Books about Poetry

Describing verse forms - Mainly about metre - Writing poetry - Reading and appreciating poetry - Particular forms and cultures - Other

These are all books that I either possess, or have read. (In some cases both!) Some of them are out of print or hard to find. All of them are about poetry; most of them of course contain some actual poems too. I will not list here any books which are ordinary anthologies of poetry, however good I may think they are. I may make exceptions for anthologies which consist, mainly or entirely, of poetry in standard forms, but I have not yet got my hands on anything that would qualify.

Books describing verse forms

How to be Well-Versed in Poetry edited by E O Parrott - This is a delightful and light-hearted introduction to verse forms and metres. Most of the examples will raise a smile, and many of them will make you laugh out loud. Unfortunately it is out of print - which is why I started this website in the first place. Highly recommended, if you can find a copy.

The Shapes of our Singing by Robin Skelton - Over 300 verse forms from around the world are described, pretty clearly, with examples by the author. In many case he has simplified the verse forms somewhat - that is to say, where a feature of a verse form cannot easily be reproduced in English, he (very reasonably) decides to do without it. For example, he includes about 30 Welsh forms, but does not attempt to demonstrate cynghanedd in his examples - although he does tell us about cynghanedd in general terms. In addition to the "usual suspects", you will also find here numerous Irish, Spanish and classical Greek and Latin forms, and there are smatterings of forms from more exotic cultures such as Cornish, Javanese, Latvian, Marathi, Swahili and Thai. A wonderful book.

Prosody in England and Elsewhere - A Comparative Approach by Leonardo Malcovati - Don't be put off by the academic flavour of the title. This is hugely entertaining, witty, irreverent, opinionated and good fun, as well as being packed with useful information and examples (those which are not in English always being translated). Dr Malcovati is an expert on Provençal and troubadour poetry, so when he tells us that the sestina is properly known as the sextain, we should pay attention. And when he tells us that Petrarca "wrote some dozens of them which no mortal up to today has yet managed to read in a row without falling asleep long ere the end was in sight", I am quite sure we would do well to avoid reading the offending items. His comments on many - or in fact most - other matters are equally forthright. The whole concept of metric feet in English poetry is, he tells us, "a funny mistake ... from those times when British poets took delight in ... believing Heracles had created porridge to strengthen the Manly Virtues of England". All the major verse forms are covered here. There are also chapters on Nordic prosody (containing information, principally about Icelandic forms, which would be hard to find anywhere else), alliterative verse, phonetic rhetoric, etc. You need this book (if you can track it down).

Patterns of Poetry - An Encyclopedia of Forms by Miller Williams - I haven't had this one very long yet, but I like the look of it. Fewer forms are covered than in Skelton's book, but in rather more detail (except in the area of cynghanedd!) There are copious examples, including one - perhaps the only one you will ever see - of the fearsome sonnet redoublé. A useful introductory section deals with rhyme and metre. The author is/was a professor at the University of Arkansas. Before getting this book, I knew him only as the author of the excellent Shrinking Lonesome Sestina.

The New Book of Forms by Lewis Turco - This seems to be generally regarded as the definitive work on the subject, although personally I prefer some of the others. The descriptions of the verse forms are numerous - about 300 of them, the selection being quite similar to Skelton's - but tend to be a bit terse, and there are fewer examples. On the other hand, there is a great deal of additional information here, in the opening section - a Handbook of Poetics running to more than 70 pages. As a concise poetry encyclopaedia, this is hard to beat.

The Poet's Manual and Rhyming Dictionary by Frances Stillman - There are 120 pages of "Poet's Manual", and, as well as the basics of rhyme and metre, they cover at least 40 verse forms, although nothing too obscure or exotic. Many of the examples are by Ms Stillman herself. The rhyming dictionary is quite useful, but I often find the pronunciations implied by it implausible. I am English; the author, presumably, is not. 

Rhyme's Reason - a Guide to English Verse by John Hollander - I nearly didn't buy this one. How could a book of fewer than 60 pages possibly be worth having? How wrong I was! It's a little gem. If you want an easy, entertaining, witty and short introduction to metre and verse forms, this is the book you need. Assorted metres and 40 or 50 verse forms are described - mainly with cleverly self-referential examples e.g. iambic lines explaining what iambs are, sonnets about the structure of sonnets, free verse describing free verse, and so on. Highly recommended.

The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics edited by Alex Preminger and T V F Brogan - If your favourite general encyclopaedia is the Britannica, then this is the poetry reference book for you. It weighs in at almost 1400 pages. ("Once I put it down I could not pick it up again" - Alan Coren)  There is more information here than in any other single book on the subject, but finding what you need and making sense of it can be hard work. The descriptions of verse forms seldom include examples. To give some idea of the flavour: this is the only general reference in which I have found articles on "Swahili Poetry" or "Arab Prosody". Thanks to the Swahili article, I have reason to believe that there is a verse form called the wimbo, but I am frustrated at not having been given any clear idea of what it is like. Thanks to the Arab article, I have, for the first time, complete tables of Arab metric feet and Arab metres - but I have not yet managed to understand them!  The amount of actual poetry in the book is astonishingly small.

See also The Ode Less Travelled below.

Books mainly about metre

Metre, Rhyme and Free Verse by G S Fraser - This was recommended to me as the best book on the subject. I'm sure it is admirable but personally I find it rather heavy going. A random extract (p47): "Clough, aiming more at stress-syllable spondees, has a heavier line, and if he does not achieve real stress-syllable spondees (whose very possibility is denied by the Trager-Smith school) has plenty of 'strong' stress-syllable trochees, which are genuinely quantitatively spondaic". If this sort of thing appeals to you, go for it. If you just want to know enough to be able to write metrical poetry, see How to be Well-Versed or Rhymes Reason or The Ode Less Travelled.

Books about writing poetry

Teach Yourself Writing Poetry and getting published by Matthew Sweeney and John Hartley Williams - Perhaps you wouldn't expect much from of a book about poetry in a series that also covers such subjects as Algebra, Alternative Medicine and Xhosa, but in fact this is a really good one. Both authors are well-known poets, and they tackle their subject with a well-judged mixture of common sense and imagination. The advice is straightforward and useful; the exercises are entertaining and genuinely helpful. Recommended (despite containing virtually nothing about verse forms!) 

The Poetry Home Repair Manual by Ted Kooser - Subtitled "Practical Advice for Beginning Poets", and that is exactly what it provides. Chapter titles include "A Poet's Job Description", "Don't Worry about the Rules", "Controlling Effects through Careful Choices", " Fine-Tuning Metaphors and Similes". All the advice is clear, sensible, useful, and well illustrated with examples. I'm sure I will write better poems for having read this book. Recommended (despite the author's not being keen on standard forms). He is Poet Laureate of the USA, apparently. I didn't even realise they had them over there, but it seems Mr Kooser's predecessors include Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, Robert Frost and Stephen Spender (who I thought was a Brit).  I bet the salary does not include "a butt of sack", as it used to in the UK. 

The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry - The disgracefully talented Mr Fry turns out to have an interest in poetry, and has written the book that I fondly imagined would one day emerge from this website. The fiend! Oh, how I wanted this to be a meretricious "celebrity tie-in" pot-boiler I could hate! Actually it's extremely good. He begins with a section of over 100 pages about metre, and succeeds in making the subject interesting and even entertaining - a rare feat indeed. This is followed by 40 or so pages about rhyme, and then 120 or so on verse forms, covering a pretty good range of them, with examples. The book concludes with a short section on "Diction and Poetics Today", which includes some good advice to the poet on what to do and what not to do. The book's subtitle is "Unlocking the Poet Within", and it seems very likely to succeed in this. It is closer to the spirit of this website than any other book I have seen (apart from How to be Well-Versed), and I am left with no option but to recommend it strongly. 

Mr Fry's advice on what not to do reminds me that the great Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock wrote a book called How to Write which, alongside chapters on "How to write History", "How to write Humour", etc, had chapters on "How not to Write Poetry" and "How not to write more poetry".  His comments are perfectly serious and worth reading.

Poetry in the Making by Ted Hughes - This is based on programmes Ted Hughes wrote for the BBC Schools series Listening and Writing back in the sixties (before he was Poet Laureate). The chapters have titles like "Capturing animals" and "Wind and weather". There are plenty of fine example poems, fewer than half of them by Hughes himself. His discussion of them, and of the creative process - as he practised it himself - make fascinating reading. 

Books about reading and appreciating poetry

52 Ways of looking at a poem by Ruth Padel - The main body of the book is one year's worth of Ruth Padel's weekly column in the British newspaper the Independent on Sunday. Each column presents a single modern poem and considers it at some length; there always turns out to be a great deal more to it than first meets the eye. The book opens with an excellent 50-page introduction to contemporary British poetry. This is the best - in fact the only real - attempt I have seen to make modern poetry accessible and comprehensible to a general readership, and to explain how it works.

How Poetry Works by Philip Davies Roberts -  The author has a fresh approach to the analysis of poetic metre, refusing to be hidebound by outdated conventions etc etc. As I understand it, unstressed syllables at the beginning of a line really belong to the previous line, or perhaps they aren't actually there at all. The book includes an anthology of 80 pages of English poetry, all of it laid out in an unfamiliar style that reflects Mr Davies Roberts' beliefs. Personally, I think it looks silly, and I don't believe this is how poetry works at all. But what do I know?

Books about particular forms and cultures

Singing in Chains by Mererid Hopwood - Explaining Welsh poetry, and cynghanedd in particular, to an English-speaking audience is a difficult task. It is hard to imagine it being done better than this. All four forms of cynghanedd are fully described, and made to seem entirely logical and natural. This equips the reader with the concepts and vocabulary needed for an understanding of the 24 traditional forms of Welsh verse, all of which are then described. Finally the author discusses how these ideas might be used in English - while making no secret of her desire to persuade us all to learn Welsh. The book is accompanied by a CD on which she reads examples from the book - which are, necessarily, in Welsh - so that we can discover how to pronounce them, and fully appreciate their musicality. If this is a subject that interests you, then Singing in Chains is definitely the book you have been looking for.

An introduction to Arab Poetics by Adonis - I ordered this hoping that it would contain a definitive explanation of the ghazal form, so that I could write one of them for this site. It does nothing of the kind, of course. (Most books with the word "poetics" in the title are very short on hard information!)  But it's still worth reading for the insight it gives into Arabic poetry and Arabic culture in general.

The Haiku Handbook by William J Higginson with Penny Harter - This has been recommended to me as the definitive book on the subject. I haven't read much of it yet, but so far it seems as good as it was cracked up to be.

For Nordic (Icelandic) poetry, see the book by Malcovati above.

Other books about poetry

Le Ton Beau de Marot by Douglas R Hofstadter - This is mainly about translating poetry, and it is written in English - for the most part, anyway. Hofstadter took a short poem by the 16th-century French poet Clément Marot, and set about translating it, and persuading numerous other people to do the same. The book includes over 80 (astonishingly varied) translations of this one poem, most of them into English. These form the starting point for a wide-ranging discussion about the nature and purpose of translation - what has to be preserved in the process, what can we afford to lose, and how do we decide? Along the way, there are many entertaining digressions and the author finds excuses to present any number of linguistic curiosities, such as the opening of La Disparition ("The Disappearance"), a French novel which does not use the letter "e", and the corresponding passage from a translation of the entire novel into English - which doesn't use the letter "e" either! There is no other book remotely like this one, and I love it.    

20th Century Poetry and Poetics edited by Gary Geddes - This claims to be Canada's most widely-used poetry anthology, and it covers modern poetry from the English-speaking world pretty well (with Canadian poets well-represented, perhaps unusually so).  Each poet is given a substantial introduction, usually running to a couple of pages, and the book ends with a 150-page "Poetics" section consisting of writings on poetry by famous poets - so there is considerably more explanatory material here than in the average anthology.

Describing verse forms - Mainly about metre - Writing poetry - Reading and appreciating poetry - Particular forms and cultures - Other

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This page last updated 15/03/2007