Good books about poetry?
October 13, 2006 12:32 PM   Subscribe

Except for an early obsession with e.e. cummings, I know nothing about poetry. Can anyone recommend a good book to jumpstart my poetry literacy?

The Language Instinct is an introduction to linguistics/cognitive science, The Selfish Gene is an introduction to evolutionary biology, and Understanding Comics is an introduction to, uh, comics. Is there a book like this, except for poetry?

I'm not very interested in books about how to write poetry, or how to appreciate it, or books that contain a large amount of good poetry. I'm interested in books that talk about history, criticism and theory—ways of thinking about and understanding poetry. (Something like this site, recently posted to the blue, would be ideal, except I need something printed with ink on dead trees so I can read it on the subway.)

I'm not afraid of the technical and academic, but the more accessible the better.

(My background is in linguistics and computer science and I want to be Mikhail Bakhtin when I grow up, if that helps any.)
posted by aparrish to Writing & Language (21 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Here are a few possibilities: Understanding Poetry, by Brooks and Warren; Poetry: A Modern Guide, by Elizabeth Drew; How to Read a Poem, by Buron Raffel.
posted by LeisureGuy at 12:48 PM on October 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

Andrey Bely had some very interesting essays on russian poetry.

Unfortunately, my essay archive was recently destroyed, and I can't remember the name of the essay I really liked. But he took a fascinating look at different rhyming patterns in different russian poets. While it wasn't exactly accessible, that essay, more than anything else, changed the way I looked at poetry.

I am not positive, but I think it came from this book.
posted by milarepa at 12:49 PM on October 13, 2006

Also, How Does a Poem Mean, by John Ciardi.
posted by LeisureGuy at 12:58 PM on October 13, 2006

I took several poetry and writing classes in my first few semesters of college. By far, my favorite poetry textbook was Modern Poems: An Introduction to Poetry. It contains a wonderful selctions of poetry (Kubla Khan and The Emperor of Ice Cream included), but also some of the technical background and methodology behind the writing. If I'm not mistaken it also includes some author-specific biographic information.

If you're interested in exploring poetry collections, take a look at Alan Ginsberg (Howl), Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Wild Dreams of a New Beginning), and Gary Soto (New and Selected Poems) - to list some of my favorites. Gary Soto is maybe the most accessible of the three listed.
posted by youngergirl44 at 1:02 PM on October 13, 2006

I second How Does a Poem Mean.

Poetry in Theory might also be useful; it's an anthology of theory and criticism, which might be a good place to begin. It only covers the 20th century, but it would give you a running start.
posted by Powerful Religious Baby at 1:05 PM on October 13, 2006

Apart from Brooks and Warren, and How Does a Poem Mean, both of which are a decent start, old standby Western Wind by J.F. Nims is another good possibility. Though it does lean a little closer to appreciation than to theory, it's a standard intro textbook for a reason: it's engaging and readable, and passionate about the reading of poetry. (I haven't looked at any of the newer editions, which were revised by later editors after Nims's death.)
posted by RogerB at 1:18 PM on October 13, 2006

Seconding (oops, fourthing) the Ciardi. You might also enjoy Harold Bloom's How to Read and Why, though it's about literature in general, and the text that X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia wrote for their classic Introduction to Poetry anthologies.
posted by box at 1:23 PM on October 13, 2006

Speaking of "The Emperor of Ice Cream"--if you're interested in poetry, interpretation, and theory, I'm currently throwing a birthday party for Wallace Stevens that addresses those things in a lighthearted and mildly nsfw way. The link's in my profile if you want to check it out.
posted by Powerful Religious Baby at 1:29 PM on October 13, 2006

Suggesting a slightly different path, I learn more about a poem when I hear the poet read it aloud. Sometimes I hate a poem until I hear the author read it. So to that extent, I recommend Poetry Speaks, which is a book that comes with 3 CDs (all for $33) of poets reading their poems. Plus, the book is not bad -- a chapter on the poet with extras from each of them.

All in all, I think it provides one of the best ways to get into poetry.
posted by ontic at 1:36 PM on October 13, 2006

If you feel really ambitious, consider The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry & Poetics. It's something of hodgepodge of antiquated, modernist, and postmodernist entries, but it's by far the most comprehensive thing out there.

Also, for some interesting takes on the contemporary poetry scene, check out Ron Silliman's blog.

Also, keep in mind that the poetry world is currently bitterly -- bitterly! -- divided between two camps that could loosely be divided into "traditionalists"/"populists" (e.g., Billy Collins, Mary Oliver) and "experimental" (e.g., the "language" poets of the 70's & 80's or the present-day, so-called "post-avant" poets that Silliman spends a lot time writing about). Whatever material you encounter will inevitably be biased toward one of the two camps (most likely the former, since, by definition, it has a broader audience).
posted by treepour at 2:10 PM on October 13, 2006

Meant to add this (sorry for the second post). If you like things like structuralist/poststructuralist linguistics & critical theory, you might enjoy the definitive language poetry anthology (essays, not poetry), a book titled "L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E", edited by Bruce Andrews & Charles Bernstein.
posted by treepour at 2:16 PM on October 13, 2006

James Fenton, An Introduction to English Poetry might be what you're looking for. You can read some extracts from it here.
posted by verstegan at 2:58 PM on October 13, 2006

There's no way to jump-start. Just read it. It's just words. Ask everybody you know what their favorite poems are, hang out in a library all day, and read them.
posted by koeselitz at 3:35 PM on October 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

Twentieth Century Pleasures, by Robert Hass, and also Hass' Essential Haiku are very well-written, accessible books. I also recommend Alice Notley's Coming After, which not only reads and explicates many contemporary poets' work, but includes her sense of being one of these poets and what that is like--inspiring, weird, embittering by turns.

I'd love to know how this effort goes for you. As a poet, it seems to me that poetry is mostly read by other poets, and few others give a rip.
posted by Riverine at 4:08 PM on October 13, 2006

Poetic Meter and Poetic Form
posted by rdc at 4:19 PM on October 13, 2006

treepour mentioned Bill Collins, erstwhile U.S. poet laureate. Link to one of his poems, my favorite, Litany .

Some people really like postmodernist, deconstructionist, avant-garde, experimental stuff, other people hate it. I don't enjoy it, but I appreciate its existence because I know that it's necessary to inspire the next generation of poets/writers/artists/whatever.

Take electronic music, for example. I really enjoy a lot of the music available today that is all or mostly electronic. But you'd have to pay me a lot of money to listen to the experimental stuff coming out in the 60s and 70s, all of which was still totally necessary in order to have the stuff today that I consider palatable.

So, even if you read "popular" poetry today, keep in mind that it is still resting on the foundations of experimentation from long, long ago.

Oh, and for a total non-answer: For bad books about poetry, you cannot do no worse than Dead Poets Society the remarkably bad (ignore the reviews!) novelization of the Robin Williams film.
posted by Deathalicious at 1:13 AM on October 14, 2006

argh. cannot do no worse
posted by Deathalicious at 1:14 AM on October 14, 2006

"...few others give a rip."
posted by Riverine at 7:08 PM EST on October 13

Huddled in our gloomy hovels, by smoky dripping candle light, some of us do, still.

Not exactly a book recommendation, but clearly the The Academy of American Poets site points to a number of resources for poets talking about the craft of poetry. Print out a few of those essays, and you've subway reading for several days, at least, while your Amazon order, for more substantial fare recommended above, comes.
posted by paulsc at 3:53 AM on October 14, 2006

When I was first getting interested in studying poetry more seriously, I found David Perkins's book A History of Modern Poetry, Volume II to be enormously helpful in getting an idea of what the various movements and important figures in postwar poetry were (with the caveat that the book was written in 1987 and mostly covers what the canon was considered to be at that time). He's a very clear, non-showoffy writer, and he also talks about the major critics in various periods, so you can then go off and read them for yourself.

I also liked Hass's 20th Century Pleasures a great deal (more than I like most of his poetry, personally). It's more of an anthology of essays than a unified book, though. Along the same lines is Dana Gioia's book Can Poetry Matter?, which is anchored by his polemical essay of the same name.

I also really liked Claims for Poetry, an anthology edited by Donald Hall. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it's still in print. It consists of around 25 short essays on poetry written by poets, including Ron Silliman, Mark Strand, Adrienne Rich, Russell Edson, and a variety of others.

Harold Bloom is not really to my taste, but you might want to give a look at his book The Anxiety of Influence; it presents an interesting (if somewhat grandiose) theory of how poets function in a historical context. Helen Vendler's book The Given and the Made might make an interesting contrast to this one.
posted by whir at 8:31 PM on October 14, 2006

PS: Powerful Religious Baby, that's a compellingly zany site.
posted by whir at 8:41 PM on October 14, 2006

Thanks for the great answers, everyone! Now I have a lot of reading to do. :)
posted by aparrish at 2:32 PM on October 16, 2006

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