Book Report: How to Read a Poem by Nancy C. Millett and Helen J. Throckmorton (1966)

Book coverSince I just read How To Read A Play, I thought I should further my education with this text. And don’t be fooled: This is a textbook geared to high school kids or perhaps early college students.

Perhaps the subtitle should be “And Come To Hate Poetry” because the focus is not on how to read poetry for pleasure, but how to read poetry so you can write a cogent paper on it. The book encourages readers to treat every poem like a worksheet, circling keywords and drawing arrows and diagramming this and that. I kid you not.

The book starts out talking about the importance of key words and concepts, and only after almost a hundred pages gets around to the the rhythm and the rhyme of poetry. You know, the stuff that makes reading poetry fun.

So I didn’t like the book that much, but so much of the technical information I already knew, and I disagree with the basic premise that you have to work hard to unpack a poem. Poets should work hard to build the poem so that it’s easy and fun to read. Poets should not “work” to craft a poem that takes heavy analysis to understand. As a poet, you can pack meaning into a poem, but you have to make it fun for someone to read even if they’re not hunting for meaning or having to write a six page paper on your poem. For Pete’s sake. I blame e.e. cummings. Jeez, I’m coming to hate that guy more than William Carlos Williams, if only because it’s a shorter name to type when preening my disdain on this blog.

At any rate, the best part of the book was the sample poems (except the e.e. cummings). The book includes a number of Robert Frost pieces, samples from Dickinson, Dylan Thomas, Gerard Manley Hopkins (of whom I have a collection around here that I’m going to look for to read mid-Keats), and others, some of whom I might remember but probably not if I cannot enumerate them here.

So I’m glad to have read the book if only because it continues to cement my belief that academic poetry split off into its own cul-de-sac sometime in the early 20th century and might have destroyed the popular appreciation of poetry. Or maybe not–perhaps popular music picked up some of the slack for a time. But that’s a thesis I might tease out little by little over the course of innumerable book reports in the future instead of sitting down and writing an essay on it.

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3 thoughts on “Book Report: How to Read a Poem by Nancy C. Millett and Helen J. Throckmorton (1966)

  1. As a college sophomore, I took an honors class on Dante’s “Inferno,” taught be one of the revered philosophy professors. The premise of the course was deconstructing nearly every sentence, using etymology to find hidden meanings in the text. Apparently Alighieri discovered philology and had a working knowledge of proto Indo-European several hundred years before anyone else.

    My takeaway was learning how to regurgitate and move on.

  2. You know Parkinson’s Law: Work will expand to fill the time allowed for its completion.

    It’s amazing how much work reading and discussing what you’ve read can be if it’s your full-time job.

    Well, full-time except for summers and sabbaticals, of course.

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