(Touchstone, Simon & Schuster, 1998) Koch’s Intro to Poetry class at Columbia, which he taught for some 35 years, was one of the most popular on campus and put generations of students on a first-name basis with US greats. This book condenses the class for posterity, demystifying poetry as a separate language, introducing readers and writers to its varieties of music and other poetic techniques, and including an annotated anthology ranging from Homer and Li Po / Li Bai to Auden and Gary Snyder.
(W.W. Norton & Co., 1997) Subtitled “A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry,” this handbook is a collaboration between two women who are both wonderful poets and teachers. Their discussions range from subjects for poems and sources of inspiration, to poetic techniques and devices, to the writing life and getting published, and each chapter includes ideas to get you started writing. The whole book concludes with a great set of exercises and writing experiments—so you’ll use it again and again.
(Routledge, 2002) If you are looking for the answers to “works on stage not page”... if you want to understand the roots of spoken poetry in the original mother tongues... if you want to know what an orchestra’s dropping repeats in a Mozart concerto has to do with poetry (repetition is a hallmark of orality—it helps us remember, and what’s the rush?)... if you want to test your mind on a book that literally talks to you, that will gently and humanely bring theory into your practice, read this book.
(Indiana University Press, 1998) This is, simply, the most incisive book on the oral tradition I have read. Inhale the Grail. Read slowly, digest completely. You will come away with an understanding of how nontextual literature works: how the griots, keepers of the oral tradition, are at once witnesses to history, arbiters of the present, and seers into the future. Like a poet, a griot is a wordsmith. Unlike a poet, a griot is not a slave to the Muse, but an integral part of the community.
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999) The centerpiece of Pinsky’s tenure as Laureate was the Favorite Poem Project, audio and video recordings of Real People reading their favorite verse. Likewise, what’s important in this slender volume is its dedication to poetry as a spoken art. At a time when performance poetry must fight for its right to be accepted as literature, The Sounds of Poetry makes the case that contained within the text is a performance yearning to be set free.
(Book + audio/video CD edited by Stephen Mitchell and Gregory Nagy, Harvard University Press, 2000) Milman Parry spent years collecting the oral poems of the Balkans, taping, hanging out, getting to know. From the amazing treasure trove he brought back, Lord has drawn extraordinary insights into the mind of the oral poet. Yes, it’s a linguistics text, footnoted to the hilt, academic and with plenty of Greek and Serbocroatian. But the ideas herein are jolts of brilliance into the nature of orality.
(Harvard University Press/Belknap Press, 1982) Havelock is another classicist getting at the consciousness shift that writing creates. Preface to Plato bites into the debate about Just Why Plato Kicked Poets Out of the Republic. The very nature of poetry has changed, he argues, and if you’re fighting to get poetry back into daily life, his insights are fuel for thought—and action. An easier dive is his The Muse Learns to Write, which contains an invigorating critique of The Singer of Tales.
(HarperCollins, 1998) Hirshfield’s book is a series of luminous meditations, a philosophy of the art we serve, a vehicle for heart-understanding of what poems do and why we write them. You will know whether it’s the book for you by your response to its chapter titles: “Poetry and the Mind of Concentration,” “The Question of Originality,” “Poetry and the Mind of Indirection,” “Two Secrets: On Poetry’s Inward and Outward Looking,” “Poetry as a Vessel of Remembrance”....
(University of Nebraska Press, 2005) Ted Kooser is a direct, matter-of-fact kind of poet, and as its title implies, his collection of essays on writing poetry gets right down to the nuts and bolts of metaphor, simile, narrative and revision—after he has made it clear that he is not going to talk about po-biz or publishing, that there is no money in poetry, that there’s a huge difference between “being a poet” and “writing poetry,” that the poet must serve the poem and not the other way around.