On poetry – Part 2: Great books for reading and writing poetry

In my last post, I discussed how important it is to both read and write poetry to fully understand and appreciate it. I also pondered on the fact that poetic form and structure is not really taught in school any longer, nor is actually writing poetry particularly encouraged, and that this perhaps contributes to the general feeling of ill-ease which most people feel towards poetry. Yet, as I admitted, despite spending the first two decades of my life loathing poetry, I eventually changed my attitudes through learning to write poetry in its many forms and following its many varying rules, and this in turn helped me to enjoy reading poetry, as well.

Now I would like to share some fantastic books that may help you to appreciate both reading and writing poetry, whether you’re a reluctant novice or a seasoned poet. I will begin with a book that takes us right back to the basics of poetry, then move on to an anthology of poetic forms, before moving on to a more broader volume of poetry that encompasses the art form from the last few millennia.

The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking The Poet Within by Stephen Fry

This probably won’t come as a much of a surprise, but Stephen Fry loves poetry, and it has long been a hobby of his. In this book, he strips poetry down to the absolute basics, breaking it into four sections. First, he introduces us to metre, including different metres, iambs, end-stopping, enjambment and caesuras, and much more. Secondly, he explains rhyme, including different categories of rhyme, arranging rhyme, and what makes good and bad rhyme. Next, he goes into form, covering the stanza, why to bother with form at all, ballads, heroic verse, odes, closed forms such as villanelles and sestinas (and many more), comic verse such as the cento and limericks, exotic forms such as the haiku and senryu, sonnets, and shaped verse. Lastly, he looks at diction and poetics in today’s world.

What makes this book great, apart from the fact that it breaks down poetry to the fundamentals, is that with each section Fry has included a number of poetry exercises to help you master it skill by skill. He even includes a “how to read this book” foreword that explains how to make the most of these exercises. To top it all off, he is very enthusiastic and quite entertaining in his explanations, writing in a precise and accessible manner that will enable poets of all levels to gain something from reading this book. An absolute must read for budding poets everywhere.

The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland

This book differs substantially from Fry’s book, and focuses much more on the actual poetic forms themselves. It is a book often used for studying poetry at a university level, but you don’t need to be a university student to get something out of this book – you just need to be curious and open-minded. It is perhaps the most comprehensive listing of poetic forms, covering most of the major verse poems,  shaping forms such as elegies, the pastoral, and the ode, and also open forms.

What is remarkably useful about this book is that for each poetic structure, a dozen or so poems of that form are supplied to help you come to grips with how the form works. Often the poems range dramatically in terms of when they were written, so as to show how the form has evolved over time, and so often you will find classical poetry mixed in with quirky, contemporary poems that play around with the conventions of each form. This is definitely a book for those who feel a bit more confident with the basics of poetry and want more of a challenge.

Poetry For The Spirit: Poems of Universal Wisdom and Beauty edited by Alan Jacobs

This book is only an anthology of poetry to read, but it is an amazing anthology. It focuses on spiritual poetry, and ranges from over 4000 years ago to the twentieth century, presenting the poetry in chronological order, from pre medieval times, to medieval times, and then century by century. As a large amount of poetry throughout history has explored this side of human existence, whether directly, or indirectly through themes of nature and life itself, this anthology says just as much about the evolution of poetry as it does the evolution of spirituality. I would recommend this book to anybody looking for some inspiration in their poetry writing, as you are bound to find some here.


So, there we have it. I will probably do more posts in the future on poetry, and perhaps will explain some of my favourite poetic forms, to illustrate why I believe knowing poetic form is so important to enjoying poetry on any level. But for now, if you have always wanted to write poetry but have never known where to start, these books should help set you on your way, especially the first two books.

Do you know of any books that look at poetry that you have found particularly useful?

On poetry – Part 1: Why we need to read and write poetry to fully appreciate it

I love poetry. I love reading poetry, both out loud and in my head, and I like to read all different kinds of poetry, from free verse to sonnets, to sestinas, villanelles and so on. I love to read poetry from all kinds of different poets, from different parts of the world and different times. I also love to write poetry, and likewise, I love to write within all kinds of different poetic structures, different themes, different mindsets.

It hasn’t always been this way, though. I haven’t always loved poetry. In fact, for much of my high school and university life, I loathed poetry. It infuriated me, and mostly because it made me feel stupid. I didn’t feel like I understood it. I didn’t perform very well at poetry based assignments, especially in university where I had a couple of lecturers and tutors who seemed almost pretentious with their narrow-minded views on poetry, and so I found myself put off the form of expression almost entirely.

I think for me the turn around came when I had a particularly nice lecturer who encouraged me and guided me in my poetry writing, showing me towards more complex forms and helping me to gain a grasp of them. One of the problems with poetry is that at high school it is usually read and analysed more than it is practised. Not only that, but in my high school experience, poetic form and structure was barely taught at all. Sure, iambic pentameter might have been briefly explained, but in terms of actual poetic forms, I perhaps learnt about the sonnet, the haiku, the acrostic poem, and free verse, and we very rarely got a chance to write any of our own. I think this is a major problem, not just for me, but for many of potential poets everywhere.

For a start, my understanding and appreciation of poetry only came when I learned about the processes of writing it by doing just this – writing poetry. Secondly, I appreciated it more when I discovered all the other forms of poetry, such as villanelles, sestinas, odes, pantoums, heroic couplets – the list goes on. I was never introduced to any of these forms in high school – it simply isn’t in the curriculum. But it should be, because once I realised just how big and beautiful the world of poetry was, my attitude to it changed immensely. Not only that, but learning to write it within these structures gave me a set of rules I could work with, which, rather than acting as limitations, acted as guidance to help me master the craft. I think many students the world over would actually enjoy poetry a whole lot more if they had been introduced to these forms at a much younger age, and given the opportunity to try and write their own poetry in these more traditional ways.

I am a firm believer that when it comes to poetry, reading it and writing it go hand in hand. You cannot write good poetry without reading good poetry, and you cannot fully appreciate reading good poetry until you have started to write poetry yourself. It takes time to reach this point, I’ll admit, but it is quite enlightening and enjoyable once you get there.

In Part 2 (which will appear online tomorrow morning), I’ll look at three particular books that help to understand the basics of poetry, both reading and writing it, and which also contain some of the best poetry to read and gain an appreciation for the art form.

In the meantime, what are your feelings towards poetry on the whole? Have they changed over time?