How to Read a Poem

How to Read a Poem

by Burton Raffel
Publisher: Meridian Book
Trade Paperback, 260 pages
Price: $16.00

A seasoned English professor and translator of ancient and medieval texts, Burton Raffel does more than present the mechanics of poetry—with a relaxed narrative voice he guides readers through poetry's joys and despairs, offering commentary and insight toengage even the most reluctant reader in a love and pursuit of poetry.

The first poem Raffel discusses is "Jabberwocky" by Lewis Carroll, indicating just how seriously he takes himself and his subject. He begins with this title to demonstrate how difficult it is to reasonably define poetry to include everything we know to be poetry, from the sonnets of Shakespeare to parodies of nursery rhymes. A working definition is offered—"Poetry is a disciplined, compact verbal utterance, in some more or less musical mode, dealing with aspects of internal or external reality in some meaningful way."—and this becomes the launching place for the rest of the book.

Chapter one is a discussion of the meaning of poetry, what it is and how to determine it. The second chapter is a long essay on metaphor, arguably the heart of poetic expression. From there Raffel examines the structure, style and genre of poems. At the end of each chapter is a mini-appendix of poems relating to the chapter's subject with brief explication. Students learn to scan lines, interpret metaphor, andmanyother invaluable literary skills that can be applied to works beyond the boundaries of poetry.

Raffel's easy style and clear love of his subject are hard to resist. His information is clear and well-organized, and students with limited to moderate experience studying poetry will all find this a useful guide. This is definitely a text for older students or adults: some of the examples contain bawdy humor and adult language. Also, the content is far more difficult than most students under grade 10 are prepared for.

Of all the poetry introductions for older students, this is one of the most popular and also one of the best. It not only thoroughly explains the essentials of studying poetry, the author's love of great poetry is tangible and hard not to share. For students mature enough to deal with both the level of study and the content, this is the best introduction to poetry we offer.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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Exodus Rating
FLAWS: Some bawdy humor, mature examples
Summary: One of the best introductions to understanding and finding the meaning in poetry of all kinds.

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