I recently finished up leading a poetry workshop at a writers’ retreat at Rosemont College near Philadelphia. During one of the classes, populated mostly by MFA graduate students, I brought in a pile of craft/theory/poetics/rant books. I’m a nerd for books about poetry and interviews with poets (I always turn to the interview section first when a new issue of Rattle arrives). Aside from reading lots and lots of poetry, one of the best ways for me to learn more about poetry is through reading poets talk about their own processes and ideas. Here’s a partial list of books I think should be on every poet’s shelf. I’m offering this list here for the retreat students who didn’t get to write down the names of all the titles they were interested in.
Please add more books in the comments section if you think I’ve left out something important or interesting. There’s no particular order of importance in the way I’ve assembled this list, and I may add more as I find things on my shelves.
Writing Poems by Robert Wallace. Harper Collins.
I came to this, as I do with a lot of craft books, first as a fan of Wallace’s own poetry. This book is an excellent hardcore treatise in the basic principles and how they work within poems. Lots of samples and some writing prompts.
Proofs & Theories: Essays on Poetry by Louise Gluck. Ecco.
Here’s a book I love to argue with, which makes the process of reading it fun (and why my copy is so full of scribbled notations). Gluck’s book mixes essays on composition theory with comments of specific poets (Eliot, Oppen, Kunitz). The essay I marked up most is “Against Sincerity.”
Poetry in Person, Twenty-five Years of Conversation with American Poets Edited by Alexander Neubauer. Knopf.
This book is mesmerizing. In it you find 23 transcripts of poets talking with teacher Pearl London and her creative writing classes. These aren’t just any poets though—we get to eavesdrop on Maxine Kumin, Robert Hass, Philip Levine, Galway Kinnell, Lucille Clifton, Li-Young Lee, Charles Simic…
The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux. Norton.
This is a very practical and easy to love book on craft. It’s designed more for people who are new to writing poetry, but it also has plenty of insights for established writers. It would make a great textbook for a creative writing class. Lots of prompts and examples are provided. Engagingly written.
Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry Essays by Jane Hirshfield. Harper Perennial.
I first came to this book, 1) as a fan of Jane Hirshfield’s poems and 2) because I was looking for new ways to think about nature poetry, and Hirshfield suggest I read her essay Two Secrets which is collected here. This book is a mix of theory, craft and philosophy—particularly zen.
The Sound of Poetry by Robert Pinsky. FSG.
Here’s a book that really tries to bring back respect for sound and texture in poetry. Good information, but ironically it’s a bit of a flat read.
Best Words, Best Order by Stephen Dobyns. St. Martins Press.
This should be required on every new MFA student’s shelf. I particularly like chapter 5: Pacing: The Way a Poem Moves.
The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo. Norton.
Any fan of Richard Hugo’s poems probably already knows about this book. On one level it’s a guide on how to write like Richard Hugo, but it’s much more than that. For the beginning poet, he makes poetry less intimidating and more personal, but for the mature writer, there will also be a lot of shared “ah ha” moments. Get this book.
Lofty Dogmas: Poets of Poetics. edited by Deborah Brown, Annie Finch and Maxine Kumin.
This is one of my favorites, and I’d love to teach a class with this as the text book. It compiles essays from ancient times (Horace) to contemporary poets, discussing issues of inspiration, craft and poetry culture. Many of the most important essays on poetry are all wedged in here.
Close Calls with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry Essays by Stephanie Burt. Graywolf.
This collection, all republished from literary journals, attempts to explain and support the work of what Burt calls the elliptical poets—poets like Rae Armantrout, CD Wright, John Ashbery, Lorine Niedecker and others. Often, for me, the support Burt uses doesn’t hold up, but I appreciate it nonetheless. If you’re a fan on this kind of poetry, you’ll find a lot to like here. If you’re not a fan, this book will at least help you understand what they’re trying to do.
The Art of Syntax: Rhythm of Thought, Rhythm of Song by Ellen Bryant Voight. Graywolf.
There are (I think) seven volumes in The Art of series. Of the five I have, this one is my favorite. It offers clear explanations of how sound and texture affect poetry. My other favorite in the series it Dean Young’s The Art of Recklessness.