Some favourite Poetry How-To books

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?

12 Replies to “Some favourite Poetry How-To books”

  1. Kim Addonizio has a new book out, “Ordinary Genius”. I haven’t read it yet, but have placed a hold at the library (it’s on order). Another I enjoyed is Frances Mayes, “The discovery of Poetry”. I have a Mary Oliver’s “Rules for the Dance” and have also read “The Poetry Handbook” – same author. They are good but more geared towards writing metrical verse, which is odd, since most of hers isn’t.

    If you want to read some of these without buying them, I’m happy to swap books – would love to look at the Steve Kowit

    1. I’ve got “Ordinary Genius” in my To Be Read pile – like you, really looking forward to it. I have the two Mary Olivers and enjoy them, but they don’t hit my top five general list. Sound and very detailed, but not so good for generating enthusiasm. And, as you say, are geared towards metrical work.

      Interesting that you enjoyed the Francis Mayes. It did nothing for me. I’m having to dig in memory a bit, but I think it was the way the book was put together – just not as interesting or as thorough. But that’s just my recollection of an opinion formed a while ago …

      More than happy to lend you the Steve Kowit, or any of the others you fancy – email me your address and I’ll get it in the mail to you.

  2. I found this post really interesting. I’m someone who hasn’t really read any ‘how to’ poetry books, and I’m not given to poetry exercises. But I might take a look at some of your favs.

    What is it that you get out of books like this? I’m guessing that it’s inspiration. While I haven’t read books like those, I have enjoyed reading essays about poetry, such as ‘Best Words, Best Order’ by Stephen Dobyns, essays by poets about writing – such as some by Maxine Kumin – and interviews with poets.

    1. Interesting question. I hadn’t really asked myself that before. Inspiration is part of it – exercises, block-breakers, that sort of thing. But it’s also an approach to poetry, a conversation about different aspects of craft. (Ok, maybe more of a lecture than a conversation. One you can go back to for reference later. Read on the bus. Or in the bath.) The good ones aren’t very different to the books of poetics essays. Just structured in a more “now you have a go” way, and more accessible to the beginner.

      Hmm. I’m not doing a particularly good job of answering this. Someone else have a go. What do we get out of these books?

  3. I’ll be at the MCB tomorrow if you want to save postage. I’ll e-mail my address if I don’t see you there. It sounds as if you have a pretty thorough collection

  4. I have absolutely no way of assessing whether any of these books help my poetry writing, but the ones I like to re-read are the ones that make me feel enthusiastic about poetry writing. Also, I find that reading a book, especially but not only one I haven’t read before, will often spark a poetry idea.
    Another one I forgot to mention is Ted Kooser’s “The Poetry Home Repair Manual”. Very readable. It is more about revising and improving poems than getting them started.
    I did have John Fox’s “Poetic Medicine” but I decided I didn’t like the “poetry as therapy” aspect and gave it away or sold it somewhere.

    1. Well put, Catherine!
      (I’ll have to go looking for the Ted Kooser – I’ve heard of it, and had it on my ‘sounds interesting if it should happen to come my way’ list.)
      Other people like to comment about what, if anything, they get from poetry manuals?

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