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Introduction to Poetry in English

Wendy Harding and Eric Doumerc

Toulouse: PUM, 2007
18 €, 204 pp., ISBN-10: 2858169217 - ISBN-13: 978-2858169214

Reviewed by Claire Hélie

I am a PhD student finishing a thesis on poetry from Northern England since the 60s in Paris III and I have been given a class on the art of poetry for second-year students at the University of Perpignan where I work as an ATER. When given a book like Wendy Harding and Eric Doumerc’s An Introduction to Poetry in English (Toulouse: PUM, 2007) to review, I feel—but I might be wrong—that I can still have it both ways, as a student and as a teacher. I still remember—not that I will ever forget it—hearing my by-now supervisor speaking about William Blake in a crowded amphitheatre and how enthralled I was at the way he read his lines. Yet sometimes I think that I might not have appreciated it that much, had I not been taught the technicalities of poetry the hard way the year before. Most of the students who had not taken that introductory class were not just puzzled by what they were hearing—we all were—they were lost… and I’m afraid most of them haven’t found their way back to the garden of love and poetry yet. Sometimes, in my sleep, I can still hear them moan for help somewhere in the far distance.

Anyway, as an apprentice teacher, I have tried to make my students understand that “studying poetry involves effort as well as enjoyment” [11] as the introduction to the book so nicely puts it. The notion of pleasure indeed sometimes seems lost on students who have to learn such barbarian words as “epizeuxis,” “amphimacer” or “cynghanedd sain,” to mention but a few… So, I took the Buntinguesque road and tried to convince them that

Poetry, like music, is to be heard. It deals in sound - long sounds and short sounds, heavy beats and light beats, the tone relations of vowels, the relations of consonants to one another . . . Reading in silence is the source of half the misconceptions that have caused the public to distrust poetry.

Every lecture followed the same routine: they listened to a poet reading his or her work and gave their first impressions randomly, they read all poems aloud a couple of times before and after studying them, and they had to insist on the link between the sounds a poem makes and the sense the poet tries to convey. Of course, I introduced as many critical terms as I could along the way. My students were certainly not as enthralled as I would have liked them to be, especially when I said iambic pentameter for the first time and they thought I was insulting them, but they nevertheless kept attending the lectures. Hopefully, if somebody reads them Blake someday the way my supervisor did a few years ago, they will understand why they had to sweat that much over technicalities in 2007-08. But before that day comes, they have an exam, and I could find no better way to help them prepare for it than to encourage them to go and read An Introduction to Poetry in English.

The book is advertised as being “authored by a team of experienced scholars and teachers” (back cover), and experienced they are indeed. It was co-edited by Wendy Harding, a specialist in medieval English literature and contemporary American poetry, and Eric Doumerc, whose seminal work on Black British performance poetry ranges from the influence of the Caribbean oral traditions to the study of Jamaican deejaying in the 70s. Each contributed a chapter on the art of poetry, and the other three chapters were written by Françoise Besson, Lesley Lawton and Isabelle Keller-Privat. Michel Barrucand, Raphaëlle Costa de Beauregard, Aurélie Guillain, Catherine Lanone and Sylvie Morel also participated in the project in various ways, most notably through selecting and submitting commentaries on poems. In a word, many researchers and teachers from the English Department in Toulouse Le Mirail combined efforts to write and publish this book and the result is as good as can be expected from such a high-standard collaboration.

Not all of the contributors are specialists in poetry of course, and this is for the best since the approach has to be both erudite and pedagogical. Anthologies, introductions to poetry, handbooks or glossaries of poetic terms, and other how-to-read-poetry books can be counted by the dozen on the shelves of any good university library. The reason why An Introduction to Poetry in English is not yet another of these books is that it was written by French scholars who all have some experience in teaching poetry in France and who obviously gave more than a fleeting thought at how to teach it to non-native students taking English literature, especially to first year and right through to third year students; and there was actually a spot to fill there. Françoise Grellet’s A Handbook of Literary Terms (Paris: Hachette Supérieur, 1996), still a classic today, especially in CPGEs, has only four chapters on poetry, each beginning with key-terms listed around main themes, and ending with a few un-corrected exercises on how to apply such concepts to the study of a poem. Even if the definitions are perfectly clear and the examples numerous, I’m afraid an average student who is discovering poetry in English for the very first time might feel a little discouraged by such amount of knowledge and dismiss poetry as being written by and for people who know their Latin better than he or she will ever do… Another classic, Henri Suhamy’s La Versification anglaise (Paris: Ellipses, 1999) proposes a comprehensive step-by-step approach to the analysis of poems but it is in French and students need to know the key-terms in English for their prospective studies and jobs. And since poetry is not the most lucrative business of all and the criticism on poetry even less so, no wonder so many valuable books are not republished. For instance, the fact that Peter MacDonald and Marc Porée’s Anthologie de la poésie britannique (Paris: Hachette Supérieur, 1993) has not been reissued is a real shame because the book contextualized the changes in British poetry, anthologized a few texts complete with a biography of their author and a few notes and questions to help the students understand the texts and offered a consistent list of key terms to analyse the poems. One of the many arguments for An Introduction to Poetry in English—and one which is clearly stated in the introduction—is its affordability: it costs only 18 euros, which is rather cheap in the poetry market and will hopefully act as an incentive for students and publishers.

The book is divided into three main sections. The first one deals with the technicalities of poetry. Each of the five chapters is twelve- to fourteen-page long. They are reader-friendly and I daresay intermediate-speaker friendly at that, in the sense that each new word is spelt in bold type, given a definition in the chapter and at the end of the book and is immediately applied to the study of a poem, which makes for a simplified acquisition and understanding of such specific vocabulary that may seem barbarian to neophytes. Students are thus familiarized with the techniques and terms of poetic analysis and are given consistent examples that forms and contents are two sides of the same coin. Each contributor builds on what has been learnt in the chapter before, which is reflected in the style itself: the first chapter opens on very simple sentences without any subordinate clauses and then progressively, as the reader warms up, the sentences become more complex. My one and only reservation would be about the few typos I noticed in the lesson, the anthology and the commentaries, especially since the book is addressed to non-native learners. Of course, the list of key-terms and definitions can also read tedious at times, the writing a little dry, but it certainly makes for a simplified understanding of the notions under study.

Yet when I say simplified, I certainly do not mean simplistic, since the book would never find its way in the “Poetry for Dummies” section in a library, dwelling as it does on the “technical and historical aspects of the craft of poetry” [12]. Chapter one, entitled “Metre, Rhythm, Rhyme: Images in the Music of Words,” was written by Françoise Besson who enhances the visual and the aural dimension of poetry, focussing on prosody, but also on echoes, be they linked to sound or to intertextuality. Thus the student is invited to sense poetry as a first step before trying to make sense of it. In chapter two, Lesley Lawton studies fixed forms from a historical perspective, starting with the native Anglo-Saxon alliterative long line, moving on to famous forms such as the sonnet or the heroic couplet and ending with imported forms like the haiku or the villanelle. I cannot help wondering why the alliterative verse should have been treated in this chapter and not in the preceding one, especially since there was a paragraph on sprung rhythm and on the alliterative principle. In chapter three, Wendy Harding introduces “free forms,” a term she uses to refer both to free verse and to open forms. It deals with what she calls “disjunctive poetics,” free forms being what is worked outside conventional moulds. The way she contextualizes the advent of free forms and the way she analyzes some of the poems under study are perfect examples of what should be achieved by students at the end of their third year at university. In chapter four, Eric Doumerc puts forward the link between poetry and orality. He first describes the poet’s role in pre-literate societies, then analyzes the revival of oral forms and finally introduces ethnic poetry. This chapter is of utmost importance not only because it insists once more on the musical quality of poetry, but also because it shows students that poems are not all about flowers and birds or unrequited love but can have a social dimension that is still relevant today—it is a communal experience the poet wants to share with his readers or listeners, and not a solipsistic one. Finally, in chapter five, Isabelle Keller-Privat traces the transmutation of a poetic theme, “Poetry and the Myth of Creation,” and in so doing shows how to see the connections between poems, poets and poetic eras, and prepares the students for the art of writing essays on poetry.

Those five chapters are followed by the second section, a selection of poems which come as examples of the concepts introduced in the first five chapters and as texts for further study: they can be viewed both as examples and as starting points. This anthology covers 103 poems by 46 poets plus anonyms over 82 pages, so it represents a large panel of poetry in English, even if it is modestly called a “sampling” which was “deliberately restricted” [12] in the introduction. There might be a slight bias towards the Romantic Age and the British Isles but the anthology nevertheless covers a long historical period and a large geographical area.

The third section is composed of twelve commentaries on texts written by a large panel of poets ranging from Shakespeare to Benjamin Zephaniah, seven of which are fully written and only five outlined. These commentaries suggest ways to analyse poetry both from a technical point of view (how to read poetry) and from a methodological standpoint (how to write a commentary). Most of the vocabulary learnt in the first five chapters is reinvested so as to show how useful they can be when it comes to understanding and analyzing a poem. Since each commentary is written by a different critic, the approaches are varied: some dwell on prosodic elements, others on linguistic ones, others on images… this shows students that there is not just one right way to read a text, not one authoritative reading, but that most readings are acceptable so long as they are convincingly justified. These commentaries are not mere examples of how to use key-terms or analyze poems but they also constitute a good introduction to other poetic aspects—hints are given at the main techniques of some famous poets such as John Donne’s metaphysical wit, at problematics such as Blake’s ideas on innocence and experience, at theories such as Seamus Heaney’s difference between technique and craft, at types of language such as Rastafarian, or at genres such as the eclogue, the pastoral and the georgic. Thus students are prompted to go even further in their discovery of poetry.

The book closes on an invitation to further reading which is made up of a glossary and a bibliography. I think that a word-bank with key-terms listed under main themes would have been more helpful, given the public aimed at, especially since a ten-page long glossary might be a put-off to some students who would think that they have to know it all to analyze poetry, when exhaustiveness is nothing but a battle lost in advance. Yet it is very convenient when one is looking for a short definition.

All in all, An Introduction to Poetry in English is a stimulating read both for the student and the teacher, and I guess that if my fellow students had read it years ago, they would not have deserted the class on Blake and I would be allowed to spend dreamless nights!



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