Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Off the Bookshelf

By David Garza

JUNE 14, 1999:  Books that attempt to expose the mysterious craft of poetry for what it is tend to make experienced poets blush just a little in the cheeks. First of all, these "how to read and write poetry" books do a good job of knocking the proverbial Muse off her throne and replacing her with the far less mysterious image of the harmless poet sitting at a desk and counting syllables on his fingers. They also show little shame as they pluck passages from lofty poems and render simple explications and affirmations: "Poetry has the power to move and challenge us. It can confirm your feeling that life is worth something after all" (from Herbert Kohl's A Grain of Poetry: How to Read Contemporary Poems and Make Them a Part of Your Life, HaperCollins, $23 hard). The truth is, of course, that some of the best poems ever written may make us want to jump off a melodramatic cliff, and some of the best books about writing poetry make all the blushing worthwhile.

The standout volume from these recent works about poetry is Kenneth Koch's Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry (Touchstone Books, $15 paper). Koch, who also happens to be one of the nation's leading poets, understands that reading poems can be the most instructive activity for writing poems, and for that reason, half of this "how-to" book is a chronological anthology of poems stretching from Homer to Kiyotsugu to Ashbery. Following each poem is a brief passage by Koch pointing out the strengths of the work: e.g., "In the end, this is likely to be interesting." The other half of the book swiftly and efficiently covers the structural and musical basics of line breaks, meter, rhyme, and so forth. The most distinguishing part of Koch's book, though, is his brave argument that poetry, more than being primped-up language or a musical speech, is actually a separate and autonomous language unto itself.

Hard-core poets who appreciate that kind of nod from Kenneth Koch will also like the all- encompassing A Poet's Guide to Poetry by Mary Kinzie (University of Chicago Press, $47 hard; $18 paper). The first sentence of her book is a clever one, as it separates the men from the boys, so to speak, and it punchily delivers the aim of her book: "I believe poets read poetry differently than non-poets do." Not surprisingly, Kinzie goes much further into prosody than does Koch, and by Section Twelve of the book, she is handing out writing assignments like a good workshop instructor. Exercise Nine of this section (a real delight) requires the reader to write an "Epigram of Condemnation": "Form: Write an epigram that consists of two end-stopped heroic (iambic pentameter) couplets, rhyming aa bb. Theme: You are disgusted with the shabby behavior of someone of your acquaintance." Learning to write has never been so spiteful and tasty!

Herbert Kohl takes a much more tender approach in his warm-hearted A Grain of Poetry. Despite a few hokey affirmations, the book is a sincere appeal to the emotions and senses that are called into play while reading and writing: "Reading poetry for yourself does not imply making critical judgments." This soft and discursive stance makes Kohl's book ideal for readers who are still a bit new at verse, or those who simply like splashing their toes into that deep, dark pool of poetry. A great example of the author's talent for delivering the goods on the mechanics of poetry without scaring away readers occurs in his chapter on rhythm and melody. Here, he examines a poem and points out that all its words happen to begin with the same letter. That's no accident, he explains, but he never uses the potentially alienating word "alliteration" to describe the device in question. To its credit, the book is likely to educate a large audience who might never sit through a more technical and didactic book. Like Koch's and Kinzie's works, Herbert Kohl's book makes the art of writing poems slightly less distant, more sensible and real.


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