A Quick Guide to Useful Books for the Active Poet

Having read several books recently on the writing of poetry, I thought it would be good to provide a quick guide on some of those I found the most useful.

A Poetry Handbook (by Mary Oliver) – This is a great overview of poetry writing. I rarely reread books, but I’ve reread portions of this one.

The Ode Less Travelled (by Stephen Fry) – The best book I’ve read on forms. It’s so well-written. Fry, of course, is a professional actor, but as he refers to himself, an amateur poet. Doesn’t matter. His writing is spot-on and highly practical.

Nine Gates (by Jane Hirshfield)  – How to describe this book? These nine essays cover a lot of ground in the poetry craft, but what Hirshfield does best is to deal with some of the more mystical questions in poetry.

The Sounds of Poetry (by Robert Pinsky) – What it sounds like. Really helps you understand how sound goes to work in a poem. Mary Oliver’s book touches on this too.

The Art of Syntax (by Elllen Bryant Voigt) – This deals specifically with the tension between a poem’s syntax and its form. An illuminating perspective that I don’t think all poets consider in their writing.

The Practicing Poet (by Diane Lockward) – To describe this book as a series of prompts with examples and discussion doesn’t seem to do it justice. I worked through the entire book over the course of a year and found it very fruitful for my own writing. My published poem “Coiled Drum Bides in Stillness” (Interpreter’s House, 2020) emerged from one of these prompts.

At Home in the Dark (by David Elliott) – Elliott interviews 10 prominent poets. A terrific read on the topics dear to poets. I want to find more books like this.

52 Ways of Look at a Poem (by Ruth Padel) – The introduction to this book is a top-notch and insightful summation of modern poetry. The book then takes you through 52 poems and dissects them. This is a really good book for understanding how successful poems work.


On the End Table: The Art of Syntax by Ellen Bryant Voigt

All poetry students have been taught how meter, through the pacing of accented syllables and syllabic count, can control the rhythm and music of a poem. But Ellen Bryant Voigt, in her compact yet insightful book The Art of Syntax, shows us how the structure of the sentence can be used to pace the music of the words and the thought, much in the same way of musical phrasing, with which she draws an elegant analogy.

Perhaps, it’s easy to overlook the work that syntax is doing when verse offers us the traditional structure of, say, a sonnet. But when line lengths vary widely, Voigt tells us, “pattern must derive from syntax.” Throughout the book, Voigt gives several example poems, showing us how in each one, syntax is in a careful balance with stanza line and meter, in a musical dance that reveals pattern, crafts dramatic action and tension, and develops and discovers ideas.

It’s a beautiful book worth the read by anyone interested in deepening the texture in their poems.