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The three parts of A Poet's Guide to Poetry lead the reader through a carefully planned introduction to the ways we understand poetry. The first section provides careful, step-by-step instruction to familiarize students with the formal elements of poems, from the most obvious feature, through the most devious. Part I presents the style, grammar, and rhetoric of poems with a wealth of examples from various literary periods.
Part II discusses the way the elements of a poem are controlled in time through a careful explanation and exploration of meter and rhythm. Also examined are the "four freedoms" of free verse.
Part III closes the book with helpful practicum chapters on writing in form. Included here are writing exercises for beginning as well as advanced writers, a dictionary of poetic terms, replete with poetry examples, and an annotated bibliography for further explanatory reading.
This useful handbook is an ideal reference for literature and writing students as well as practicing poets.
The Limbo of Beginning
The first rule of thumb is simply put: To become better acquainted with poetry you must read poems as if you were writing them. Then you must accept the even stranger idea that the process of reading is instructive because it retraces the intricate paths of composition. Reading is like writing in beginning in uncertainty and driving toward speculation and experiment. The reader follows, via the poem as a ghostly map, the many paths that were not taken by the author, but whose possibility leaves a shadow like crosshatching on the paths that remain. To read this way keeps a poem always provisional and still in the making, which is how the process of reading absorbs the act of writing to their mutual improvement in terms of skills and understanding. Eventually writer and reader see their present way more clearly than the paths not taken.
Furthermore, reading in the present detects what writing in the present also suffers: a list toward something precarious. Reading, like writing, hangs over the abyss: The ways poetry can be written in a given period trail off into nothingness. The solid conventions hover, break up, and eerily recombine when subjected to experiments that distort them (and even obedience, at the extremes—such as William Shakespeare's or Gerard Manley Hopkins's obedience to the sonnet tradition—can produce difference and distortion). Reading becomes the process of recognizing how poets stand upon the given in order to peer over into the unshaped but unfolding present. What aids both writer and reader to fill out this partial presence are the forms of verse.
Pursuit of the poem, by reader or writer, involves trial and error against the backdrop of form. I would call error a form of blessedness: The best poems satisfy by surprise, either because they reject something more familiar, or because they teeter on the edge of confusion in knowing something else. Reading, like writing, requires us to uncover a poem that is in the process of uncovering itself.
Understanding the poem we are reading is a process that moves from ignorance through partial insights to higher levels of understanding. Similarly, to write the poem is to move from ignorance to higher levels of understanding (understanding being seen, in part, as achievement). But first it is necessary to explore one's ignorance, to feel about in the darkness ignorance makes. The aim even in rereading a poem we already know is to climb back down into the limbo of the half-shaped.
Perceiving how shape emerges from the half-shaped background provides the reader with a lens, or vantage, similar to the writer's. But this does not require us to say much about the lives of the poets or how they went about making their works; I am more interested in how the poems themselves wrestle with their tasks and occasions. For task and occasion arise only from a clear sense of poetic mission, a mission that articulates itself most strongly when responding (among other spurs) to a poetic tradition. Therefore, reading cannot be limited to the poem on the page—or to data about its author—at the expense of relevant context about the poem's medium and its imaginative scope.
"Context" implicates the language of poetry with its movement in verbal time (prosody) and its movement in intellectual time (poetic mode—the analogue of plot in fiction). Definitions of relevance may be debated, but I am drawn to a definition by familiarity: You know that you have begun to master the poem's relevant context when you can take on the perspective of the artist and follow the clues planted in the work to the curious rightness of its shape. Background turns into foreground and apparent digression turns into primary signal if you move through the poem from within. (New Criticism, by contrast, typically insists on a distanced role for the reader.) I believe the effect of the craft of writing is actually to entice readers into the same domain as the creative imagination. The most dependable map for the re-creation of a work of literature (and I would include fiction here, too) comes with the creative work itself through its address to the unknown as an ethical idea realized aesthetically. "Realization" as a metaphor for literary art thus asks us to discern what needed realizing, what was once less than perfectly formed—intuitions and resemblances. Over time one becomes better at reading and interpreting from within and participates more subtly in the unpredictable unfolding of intuitions and their embodied forms as they weave through each other, like bands of mist above a landscape only partly visible.
Of course, the landscape we reconstruct is not the writer's—the work viewed in hindsight by the writer is always the perfectly visible unfolding of a success story in which certainty and completion overcame doubt. The poet's poem is, in a sense, dead. This may be why the poet and critic Howard Nemerov once said to me, responding to a query about one of his works, "You never ask a poet what he means, you tell him!" The poem we work through is more instructive because it will not let us cancel out, with anecdotal information, the primal question about beginnings: Why now? Why does the poem start where it does? What unfulfilled intentional set or pose is still partially glimpsed between the gathering lines of development? Why does the poem hover over this particular occasion? What threshold of uncertainty is preserved by the beginning?
I would like to put these questions to the following beginnings without (for the moment) worrying about their endings:
(1) Sometimes a lantern moves along the night, That interests our eyes.
are these two women, walking through the great forum of the plain ...
(3) The sea is calm tonight. The tide is full, the moon lies fair Upon the straits; on the French coast the light Gleams and is gone ...
(4) Four-fifty. The palings of Trinity Church Burying Ground, a few inches above the earth, are sunk in green light. The low stones like pale books knocked sideways.
(5) Those howers that with gentle work did frame The lovely gaze where every eye doth dwell ...
(6) Across the floor flits the mechanical toy, fit for a king of several centuries back. A little circus horse with real white hair ...
(7) A bird half wakened in the lunar noon Sang halfway through its little inborn tune.
All the excerpts but (5) invite us into the present moment. The most vigorous in insisting on the immediacy of real time is (4), which impales us on the exact numerals of the time of day, as the bus pauses to take on more working girls from the stores and businesses that are letting out; the pale blocks of episcopal stone, which resemble books (and which, like books, are ignored by the young, exhausted women), increase the poignancy of the lives beautiful and lofty images cannot rescue from labor, for the stones remind us, too, that their bodies will lie beneath them. (See III in the "Poetry Sampler.")
Competing to be next in immediacy are (2), whose question (who are they?) produces an urgency laid over the indefinite plane of time across which the two woman are walking, and the beginning lines of the poem about the little circus horse (6), in which we catch the lightsome flitting of the mechanical toy against a darker background of a far-away, aristocratic past. The depths of the past dwarf the autonomy of the little circus horse while paradoxically increasing the vividness of his traits (the "real white hair").
Poems (1), (3), and (7) all posit actions less pressing and more generalized, within time frames more extended. Poem (5), of course, asks nothing of the immediate moment in its setting (although the complete sonnet implies the speaker's enormous admiration—in an unavoidable present—for the other person's beauty). Its threshold is more reticent about local appearances—although presence and confrontation and immediacy are nevertheless built into the poem. In general, therefore, because poems can embody intense and immediate feeling without scenic props, localization in setting or situation cannot be the only index of immediacy in feeling-time, or time as lived.
Looking at these seven opening passages will nevertheless remind us that, no matter what ideas feed the works, mental and emotional content must depend on objective counters and local embodiments to some degree. Without material embodiment, no spirit can come through the pattern. The sonnets by Hopkins (1) and Shakespeare (5) explore the need of spiritual and intellectual content for embodied or physically inhabited forms, Shakespeare's poem by imagining the beloved's growth through self-cultivation into a graceful and coherent mind, Hopkins's by dramatizing in the figure of the lantern all of visual perception as the test of Christ's presence.
The need for projection into thing and shape may, indeed, force from poets settings, characters, and dramas primarily tonal or atmospheric and perhaps in part accidental. Much of the natural setting of (3) is tangential to the poet's purpose, which is to present the historical inevitability of struggle, in a world that overrides individuals, as an analogue to the erosion of religious belief. Emphasis falls on inevitability and coercion even in so private a matter as one's disposition toward God. But the tender look of the French coast is irrelevant to thoughts of faith and war. In the realm of belief, France is not notably more stalwart than the speaker's own country. As for struggle and the hint of war especially late in the poem where "ignorant armies clash by night"—these tracks feel cold. History does not seem specifically invoked. Even if we look for coded reference to the time, it has been fifty years since the Napoleonic wars engaged the two countries against each other (the Crimean War, with France as an ally, would end in 1856; the Franco-Prussian War, another conflict that touched both France and England though not as enemies, would begin three years after the 1867 publication of "Dover Beach"). The "ignorant armies" of the poem's final line might continue to work their carnage throughout history even if the poet had seen the Channel (across which so many armies have passed) in a drizzle. The lyrical moment does not derive directly from a historical crux or a particular national occasion:
on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast ...
But there is a secondary impulse in seeing the moonlight on the French coast glisten then extinguish, and that is piquancy of association with the two women nearest him, his fiancée, with whom he visited Dover in 1848, and the woman known only as "Marguerite," a "Daughter of France" who inspired a brilliant series of lyrics. Add to this the poet's Francophilia and the fabric of attachment thickens, making more poignant the undeniable details of the scene. The white chalk cliffs at Dover, up the coast from where he stands, thus tremble with brilliant reflected moonlight and suggest that his own country is huge, extensive and solid, whereas clouds cover the moon on the other shore until France, with its variegation of personal associations from his university years onward, is visible only in shadows; that country comes to hint, however indirectly, through the pain of distance, at the pain of God's invisibility in the modern world.
In being English, Matthew Arnold's speaker is protected and affirmed—and he acknowledges this citizenship; but he is made into a feeling person as far as the poem is concerned only through the fitful nearness to France. It is, furthermore, the feeling person who is in touch with his deepest anxieties and who is vulnerable to the ideas in the poem about war, personal loyalties, and the haunting failure of faith in general and in his own outlook. Thus the beginning of "Dover Beach" makes us reexperience the never fully explored association through which fond feeling, and a dramatized self-pity close to remorse, are fathomed for the release of religious dismay. By looking through the first lines as if they were all we had, we thus appreciate more completely how their mingled layers of imminence and uncertainty both remain on the page and dissolve themselves in the fullness of the poem.
Indirection at the start typifies all seven poems quoted. Poem (2) is about the Gulf War in 1990–91; its historical moment is part of its stated theme. But the two women shuffling through the dreck of the battlefield are premonitions of Antigone and Ismene, talking about their loss of their brother (Polyneices); the shadow of Creon lowers over them. All this we discover in time. The beginning, however, commemorates neither the war nor the last two plays of Sophocles' Oedipus cycle, but images with no names under a featureless sky abandoned by civilization. We see these women whose talk we cannot yet overhear trudging through the plain's huge "forum"; later, "broken tablets / of illegible laws cobble the ground." Echoes of social discourse and covenant racket in the air and disappear. In the dry pool, no images of enchanted water rise up as we might find in T. S. Eliot's "Burnt Norton," which the following passage echoes,—no lotus of communion, no mystic emanation—only the suggestion of a hollow vessel filled with ash:
It is as if time itself
were a dry fountain, where the urn fills only
with pale ashes ...
where church and court alike are built of bones ...
The title preceding these lines of Eleanor Wilner's irradiates the beginning of the poem with antimystical and anticommunal system. She names the poem "Operations: Desert Shield, Desert Storm" (see the "Poetry Sampler"). These were the two code names under which the successive military operations against Saddam Hussein were conducted by the American military. We must also remember that the war was, for us, largely a matter of the deployment of war machines, not foot soldiers. The poem's preliminary movements thus contradict the specific horror of the missiles and earth-movers and their victims by focusing on two people who have little to do with war—they are women, and they are walking and talking. The ground may have been littered with metal and strafed with fire, and men buried despite their screams, but the women walk (as so often women have done) frustratingly far from the event.
That distance between the title, with its general spread of aggression, and human figures, with their implied specialization of affect, is what Wilner embodies by indirection, or displacement of focus. We wait in limbo with the poet until we have wandered so far beyond the present imposed by the title that we are in a second and earlier time that embraces the eras of the Hebrew Bible, Greek tragedy, and, later, Roman law.
Displacement occurs in this substituted time as well. The great schemes become archeologies "built of bones," gods and governments reducing to the same furious idea—that brothers must be killed and beautiful things ruined. Anonymity ("boys," "two women") protects us from detail but requires us to repeat and compare. The few bits of evidence before us need to be placed against other partial portraits from the past—Creon in his trappings; Henry at Agincourt ("Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more; / Or close the wall up with our English dead!" King Henry V, III.i); the fields of struggle in many periods strewn with bodies broken open like rotting fruit, spilling the many seeds:
the air itself a deadly trench
to these benighted boys, condemned
to fall again into the ranks
of what repeats: into the breach
once more, another city broken open like 35
a rotting fruit, the flies rising,
the delicate seeds exposed
to the sun, a book with a broken
From her controlled aimlessness of occasion come the revisionary fragments and copious metaphors that digress into Wilner's theme. These many-layered meditations connect backwards from the moment of writing to generations of victim and tyrant and many forebears in the reading of experience. This lineage includes those who read the body, as above, like a usurped town, and those who agree that human history stretches like a page the beings on earth can walk upon but never turn because
it extends and extends, the smoking cities
scattered like open lesions
to the periphery of sight, these wounds
that memory worries so they
cannot close, this sand 50
littered with the bodies of brothers.
The mediating limbo of this poem-in-the-making also forces a connection between all who realize—as poets and soldiers must—that we live the world over again (we "fall again into the ranks / of what repeats"). Hence experiences such as picking our way over the anonymous sand—or hurling our bodies across it—mount up with an effect of living a mirrored life, a life refracted by the belief that we are repeating ourselves—indeed, that we are being repeated, projected upon these copies.
Such copyings and rehearsals reach back not just through individual time but beyond the individual life-span until there can be no beginning to the thought we think. To start a train of thought is to encounter a rich, particular perturbation of copies and patterns from before, very like the turmoil from which the poet selects her images. In Wilner's "Operations," the sprung dimension of uncertainty and repetition out of which poetry grows in general thus becomes her particular poem's theme. She is exploring the threshold where known responses cease, amid a clamor of competing recognitions.
Excerpted from A POET'S GUIDE TO POETRY by MARY KINZIE Copyright © 1999 by University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Part II: The Elements, Controlled in Time
Accentual-Syllabic Meter: The Role of Stress and Interval
Stanza and Rhyme: The Role of Echo
Further Rhythms in English—Counted Forms: Accentual Verse and Syllabic Verse (including Haiku)
Further Rhythms in English—Non-Counted Forms:
The Four Freedoms of Free Verse
Part III: Writing in Form
Exercises for Beginning and Advanced Writers
Annotated Bibliography of Further Reading
Posted February 29, 2012
As one who comes to poetry from an academic background in science and technology, I found this book well worth annotation and study. I would classify it as intermediate, with lots of concrete references and well-honed observations, lending itself to informal workshop as well as individual study. In fact I'm starting to reread it with a small group of local published poets.
For beginners I recommend Mary Oliver's Rules for the Dance.
Posted March 24, 2001
Well-written discussion of poetry and its elements: line, syntax, and so forth. However, its notions of prosody, specifically meter, are flawed. I will do best by recommending another text which supplements Ms. Kinzie's in this regard: Timothy Steele's _All the Fun's in How You Say a Thing_. Together, these two texts make an excellent introduction to poetry.
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Posted February 6, 2010
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