The Craft of Poetry: A Bibliography of Resources in English (Introduction)

Few fields have ever been transformed by bibliographical work in the way that literary prosody was changed by the publication of T. V. F. Brogan’s English Versification, 1570 – 1980: A Reference Guide with a Global Appendix (or EVRG” to its admirers).  It is no exaggeration to say that what Brogan accomplished is comparable to what Samuel Johnson did when he wrote his dictionary.  Over the course of three years, Brogan read, organized, indexed, cross-indexed, and pithily critiqued over 6,000 works of literary prosody in 15 categories (recording his observations…on index cards), a feat never accomplished (or even undertaken) in the history of a field that stretches back at least to Plato and Aristotle.  Although Brogan focuses on English, he also includes more than 2,000 entries that discuss more than thirty other languages as well.  Anyone who is remotely interested in the study of literary prosody – indeed, of poetry – should own this book.  It is a completely original study, one of the indisputable works of genius in the field of literary study over the last fifty years.  Brogan’s organizational intelligence is so accurate and graceful that he created entire realms of new knowledge simply by describing and collating what already existed.

Much has happened in the nearly thirty years since Brogan published his book (including the 1993 publication of the third edition The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, which Brogan edited and which still stands as the single best general reference work of its kind).  Among other things, “explosion” is not too strong a term to use when describing the proliferation of poetry handbooks, manuals, dictionaries and encyclopedias since Brogan’s bibliography appeared.  The bibliography presented here includes 164 such works, of which Brogan discusses only perhaps a score or so, as most have appeared since 1980.  Of these works, more than 80 were published or appeared in new editions in the 1990s and more than 60 have been published or appeared in new editions since 2000.  The pace hardly seems to be slowing, as each of the last five years has seen an average of six new volumes or new editions, with at least eight titles in 2006 alone.  I would like to think that if Brogan were to produce a new edition of EVRG, he would therefore consider including the craft handbook as a category in its own right, for there are now far more poetry handbooks, manuals, dictionaries, encyclopedias, general reference guides, and similar teaching resources available in print than ever before – well over 100.  Further, all of the works from this bibliography not currently in print are readily available through the on-line used-book market; and all of this doesn’t even begin to take account of the bewildering and ever-shifting resources available on-line, some of which are quite strong.[1]

The foregoing leads to several observations.  The first is that despite the well-documented and endlessly discouraging news about declining rates of literacy (as documented in the NEA’s Reading at Risk, Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation, in the work of Sandy Stotsky and elsewhere), and despite the commotion that electronic communication is causing in the publishing industry, there is nonetheless a viable, complex, diverse market for books that teachers and students can use to learn how to write poetry.  This could be the result of Brogan’s influence in and of itself, even if that influence is a few degrees separated from the source in most of the books included here.  It might also reflect the influence of the New Formalism, not only its poetry, but its criticism, publishing organs, teaching influence, conferences, and so on.  (At least 18 people who have attended the annual West Chester University Poetry Conference, a major conference for poets interested in versecraft, have authored or co-authored books in this bibliography.)  The third might be the tremendous growth since the 1970s of undergraduate and graduate programs in creative writing, which now number well over 400.  Whatever the quality and effects of the MFA programs, they have probably contributed to a growing market of readers and teachers who want works with which to teach poetry and study its craft.

The number of books on this bibliography does surprise.  When I began this project, I expected there would be thirty or forty new volumes over the last several decades and it would make sense to organize them chronologically.  As the project grew, the chronological system became unwieldy and it began to make more sense to attempt to group like with like.  Of the 164 entries, I have so far been able to take a close look at about half, including most of the major works in the more technically oriented categories (the K-12 books are the most difficult to track down).  A number of others were easy to categorize because they are explicitly oriented towards particular audiences and because their tables of contents, excerpts, and responses are available on the web.  A full critical bibliography, which would be a tremendous resource for poets and teachers, remains to be written.

There are several things which the handbook bibliography is, and several which it is not.  The primary criterion for inclusion is rhetorical.  Either an author invokes the rhetoric of a reference work (common terms in such titles include “encyclopedia,” “dictionary,” “handbook,” or “manual”); or offers a more discursive but nevertheless practical guide for those who would like to write poetry (common terms here include “guide” or “introduction” or the phrases “how to” and “writing poetry”); or the work is clearly marketed as a textbook that emphasizes poetic forms and compositional process (almost always rhetorically conveyed via layout and organization); or is a collection of exercises or examples; or identifies itself as a comprehensive and wide-ranging pedagogical guide for teachers and, in the case of poetry therapy, for psychologists, therapists and social workers.  Few if any of the books purport to offer original research or new knowledge, although some do provide excellent critical and scholarly work in passing; few, if any, are primarily theoretical or critical in terms of their approaches to the reading of poems.  Virtually all are in some sense pedagogical, and as a result all exude a bracing optimism even when they are contentious (or wrong-headed).  They are books written by believers; almost all of the writers describe themselves as poets and/or teachers, and many are quite well-known.  Their purpose is everywhere heuristic.

The bibliography’s focus is on English and American poetry, though there are some books that treat other languages as well.  The categories into which the books have been placed are meant to be practical and useful for anyone who teaches poetry in English at any level or who wishes to study it on his or her own.  The bibliography should also be of some use to scholars of literary prosody in English and to those interested in trends in literary education.  The categories are not absolute.  Reasonable people could disagree about where to place some of the works, or even about how to structure the categories in the first place, for while I hope the core of each category is clear, they blend in to each other at the boundaries.  Again, the point is to be useful, not definitive.

Another way to think about the bibliography is to consider the sometimes difficult choice of what to exclude.  To begin with, it might have made sense to consider only works that were judged to foreground metrical concerns and verse forms, but in practice that boundary became quite difficult to draw and instead it seems useful to include as full a range as possible.  As a result, I chose to include every book-length work whose author presents it as a comprehensive reference, manual, handbook or teacher’s guide.  One boundary therefore occurs where an author would talk more generally about all the arts, leaving any sense of technical instruction behind.  At this point, therefore, the bibliography does not include general studies of creativity in the arts even if they touch on poetry, as the list would then lose its practical and critical utility.  With the exception of Claude Lancelot’s influential 1663 treatise in French, it does not include works in or about languages other than English, although many of the works of course discuss other languages, as they must in order to discuss English.  It does not include historical studies, textual criticism, or scholarship about poetry in English, even if this work may have powerful implications for writing poetry.  Also excluded are works that may be pedagogical but focus explicitly on the reading and appreciation of poems rather than the writing of them.  There are no general introductions, no appendices on craft, no familiar essays or informal and impressionistic discussions about poetics.  There are no interviews or essays and articles from journals.  With a few important exceptions (generally because of foundational influence, e.g. Gascoigne), there are no mere chapters or sections from larger books, no matter how good they may be.  There are no works that focus on single forms or smaller groups of forms.  I also excluded certain kinds of reference works, such as rhyming dictionaries, that have limited use.  In short, the works are bound together by their structure and rhetoric: almost all are book-length works that focus closely on what the author sees as a comprehensive or at least broadly gauged practice and pedagogy of poetry composition, whether that pedagogy addresses the reader directly or is supposed to be mediated by another teacher.

This bibliography should therefore be of interest not only to poets and scholars of literary prosody, but also to creative writing teachers and to anyone interested in rhetoric and composition generally, as the teaching of how to write poetry should – rather obviously – bear a strong relation to the teaching of writing generally, a relation often obscured by the departmental inertia of educational institutions.  Indeed, one book included here, Thirteen Ways of Looking for a Poem: A Guide to Writing Poetry (1999) is by Wendy Bishop, who was an influential figure in the development of Rhetoric and Composition studies in higher education over the last 25 years.

Despite the restraints outlined above, there is still tremendous variety among the works, both in terms of approach and quality.  Works range from introductory workbooks for primary school students up to Mary Kinzie’s 560-page A Poet’s Guide to Poetry and the doorstop-sized New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics.  There are many different levels of discursiveness.  There are books that consist almost entirely of examples, books with frequent examples, and those without any.  There are widely varying systems of organization.  There are radically different rhetorical approaches to different kinds of audiences and there is of course a huge range in quality, from splendid to stupid, some instances of which will be described below.

No work has been excluded from the list based on critical judgment, for the aim is to be as comprehensive as possible.  There are, however, some major assumptions that inform the organization of the list, the first having to do with subject matter, the second with rhetoric.  The assumption about subject matter is that the craft of verse is essential to the art of poetry.  Attention to formal matters of meter and verseform is therefore one important axis of the categories in the bibliography.  The rhetorical assumption has to do with audience, which is why the works have been separated into groups which have different pedagogical purposes, e.g., the general public, K-12, higher education, and poetry therapy.

Part 1, “Precursors,” is the only one organized chronologically and is divided into two sections, “England” (13 entries) and “America” (11 entries).  Most of these works appear in EVRG, and there are surely some worthy books left off this list, but those included do suggest the continuity of major handbooks and manuals produced in English since the 16th century.  The list is not meant to be exhaustive as the emphasis in this essay is on works that are currently in print; still it is important to note that poets and educators who write poetry handbooks are working in a tradition that stretches back quite far and this list includes many of the major titles since the mid-sixteenth century.  Indeed, if we went back far enough we would even have to include works like St. Augustine’s De Musica, which is itself organized somewhat like a handbook of meters, but the only non-English work included here is, as noted above, Claude Lancelot’s 1663 work in French, Quatre Traitez de Pöesies, because of its uncontested and direct influence on Bysshe and Poole, an influence which survives through them to this day.  Perhaps most important to note here is the recent publication of an affordable critical edition of Puttenham’s 1589 The Art of English Poesy, the mother of all major poetry handbooks in English (far more extended than Gascoigne) and a volume that still contains many worthwhile and fascinating passages for the scholar, the historian and the working poet.  Every poet writing in English who has an interest in the development of the craft should read this book,[2] and, on the American side, also take a look at Untermeyer’s books and at Hillyer’s important work.  Anne Hamilton’s How to Revise Your Own Poems: A Primer for Poets, which was first published in 1936, remains surprisingly readable and wise.  Perhaps the most impressive on this side of the Atlantic is Clement Wood’s 466-page Poets’ Hand Book of 1940.  Wood published a wide range of such reference works, revising throughout his life and working with a number of collaborators.  While one may object to much of his rigidly classicist terminology and scansion, the thoroughness and intelligence of this work still.  Wood’s chapter V, “Stanza Patterns” is filled with fascinating examples rarely read now.  Any serious poet could still read this entire book with profit.

Part 2, “Handbooks and Reference Guides that Foreground Meter and Verse Forms,” includes 33 books published since the 1960s that could be characterized as the most rigorous and thorough attempts to anatomize versecraft in English.  These are writers, mostly poets, who would probably second Michael Bugeja’s comment in his 1994 volume The Art and Craft of Poetry (published, it is worth noting, by Reader’s Digest Press and therefore marketed to a wide audience), that “I fell in love with poetry because of meter” (188).  All of these books treat meter and verseform in great detail, although there is a wide range of approaches.  If publication history is any indicator, Babette Deutsche’s Poetry Handbook, first published in 1957, may still be the most widely read, perhaps in a tie with Paul Fussell’s Poetic Meter & Poetic Form, which first appeared in 1965 and Lewis Turco’s Book of Forms, which was first published in 1968 and which has appeared in many expanded and revised editions since then.  Other indispensable books from this section are probably the Brogan edition of The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics and John Hollander’s witty Rhyme’s Reason.  Brogan’s favorite in 1980 was Beum and Shapiro’s Prosody Handbook of 1965, which was republished just in 2006.  (A number of West Chester conference regulars have also made important contributions, including William Baer, David Caplan and Alfred Corn.)  Some other works that are not as well known but perhaps deserve to be are Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled and O. E. Parrott’s exceptionally witty How to Be Well-Versed in Poetry, a collection of poems by many hands, all of which, like Hollander’s in Rhyme’s Reason, discuss the forms in which they are written.  There are also obscure gems, such as Leonardo Malcovati’s Prosody in England and Elsewhere (2005), which is deliciously feisty.  Malcovati describes the modern cinquain as:

…a poem of five unrhymed lines, the first of which has two syllables, the second four, the third six, the fourth eight, and the last, again, two, as in:

My friend,

there’s no saying

which sort of children games,

or choices of line breaks is verse


People in the United States seem to love this form, but it is sometimes used in England as well, with equally horrid results.

Serious students of poetic form and poetry pedagogy should consider reading every book in this category.

Committed students of craft should also probably read everything in Part 3, “Discursive Introductions that Foreground Meter and/or Verse Forms.”  These eight works (many authored by West Chester conference attendees including Derek Attridge, Tom Carper, Annie Finch, Kathrine Varnes and Tim Steele), are not set up as handbooks, textbooks or manuals per se, but do have indices and tables of contents that allow them to be used more or less in that way.  Taken together, the works in parts 1, 2, and 3 constitute a fairly definitive corpus of introductory overview works on English meter and verse forms currently available.  It is also worth observing that most of these excellent books have appeared in the last 15 years, transforming the field.

Part 4, “Handbooks in which Discussions of Meter and Verse Forms Are Secondary” was the most difficult to organize.  It is divided into two sections, “A) Handbooks that include substantial sections on Meter and/or Verse Forms” (10 entries) and the highly contentious “B) Handbooks with less emphasis on Meter and/or Verse Forms” (33 entries).  Somewhere in this work is the fuzzy line where the books cross over from paying close attention to meter and verseform to either benign neglect or dismissal, and then, of course, gross mischaracterization and outright warfare against the study of metrics and verseforms for aspiring poets.

At the same time, including a book in this part of the bibliography should emphatically not be construed as a judgment of quality.  Indeed, many of the books in part 4 (a number of which have been written by West Chester attendees such as Robert McDowell, Diane Thiel and Kim Addonizio), are outstanding books that say some wise things about metrics and verse, but instead focus on more comprehensive questions of poetic composition, such as strategies for generating content, the process of writing, questions of imagery, tone, the spiritual and emotional functions of art, and so on.

Further, there are a number of surprisingly good books in both categories that deserve more attention.  For example, here is a passage from a book by Nikki Moustaki, published in 2001:

Meter is an ordering and unifying element in poetry that mimics and heightens the rhythms of our speech and the rhythms of the natural world around us.  Certainly, you can use other ways to organize poems: repetition, stanza forms, other musical elements, and syntactical structure.  However, meter is closer to us as human beings; it’s available inside our language, inside the words we us to create poems, and is one of the most fundamental tools poets have to “make sense” of their verse.

This passage, which echoes John Thompson’s elegant formulation of English metrics in The Founding of English Meter, appears in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing Poetry, a far better work than its title suggests.

One of Mary Oliver’s books also appears in Part 4A, A Poetry Handbook: A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry (1994).  Those who only know Oliver’s poetry may be surprised at the forceful way in which she advocates the study of  metrics:

Acquaintance with the main body of English poetry is absolutely essential – it is clearly the whole cake, while what has been written in the last hundred years or so, without meter, is no more than an icing.  And, indeed, I do not really mean an acquaintanceship – I mean an engrossed and able affinity with metrical verse.  To be without this felt sensitivity to a poem as a structure of lines and rhythmic energy and repetitive sound is to be forever less equipped, less deft than the poet who dreams of making a new thing can afford to be.

The middle terrain might be characterized by a book like Jeff Mock’s You Can Write Poetry, a sensible work that treats meter and verse form thoughtfully, but in a relatively brief section that doesn’t begin until his sixth chapter (out of eleven).  His Chapter 8, “Form and Free Verse” is quite brief–only 16 pages–and all the rest of the chapters, like many of those in the books that typify Part 4B, are about process, inspiration, pursuing publication, and so on.  This is not meant as a criticism of Mock’s book, which has its charms – but it is to point out that treatment of the nuts and bolts of poetic language is secondary.

While there are other strong works in 4B (notably all the books by the West Chester writers mentioned above, along with well-made studies of poetic inspiration and compositional process by poets such as Ted Kooser, Kenneth Koch, and W. D. Snodgrass), there are many other books in this part that either eschew any sustained discussion of metrics, are misleading, or even display spiky hostility to any study of metrics and verseform.  Many of these works take an organicist and ultra-romantic approach to poetic composition, which presumably derives in its longest view from weak misreadings of Emerson by way of Wordsworth and Rousseau.  While most of the authors do have compelling things to say about the sources of inspiration and strategies for composition and the generation of content, there is generally a strong underlying polemic in many such works against the teaching, study, and use of traditional metrics and verseform as restrictive and spiritually debilitating.

A few examples are in order.  In The Mind’s Eye: A Guide to Writing Poetry (2008), Kevin Clark writes that “Most poets believe that the imagination can catalyze magically surprising language without the presence of predetermined structures.”  Note the ancient canard that metrical forms have “predetermined structures” whereas free verse poems do not.  While Clark claims to be even-handed, writing that “skilled formal poets can use the demands of form to innovate,” he devotes only about 20 pages out of 250 to any discussion of traditional forms.  Other chapters deal with subject matter and more general notions of writing process and have titles such as “Conflict and Transformation,” “Do Poems Have Plot?” “Empathy and Creativity,” “Poetry and Eros” and so on.  These kinds of subject headings are typical of a wide range of similar guides.

Other writers are even more blunt than Clark about their criticisms of metrics and verse form.  In Creating Poetry (1991), John Drury does review a number of metrical forms for about 30 pages, but concludes “The problem with many “fixed forms” is that they are so rigid they don’t give the poetic imagination much freedom or provocation.  They are more for the puzzle-maker, the ingenious turner of phrases.” In The Poetry Reader’s Toolkit: A Guide to Reading and Understanding Poetry (1998), Marc Polonsky offers only a few pages on metrics and verseforms and concludes that “It is unnecessary to study or memorize…different meters to appreciate poetry.  What is important is to notice rhythms.”  In response to this, it is hard to resist asking how, exactly, one is to discuss such rhythms if one doesn’t know their names.  To cite but one more, in In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poet’s Portable Workshop (1995), Steve Kowit tautologically proclaims that “Freed of its formal conventions, poetry in English today permits the greatest possible freedom,” which makes one wonder why one might not take the next logical step and avoid art altogether, thereby becoming even more free.

There are indeed some authors who do seem to take Kowit’s advice and take even a further step away from metrics and versecraft, such as Sandford Lyne.  His Writing Poetry from the Inside Out (2007), subtitled “finding your voice through the craft of poetry,” weighs in at 276 pages, yet in this work supposedly about craft there is absolutely no discussion of metrics or traditional verseforms–not even a dismissal!–which seems odd in a book about poetry by a man named “Lyne.”  Like many other writers in this vein, Lyne instead focuses on the organicist notion that “the free verse poem must search out its form.”  That may be true for an advanced poet, but one would like to give some of the authors in 4B some of the work from parts 1 through 3, such as John Whitworth’s Writing Poetry (2001), where he quite sensibly writes:

The…Movement For Getting Rid Of Metre is…falling out of fashion, and a good thing too.  You can write a poem and know nothing of metrics, just as can play a piano and be unable to read music.  But why choose ignorance?  Knowledge of metrics may not make a poet out of you – but it will teach you to versify and that is a skill worth having.

Indeed the organicist fallacy of verse as pure rhythm was addressed long ago.  As Robert Bridges famously pointed out in the 1921 edition of his study Milton’s Prosody, when responding to Skeat’s’ edition of Chaucer:

The fact that rhythm is so much more evident than prosody, and is felt to lie so much nearer to the poetic effects, inclines people to think that prosody is pedantic rubbish, which can only hamper the natural expression of free thought and so on. But in all arts the part that can be taught is the dry detail of the material which has to be conquered; and it is no honour to an art to despise its grammar.

As all of this suggests, part 4B of the bibliography brings together the widest variety of approaches, and is an arena where formalists and organicists stand rather uneasily side by side.  It could be further subdivided for clarity, perhaps into 4B, “Guides that Treat Meter in Passing”; 4C, “Guides by Authors Who Despise Metrics”; and 4D, “Guides by Authors who Refuse to Acknowledge that Meter Exists.”

Part 5, “Textbooks, Workbooks and Teacher Guides,” again has two parts: “K-12” (38 entries), and “Advanced High School / College” (11 entries).  This section is perhaps less thorough than some of the others, as there are many works, especially in K-12, published by small educational houses that are generally not available in libraries and therefore difficult to track down.  Still, a number of trends are clear.  Many of the major college texts listed in part 5B (again with strong representation by West Chester faculty and speakers such as Dave Mason, X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia) are well-known, useful and thorough.  Behn and Twichell’s The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises from Poets Who Teach (1992), offers a wide range of exercises (again with a number of West Chester faculty) although most do not focus on metrical forms.

The K-12 Category is more complex.  The books range from small pamphlets for primary school students, up to longer works for older students and their teachers.  Many of the books take an enthusiastically organicist approach and, despite their enthusiasm, therefore do children something of a disservice by failing to channel their apparently natural impulse to acquire specific skills and to create orderly things.  In this they suggest a dance class where dances are named, but not steps; or an art class where subjects are named, but not colors; or a music class where songs are named, but not notes.  Typical of this is Ralph Fletcher’s Poetry Matters: Writing a Poem from the Inside Out (2002), an ambitious and in many ways charming book which does not address meter and verseform directly until Chapter 11, where Fletcher writes “This book focuses more on the ‘inside’ of poetry (ideas, images, feelings) than on the ‘outside’ (appearance, form).  For this reason I have decided not to delve deeply into poetic forms.”  One would hope that most serious poets (and serious teachers of poetry) would bristle at the notion that words, which is what poems and therefore poetic forms are made out of, are not inside poems (let alone inside the poets themselves, right there with the ideas, images and feelings).  It is hard to resist suggesting to Fletcher that his argument will be accepted as true as soon as he can in fact make it without using any words.

On the other hand, there are a number of authors in 5A who do aspire to teach even the youngest students metrical forms and to help teachers work with them, showing how gracefully this can be done.  Greta Barclay Lipson’s Poetry Writing Handbook: Definitions, Examples, Lessons (1998), designed for grades 4 – 6, offers many succinct and accessible exercises based around both verseforms and tropes (“personification,” “metaphor,” “definition”) and is a strong example of what can be achieved with great charm and technical accuracy in conveying this material to young children.  And do not be misled by the deceptively simple cheerleading title of Glenna Davis Sloan’s Give Them Poetry! A Guide for Sharing Poetry with Children K-8, which is an engaging and sophisticated teacher guide that foregrounds language and language skills clearly and thoughtfully, including accurate and accessible discussion of dozens of traditional and nonce verse forms.  Sloan is a highly respected scholar of K-12 education scholar and was a student of Northrop Frye’s.  In her first chapter, she quotes Frye on the centrality of poetry in literary education:

The greatest fallacy in the current conception of literary education is the notion that prose is the normal language of ordinary speech, and should form the center and staple of literary teaching…the root of the fallacy is the assumption that prose represents the only valid form of thought, and that poetry, considered as thought, is essentially decorated or distorted prose…The main principles of a coherently organized curriculum are simple enough…Poetry should be at the center of all literary training, and literary prose forms the periphery.

Sloan’s book fulfills this promise for teachers of young children as well as any I’ve seen, and both she and Frye affirm the premise that prosody and versification belong at the heart of literary study and pedagogy.

There are several other authors in 5A, such as Paul Janeczko, Kenneth Koch, Ron Padgett, Jack Prelutzky and Shelley Tucker, who have published widely in the field and much of their work is quite strong even if their focus is not on formal matters.  There are also certain houses, such as Teachers and Writers Collaborative, Good Year Books, Scholastic, NCTE and a few others that have made a significant commitment to the field, often tied to one of the specific authors mentioned above.

The K-12 field is a crucial part of this bibliography that deserves more sustained attention from the larger literary world.  With more than 25 of the K-12 titles on the current list published since 1990, the interest is evident.  More of those in the larger literary world and higher education who claim to care about the future of reading and writing poetry should perhaps be paying closer attention to this material and how it is working its way into the classroom, especially in K-8.

Part 6 of the bibliography, “Poetry Therapy Guides” (7 entries) is an important afterthought and merely scratches the surface of what is available, as this field has also developed tremendously in the last several decades, although there is relatively little commerce between it and the mainstream literary world.  Unlike some of the authors in Part 4B, who use an organicist literary language that can at times fade into a pseudo-therapeutic rhetoric of self-discovery and spiritual actualization, the authors of the rigorous poetry therapy volumes are generally working psychotherapists and social workers who use creative writing with their clients as a form of professional treatment.  As a result, their guides tend to focus closely on content and process, as their first concern is for patients rather than poetry as literature per se.  They generally work within particular psychological contexts such as how to address suicidal adolescents, the elderly, or battered women.  A few of the more popular and better-known of these works appear in this bibliography because of the seriousness of the attempts to use art to heal others.  As the emphasis is unabashedly therapeutic, there is a complete absence of literary pretense in the best of these works, such as Nicholas Mazza’s Poetry Therapy: Theory and Practice (2003), a rigorous yet accessible book that itself includes a literary and psychological bibliography of over 300 entries.  Mazza is a strong organicist but also a scholar, citing Brogan’s entry “Verse and Prose” and V. P. Nemoianu’s entry on “Romanticism” from Brogan’s edition of the New Princeton Encyclopedia to justify his own emphasis on content: “…in poetry, form does not supersede content or function.  Heightened emotions and compressed meaning are central to poetry…Consistent with the romantic tradition, a verse form is not required to produce poetry.”  This is obviously a highly contentious point, but the unapologetically formal application of Mazza’s own discipline as a social worker and scholar in explicitly therapeutic settings nevertheless gives his work significant force.

It would be fascinating to be party to a conversation among the stronger writers in the various camps represented in this diverse bibliography.  In particular, it would be interesting to hear someone like Mazza discuss his work with people like Tim Steele and Terry Brogan, Jack Prelutzky and Shelley Tucker, Mary Kinzie, Mary Oliver, and Robert Pinsky, for all of them care quite deeply about the craft of poetry, about teaching others how to write poetry, and even training others to be able to teach it as well.  Such a conversation would be a powerful way to counter the disciplinary balkanization of poetic craft and pedagogy that this bibliography depicts.

One conclusion of this first attempt at a bibliography of books on the craft of poetry in English is therefore to suggest that there should be more conversations among the different camps of those whose works appear on it, and I would suggest that publishers who are interested in this conversation should promote it in books and journals, and those who run conferences where that could happen might consider offering panels where it could occur.

A second conclusion is that the next step to take with this document would be the creation of an on-line critical bibliography Wiki, where errors could be addressed, works that may have been missed could be added, and there could be conversation and discussion.  The purpose of this would be to make the bibliography as comprehensive and useful as possible to students and especially to teachers looking for a single source that draws all of these works together.

To conclude: it is easy for a teacher or writer to become discouraged if one places any stock whatsoever in recent studies of literacy rates, reading habits, and the state of the literature curriculum.  I do not dispute that data.  At the same time, the surprising number and diversity of works in print that address the practical craft of making poems suggest that there are still many, many readers, writers, students and teachers who hunger for the rewards that only verbal art at its highest pitch–poetry–can provide.  The proliferation of handbooks and manuals over the last several decades is proof positive that rumors of the death of literature are greatly exaggerated and that some people still understand–and many more hunger to understand–the foundational importance of verseform in poetry.

Author’s Note: This talk and bibliography were first presented at the 15th Annual West Chester Poetry Conference in June, 2009, in a panel titled “Poetry Handbooks: A Guide to the Perplexed.” The author wishes to thank Mike Peich for accepting this panel, and to thank the other panelists, Dave Mason, Marilyn Taylor and Kathrine Varnes, for their contributions to the panel and to the bibliography. I am also grateful to David Sanders, Anna Evans and Susan Spear for suggesting other works that belong here.

[1] On-line resources also include bibliographies.  Notable among these, in addition to EVRG, is Jeffrey Woodward’s “An Annotated Checklist of English Versification,” which appeared in issue 5 of The Barefoot Muse (  Woodward’s useful and well-organized bibliography can be found at  He presents about 40 essential introductory works with clear commentary.  His category IV, “Versification Manuals” includes nine entries which also appear here, and in other categories he includes another six entries which also appear in the bibliography appended to this essay.

[2] Indeed, serious scholars of the subject of how poets have understood their art and chosen to convey it to others should read all the books in this section, following Brogan’s cogent genealogy.  Because I cannot imagine how it could be improved upon, it is worth quoting at some length Brogan’s entry in EVRG on Dwight A. Culler’s commentary on Bysshe (which Brogan describes as “very likely the most influential handbook ever written”) to get a sense of this:

With immense erudition Culler traces the sources, nature and influences of Bysshe’s enormously influential handbook; indeed, it is not too much to say that Bysshe is the most important prosodic work produced between 1589 (Puttenham) and 1775 (Steele).  Culler shows convincingly that Bysshe was heavily indebted to Joshua Poole’s work, and also that virtually every other poetic handbook, grammar, dictionary, rhyming dictionary and commonplace book of the eighteenth century is derived, usually nearly entirely, from Bysshe.  And through Walker’s later rhyming dictionary, which also is Bysshe’s progeny, he remained a standard source well into the twentieth century.  If we remember that Bysshe meant his book as a reference and a handbook, not a prosodical treatise, we can obtain a rare glimpse of what the poets of the age took as an authority on versification, as opposed to the pronouncements of the scholars, the two being scarcely reconcilable at best.  In terms of prosodic theory, however, Bysshe’s influence was wholly pernicious, and quite extended.  His system is entirely syllabic, basing meter on count of syllables instead of accents or feet.  He obtained this system by lifting it wholesale from Claude Lancelot’s 1663 French treatise Quatre Traitez de Pöesies Latine, Françoise, Italienne, et Espagnole. Thus, Bysshe simply attempted to force-fit the template of Romance prosody onto the English language, ignoring the fact that it did not – never could – fit, thereby perpetrating a misconception that would hold sway until the Romantic era (esp. Chiristabel).  The Classical system would not fit the verse native to England, nor would the French, even though Bysshe could make men believe it for nearly a century.

About David J. Rothman

David J. Rothman was born in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1959. He did his undergraduate work at Harvard and then received an MA in English from the University of Utah and a PhD in English from New York University. He has lived in Crested Butte, Colorado, since 1993. In the 1990s he co-founded and served as the first Executive Director of the Crested Butte Music Festival and then became the third Headmaster of Crested Butte Academy, an independent boarding and day school. He has also served as Executive Director of the Robinson Jeffers Association and is the founding Publisher and Editor of Conundrum Press, a small press devoted to writers of the west, especially poets. Rothman is the author of three books of poetry, Dominion of Shadow (1996), The Elephant’s Chiropractor (1998), which was a finalist for the 1999 Colorado Book Award, and Beauty at Night (2002). He is also the editor of The Geography of Hope: Poets of Colorado’s Western Slope. His poems have appeared in Agni, Appalachia, The Atlantic, The Gettysburg Review, The Kenyon Review, The Literary Review, Mountain Gazette, Poetry, and scores of other journals.
Bookmark the permalink.


  1. John J. Candelaria

    The two articles on The Craft of Poetry are excellent. I am in the process of reading a number of books on meter that are listed in the bibliography. I congratulate David Rothman for his comprehensive approach.

  2. Hi John:

    Many thanks. I’m not a bibliographer by nature — it’s hard work! — but this project just sucked me in. I have another 25 or so entries to add that didn’t make it into that version that I’ll post sometime soon, and I’d be glad to share them with you if you’re curious. You can reach me at [email protected].

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *