In my quest to better understand poetry, I read three books on the subject.
- The first book was Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled. I’ll tell you the bad news first: the book suffers from what seems to be an authorial compulsion to cover everything about the history and mechanics of poetry, a realization that it wasn’t possible, followed by a hurried sprint to the finish. Fry spent pages upon pages on iambic pentameter, even took the time to talk about Old English poetry and sprung rhythm, but gave a light, hurried treatment of certain verse forms, and swept right past free verse. I wish his editor had asked him to drop some of the discussion of meter (no one cares about amphibrachs and amphimacers) and save some space for teaching other things. That said, it’s an excellent book in many ways. It’s well-structured. The writing exercises follow naturally from the lessons. The instructions for the writing exercise are clear, subjects are provided, and Fry even offers up what he wrote himself using the same exercises (an act of trust that makes it so much easier to take the plunge yourself). Nerdy at times and bawdy at others, he is thoroughly present in the book, and generally entertaining. I had only read the book to improve my understand of meter and learn more about poetic forms, but it inspired me to write poetry. In short, he’s a supportive writing coach who makes poetry feel like something not only worthwhile, but within the grasp of anyone with the heart to try it. I originally gave the book a B+, having felt a little overwhelmed by some of the sections on poetic forms, but raised the grade to an A- because ultimately I was impressed with how much territory he did manage to cover.
- Ordinary Genius by Kim Addonizio. Addonizio’s book is nearly the opposite of Fry’s. It is poorly structured, the writing exercises are randomly scattered throughout the book, and the focus is free verse. The two books together cover just about everything, actually, which worked out well for me. Initially, I thought I was going to hate Addonizio’s book. At the head of an early chapter was the Zen saying, “Leap, and the net will appear,” which is a terrifying and unhelpful message for new poets, as it leaves one with no direction in which to proceed. Its place there, so close to the beginning, suggested that the author was about to embark on a long series of platitudes that could be summed up with something along the lines of “just follow the Muse.” That did not turn out to be the case. The book is full of writing exercises, most of which make good sense and provide paths to follow. Most importantly, Addonizio has great advice on how to build free-verse poems that hold together. One of my complaints about modern poetry is that the line breaks so often seem arbitrary. Her explanation of how to do line breaks properly was a revelation. She also has a well-stocked toolbox for fixing broken poems, and she shares freely. Because the book was so chaotically structured, it required more effort to sort through the information, but it was worth the effort, so I gave it an A- grade.
- A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver: Of these three poetry books, this is the only one that I bought (the other two were library books). My reasoning was that because Mary Oliver is such a big name in contemporary American poetry, and because she is one of the only poets whose work I’ve deliberately purchased, her book was sure to be the star of the show. I was wrong. Mary Oliver writes lovely poetry, and I admire her as much now as ever. However, her book on writing poetry had a pretentiousness about it that was off-putting. It started on the first page, with her statement that poets are born, not made in school. School and poetry don’t always mix so well, I agree, but the “born” part was troubling. She continued on, in an artsy-fartsy, airy-fairy way, occasionally dropping a nugget of concrete information or helpful advice, but never dispelling the feeling that poetry is for artistes, not ordinary people such as ourselves. It’s a short book, so even if everything she wrote was pure gold, it wouldn’t amount to much. After the disappointment has worn off a bit, I’ll look the book over again, just to be sure I don’t want to keep it. It’s possible that I’ll raise the grade a little at that time. For now, I’ve given it a C+ grade, and I recommend that if you want to learn about poetry from her, read her poems and let them instruct you instead.