The Poetry Handbook: A Guide to Reading Poetry for Pleasure and Practical Criticism

The Poetry Handbook: A Guide to Reading Poetry for Pleasure and Practical Criticism

The Poetry Handbook: A Guide to Reading Poetry for Pleasure and Practical Criticism

The Poetry Handbook: A Guide to Reading Poetry for Pleasure and Practical Criticism

Excerpt

This book is for anyone who wants to read poetry with a better understanding of its craft and technique, but it is also a textbook and crib for school and undergraduate students of English who have to sit exams in practical criticism. Teaching the practical criticism of poetry at several universities, and talking to students about how they have previously been taught, has made me sharply aware of how little consensus there is about the subject. Some teachers make no distinction between practical criticism and critical theory, or regard practical criticism as a critical theory, to be taught alongside psychoanalytical, feminist, Marxist, and structuralist theories; others seem to do very little except invite discussion of 'how it feels' to read poem x. And as practical criticism (though not always called that) remains a compulsory paper in most English Literature A-levels and Scottish Highers, and most undergraduate English courses, this is an unwelcome state of affairs.

For students there are many consequences. Their teachers at school and (if they go on to read English) at university may contradict one another, and too rarely seem to put the problem of differing viewpoints and frameworks for analysis in perspective; important aspects of the subject are often omitted in the confusion; and as a result many students who are otherwise more than competent have little or no idea of what they are being asked to do. The problem is how this may be remedied without losing the richness and diversity of thought which, at its best, practical criticism can foster; or, to put it another way, what are the basics? and how may they be taught?

My own answer, as this book makes clear, is that the basics are an understanding of, and an ability to judge, the elements of a poet's craft. Profoundly different as they are, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Pope, Emily Dickinson, Eliot, Derek Walcott, and Sylvia Plath could readily talk with one another about the techniques of which they are common masters; but few undergraduates that I have encountered know much about metre beyond the terms 'blank verse' and 'iambic pentameter', much about form beyond 'couplet' and 'sonnet', or anything about rhyme more complicated than the assertion that two words do or . . .

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