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Books on Poetry, Poetic Traditions, Writing, Performance and Poetics

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When you want to think about poetry’s place in human culture and history, or you want to write some poetry of your own and know what you are doing, you’ll find useful starting points and rich ideas in these books about poetry recommended by your guides.

Making Your Own Days, The Pleasures of Reading & Writing Poetry, by Kenneth Koch

Making Your Own Days, The Pleasures of Reading & Writing Poetry, by Kenneth Koch
Simon & Schuster (cover image courtesy of Pricegrabber)

(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.

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The Poet’s Companion, by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux

The Poet’s Companion, by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux
W.W. Norton & Co. (cover image courtesy of Pricegrabber)

(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.

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Orality & Literacy, The Technologizing of the Word, by Walter J. Ong

Orality & Literacy, The Technologizing of the Word, by Walter J. Ong
Routledge (cover image courtesy of Pricegrabber)

(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.

Griots & Griottes, Masters of Words & Music, by Thomas A. Hale

Griots & Griottes, Masters of Words & Music, by Thomas A. Hale
Indiana University Press (cover image courtesy of Pricegrabber)

(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.

A Poetry Handbook, by Mary Oliver

A Poetry Handbook, by Mary Oliver
Harcourt, Brace & Company (cover image courtesy of Pricegrabber)
(Harvest Books, 1994) Mary Oliver is one of the contemporary poets whose work is most widely read and beloved by readers who don’t themselves write poetry, and her handbook is a concise guide to reading and understanding poems as well as writing them, illustrated by the inclusion of many fine poems. Her passion for the art and the direct simplicity of her prose make this an excellent starting point for beginning poets and an inviting path back to the genuine enjoyment and understanding of poems for those who were turned off to poetry in school, an antidote to the dry, technical, prescriptive teaching and pretentious obscurity that turned them away from the art.
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The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide, by Robert Pinsky

The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide, by Robert Pinsky
Farrar, Straus & Giroux (cover image courtesy of Pricegrabber)

(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.

The Singer of Tales, by Albert Bates Lord

The Singer of Tales, by Albert Bates Lord
Harvard University Press (cover image courtesy of Pricegrabber)

(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.

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Preface To Plato, by Eric A. Havelock

Preface To Plato, by Eric A. Havelock
Belknap Press (cover image courtesy of Pricegrabber)

(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.

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Nine Gates, Entering the Mind of Poetry, by Jane Hirshfield

Nine Gates, Entering the Mind of Poetry, by Jane Hirshfield
HarperCollins (cover image courtesy of Pricegrabber)

(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”....

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The Poetry Home Repair Manual, Practical Advice for Poets, by Ted Kooser

The Poetry Home Repair Manual, Practical Advice for Poets, by Ted Kooser
University of Nebraska Press (cover image courtesy of Pricegrabber)

(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.

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What’s on YOUR essential shelf of books about poetry?

What are your favorite books about poetry? What are the craft books you think are essential for any poet’s shelf? Tell us what you think is missing from our list!
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