Five great introductions to English poetry selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
If you’re studying poetry at school or university, or are simply a fan of the world of verse, it’s useful to have some handy guides standing by to assist with the terminology and to shed light on the various poetic forms used by poets, and the sometimes challenging language of poetry. In our experience, the following five books are among the greatest books for the student of poetry (though there are, needless to say, many more helpful books on the market) and all five books will help the poetry fan to understand and appreciate poetry to a greater degree.
John Lennard, The Poetry Handbook. Subtitled A Guide to Reading Poetry for Pleasure and Practical Criticism, this book – which was updated for a second edition in 2005 – is a wonderfully clear and comprehensive introduction to the appreciation of poetry. John Lennard shows how we can enjoy poetry by understanding its technical features and techniques: his epigraph, from C. L. R. James, suggests a parallel between appreciating cricket and appreciating poetry. If we know nothing of the technical aspects of the game of cricket, we can still enjoy it, but if we understand how the game works and what techniques the players use, we can ground our enjoyment in something more specific and informed than ‘mere impressionism’. Invaluable for any student of poetry at university (and very helpful for those at school), but also useful for anyone who wishes to understand the rules of metre, rhyme, syntax, and form in more depth.
Ruth Padel, 52 Ways Of Looking At A Poem: or How Reading Modern Poetry Can Change Your Life: A Poem for Every Week of the Year. This is a highly readable introduction to the practice of literary criticism: how to analyse a poem. Padel considers 52 different poems and offers a close reading of them, beautifully bringing out the subtle meanings of the poetry and the ways in which the poet generates such meanings.
Christopher Ricks, The Force of Poetry. This 1984 volume is a collection of essays written during the 1960s-1980s, by one of the greatest living critics of poetry. Upon reading Ricks’s biography of Tennyson, W. H. Auden called Ricks ‘exactly the kind of critic every poet dreams of finding’. But Ricks is also a brilliant writer too, with a fondness (some would say weakness) for puns and wordplay of all kinds. He clearly has great fun pondering the significance of a semi-colon or set of parentheses, or the meaning of a particular image or word. This volume includes essays on, among others, medieval poet John Gower, John Milton, Samuel Johnson, Geoffrey Hill, Stevie Smith, and – indeed, William Empson, author of our next book recommendation.
William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity. William Empson (1906-1984) was a poet as well as a critic, and this probably helped him to get under the skin, as it were, of many of the poems he analyses in this pioneering work of poetry criticism, published in 1930 and written when he was still only in his early twenties (and completed shortly after he had been expelled from the University of Cambridge when contraceptives were found in his rooms). Taking his examples from Geoffrey Chaucer as well as T. S. Eliot, Empson wittily examines the various ways in which poets generate ambiguity in their work, from simple examples to more complex and less easily resolved instances. Jonathan Bate called Empson the funniest critic of the twentieth century. He is also one of the most illuminating.
Stephen Fry, The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within. This book is aimed at those who want to understand how poetry works but also want to write it as well, and Fry is an amiable and informative guide, taking us through the various forms and stylistic features poets use. Despite its focus on such things, the book is never dry and manages to inform and educate as well as entertain.
So much for our five recommendations, which we think should adorn the bookshelf of any poetry fan. But have you got an alternative recommendation for ‘best introduction to poetry’ or ‘greatest books for the student of poetry’? If so, let us know – we realise this list of five books is hardly comprehensive, but merely a whistle-stop introduction to what’s out there.
For more poetry help, see our advice for the close reading of poetry and our English literature essay tips. For the word-lover, we recommend this little-known dictionary of weird and wonderful words.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.