At the request of some of my CPIT students, I thought I’d post a brief listing of some of my favourite poetry How-To books. If you have a favourite that’s not on my list, please tell me about it in the comments! (There is no such thing as too many books.)
One of my absolute favourites is Steve Kowit’s In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poet’s Portable Workshop (Tilbury House Publishers, 1995). It’s a great mix of exercises and discussion, with plenty of example poems. What I like most about it is the tone – his passion for poetry is obvious, and he writes engagingly.
Another book that I don’t like to be without is The Poet’s Companion, by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux (W.W. Norton, 1997). A good mix of technical information, sample poems and exercises. Again, it’s friendly, accessible and engaging. (Available in the Christchurch Public Library system too!)
Across the Atlantic, a very good all-round poetry primer is Matthew Sweeney and John Hartley Williams’ Writing Poetry (Teach Yourself Books, 1997). It’s more formally structured than the two American books, and uses a wider range of poems as examples. But again, it’s interesting, informative, accessible and engaging. And despite the title, not just for beginners. One I go back to quite regularly.
Another favourite manual is Robin Behn and Chase Twitchell’s The Practice of Poetry: writing exercises from poets who teach (Harper Collins, 1992). I adore this book. Packed full of exercises, with a brief explanation of what each exercise is trying to do. I use it all the time for my own writing, and have pillaged it shamelessly for teaching. It’s a good range of exercises too – a beginner should feel perfectly comfortable with virtually all of them, and a competent poet should still be able to find some useful ‘stretches’ in here. If all you want is poetry exercises, this is the must-have. (There are a number of copies in the Christchurch Public Library system.)
To round out my Top Five, a book that I highly recommend is Richard Hugo’s seminal The Triggering Town: essays on the art and craft of poetry (Norton, 1992). They aren’t exercises as such, but superb – if idiosyncratic – advice on lots of aspects of the poetic process. Quite inspiring, and good at making you think about the way you approach writing and revision.
Of course, these are only some of the thousands of good poetry manuals out there. Just looking at my own shelves I could add Wendy Bishop’s Thirteen Ways of Looking for a Poem (hard to get hold of, but really really good for the not-absolutely-beginner poet), Robert Wallce and Michelle Boisseau’s Writing Poems (ditto), Michael J Bugeja’s The Art and Craft of Poetry, Paul Hyland’s Getting into Poetry, (a bit UK-centric, but good none the less), Peter Sansom’s Writing Poems (not so much ‘how to write’, but ‘how to write better’) … it’s a long list, and a personal one. Good public libraries (and Christchurch is extremely fortunate in that regard!) will carry at least a couple of titles – usually in the 808 section.
(edit – if you’d like to take a virtual browse through my personal library, this link will take you to my LibraryThing poetry manual page.)
So, dear readers. What are your favourite poetry manuals? And why?