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Violet Nesdoly PhotoAssigned Reading for Poets
Copyright©2009 by Violet Nesdoly

This is our fourteenth column in the "Poet's Classroom" series.

It's September and the kids are back in school. Maybe you need a shot of inspiration to start writing again after summer's holiday bustle. Or perhaps you're hoping to primp the poems you've already written, but would like guidance. Whatever your situation, consulting a book—or several—on writing poetry is sure to help in both the inspiration and craft departments. This month consider borrowing or buying one or more of these helpful how-to books for poets.

Poetry 101: For newer poets

Writing Personal Poetry by Sheila Bender, Writer's Digest Books, Cincinnati OH, 1998 (paperback).

In a book that will appeal to both new and not-so-new poets, Sheila Bender offers a rich blend of theory, instruction, and inspiration. She begins by talking about what personal poetry is and why people write it. She quotes many fine poems as examples, suggests a multitude of writing prompts, and gives step-by-step instructions on how to go about writing and revising one's creations (including a way to get useful reader feedback). There is also advice on how to prepare and submit poems for publication. Though Bender mentions some form poetry, the book focuses on contemporary free verse. If you've been away from poetry for a while or are unfamiliar with contemporary poetry, this book is a wonderful introduction.

Writing the Natural Way by Gabriele Rico, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, New York, NY, 2000 (paperback).

Whatever you write you've probably heard of clustering (also called webbing, word webs, semantic mapping, mind mapping etc.). Gabriele Rico, a pioneer of this method of generating ideas, images, and feelings around a stimulus word, begins by explaining how to cluster and how it works in terms of brain physiology. She shows how clustering helps writers access unexpected material and suggests lots of exercises. The book includes chapters on image, voice, creating tension, and revision. The many quotes about creativity and the writing life (found in the book's wide margins) are another feature that make this book a treasure.

Creating Poetry by John Drury, Writer's Digest Books, Cincinnati OH, 1991 (hardback—re-released in paperback, 2006).

You'll never run out of poem-writing ideas if you have this book. The great thing is that it also doubles as a tutor. The introduction explains, "This book is organized sequentially according to the process of writing—or rather the process of learning to write, which amounts to the same thing—beginning with 'Preparing' and ending with 'Finishing'."1 In twelve chapters Drury talks about the many aspects of poetry (e.g. language, sight, sound, movement, patterns and traditions etc.) and follows up with lists of assignments or prompts (the book contains over 400). You could use this book in chapter-order as if it was a poetry-writing course, or open it randomly and try any exercise as a poem starter.

The Poetry Home-Repair Manual by Ted Kooser, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln Nebraska, 2007 (paperback).

The U.S. Poet Laureate from 2004–2006 authored this slim paperback. Kooser's poetry is noted for its accessibility and this book is his manifesto on why poetry should be accessible and how to write understandable poems. He discusses what it means to be a poet, how to incorporate feelings, memories and finely tuned figures of speech into your poems, how to entice readers to read them, and more. Along with the wisdom gained from years of writing, Kooser dispenses encouragement, inspiration and just plain common sense. You'll also enjoy the poetry sprinkled throughout this practical and understandable manual.

A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver, Harcourt, New York, NY, 1994 (paperback).

In this slim but comprehensive volume, one of America's favorite poets divulges the secrets of her craft. From discussing how to get in a writing mood to the nitty-gritty of line, form, diction and voice, Oliver shows us that a lot more technique has gone into the writing of her seemingly effortless poems than one would suspect. I have never seen, in other poetry writing books, an explanation of the alphabet's sound families (aspirates, liquids, semivowels, mutes etc.) like the one she gives in the chapter on sound. This volume inspires, instructs and encourages, leaving the reader with a glimmer of hope that just maybe some of the author's magic will rub off.

Poetry 201: for sophomore poets

The Poetry Dictionary—Second Edition by John Drury, Writer’s Digest Press, Cincinnati OH, 2006 (paperback).

From "ABECEDARIUM" to "WORD" this handy book will help you stay in-the-know about almost any poetic term literature can throw at you. Three hundred fifty three pages of entries—which include pronunciations, definitions and over 250 illustrative poems from Homer to the present—are supplemented with an index of poets, poems, and terms. This handy reference is as good for finding inspiration as boning up on the poetic terms you're curious about or have never heard before. Abecedarium anyone?2

The Art and Craft of Poetry by Michael Bugeja, Writer's Digest Books, Cincinnati OH, 1994 (hardback—re-released in paperback by Writer's Digest Books, 2001).

This excellent instruction-cum-reference is written by a seasoned teacher and published poet. In twenty-one chapters Bugeja talks about the entire poetic process from finding ideas to getting published. Each chapter comes complete with writing instruction, its own mini-anthology and a set of exercises for three levels (so you can make three passes through the book). You will not go through this book even once without amassing a fat portfolio of poems and a well-rounded understanding of poetry, from traditional to contemporary.

Writing Metrical Poetry by William Baer, Writer's Digest Books, Cincinnati OH, 2006 (paperback).

If you're a poet who wants to master traditional forms, this book is for you. Baer, a seasoned poet, author, editor and teacher, explains meter, the quatrain, couplet, sonnet, tercet, blank verse, French forms and more. He uses classic and contemporary poetry to illustrate his points and includes short practice exercises as well as twelve formal assignments. The appendix contains several essays about the history of poetry (including one about the modern formalist movement), a nine-page section of quotes about meter, form and rhyme, and a helpful index. This book is a must-have for contemporary poets in love with rhythm and rhyme.

Poet Power—The Complete Guide to Getting Your Poetry Published by Thomas A. Williams, Sentient Publications, Boulder CO, 2002 (paperback).

If you want ideas about what to do with your poems after you've written them, Poet's Power is your go-to guide. Williams addresses subjects like the business of poetry, secrets of publishable poems, how to submit to magazines, self-publish, organize readings, publicize, and sell books. Williams' enthusiasm and motivational writing style may well transform you from a poetic wallflower to a mover and shaker in your literary circle.

2010 Poet's Market edited by Robert Lee Brewer, Writer's Digest Books, Cincinnati, OH, 2009 (paperback).

There's no shot in the arm for a poet than having a piece accepted for publication. There's no book that will better facilitate this than Writer's Digest Books annual market guide for poets—Poet's Market. Updated yearly, the 2010 edition contains over 1000 listings for magazines, journals, presses, contests, workshops and more. It also contains a multitude of extras like explanations of common terms, instructions on how to submit, and articles by poets and editors. Poet's Market is a must-have for poets who want to do more than just dream of seeing their work in print.

Hopefully with the help and inspiration of one or more of these books, your poetic passion will be revived. Perhaps you'll even find yourself at the head of the class!

Did you find this article helpful? Please let us know.

Copyright ©2009 by Violet Nesdoly


[1] John Drury, Creating Poetry (Writers Digest Books, Cincinnati OH, 1991), p 3.
[2] “ABECEDARIUM: … A poem arranged according to the alphabet so that the first line begins with the letter ‘A.’ It is really an acrostic that proceeds according to alphabetical order instead of spelling out a name or message.” John Drury, The Poetry Dictionary: Second Edition (Writer’s Digest Press, Cincinnati OH, 2006), p 1.