Poetry as a book club selection?

The book club that I have been frequenting for the past four years managed a first this month. It has always been wonderfully eclectic in its selections: literary fiction, historical fiction, noir fiction, memoir, creative non-fiction, graphic novels (both memoir and fiction), even YA fiction. With such a range, you can’t help but get stretched out of your comfort zone. That’s one of the reasons I really like attending. That and the lively discussions that we partake of for an hour or more once a month. The book club is organised and led by Mandy Brouse of Words Worth Books. And although my experience is limited (this is the only book club I’ve ever participated in), I think we moved this month into less travelled territory for a generalist book club. Our selection was Michael Crummey’s recent collection of poems, Under the Keel.

We were a bit uncertain — all of us — as to how this would work. As we arrived at the bookstore (our sessions are held in the bookstore in the evening) almost everyone looked around at the others and said, “I didn’t think anyone else would show up tonight.” Surprise! We actually had a solid cohort of regulars in attendance. The challenge, I think, was not the poetry itself. The challenge was what to say about it and how.

We are all wide-ranging readers and poetry certainly falls into the mix for most of us, though perhaps not as a steady diet. Michael Crummey’s poetry is both lyrical and accessible. He writes of his experiences growing up in Newfoundland and Labrador. He writes of love and the death of his father, sometimes bringing these subjects together in startling and moving ways. He explores the imagined lives of other, older Newfoundlanders. His diction is not typically elevated. His verse tends toward the free, but almost as often swings back to the song-like rhythms of his Irish ancestors. His observations are earthy and not metaphysical. His turns of phrase are worthy of pause but not typically mere displays of showmanship. In short, his poems can be read and appreciated by anyone. But that didn’t stop us wondering how we would manage to discuss the book.

Our book club discussions typically begin with each of us in turn saying our names (especially useful for newcomers) and very briefly summing up our impression, good or bad, of the book in question. Thereafter we begin delving into specific aspects of the book, e.g. characters, situations, writing style, things we loved, things we hated, and so forth. Our conversations can and do go almost anywhere. Of course it is easy to give a simple thumbs up for Under the Keel, but how would we press on from there?

As with many poetry collections, Under the Keel is not perhaps best thought of as a single work. Crummey divides the book into five sections, the poems of which loosely cohere. For example, the first section, entitled “Through A Glass Darkly”, has poems concentrating on his early adolescent sexuality, the pressing world-encompassing fascination of the 14-year-old boy. The fourth section, entitled “Under Silk”, has poems about, for, and to his wife, Holly. These are love poems of various sorts, but a mature love tempered by knowledge of life’s finitude. How would we go about discussing Under the Keel as a whole?

Here, Mandy stepped up and led us in a new direction. Instead of discussing the book as a whole, she suggested that we each pick a poem we either especially liked or didn’t like and read it aloud to the group. Then we could discuss that particular poem. There followed a moment of silence . . . and then we plunged in. Although none of us were practised public readers of poems (which is no small talent!), we each of us took up the challenge. And I have to say that the results were excellent.

The first poem selected and read is perhaps the most moving one in the whole collection, “Something New” which is part of a short set entitled, “Hope Chest”. Ostensibly it is a love poem, a declaration of fidelity and commitment. But it begins with a lengthy description of Crummey’s father dying of cancer and the loving care patiently provided by his wife, Crummey’s mother, during those long last days. The juxtaposition of images is striking and memorable. Other poems that we gamely read included, “Boys,” “Stars on the Water,” “A Carry-On,” and “Pub Crawl in Dublin”. And for each we had a fine discussion.

I’m sure other book clubs must include poetry books on a regular basis. This was a first for us, but I suspect it won’t be a last.

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One Comment

  1. Our book club has yet to choose a collection of poetry, but you’ve intrigued me with the idea. My Grandpa was from Newfoundland and I’ve spent many happy days there over the years. I will definitely look up this oeuvre.

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