When your knowledge of verse/almost couldn’t be worse/get help from this book/and its clever hook
How to Be Well-Versed in Poerty. Compiled and edited by E.O. Parrott. Viking, hardcover, and Penguin paperback editions. Varied prices.
Suppose you woke up one day and realized, tragically, that your entire knowledge of poetry consisted of the lyrics to “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” Or that you’ve spent years reading Dr. Seuss rhymes to your children and still can’t identify their meter, not even the thumping anapestic tetramenter of lines like, “And to THINK/that I SAW/it on MUL-/ber-ry STREET.” Who could help you make up for lost time?
You might start with E.O. Parrott, the British editor who compiled this amusing book of examples of almost every verse form in the English language. Parrott’s genius has been to collect hundreds of brief, witty poems that use light verse to describe poetic forms and techniques. Here’s the beginning of a poem by Martin Fagg about heroic couplets: “A form with very tight parameters,/ Heroic Couplets use pentameters.” And here’s a poem about the clerihew, invented by Edmund Clerihew Bentley and typically about a specific person: “E.C. Bentley/Quite accidently/Invented this verse form of wit/And this is it.”
Some entries in this book contain a subversive element of literary criticism. They tweak a form or technique as they explain it. Paul Griffin contributes a poem about alliteration, the device that uses repeated sounds: “Some writers rate readers as rotten and ratty/And treat them to tricks that are terribly tatty.” He goes on to suggest why great writers tend to shun this literary sledgehammer and to leave it to political speechwriters: “Does it work? Well, it won’t when the wise are awake …”
One of the charms of How to Be Well-Versed in Poetry is that it has something for readers at all levels — from beginners to scholars who want to refresh their memories of what a nonet or tanka is. It goes in and out of print in the U.S. but has an enduring appeal that makes it worth tracking down. “Reading poetry is not easy,” Parrott writes. “Many poems are long and most will probably seem longer than they are.” This is rare book that makes them seem shorter.
Best line: Every page has one. An exceprt from Stanley J. Sharpless’s parody of Hiawatha that shows the heavy, tom-tom-like beat of its trochaic meter: “(Very long and rather boring/Narrative in unrhymed trochees:/Tum-ti, tum-ti, tum-ti, tum-ti,/Tum-ti tum … ad infinitum.)”
Worst: None. But when Parrott makes a point through parody, as he does often, he sends up mostly English poets with an occasional nod to those from other countries, such as Dante and Robert Frost. Don’t look for examples from Emily Dickinson here.
Recommended … without reservation.
Published: 1990 (Viking hardcover), 1992 (Penguin paperback)
Posted by Janice Harayda
© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.