Books that make rhyme and meter / In our minds, so much neater
By Janice Harayda
Take a look at the list of top posts on this site on an average day, and you may say see something remarkable: The most popular post is often a review of a little-known book called How to Be Well-Versed in Poetry, a witty guide to understanding the different types of poetry. This post appeared than five months ago (Nov. 20, 2006), and since then it has repeatedly trumped reviews of newer and flashier books, including many bestsellers. And there’s some poetic justice in this: No book makes learning about poetry more fun than this delightful collection, edited by the British critic E.O. Parrott, which illustrates many kinds of rhyme and meter with self-descriptive light-verse examples such as, “A form with very tight parameters, / Heroic couplets use pentameters.”
But Parrott’s book, published by Viking in 1990, can be hard to find. So you may also want to consider John Hollander’s more widely available Rhyme’s Reason: A Guide to English Verse (Yale University Press, $11.95). Like Parrott’s book, Hollander’s uses light verse to describe poetic forms: “A quatrain has four lines / As one can plainly see: / One of its strict designs / Comes rhymed abab.”
One difference between the books is that Parrott includes work by a constellation of poets while Hollander wrote all of his examples. Perhaps for this reason, How to Be Well-Versed in Poetry is wittier than Rhyme’s Reason and covers more poetric forms. But Hollander, a Yale professor, comments on some rhetorical issues that Parrott doesn’t. So many people will want both books. As Hollander says in another context, “Repetition is a powerful and diversified element of formal structures.”
You may also want to read … The Poetry Dictionary: Second Edition: 1) Defines key terms that should be in the vocabulary of every poet. 2) Includes over 250 illustrative poems from Homer to the present day. (Writer’s Digest, $14.99), edited by John Drury with a foreword by Dana Gioia. This reference book in the form of a dictionary has more information than casual poetry readers may need, including definitions of obscure types of poems such as the Fibonacci (which uses the mathematical Fibonacci sequence to determine the number of lines in each stanza). But The Poetry Dictionary may be useful to poets, critics and others. The landmark textbook Understanding Poetry by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, first published in 1938, taught generations of college students how read poetry by focusing on the text, not the poet’s politics or other issues that have become fashionable. Understanding Poetry has gone through many editions and remains widely available in libraries. Another warhorse is John Ciardi’s How Does a Poem Mean?, first published in 1959 and widely used in high schools and colleges in its day. This textbook, also available in many libraries, may be most noteworthy today for its six-page analysis of Robert Frost‘s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” which suggests the interpretation that has become standard — that the poem involves a death wish. A memorable third-season episode of The Sopranos in which Meadow explains the poem to A.J. may derive directly or indirectly from this influential book.
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.