I actually really love the idea of a group of high school students writing a long poem in protest of their school's takeover by reality TV.
The problem with Vigilante Poets is that it raises a lot of big ideas and tries to do justice to them while at the same time being quirky/cute/funny. It kind of goes over-the-top on the quirkiness (Ethan's triplet sisters, a gerbil named Baconnaise) and it comes off as just trying too hard.
It tries to raise questions like:
- To what extent our judgment of art can or should depend on our judgment of the artist (and here, I think it's really going too far to say that you can or should separate them completely, which seems to be taken as a foregone conclusion! Ezra Pound is a hard case, and he was both a great poet and a pretty bad human being, but it is actually more complicated than the book implies, I think.)
- How do we know what reality is, when all of reality comes at us through a filter? (It is interesting to tackle this question through reality TV, which is so heavily filtered there's hardly any reality in it.)
- Where do you find the line between idealism and the things you do for selfish reasons, or peer pressure, or because it was easiest?
- How powerful can art be? How powerful can even bad art be? Can art be powerful just as easily in service of a bad idea as a good one?
But then those questions get sidelined by the caper-plot bits, which are fine, but a great book is a book where all the elements are moving forward together, not pulling against each other.
Meanwhile, it's hard to know whether we should take Luke's polemics about colonialism and oppressed peoples seriously, but it's a pretty cringeworthy comparison. And I get that an arts school in Minneapolis may well not be a very diverse place, but in general I felt like the way race was handled was awkward and not good.
At its best the book gives you an intense taste of the power of poetry and idealism. But I wanted it to be smarter and deeper than it was.
The youth of Marilyn Nelson in the 50s and early 60s, growing up in the shadow of racism, the cold war, the first stirrings of feminism -- but also friends, and boys, and Motown, and the experience of being the daughter of one of the U.S.'s first high-ranked black Air Force officers, constantly moving from one air base to another.
All tied up in blank verse sonnets that sit perfectly on the edge of the poetic and the everyday.