Sources for advanced poetry analysis (not high school or undergrad)
July 31, 2019 8:58 AM   Subscribe

A friend and I are talking about meeting to discuss poems together. He has a PhD in literature, and I'm ABD in English. We're both published poets, and we've both taught college literature classes. Everything I'm finding online is for high school or college students. If I search "advanced," I get AP English or 300-level college classes. I'm hesitant to buy a book that may be more of the same. What else is out there?

I've been out of academia for decades and my field was theater, so I feel I could use some help with this. I'm totally happy to buy some books. I would just like a little guidance so I can get better at analysis, and I don't think sources directed toward undergrads will help much. I remember in grad school one of my cohort saying that Stanley Fish's book on Paradise Lost had changed her life. I'm looking for stuff like that (not exactly like that, but at that level). I know that literature professors and serious writers read Ask, so I'm hoping I can get some help with this. I also know it's possible that there may not be more general analysis books at that level, so something more specific is fine. My overall goal is to develop my skills and deepen my ability to read poetry, partly so I can write better myself, but I don't need someone to tell me what a simile is.
posted by FencingGal to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
MAPS is a great site that offers a lot of close readings of many different poets' work.
posted by correcaminos at 10:13 AM on July 31, 2019 [1 favorite]

If I were you, I would look for academic journal articles on poetry, assuming I had access to paywalled journals (and if you have a library card with a public library, you often do!) There are tons of journals out there that just focus on poetry. Just on JSTOR I see these journals:
--The American Poetry Review
--Victorian Poetry
--Paideuma: Modern and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics
I'm sure there are more.
posted by zeusianfog at 10:19 AM on July 31, 2019

I'm way out of the poetry loop but thinking back a few years, Ann Hassan's Annotations to Geoffrey Hill's 'Speech! Speech!' (creative commons PDF) is a brilliant close reading.

Hill was recognised as one of the more challenging British poets of his generation and 'Speech! Speech!' was always a brilliant mystery to me. This book shed all-new light.
posted by Ted Maul at 10:50 AM on July 31, 2019 [1 favorite]

You may also have access as an alum to your former uni's library, academic journals etc.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 10:50 AM on July 31, 2019

Best answer: In general, it is hard to find the kind of broad-based work you're looking for at the level you want it, but Jonathan Culler's recent book Theory of the Lyric might suit. Depending on your interests, you might like Virginia Jackson's Dickinson's Misery, or Andrew Epstein's Attention Equals Life, but I'm just throwing things out there--are you interested in a specific period, or particular poets?
posted by dizziest at 11:04 AM on July 31, 2019 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: We aren't restricting ourselves to any time period or particular poets, and our plan is to bring in older poems as well as what we happen to find in current poetry journals. So nothing in English, or translated into English, is off the table. However, I do tend to like modernist poetry a lot and, just personally, would be especially interested in writing about Yeats.
posted by FencingGal at 11:32 AM on July 31, 2019

Best answer: It sounds like you are interested in working on the specific skill of “close reading” (at least, I’d guess that that was what impressed your friend about the Fish book) and not historicist or theoretical analysis, which you’ll find a lot of in current academic journals. If so, much can still be gained from reading through the older classic examples of close reading. It’s pretty old and weird in some ways, but I think I. A. Richards’ Practical Criticism (1930) is still very worth reading. Other good examples might include:
William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity, 1930.
Edmund Wilson, Axel's Castle, 1931.
F. R. Leavis, Revaluation, 1936.
Cleanth Brooks, The Well Wrought Urn, 1947.
Brooks and Warren, Understanding Poetry (various editions).

There is a useful little anthology of classic so-called “New” Criticism, which is supposed to focus on close reading above all, by Garrick Davis, called Praising it New: The Best of the New Criticism. This, and other works by older critics (John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Yvor Winters, E. P. Blackmur, R. S. Crane, W. K. Winsatt, etc) might be to your purpose, though often deprecated by current academics.
posted by demonic winged headgear at 11:41 AM on July 31, 2019 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Yes, New Criticism is more what I'm looking for (and what a great list from demonic winged headgear!). We both went to grad school in the late 80s/early 90s, so we're familiar with the theory that was trendy then (New Historicism for me), and that's definitely not what I'm interested in right now. It occurs to me that something geared toward MFA students might also be helpful, since we're both thinking that looking at poetry that we feel misses the mark a bit can be useful.

I'm so glad I no longer have to worry about what's deprecated by current academics. Dropping out of my PhD program seemed like the end of the world then, but there are worse things.

I hope this was just clarification and not untoward threadsitting.
posted by FencingGal at 12:22 PM on July 31, 2019

Best answer: These may be not quite right, less theory and more craft-oriented, but might offer something helpful.

How to Read a Poem by Edward Hirsch

Various books by Robert Pinsky, including Singing School.

Mary Oliver's A Poetry Handbook
posted by swheatie at 12:46 PM on July 31, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'll add a more recent book, an anthology: Helen Vendler, Poems, Poets, Poetry. Besides just putting together a great selection of poetry, Vendler (a celebrated close-reading academic herself) adds a lot of jargon-free analytical advice that is more than worth the price of the book. It's true that it's intended as an undergraduate textbook, but it's at a fairly high level and the sort of thing that I (as a college professor) get a lot out of -- not "what is a simile" stuff.
posted by demonic winged headgear at 12:48 PM on July 31, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: +1 Vendler
+1 Oliver

Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle is full of intrigue

Craft essays in Adroit, Kenyon Review, etc help me be a better professor of poetry even as a non-poet. (mail me and I can rustle up specific links)

Sounds of Poetry by Pinsky or Short Book of Form by Hass

Funny that Theory of the Lyric came up, my husband won't shut up about how much he loves that book but listen, I think you and I both know the best way to get good at close reading: to read a lot, to memorise poems, to think poems in conversation with each other, to return to poems after some time, hear new music in them, be gentle with the part of yourself that loves a poem and slowly blossom that love into something you can articulate in words, and share with your friend.

Please don't rush to have a smart opinion about poems, unless you're trying to publish something about Yeats in Modernist Quarterly or whatever. I suggest you and your friend start with the question "what surprised me about this poem?" or better yet, stolen from Naomi Shihab Nye: "what did you like about this poem?"

Poetry daps to you and your friend, I am glad you're doing this.
posted by athirstforsalt at 8:06 AM on August 7, 2019

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