Poetry Love Potions
James Fenton. An Introduction to English Poetry. Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2002. 137 pp. $18.00
Robert Pinsky. The Sounds of Poetry. Farrar, Straus & Giroux 1998. 129pp. $16.00
Edward Hirsch. How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry.
Harcourt, Inc. 1999. 356 pp. $15.00 (paper)
Kenneth Koch. Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry. Scribner 1998. 317 pp. $27.50
Frances Mayes. The Discovery of Poetry: A Field Guide to Reading and Writing Poems. Harcourt, Inc. 2001. 494 pp. $16.00 (paper)
Mark Strand. The Weather of Words: Poetic Invention. Knopf 2000. 142 pp. $22.00
Greg Kuzma. What Poetry Is all About. Blue Scarab Press 1998. 247 pp. $15.00 (paper)
Perhaps there comes a moment in every great butcher's life when he decides that meat, and the carving of it, are not sufficiently esteemed in this world. he should write a book. Explain the complexities, share the secrets, reveal how he came to love meat. And late at night, after his long, bloody, unappreciated day, in his mind it begins to take shape, The Art of the Abattoir. After all, he thinks, it worked for the poets.
In the last five years a spate of books have been published that undertake to instruct the reader in the understanding and appreciation of poetry, a good number of them by well-known poets. I'm not talking about textbooks, although several of the authors here seem anxious to court that lucrative market. Rather, these books seem to be directed to a segment of the literary public at large, an imagined cadre of eager autodidacts who have enormous respect for poetry, but whose attempts to "get it" have been marginally successful at best. Are these would-be readers also frustrated poets? Some of the books presume so, some not. The books vary widely in tone, and taken together seem to play out a Pygmalionic debate. Who best to initiate Eliza into the high culture of poetry-pedantic Professor Higgins, friendly Colonel Pickering, the mooning lover Freddy, or the critic in the back row of the theater who insists on letting her know that she's part of the show? (Aside to the wary reader: Do not be alarmed by the proximate conceits of ingénue and butcher. While both will continue to play an active role here, they will almost never appear in the same sentence.)
One might wish for a brief guide, a handy, palm-size book that could give Eliza a bit of a leg up on the whole process. just the essentials. The challenge here is to pull off the miracle of Strunk and White; that is, take a tidy reference work, add some fairy dust of wit and wisdom to sustain the reader through the tedium, sell a bazillion copies, become household name(s). Two books that try-both bantamweights of about 130 pages each-are Robert Pinsky's The Sounds of Poetry, and An Introduction to English Poetry by James Fenton.
Most books come with a preface, an introduction, a foreword, sometimes all three. I found it refreshing that Fenton's opens directly, if a bit grandiosely, with "Chapter 1: The History and Scope of English Poetry." A lot of ground to cover in just over eight pages, one would think. It turns out that Fenton merely means to establish where the corpus of familiar English poetry begins (around the reign of Henry VIII, in his opinion), and what it includes (all poetry written in recognizable English, regardless of the country or culture of origin). Fenton's relegation of Chaucer, the Gawain poet, and Anglo-Saxon verse to foreign-language status will be hotly contested by some, but he makes no claim for it being more than a subjective distinction, useful for the purpose of his book.
At the end of the first chapter, Fenton ventures a prime criterion of poetry: "The voice has to be raised... in rhythm." In the second, "Where Music and Poetry Divide," he elaborates:
Having been shown the close relation between music and poetry, I next wanted to see how Fenton would distinguish them; that is, to see how he would fulfill the promise of the chapter's title. …