Discovery of Poetry: A Field Guide to Reading and Writing Poems


The bestselling author of Under the Tuscan Sun brings poetry out of the classroom and into the homes of everyday readers.

Before she fell in love with Tuscany, Frances Mayes fell in love with verse. After publishing five books of poetry and teaching creative writing for more than twenty-five years, Mayes is no stranger to the subject. In The Discovery of Poetry, an accessible "field guide" to reading and writing poetry, she shares her passion with readers. Beginning with basic ...

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The bestselling author of Under the Tuscan Sun brings poetry out of the classroom and into the homes of everyday readers.

Before she fell in love with Tuscany, Frances Mayes fell in love with verse. After publishing five books of poetry and teaching creative writing for more than twenty-five years, Mayes is no stranger to the subject. In The Discovery of Poetry, an accessible "field guide" to reading and writing poetry, she shares her passion with readers. Beginning with basic terminology and techniques, from texture and sound to rhyme and repetition, Mayes shows how focusing on one aspect of a poem can help you to better understand, appreciate, and enjoy the reading and writing experience. In addition to many creative and helpful composition ideas, following each lyrical and lively discussion is a thoughtful selection of poems. With its wonderful anthology from Shakespeare to Jamaica Kinkaid, The Discovery of Poetry is an insightful, invaluable guide to what Mayes calls "the natural pleasures of language-a happiness we were born to have."

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Mayes displays a gift for conveying everyday life through her writing. . . . [She] presents a simpler, less frantic version of how to live one's life."
-USA Today
Frances Mayes is, before all else, a wonderful writer."-Chicago Tribune
Somehow, this is a narrative at once joyful and full of common sense,
a balance that few other writers have struck so perfectly. It's as intimate as a lover's whisper, honest and true, and vividly captures a sense of place."
-San Francisco Chronicle
Publishers Weekly
Best known as the author of Under the Tuscan Sun, Bella Tuscany and other memoirs of life in the Italian province, Frances Mayes until recently chaired of San Francisco State's creative writing department, and has published five books of poems. The Discovery of Poetry: A Field Guide to Reading and Writing Poems is the product of all her reading and writing experiences, with chapters on "Meter," "Rhyme and Repetition," "Subject and Style," covering all the bases with plenty of canonical exemplars. (Nov.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Frances Mayes is the author of five poetry collections and former Chair of the Creative Writing Department at San Francisco State University. Her love of language and her skill as a teacher of writing are both abundantly evident in this beautifully written guide to the reading and writing of poetry. Mayes touches the usual bases as she explores in depth the essential nature of poetry. Her insightful discussions of imagery, voice, poetic devices, form, and style are generously illustrated with well-chosen examples of poetry from the ancient to the contemporary. Sprinkled throughout the chapters are intriguing "In Your Notebook" features, which suggest written activities that readers may attempt to enhance their appreciation of the poet's art. The final chapter, entitled "The Poet's Handbook," is chockablock with practical exercises to help the would-be poet unleash his or her own muse. Even those young readers who are less interested in learning how poetry works than in getting their own ideas down on paper will find this chapter to be of immense value. While Mayes's rich prose style may sometimes seem a bit intimidating to less sophisticated younger YAs, this is a book that will be treasured by anyone who aspires to a more profound understanding of how to read and write poetry. KLIATT Codes: JSA—Recommended for junior and senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2001, Harcourt, 494p. index.,
— Jeffrey Cooper
Library Journal
Most readers know Mayes as the best-selling author of Under the Tuscan Sun, but she is also the author of five books of poetry and a former creative writing instructor. In this guide to reading and writing verse, Mayes's goal is to illustrate that poetry is accessible and fun rather than intimidating. Discussing rhyme, free verse, choice of subject, and style, she explains, in plain language, how poetry works. To prove her point, she includes hundreds of examples of poetry from different time periods. The chapter on interpretation, including a student's sample essay, may be helpful to students who are usually mortified by assignments that require an interpretation of a poem. The final chapter is a short lesson on poetry writing. Writing exercises, highlighted by the phrase "In Your Notebook," appear throughout and can be used for ideas and to jog the memory. A well-written book with good examples and solid advice, this manual will be appreciated in public and academic libraries alike.-Lisa J. Cihlar, Monroe P.L., WI
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780156007627
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 11/28/2001
  • Edition description: 1 HARVEST
  • Pages: 544
  • Sales rank: 476,748
  • Lexile: 990L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 1.06 (d)

Meet the Author

Frances Mayes

Frances Mayes is the author of the best-selling Under the Tucsan Sun and Bella Tuscany. She and her husband divide their time between their homes in San Rafael, California, and Cortona, Italy.

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Read an Excerpt

Sources and Approaches

If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.

-emily dickinson

The Origin of a Poem

What motivates a poet to write? When Emily Dickinson said about her art, "My business is circumference," she was talking about her desire to explore experience by drawing it into a circle of her own, a world. Similarly, Wallace Stevens wanted each poem to give "a sense of the world." D. H. Lawrence thought the essence of good poetry was "stark directness." Telling or uncovering truth is the prime motive of poets like Muriel Rukeyser, who once asked, "What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? / The world would split open." William Wordsworth valued "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings." When William Carlos Williams called a poem "a machine made of words," he simply meant to say that the best-formed poems function smoothly, with oiled and well-fitted parts, not far from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's ideal, "The best words in the best order."

Many poets aspire to reach "the condition of music"-some aim for the heavenly music of the spheres, while others want the words to "boogie." William Butler Yeats thought, "We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry." His writing emerged from the internal fault line between conflicting thoughts and emotions. Yeats's desire to understand his human condition echoes Walt Whitman, who wanted the reader to "stand by my side and look in the mirror with me." For Matthew Arnold the impulse was external, not internal. His poetry came from "actions, human actions; possessing an inherent interest inthemselves, and which are to be communicated in an interesting manner by the art of the poet." Some pull of inner necessity draws the poet to the page, whether to explore a problem, pursue a rhythm, break apart logic, express an emotion, tell a story, or simply to sing. When asked the familiar question, "Why do you write?", writers often answer, "Because I have to," (though prose writer Flannery O'Connor replied, "Because I'm good at it."). The impetus of having to, for the reasons named above, gives poetry its fire and urgency.

Because of all these diverse sources, no one ever has come up with a satisfactory definition of poetry, just as no one can define music or art. Those who want to proclaim what is or isn't poetry have thankless work cut out for themselves. No umbrella is wide enough to cover the myriad versions, subjects, and forms. If a poem interests you, better to just go along with Walt Whitman's assertion, "...what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you." Reasons for reading and for writing seem almost as numerous as atoms.

Sometimes poets write to recreate an experience.
A Blessing
(James Wright, 1927-1980)
Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear That is delicate as the skin over a girl's wrist.
Suddenly I realize That if I stepped out of my body I would break Into blossom.

What happens at the end? After a simple, sensuous description of stepping over barbed wire into the field with the Indian ponies, the poem abruptly changes. The speaker (the "I" in the poem) stops describing external action. He shifts to the inner experience of his happiness. The last two lines surprise us with their bold originality. Rapport with the natural world is a common experience, but the speaker here reacts intensely. He expresses an imaginative level of that experience, allowing us to recognize our own feelings in a new way. If he'd ended the poem at "wrist," we could not possibly have imagined the powerful idea of the spirit transforming into blossom.

A poet may write primarily out of a delight with the sounds of language:
Counting-Out Rhyme
(Edna St. Vincent Millay, 1892-1950)
Silver bark of beech, and sallow Bark of yellow birch and yellow
Twig of willow.
Stripe of green in moosewood maple,
Colour seen in leaf of apple,
Bark of popple.
Wood of popple pale as moonbeam,
Wood of oak for yoke and barn-beam,
Wood of hornbeam.
Silver bark of beech, and hollow Stem of elder, tall and yellow
Twig of willow.

Millay plays with words, rhymes, and repeating patterns of vowels and consonants. There is nothing to understand, only something to hear and imagine. Even though it has no message, the poem evokes reactions. It sounds like a chant. You probably remember the one-potato, two-potato counting-out rhymes from childhood, and how repetition can cast a spell. Perhaps Millay's words call up images of trees in different seasons or memories of playing in a forest. I remember the passwords to a club I was part of in the fifth grade:

Tinky toesy timbo nosey Hooey booey booskie Pin pin rickey Pom pom mickey No me oh non phooey hoo.
Who knows where such rhymes come from, except from the basic fun of making noises with words?

Sources of poems, like their subjects, approaches, and meanings, are endless. Whatever the motivation might be, the making of all art is a fundamental and instinctive impulse. More than twenty thousand years ago, at Pech Merle in France, the earliest artists painted a group of spotted horses on the damp walls of caves. Around the realistic forms are several handprints. No one who has seen them could forget these strange reminders, like signatures, of the cave painters. These are startling images of the human desire to create. Did the drawings give magic control over hunting that animal? Was the horse a religious image? Were the paintings done for entertainment on long, cold nights in the cave? Were the horses so beautiful that the painter searched for just the right spot, placing the chest of the animal over a swelling in the cave wall to get the right sense of the animal's form? Perhaps none-or all-of these possible sources were in the artist's mind. As we look at the pictures, the artist mixing paints from blood and soot and ashes seems very close. We have to resist matching our hands to the black outlines on the wall. The natural desire to make art easily spans the epochs.

Art is the real "news" source of any culture. The cave paintings are the liveliest news items from prehistory. Today, as ever, movements in art reveal more about a moment of human consciousness than the Ten O'Clock News. Art reveals a culture's values, pressures, breakdowns, new directions. Contemporary poems are comments on our time; poems from other times and places give us glimpses into other lives.

Copyright © 2001 by Frances Mayes

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be
reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means,
electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording,
or any information storage and retrieval system,
without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part
of the work should be mailed to the following address:
Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc.,
6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

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Table of Contents

Contents Invitation

1. Sources and Approaches

The Origin of a Poem

The Art of Reading


2. Words: Texture and Sound

Texture of Language

Choosing Words The Muscle of Language Sound Patterns

The Surprise of Language

The Kinship of Words


3. Images: The Perceptual Field

Three Image Poems

Images and Perception

Literal Images Poems

Figurative Images



4. The Speaker: The Eye of the Poem

The Invented "I"

The Personal "I" Speaker

The Public Voice

The Invisible Speaker


5. Rhyme and Repetition





6. Meter: The Measured Flow

What Is Meter?

Scansion Iambic Pentameter

More Key Meters Two Other Metrical Options

Rhythm and Meaning


7. Free Verse

The Genesis of Free Verse

The Free Verse Craft of the Line

Voice Free Verse, the Tradition and Beyond


8. Traditional and Open Forms

Looking at Forms

Traditional Forms


Open Forms

Prose Poems

Open Forms Poems

9. Subject and Style

Types of Poems


Poems on Four Subjects


10. Interpretation:
The Wide Response

What Is Meaning?

Gaps and Holes

Power Sources

Critical Discriminations


11. A Poet's Handbook

Invoking Your Muse

Beginning with a White Page

Suggestions for Writing and Revising


Your Poems out theDoor

Index of Titles

Index of Authors and Titles

Index of Terms and Topics

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 11, 2012

    The best poetry reference book ever!

    I discovered this book at the library, checked it out and renewed it twice. I had to have my own copy. I could remove all other poetry reference books from my shelf and replace it with just this one. Mayes has addressed the basics and then moved beyond in an understandable style. She discusses, gives examples, includes relevant poems, and then suggests work for the reader.

    Don't know how I missed this bit of magic and lived without it so long.
    A great tool for beginners and well-seasond poets.

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  • Posted January 11, 2011

    Highly Recommended

    This is an absolutely wonderful book for anyone with an interest in poetry! I used it as a resource for my college poetry class and it was a tremendous help to me in writing my papers and studying for tests! Beyond that though, Frances Mayes inspires you to fully enjoy reading poetry and to take it to the next level by picking up the pen yourself if you feel so inclined! I truly love this book!

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