Teach me to poem
March 5, 2014 7:24 AM   Subscribe

Can anyone recommend a good poetry primer?

Metafilter's recent discussion of Auden has moved me to try to re-consider poetry. I haven't read poetry seriously in nearly 25 years after a couple of years of high school English totally ruined it for me. Dry poems overanalyzed as student exercises, all effort and no joy.

I'd like to read some poems. English language poems, well chosen, presumably classics but things picked because they are fun or accessible as much as they are the Great Canon. More importantly I'd like to read a book of poems with analysis, with expository text alongside the poem that explains nuances a casual reader will miss. In high school I read some Shakespeare editions like this that I liked, every left page was the original text and every right page was notes explaining the language and references. It helped. (OTOH I also remember spending a whole class in high school English working over the symbolism of the red rock in The Waste Land; possible to dwell too much!)

Sadly I have the attention span of your typical Internet-addicted multitasker. I'd love to relearn the skill of reading something dense, carefully, slowly.
posted by Nelson to Writing & Language (13 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
The Wondering Minstrels was a really good mailing list that used to send out poems+commentary. It's sadly defunct now, but it looks like the content is archived at this blog.
posted by Vibrissa at 7:41 AM on March 5, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: The best thing I did for myself was subscribe to poetry magazine. $35 a year for 11 issues that are well constructed and evenly divided between contemporary poetry, review, criticism, and occasional visual and textual combinations. To take casual enjoyment of poetry, you really need to just start reading it casually.

The poetry foundation also has a great series of approachable but close readings of important poems through their learning lab's Core Learning series.

I've recommended all of these before, but Stephen Fry actually wrote a really great book on poetry from a fan's perspective - The Ode Less Travelled.

Don't forget that most poetry is best when read out loud - check out the (god I plug them a lot) poetry foundation's podcasts, as well as the free libravox collections of famous poetry. You don't need to understand what a poem is talking about to enjoy listening to it - wait til something catches you, then proceed to the close reading. Generally speaking, if you're not wild about a poem initially, no matter how much hidden meaning you discover through close reading, you still won't necessarily enjoy the poem - it's not a puzzle, it's a piece of art.
posted by Think_Long at 7:41 AM on March 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: My teacher used this book, Sound and Sense, in our 12th grade AP English class. It's wonderful and readable, and the things I learned from it and her have stayed with me my whole life. I wish you luck finding your way into poetry!
posted by sister nunchaku of love and mercy at 7:42 AM on March 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

My teacher used this book, Sound and Sense, in our 12th grade AP English class. It's wonderful and readable, and the things I learned from it and her have stayed with me my whole life.

Same here, exactly.
posted by Redstart at 7:52 AM on March 5, 2014

I'm a long-time poetry lover, but one thing that's really deepened my relationship with poetry is reading it to my two small children. I started when they were babies and wanted me to just read at length so they could hear my voice, but reading children's books gets boring and I don't like reading long pieces of prose out loud, so, poetry! When they got big enough to follow stories (like Dr. Seuss-able), they started to really pay attention. When you read a particularly rich bit of metaphorical language that strikes them, they look startled and then they have to think really hard. And when they ask for the same poem 30 times in a row, reading the same poem, out loud, over and over again really encourages a close, slow meditation on the poem. You start to pick up things in the rhythm, in the word choice, that you wouldn't find without reading it 30 times. Out loud.

My kids and I particularly like Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle, which metafilter suggested to me a couple years ago. But being small people they are not very picky and I read to them from whatever I feel like. If you have your own small people, or can borrow some, they are excellent poetry companions! They are nothing but joy about it. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:52 AM on March 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thirding Sound and Sense. It's written with joy, and it makes the ubiquitous discussions of the mechanics of poetry fun, as they should be.
posted by invitapriore at 7:56 AM on March 5, 2014

Stephen Fry actually wrote a really great book on poetry from a fan's perspective - The Ode Less Travelled.

I found this to be a very helpful book, with engaging structured exercises that get you to put into practice what you're learning as you go.
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 8:12 AM on March 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I asked this question eight years ago (wow, eight years, yikes) which still has a lot of good suggestions! In particular I found Ciardi's How Does A Poem Mean to be helpful, and it contains a good deal of the kind of "poem plus interpretive information about poem" that you mention in your question.

PoemTalk is an excellent podcast hosted by Al Filreis in which a group of writers and poets will listen to and discuss a reading of a poem. If you want to go full MOOC on this problem, you could do worse than Filreis' Modern Poetry Coursera class.

You might also enjoy Stephen Burt's Close Calls with Nonsense.
posted by aparrish at 8:43 AM on March 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

I poked a little bit at your profile and it looks like you're a computer programmer? If so, you might also enjoy Virtual Muse, Charles Hartman's memoir/how-to guide about writing poetry with computers. Hartman is a literate, talented poet and in the process of explaining his attempts to automate poetry, he manages to give a pretty good primer about how to read poetry. It's a short book, insightful and very engaging.
posted by aparrish at 8:51 AM on March 5, 2014

If you'd like to focus relatively intensely on a single poet or a handful of poets at a time, Helen Vendler has written on the poetry of Shakespeare, Keats, Dickinson, Stevenson, Heaney, Yeats, Ashbery, etc.
posted by pracowity at 8:59 AM on March 5, 2014

While not exactly what you are asking for, I'd like to recommend a super primer in the metrical dimension of verse: John Hollander's Rhyme's Reason. Hollander, himself a learnéd poet, undertook to give theoretical descriptions of major English line and verse forms written in the very line and verse forms being described. So it's a kind of huge self-commentary-ing catalog poem. Very good for exposure and sensitizing to this formal aspect of all poetry-- Hollander includes, convincingly, 'free' verse among the forms -- and fun to read.
posted by bertran at 5:39 PM on March 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Nelson, I'm a kind of nerdy guy who likes to study formal systems. Knowing that my brain works that way, a friend bought me "Poetic Meter and Poetic Form", by Paul Fussell. In it Fussell explains poetic meter and shows how great poets use it to create emotional effects. I didn't find it an easy read, but it was a mind-opener. It was like I could finally see something that had been going on all around me that I hadn't noticed before.

I actually only made it half way through the book, but that much completely changed my appreciation of poetry. (I checked Amazon, and it looks like it's one of those slim books that people are asking sky-high prices for. Maybe check it out of the library for a test read, and I think you'll find it worth $15-$20 used.)
posted by benito.strauss at 12:04 PM on July 26, 2014

If you're looking for some more approachable contemporary poets to dig into (bearing in mind that I'm probably about a decade behind the current state of the art), you could do worse than digging into David Kirby, Barbara Hamby, Alberto Rios, Billy Collins, Rita Dove, Stephen Dobyns, Raymond Carver, Adrienne Rich, Mark Strand and Sharon Olds for a start. I get the sense Dobyns may have fallen out of favor for some reason (vague impression there was an academic scandal, but I may be mistaken so please don't take my word for that), but his Cemetery Nights is just about the most accessible and entertaining collection of poems I've come across. He kind of lost me with/after Pallbearers Envying the One Who Rides, though. Rita Dove just makes magic with words always, as does Alberto Rios.
posted by saulgoodman at 5:08 PM on July 28, 2014

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