteries will likely not benefit as much either. But for the novice who seeks to understand poetry's mystique, it's a very nice primer that approaches the topic uniquely and I highly recommend Strange Terrain: A Poetry Handbook for the Reluctant Reader for anyone who wants to better understand poetry and its many mysteries.

Order your copy of

Strange Terrain: A Poetry Handbook for the Reluctant Reader
by Alice B. Fogel


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