Poetry For Dummies®


by The Poetry Center and John Timpane with Maureen Watts




About the Authors

The Poetry Center & American Poetry Archives at San Francisco State University was founded in 1954 on the basis of a gift by W.H. Auden. The Poetry Center is one of the most long-lived, prestigious, and nationally renowned literary arts institutions in the United States. For almost 50 years, since Ruth Witt-Diamant, with esteemed poets Robert Duncan and Josephine Miles, initiated the Poetry Center’s pioneering reading series, the Center has presented readings by poets, novelists, and other writers, in accord with the highest standards of literary excellence. The Poetry Center presents readings over two seasons annually, both on- and off-campus, open to the public.

The Poetry Center today operates under the aegis of San Francisco State University’s Creative Writing Department, the largest in the country, and represents an irreplaceable collective record of the past half-century of American literary accomplishment. The Poetry Center’s American Poetry Archives is a collection of over 2,000 original recordings of poets and writers reading from their work, recorded since the 1950s at Poetry Center readings. The collection includes rare readings by Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Alice Walker, Anne Sexton, Frank O’Hara, and many other great writers of the past 50 years.

John Timpane is the Commentary Page Editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer. How’d he get there — and how’d he get from there to Poetry For Dummies? John was graduated from Stanford University with an M.A. and Ph.D. in English and the Humanities in 1980. He taught English in colleges and universities for 20 years; wrote books on composition and poetry; published articles on Shakespeare, Spenser, and other great writers; and, on the side, did a nifty little freelance writing gig (scientific writing, industrial film scripts, and journalism). John has written poetry since he was very small, works at the craft, and is very much involved in the poetry scene. He won the Academy of American Poets Prize at Stanford in 1980 and was a Fulbright Scholar in 1983–1984. Poetry, with its demand for clarity of vision, concentration of feeling in a small space, and richness of language, helps John be a better editor and writer at the Inquirer. He is the eldest of nine children and is married to Maria-Christina Keller, copy manager of Scientific American and a fine writer herself. They have a daughter, Pilar, and a son, Conor. John also musicks about, as a flutist in a jazz band and a bassist in a zydeco outfit. You can e-mail him at jtimpane@aol.com.

Maureen Watts started her career as a receptionist at a small publishing company in Berkeley, California, after graduating from the University of California at San Diego. From there, she fell into the exciting world of book publicity. The idea for Poetry For Dummies came to Maureen while she was driving over the San Francisco Bay Bridge on a bright day in March. A longtime poetry activist, she is on the board of directors of the National Poetry Association and past president of Small Press Traffic Literary Arts Center. She attributes her love of poetry to long afternoons spent playing in the fields of Illinois as a child. Watts adds literary agent and writer to her job description as head of Watts Communications in San Francisco, California.



To our families and to everyone — from Enheduanna to the pair of eyes on these very words — who loves reading and writing poetry. Let Poetry For Dummies declare our lifelong thanks.


Authors’ Acknowledgments

Creating Poetry For Dummies has taught us that collaboration is the best part of writing. We’d be amiss not to thank all who helped us nose this project over the finish line.

First, thanks go to the Poetry Center at San Francisco State University. Frances Phillips and Professor Robert Glück, board members at the Poetry Center, played instrumental roles in getting this book written, commenting on the manuscript, suggesting poems, and, in many cases, rewriting things until they worked. Special thanks go to Robert Glück for his hard work, particularly with the section titled “Experimental poetry” in Chapter 7, and to Steve Dickison, executive director, and the staff at the Poetry Center, who opened the Center’s resources to us. Special thanks go to Dr. Robert A. Corrigan, President of San Francisco State University, and Maxine Chernoff, chair of the Creative Writing Department at SFSU.

Our friends and editors at Hungry Minds, Inc., saved our necks at many a parlous turn. Elizabeth Kuball, our faithful and brilliant editor, teamed with Kathy Cox, Karen Young, Joyce Pepple, Roxane Cerda, Carmen Krikorian, and Susan Decker kept us on track all the way. Kathy Welton and Hollie McGuire first said “yes” and remained steadfast and enthusiastic from the very beginning. Our technical editor was Paul Hoover of Columbia College Chicago; his kind and patient comments made this a much better book.

Thanks also to Willis Barnstone, Damion Searls, Jerome Rothenberg, Pierre Joris, Dana Gioia, Laura Moriarty, and Chris Satullo for generous and indispensable assistance; Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ed Taylor, and Michael Warr, for reading the manuscript; the Amherst College Archives and Special Collections; the Allen Ginsberg Trust; the National Poetry Association; Scott Tambert of PD Images.com; David Huang, Rob Lee, Chris Felver, and Emily Grossman for their photographs; Richard Linker, Brian Rowling, Marjorie Rauen; and Roberta Greifer and Lea Rude, librarians at the Noe Valley Library for their research assistance; Linda Jarkesy for the case study of her poem “The Bed”; Charles Bernstein, Maxine Chernoff, Kelly Holt, Daniel J. Langton, Bernadette Mayer, Brighde Mullins, and Eileen Myles for their permission to use their writing exercises. Watts thanks Timpane, and Timpane thanks Watts.

Special thanks goes to Elizabeth Vahlsing and Tom Southern of Boaz Press, who let Timpane out of his cage long enough to type up the book, and to Chris Van Buren and Nancy Webb for special guidance and never-ending support.

Special thanks go to Elizabeth Vahlsing and Tom Southern of Boaz Press, who let Timpane out of his cage long enough to type up the book, and to Chris Van Buren and Nancy Webb for guidance and never-ending support through the whole project.


Publisher’s Acknowledgments

We’re proud of this book; please send us your comments through our online registration form located at www.dummies.com/register

Some of the people who helped bring this book to market include the following:Acquisitions, Editorial, and Media Development

Project Editor: Elizabeth Netedu Kuball

Acquisitions Editors: Susan Decker, Roxane Stanfield, Joyce Pepple, Holly McGuire

Technical Editor: Paul Hoover

Senior Permissions Editor: Carmen Krikorian

Editorial Manager: Jennifer Ehrlich

Media Development Manager: Laura Carpenter

Editorial Assistant: Carol Strickland

Reprint Editor: Michelle Hacker

Cover Photo: The Stock Market, © Chuck Keller, Jr./TSM


Project Coordinator: Dale White

Layout and Graphics: Amy Adrian, LeAndra Johnson, Brian Massey, Jeremey Unger, Erin Zeltner

Proofreaders: Jennifer Mahern, Susan Moritz, Marianne Santy

Indexer: Joan Griffitts

Special Help Kristin A. Cocks Publishing and Editorial for Consumer Dummies

Diane Graves Steele, Vice President and Publisher, Consumer Dummies

Joyce Pepple, Acquisitions Director, Consumer Dummies

Kristin A. Cocks, Product Development Director, Consumer Dummies

Michael Spring, Vice President and Publisher, Travel

Brice Gosnell, Publishing Director, Travel

Suzanne Jannetta, Editorial Director, Travel

Publishing for Technology Dummies

Richard Swadley, Vice President and Executive Group Publisher

Andy Cummings, Vice President and Publisher

Composition Services

Gerry Fahey, Vice President of Production Services

Debbie Stailey, Director of Composition Services




About This Book

How This Book Is Organized

Icons Used in This Book

Where to Go from Here

Part I : Reading and Understanding Poetry

Chapter 1: Poetry 101

What Is Poetry and Why Do People Write It?

Bringing Poetry into Your Life

Reading Poetry Aloud

Writing Poetry

Chapter 2: Subject, Tone, and Narrative

Understanding Subject and Tone

Figuring Out a Poem’s Narrative

Chapter 3: Tuning In to Language

Why You Need to Snuggle Up to Language

Tools of Significance: Symbols, Similes, Metaphors, and Allusions

Music: What You Hear, Feel, and See

The Shape of the Poem: Visual Rhythm

Chapter 4: The Art of Interpretation

Reading at a Deeper Level

Speculating as You Read

Mastering Three Steps to Interpretation

Paying Attention to Subject and Tone

Looking at Language

Listening to the Music in a Poem

Using Narrative Elements as You Interpret

Chapter 5: Connecting with Poems from the Past

Gathering the Tools You Need

Facing the Challenges of Older Poetry

Three Steps to Reading Older Poetry

Part II : In the Beginning Was a Poem

Chapter 6: An Intelligent Hustle through Poetic History: From the Earliest Poetry to the 1700s

The Pre-Homeric Period (3,000 b.c. – 1,000 b.c. )

The Biblical/Homeric Period (1,000 b.c. –400 b.c. )

The Classical Period (750 b.c. – a.d. 476)

Dark and Golden Ages ( a.d. 476–1000)

The Middle Ages (1000–1450)

The Renaissance (1450–1674)

The 18th Century

Chapter 7: An Intelligent Hustle through Poetic History: The 19th Century to the Present

The 19th Century

The 20th Century

Part III : Writing Poetry: A Guide for Aspiring Poets

Chapter 8: Calling the Muse

How to Live If You Want to Be a Poet

Reading Like a Poet

Writing Like a Poet

Getting Connected to the World of Poetry

Chapter 9: Writing Open-Form Poetry

Understanding Open-Form Poetry

Knowing the Rules of the Open Form

Using the Open Form in Your Own Writing

Chapter 10: Working with Traditional Forms of Verse






Chapter 11: Putting Pen to Paper: Writing Exercises for Poets

Writing in a Journal to Improve Your Poetry

Discovering Your Own Poetry

Using Description in Your Poetry

Generating Material with Divergent Thinking

Revising Your Poetry

Collaborating with Other Writers

Chapter 12: Going Public with Your Poetry

Starting a Reading or Writing Group

Reading Your Poetry in Public

Participating in Your Local Poetry Community

Chapter 13: Getting Published

Submitting Your Poetry to Journals, Literary Magazines, and Web-Based Publications

Taking Advantage of Internet Publishing

Being Aware of Publishing Pitfalls

Self-Publishing Your Poetry

Part IV : The Part of Tens

Chapter 14: Ten Myths about Poets and Poetry

Poetry Is Only for Intellectuals and Academics

Poetry Is . . . Well, Hard

You Can’t Make Any Money Writing Poetry

No Poetry More Than 20 Minutes Old Can Possibly Have Anything to Say Today

Poetry Is for Soft, Sensitive, Emotional Types

Rhyme Is So Ten Minutes Ago

There’s No “Right” Way to Read a Poem

Writing Poetry Is Essentially a Solitary Act

Poetry Is So Literary

Anything You Want to Write Is Poetry

Chapter 15: Ten Poems Worth Memorizing

Sonnet 73 by William Shakespeare (1564–1616)

“A Crown Of Sonnets Dedicated to Love #1” by Lady Mary Wroth (1587?–1651?)

Psalm 23 (King James Version, 1611)

Three Haiku by Chiyo (1703–1775)

“The Tyger” by William Blake (1757–1828)

“Kubla Khan” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834)

Poem 986 by Emily Dickinson (1830–1886)

“Spring and Fall” by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889)

“Sea Rose” by H.D. (1886–1961)

“One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop (1911–1979)

Chapter 16: Ten Love Poems

“He Is More Than a Hero” by Sappho (About 610–580 b.c. )

“If Someone Would Come” by Lady Izumi Shikibu (970–1030)

“Western Wind” by Anonymous (About the 15th Century)

Sonnet 61 from Idea by Michael Drayton (1563–1631)

“When I Heard at the Close of the Day” by Walt Whitman (1819–1892)

Poem 640 by Emily Dickinson (1830–1886)

“A Negro Love Song” by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906)

“Leaning Into the Afternoons” by Pablo Neruda (1904–1973)

“The Business” by Robert Creeley (1926– )

“A Kind of Loss” by Ingeborg Bachmann (1926–1973)

Part V : Appendixes

Appendix A: Glossary

Appendix B: Poetry Timeline

Prehomeric Era

Homeric Era

Classical Era

Dark and Golden Ages

Middle Ages


18th and 19th Centuries

20th Century

21st Century

Appendix C: Resources







Suppose you invented a way to concentrate all the best things people ever thought and felt into a very few words. And suppose you did something to those words to make them pleasant, beautiful, unforgettable, and moving. Suppose this invention could get people to notice more of their own lives, sharpen their awareness, pay attention to things they’d never really considered before. Suppose it could make their lives — and them — better.

You’d really have something there.

Well, don’t look now, but that invention has been around for at least 5,000 years — probably more. Millions of people love it and make it part of their lives. They turn to it when they need a smile, a lift, a moment of thoughtfulness. And millions of people write it, too.

What is this fantastic creation? Poetry. And it includes the work of Homer, Sappho, Kalidasa, Dante, Shakespeare, Ono no Komachi, Keats, Basho, Byron, Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, Yeats, Plath, Ginsberg, Amiri Imamu Baraka, Adrienne Rich, Gerald Stern, Lucille Clifton, and many others. It’s been a great five millennia, and we’re starting the sixth in better shape than ever.

Poetry saw a tremendous surge in popularity at the end of the 20th century — from Magnetic Poetry mania to the explosion of poetry slams across the country to an increased public appreciation of poets. And here in the 21st century, poetry continues to win more and more people over. And why not? It’s great stuff.

We love poetry so much that we wrote this book. Most poets write poems for anyone willing to read and listen. But sometimes between the poet’s notebook and the listening public a break occurs. Our hope and vision was to offer a book that gets past the things that sometimes divide poets and readers, things like technique, style, and school or genre, and the random distribution of books, poetry books, and journals.

Our goal in writing Poetry For Dummies was to bridge the literary gaps and throw open the doors of poetry — past, present, and future — to all. And, our hope is that if you say you “don’t get” poetry or “don’t like” poetry, this book just may change your mind.

Oh, and one promise: If you let poetry into your life — if you read aloud and read attentively, discover how to interpret poetry for yourself — you’ll start seeing benefits, including a broader life, a more sensitive awareness, and a more flexible spirit.

If you are a poet or want to try your hand at poetry, welcome to an ancient and ever-changing craft with many traditions, rewards, and challenges.

About This Book

Poetry For Dummies is for everyone. In these pages, we serve as your guides in the art of reading and interpreting poetry. We hope you will discover poets you haven’t heard of or read before, revisit some old favorites, and pick up some pointers on poetry that will bring you a new understanding and enjoyment of the art.

Besides being a good introduction to the history of world poetry, Poetry For Dummies also offers a lot of practical information, too. Not sure of a literary term? Check our glossary in Appendix A. Looking for poetry on the Web? Our resource guide in Appendix C will point you in the direction of a few good places to start. Have a poem you’ve written that you want to get out into the world? Read Chapter 13 for information and tips on how to get out and read your poem to an audience or send it out for publication.

You can use this book’s many writing exercises to brush up on your writing skills, add structure to your writing life, or help you break out of writer’s block. Have a broken heart and want to write a traditional poem to bring your loved one back? Check out the section on writing sonnets and traditional forms (we offer no guarantees, of course).

When you start thinking about poetry, you will notice it’s all around you. We give you tips on where to find poetry, where to find poetry readings and other events, and which journals to pick up if you want to read the latest poetry being published.

These are just a few of the ways you can make use of this book. The rest, as they say, is up to you.

How This Book Is Organized

This book does four things at once:

bullet It introduces you to reading and interpreting poetry.

bullet It introduces you to writing poetry.

bullet It tells you about poetry history, movements, and techniques.

bullet It guides you to good ways to find out more about poetry (organizations and magazines devoted to poets and poetry, as well as Web sites and places to attend readings).

This book does have a logical organization, and we invite you to use it. But by all means, be your own guide. Go straight to the parts you find most interesting. Flip through. See what looks good. If a poem beckons you, stop and read it. We’ll wait.

A good beginning is Chapter 1, our all-purpose introduction to the art. We lay a special emphasis on reading aloud, a skill many people haven’t exercised since they left grade school. We help you get your reading muscles in shape and ready for any poem that comes your way. And we close with a writing exercise for readers who can’t wait to start writing their own poetry.

The following sections explain how the book is broken down and lets you know what you can expect to find in each part.

Part I: Reading and Understanding Poetry

What is poetry, anyway? Where does it come from and why is it important? In this part, we define poetry and discuss where it stands at the beginning of the 21st century. Here you also find a short course on the essential skill of reading aloud (the best way to get to know poetry).

Reading poems is fine. But thinking about what they mean and how the poets got to that meaning is even better. So in Chapters 2 and 3, we look at how poems work. We survey the elements that make up poetry, beginning with the ways poets work with language, including the many varieties of metaphor, symbol, speaker, and situation. Then we move to subject and tone.

Chapter 4 talks about interpretation — the best way to get the most out of the poems you read. Becoming a good interpreter of poetry means paying attention to what you think, becoming more alert and sensitive, and being very aware of detail and implication.

Some of the greatest poetry in history comes to us from poets of long ago. But we are readers of now, and most of us need a few special skills to get the most out of poems from the past. Those skills are the heart and soul of Chapter 5.

Part II: In the Beginning Was a Poem

In this part, you get to flip through the family photos, so to speak. We figured you would want a little background on the whole endeavor, so we load everybody on a bus and roar, tilting from side to side, through a quick tour of the 5,000 years of poetry. It has been an eventful 5,000 years, we can tell you that. And of all these poetic centuries, the 20th may have been most poetic of all. We look forward to an even more poetic 21st! Our tour of poetic history is global because poetry is global — so you’ll read about the poetry of India, China, Japan, Africa, and South America and discover their greats and golden ages alongside Europe and the United States.

Part III: Writing Poetry: A Guide for Aspiring Poets

Everyone is waiting for the next Shakespeare or Emily Dickinson to appear on the literary horizon. Here we show you a sampling of techniques and good approaches, as well as suggest some standards for you to shoot for. Want to submit your poems for publication? Enter the performance scene? You’ll find some advice on these endeavors, too. The writing exercises collected here should bring out the poet in just about anyone. Warning: Writing poetry can be habit-forming.

Part IV: The Part of Tens

This book wouldn’t be a For Dummies book without a Part of Tens. The Part of Tens in this book gives you ten myths about poetry (true and untrue), ten great poems to memorize for life, and ten love poems for you to read and enjoy. This part is the perfect place to turn if you have just a few minutes here or there and want to soak up as much information and poetry as you can. Go to The Part of Tens for your regular quick poetry fix.

Part V: Appendixes

This part is where you can find a glossary of literary and poetic terms and a timeline for the whole history of world poetry.

You’ll also find resources for ways to get even more poetry. We list Web sites that specialize in poetry, locations of poetry centers, and places around the country that offer poetry events of all kinds. We tell you about the big poetry festivals throughout the country (Cowboy poetry? You bet!), and steer you toward some of the major magazines and journals that publish poetry. We also include a brief list of books helpful to readers of poetry and especially aspiring poets.

And then we blow kisses, saddle the mules, cue the organist, and sprint madly around until we melt into the sunset.

Icons Used in This Book

Throughout the book, you will encounter icons, which are the pictures in the margin that alert you to a special feature, or a piece of information, advice, or instruction. They’re meant to help direct you to the indispensable moments, the absolute honey of the book. We use the following seven icons:


This is one icon you see a lot of throughout this book. Whenever we quote a passage, we mean for you to read it aloud. Poetry is meant to be read aloud for the best and fullest effect. This is your opportunity to give your voice to poetry. And if you seize that opportunity, you’ll get the most out of Poetry For Dummies.


When you see this icon, you can count on finding an essential bit of advice that will make you a better reader, interpreter, or writer of poetry.


This icon points to historical or technical information of great value. So open up your brain and get ready to get technical. But if you’re just looking for the basics on a subject, you can skip over the information flagged by this icon and come back later when you have more time.


Some thoughts are simply essential, such as the sentence, “Poetry is meant to be read aloud.” Because such sentences appear more than once, we tag them with this icon so you remember to put them in your brain for keeps.


When you see this icon, you know to avoid the idea or habit it highlights. Or at least handle the topic gently.


This icon alerts you to lists of sources for some of the greatest poetry in history. You don’t have to read all these books — but if you’re wondering, “What’s so great about Homer?” or “Who is this Emily Dickinson anyway?” an excellent way to find the answer is to sit down and read a few lines. So fill your bookbag and fill your mind!


The gal in this icon is Calliope, one of the Greek muses of poetry and, fittingly enough, the head of all the muses. She pops up whenever we encounter something truly inspiring, when you can really see the insight and invigoration of poetry happening right before your eyes.

Where to Go from Here

Poetry is for everyone. Poets write for the world, which, last time we checked, is where you live. And knowing about poetry can make your world better.

The idea is not to know it all; nobody ever could. The idea is to get started, to discover a little about how poetry works and how writing poetry works, and then blaze your own path. Think of this book as your first step in forging your very own personal taste in poetry, or in exploring your own powers as a poet. Talk about the thrill of beginnings! So what are you waiting for? Turn the page and dive right in.

Part I

Reading and Understanding Poetry

In this part . . .

In the chapters in this part, we dissect poetry into its basic elements. Here you find out why attention to each element is essential if you want to fully appreciate and understand poetry. We take you on a tour through subject and tone and point out the essential tools of the storyteller’s art. We give a short course on sound in poetry and how poets orchestrate the music of words. And then we get to the good stuff: the art of interpretation itself. You’ll discover how to speculate about a poem’s meaning and recognize the implications of that meaning. Finally, we give you a short course on reading poems of the past — and understanding language that may not be second nature to you. In these chapters, you get a sense of the poem’s impact on you as a reader.