The anthology uses example and explanation to demonstrate the excitement and entertainment of various poetic forms, including the sonnet, the ode, the elegy and the pastoral. Included are essays by the editors describing their own personal journeys to a form for their poetic voice. Above all this anthology shows that poetic form is a continuing adventure. Poetic form is illustrated not as a series of rules but as a passionate conversation in which every reader can become involved.
The Making of a Poem
is among the best how-to-read-poetry titles. Edited by two of our greatest living poets, one Irish and female, the other American and male, it is both an exploration of poetic forms and an anthology. Eavan Boland and Mark Strand each offer an introduction and then give us a series of chapters devoted to particular verse forms--the sonnet, the ballad, the sestina, the villanelle, blank verse, the stanza--as well as a long section devoted to what they somewhat vaguely call shaping forms. This refers to poetic structures established not by a specific rhyme and/or metrical pattern but by content: the elegy, for example, or the pastoral or ode. The book then concludes with a section on open forms. Each chapter is conveniently subdivided, each topic simply defined: a single page gives "The Ballad at a Glance" (or, for that matter, the pantoum) as a quick overview of the form's structure. A page or two on the history of the form follows, along with a brief comment on "the contemporary context." Then a chronological anthology of poems demonstrates the particular form. In the sonnet's case, for instance, we are treated to 23 brilliantly chosen examples--everything from Shakespeare's "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" to Seamus Heaney's "The Haw Lantern" to Mary Jo Salter's playful "Half a Double Sonnet." The section then concludes with another brief analysis of one example. In this spot, the villanelle features Elizabeth Bishop's classic heartbreaker, "One Art," and blank verse gives us far too brief a take on Robert Frost's tantalizing "Directive." Itself worth the price of admission, the poem begins:
Back out of all this now too much for us,
Back in a time made simply by the loss
of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather,
There is a house that is no more than a house
Upon a farm that is no more than a farm
And in a town that is no more than a town.
One can readily see both the advantages and the limitations of such a format: definitions are kept lean, at times approaching the sound bite, and the short sentences and brief paragraphs often seem designed for a readership more accustomed to journalism than to the complexities of Dante (see, for example, the one-page history of the sestina). All of this looks like an attempt to reach an audience of both college students and general readers. While more information might help (brief comments on why certain poems in the anthology are defined as odes, pastorals, or elegies, for example), the bottom line is that The Making of a Poem
does an excellent job of taking the inexperienced reader inside the mystery of poetic form. In these terms the volume succeeds, giving us a way into the history of poetry, along with an excellent anthology as a starting point for a deeper exploration of the glories of the genre. --Doug Thorpe