Those who have read this blog for any length of time know that I’m a sucker for poetry handbooks. I don’t know exactly what my deal is, but as a poet and poetry teacher, I’m always looking for new ways to look at things. So it’s no surprise that when our school librarian picked up a copy of Ted Kooser’s The Poetry Home Repair Manual, I was the first in line to check it out. Okay, there was no line. I’m geeky that way.
This is probably the best beginners poetry handbook that I’ve read. Kooser does a fantastic job of introducing poetry and the role of the poet. Besides the basic explanations of line endings, rhythm, and rhyme, Kooser provides a few great reminders that poets of all experience levels need to remember:
- Pay attention to the details. Watch people. Watch nature. Watch what’s going on around you. Kooser writes that every poet should have enough material to write a lifetime of poems by the time he/she is 8 years old–if we would just pay attention to the details. Speaking of details, why do so many people pick their noses while they drive?
- Write for an audience. This is the stance that the post-avante crowd loves to criticize. There is a popular sentiment (the irony of calling this popular thought is hilarious) that the writer never consider the audience. Make the writing about yourself, the poem, anything but the audience. Kooser brings up a good point, though–if you aren’t writing poems for an audience, who or what are you writing for? Poetry is meant to be shared, so it’s counter productive to alienate your audience. With that said, there is indeed a need to write for ourselves–but if those writings are to be used by a public audience, steps should be taken to make it accessible. The challenge then is how to leave enough bread crumbs for the reader to have an appetizer, but leave enough of a mystery for a main course.
- Every word, every line ending, every image, every metaphor, and every ______ is a poetic choice. Those choices we make determine the poem. When I ask my students why they chose a certain verb or image, they often say they couldn’t think of anything else. Then I get some whining about how hard poetry is. I find though that once they get over themselves and their laziness–and actually think about what the best word/line ending/image would be for what they are trying to accomplish–they actually begin to create some cool things.
- Be genuine. You can wear a black sweater and a beret and hang out in coffee shops, but that doesn’t make you a poet. Write. Write poetry. Write a lot of it. Then see what happens. Kooser spends time discussing the sheer number of poets. I think it’s great the number of people who write or want to write poetry. I’m not sure the numbers are as large as people who want to get better at poetry, who want to write great poems. I also find it somewhat humorous that in this information age of free blogs, that many poets aren’t necessarily intent on creating excellent art but focus rather on having the loudest, most polarizing voice with a hope to draw an audience. I like Kooser’s stance: make it about the poetry.
If I were to teach a high school poetry class, I think Kooser’s book would make a great text. There’s good introductory stuff, but like most repair manuals, there are great tools to go back to again and again.