Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 1999
As Poetry Month successfully directs our attention to poets old and new, publishers rightly suspect that any avid readers have forgotten (or never knew) how to read a poem for its full effect. Some books promise a lot more than they can possibly teach: how to “fall in love” with visionary poetry, or how to make unmetrical contemporary poems “a part of your life.” In both cases, enthusiasm for difficult or politically engaged poets supercedes a rehearsal of the nuts and bolts of making verse, which is admittedly somewhat dull and technical and cannot be dumbed-down.
Mary Kinzie, a poet-critic and Northwestern professor, isn’t afraid of being forbidding in her massive practical handbook, A Poet’s Guide to Poetry. Intended for serious readers and writers, her smart and rigorous survey of poetic technique—from syntax and diction to meter and rhyme—will at least discourage dilettantes. That’s no small achievement in an era of “poetry slams” and therapeutic writing groups. Her classroom-tested exercises for writing remind us that it’s hard work, and informed by centuries of tradition, much of which Kinzie has at her fingertips. Unfortunately, she also tends to mystify her subject by inventing yet new technical terms and imposing an odd theoretical design on her work (which also accounts for the dizzying cross-referencing). Her notion that we should understand a poem as if we were writing it ourselves is sound, but her idea that all poems should be read as “unfinished” leads to obfuscation. Wedded to her sense of “choices on a continuum,” she also over-reads the relation of sound to sense, trying to tease out meaning from every aspect of technique. Filled out with a fine glossary and an excellent annotated bibliography. Kinzie’s sometimes plodding text is nevertheless worth the effort.
Like Kinzie, Timothy Steele, another poet-critic and professor (Cal. State), largely ignores the predominant poetry of our time—free verse. All the Fun’s in How You Say a Thing takes its title from a line by Frost, a poet whose commitment to clarity of expression Steele clearly shares in this modest, neatly organized, and lucidly written explanation of English meter. Steele incorporates into his graceful study a wealth of linguistic insight and a solid explanation of scansion; and he fully comprehends the limits of metrics.
Unlike Kinzie, he doesn’t always try to find some complex meaning in a poet’s technical choices. Like Kinzie, he excludes free verse because it teaches us little about metrics and, as a consequence, he and Kinzie both rely on a number of underappreciated modern poets for examples (e.g., Janet Lewis, Thom Gunn, and J.V. Cunningham). Steele’s sharp and witty book is the perfect Poetry Month selection: an expert guide that speaks to all levels of readers.”
Ferguson Library, Stamford, CT
Library Journal, March 15, 1999
While many poets of the 20th century have chosen to abandon traditional meter, turning instead to free verse, it is no secret that most significant poems in the English language follow precise metrical patterns. In this comprehensive guide to the techniques of English verse, Steele uses examples from poets as diverse as Donne, Longfellow, and Wilbur to show how great poetry achieves strength and meaning through meter and other poetic devices. Steele places the many styles of poetry in historical context and clearly explains such elements as rhyme, rhythm, elision, and the use of stanzas. A published poet and professor of English at California State University, Steele is the author of Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt against Meter (LJ 4/1/90). Students of poetry as well as practicing poets who wish to hone their craft will find this new book immensely helpful. Recommended for academic and public libraries.
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