Editions that go from bad to verse

- The Poetry Handbook
- Studying Poetry. Second Edition

May 25, 2007

Both books are aimed at A-level students and undergraduates, so there is a chance they may outgrow them before they graduate. I hope so. John Lennard's Poetry Handbook has achieved a place on many students' shelves for two reasons: first, students tend to fear poetry and, second, because there's little competition.

Lennard is a lively and knowledgeable writer, but the book is better as an occasional reference than as an explanatory guide. It divides the analytic reading of poetry into 11 topics: metre, form, layout, punctuation, lineation, rhyme, diction, syntax, history, biography and gender. It retains a rather relentless pedagogic approach, with chapter glossaries, exercises and readings, and betrays a pompous fondness for unnecessary technical terms, such as ekthesis.

He shows more awareness than Barry Spurr of contemporary poetry, but no greater aptitude for reading it. Exactly what's new about this second edition is not as clear. Where the original edition used one poem by Derek Walcott to demonstrate each point, this one uses six. All references to the Norton Anthology have been updated to refer to this edition. But the claim that "it is accompanied by a companion website, including links to all the poems cited in the text and sample student essays" is exaggerated. Well over a quarter of the poems listed have no link, while many that do are linked to dubious texts.

The claim that "coverage will be extended to include discussion of poetic sequences and narrative poetry" doesn't seem to be accurate. And although there is a bibliography, it is not the promised "annotated" one.

Spurr's Studying Poetry is not a book to inspire students to read poems. After 50 pages of generalities, the remaining 300 consist of a historical overview. We are told that coverage has been expanded to cover medieval poetry and "to give more weight to literary theory and women poets", and brief chapters on postmodern and contemporary poetry to make it more up to date with a focus on "key contemporary poets". These - Walcott, Les Murray, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Joanne Burns and Judith Beveridge - are commendably not English (this is an Australian book), but they are far from being the most innovative figures in late 20th-century poetry.

This edition claims "to give more weight to literary theory" but there's little evidence of this. We are told that "the skilful combination of subject and style, matter and manner is a mark of good poetry", that "the exercise of restraint in thematic and stylistic presentation" is "a quality we require of good poetry" or that "the characteristics of the sounds of language reveal its meanings", as if none of these statements were at all problematic. Worst of all, Spurr makes no distinction between rhythm and metre (in fact the glossary entry for "rhythm" says "see metre"). The poems he selects for analysis (many of which are sonnets) tend to reinforce the virtues he approves. Each section is followed by questions, often studiously banal. In the poverty of its critical analysis and its dated attitudes, this book exemplifies a continuing strain of thoughtless academicism in attitudes to poetry which it is alarming to see given a second lease of life.

The Poetry Handbook: A Guide to Reading Poetry for Pleasure and Practical Criticism. Second Edition

Author - John Lennard
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 418
Price - £19.00
ISBN - 9780199265381

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