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An Introduction to English Poetry

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A wise, absorbing, and surprising introduction to poetry written in English, from one of England's leading poets James Fenton is that rare scholar "not ashamed to admit that he mostly reads for pleasure" (Charles Simic, The New York Review of Books). In this eminently readable guide to his abiding passion, he has distilled the essense of a library's--and a lifetime's--worth A wise, absorbing, and surprising introduction to poetry written in English, from one of England's leading poets James Fenton is that rare scholar "not ashamed to admit that he mostly reads for pleasure" (Charles Simic, The New York Review of Books). In this eminently readable guide to his abiding passion, he has distilled the essense of a library's--and a lifetime's--worth of delight. The pleasures of his own verse can be found in abundance here: economy, a natural ease, and most of all, surprise. What is English poetry? Fenton argues that it includes any recited words in English that marshall rhythm for their meaning--among them prisoners's work songs, Broadway show tunes, and the cries of street vendors captured in verse. From these beginnings, Fenton describes the rudiments of--and, most important, the inspiration for--the musical verse we find in books, and concludes with an illuminating discussion of operas and songs. Fenton illustrates his comments with verse from all over the English-speaking world. Catholic in his taste, shrewd in his distinctions, and charmingly frank, Fenton is an ideal guide to everything to do with poetry, from the temperament of poets to their accomplishment, in all its variety. In all his writing, prose or verse, Fenton has always had the virtue of saying, in a way that seems effortless, precisely what lies at the heart of the matter. In this vein, An Introduction to English Poetry is one of his highest accomplishments.


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A wise, absorbing, and surprising introduction to poetry written in English, from one of England's leading poets James Fenton is that rare scholar "not ashamed to admit that he mostly reads for pleasure" (Charles Simic, The New York Review of Books). In this eminently readable guide to his abiding passion, he has distilled the essense of a library's--and a lifetime's--worth A wise, absorbing, and surprising introduction to poetry written in English, from one of England's leading poets James Fenton is that rare scholar "not ashamed to admit that he mostly reads for pleasure" (Charles Simic, The New York Review of Books). In this eminently readable guide to his abiding passion, he has distilled the essense of a library's--and a lifetime's--worth of delight. The pleasures of his own verse can be found in abundance here: economy, a natural ease, and most of all, surprise. What is English poetry? Fenton argues that it includes any recited words in English that marshall rhythm for their meaning--among them prisoners's work songs, Broadway show tunes, and the cries of street vendors captured in verse. From these beginnings, Fenton describes the rudiments of--and, most important, the inspiration for--the musical verse we find in books, and concludes with an illuminating discussion of operas and songs. Fenton illustrates his comments with verse from all over the English-speaking world. Catholic in his taste, shrewd in his distinctions, and charmingly frank, Fenton is an ideal guide to everything to do with poetry, from the temperament of poets to their accomplishment, in all its variety. In all his writing, prose or verse, Fenton has always had the virtue of saying, in a way that seems effortless, precisely what lies at the heart of the matter. In this vein, An Introduction to English Poetry is one of his highest accomplishments.

30 review for An Introduction to English Poetry

  1. 4 out of 5

    Sean Barrs

    This book has its uses, but I don’t think it’s fair to consider it a worthy introduction to poetry. It’s far too brief. The sections are not explanatory enough to actually learn anything properly; it is rushed over and shortened down. After reading this I had to buy a more comprehensive book on poetry to even begin to comprehend the more intricate aspects such as metre and rhythm. I think this book is more of a reminder than an introduction. This would be helpful if you’re already aware of the f This book has its uses, but I don’t think it’s fair to consider it a worthy introduction to poetry. It’s far too brief. The sections are not explanatory enough to actually learn anything properly; it is rushed over and shortened down. After reading this I had to buy a more comprehensive book on poetry to even begin to comprehend the more intricate aspects such as metre and rhythm. I think this book is more of a reminder than an introduction. This would be helpful if you’re already aware of the formal aspects of poetry and need a simple reminder of them. However, if you’re studding poetry for the first time, like I was, then I’d avoid this and try The Poetry Toolkit. It’s a much better book.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Aaron Eames

    An Introduction to the characteristics and properties of English Poetry: this is a book about metre and poetic technique, not a primer or a chronology. James Fenton concisely summarises the fundamentals and, as a poet himself, shares his insights. Concepts like iamb, trochee and accent (as distinguished from ‘stress’) are clearly elaborated with helpful examples of usage from a wide range of poets and periods. It is delightful that a work about poetry should read so beautifully, not only becau An Introduction to the characteristics and properties of English Poetry: this is a book about metre and poetic technique, not a primer or a chronology. James Fenton concisely summarises the fundamentals and, as a poet himself, shares his insights. Concepts like iamb, trochee and accent (as distinguished from ‘stress’) are clearly elaborated with helpful examples of usage from a wide range of poets and periods. It is delightful that a work about poetry should read so beautifully, not only because of words like choriamb, anapaest, and amphibrach, but also as a result of Fenton’s crisp and stately style.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Nicky

    This is a very clear introduction to the formal aspects of poetry, but it also serves as a reintroduction for someone who has an English Lit degree but never got very interested in the technical aspects of poetry. We disagree on quite a few things -- his characterisation of Anglo-Saxon poetry as "not English" (because of course, it is quintessentially English: the Anglo-Saxons became the English), for example, and his doubtfulness about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (there are dialect words in This is a very clear introduction to the formal aspects of poetry, but it also serves as a reintroduction for someone who has an English Lit degree but never got very interested in the technical aspects of poetry. We disagree on quite a few things -- his characterisation of Anglo-Saxon poetry as "not English" (because of course, it is quintessentially English: the Anglo-Saxons became the English), for example, and his doubtfulness about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (there are dialect words in Sir Gawain which survive still: just because Chaucer's Middle English is closer to what became universal doesn't mean Sir Gawain is irrelevant). Also his relative dismissiveness of tight forms like the villanelle: he rightly praises one of the most famous, Dylan Thomas', but is otherwise fairly unimpressed by it. I love villanelles, and I think more people have "done them right" than he suggests. Still, with short, easy-to-digest chapters, clear explanations, and a helpful glossary, not to mention the addition of his thoughts as a practitioner of the craft, this is an interesting and informative introduction to a cross-section of English poetry.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Aurélien Thomas

    First of all, as might be inferred by the title here's not an introduction to the history of English poetry but, an overview of its most common prosody. The point here indeed is to describe and explain, very briefly, what are the basic features of English poetry, and shed some light on why they became so successful in their use -why the prevalence of the iambic pentameter and not, said, the alexandrine? Why villanelles are so damned difficult to write? Why even the sonnet had to be modified from First of all, as might be inferred by the title here's not an introduction to the history of English poetry but, an overview of its most common prosody. The point here indeed is to describe and explain, very briefly, what are the basic features of English poetry, and shed some light on why they became so successful in their use -why the prevalence of the iambic pentameter and not, said, the alexandrine? Why villanelles are so damned difficult to write? Why even the sonnet had to be modified from its original form to better be suited to the English language? For whose vaguely interested in the technical side of poetry, this book is therefore the perfect choice. It's short, simple, approachable, and written in a pretty sharp style that makes it accessible from cover to cover. The fact the author draws parallels with other languages like Latin, French and Italian makes it insightful and interesting. Above all, his acknowledgement that great poetry doesn't need to abide by strict codified rules allows him to nail a very important point: '(...) for poets today, or in any age, the choice is not between freedom on the one hand and abstruse French forms on the other. The choice is between the nullity and vanity of our first efforts, and the developing of a sense of idiom, form, structure, meter, rhythm, line -all the characteristics of this verbal art.' True, it might feel rushed at times (e.g. songs lyrics and verse opera are just thrown in the end like what-the-heck!) but, all in all it's accessible, open, straightforward and always incisive. A very good read!

  5. 5 out of 5

    Mark Nenadov

    A wonderful little book, well suited for anyone who is serious about reading or writing poetry. It covers all the major metrical and rhyme forms in English poetry and does it in a engaging and readable way. It carries some fairly strong opinions, but manages to convey them in a lighthearted way.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Domhnall

    "For poets today or in any age, the choice is not between freedom on the one hand and abstruse French forms on the other. The choice is between the nullity and vanity of our first efforts and the developing of a sense of idiom, form, structure, metre, thythm, line - all the fundamental characteristics of this verbal art. Of course our first efforts will be vain. They will be vain because they must be ambitious... But the first questions are the simplest and the starkest: Why should we not make t "For poets today or in any age, the choice is not between freedom on the one hand and abstruse French forms on the other. The choice is between the nullity and vanity of our first efforts and the developing of a sense of idiom, form, structure, metre, thythm, line - all the fundamental characteristics of this verbal art. Of course our first efforts will be vain. They will be vain because they must be ambitious... But the first questions are the simplest and the starkest: Why should we not make the attempt upon this art? Why should we not put pen to paper?" [p21] This book is a little masterpiece, in which a poet and someone of very real good taste reviews the diverse ways poems have been constructed across some 500 years of English poetry. In describing the techniques available to a poet, the use of "idiom, form, structure, metre, thythm, line," he also suggest reasons for their specific effects and indeed, reasons for or against their use. He does all of this in perfectly accessible and often beautiful language, making the book a pleasure to read. He could, of course, have said far more but I'm not convinced that in doing so he would have improved his book. It seems to me that what follows next is not a more encyclopedic guide to technique, but rather the reading of poems with an awakened appreciation of their craft. Perhaps, also, to write.

  7. 5 out of 5

    David Marlow

    As one would expect from an English Oxford professor of poetry, Fenton covers the basics very well. In simply named chapters ('The Iambic Pentameter', 'The Shorter Stanza', 'The Longer Stanza'), he defines his concepts clearly. He quotes the famous opening of Tennyson's 'Tithonus' and proceeds to a careful dissection of its verse: The woods decay, the woods decay and fall, The vapours weep their burthen to the ground, Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath, And after many a summer dies th As one would expect from an English Oxford professor of poetry, Fenton covers the basics very well. In simply named chapters ('The Iambic Pentameter', 'The Shorter Stanza', 'The Longer Stanza'), he defines his concepts clearly. He quotes the famous opening of Tennyson's 'Tithonus' and proceeds to a careful dissection of its verse: The woods decay, the woods decay and fall, The vapours weep their burthen to the ground, Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath, And after many a summer dies the swan. I enjoy instructional books that cover basic principals, leaving the reader to practice and study how to use them. An Introduction to English Poetry will be read and re-read by those who appreciate the beauty and attempt to compose their own poetry.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Nick

    A very interesting read though I need to keep it next to me to really remember and try to identify the various metres and metrical rules that poets may or may not be following. I enjoyed Glyn Maxwell's On Poetry in a different way - one that I almost wished I hadn't - as he takes a different road to Poetry. I think Stephen Fry's The Ode Less Travelled might be next. A very interesting read though I need to keep it next to me to really remember and try to identify the various metres and metrical rules that poets may or may not be following. I enjoyed Glyn Maxwell's On Poetry in a different way - one that I almost wished I hadn't - as he takes a different road to Poetry. I think Stephen Fry's The Ode Less Travelled might be next.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Megan

    One of the most readable discussions of poetry I've encountered. Fenton is thorough, yet conversational. He clearly has a preference for more traditional forms, but I think that informs his authority on scansion, meter, etc. One of the most readable discussions of poetry I've encountered. Fenton is thorough, yet conversational. He clearly has a preference for more traditional forms, but I think that informs his authority on scansion, meter, etc.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Ruth

    I am loving this book. The writing style is fluid and pleasurable; the information is clear and helpful.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Paul Waring

    This book is written by an academic, and unfortunately it shows. Terms are introduced and used with very little explanation, the language is formal and academic (not appropriate for a wider audience), and chunks of poems are thrown in without much context. A more accurate title would be "An Introduction to English Poetry for English Literature undergraduates". This book is written by an academic, and unfortunately it shows. Terms are introduced and used with very little explanation, the language is formal and academic (not appropriate for a wider audience), and chunks of poems are thrown in without much context. A more accurate title would be "An Introduction to English Poetry for English Literature undergraduates".

  12. 5 out of 5

    Jayd Green

    I don't often read non-fiction, and as such I'm not really sure how I'm meant to review a non-fiction book. I read this as part of my English degree- not essential reading, just something to whet the appetite before term starts. I'm not the most familiar with the technical side of poetry, so it seemed like an introduction to that world would be beneficial. But, this book didn't really feel like an introduction to me. There were things I was expected to know, things I was meant to understand afte I don't often read non-fiction, and as such I'm not really sure how I'm meant to review a non-fiction book. I read this as part of my English degree- not essential reading, just something to whet the appetite before term starts. I'm not the most familiar with the technical side of poetry, so it seemed like an introduction to that world would be beneficial. But, this book didn't really feel like an introduction to me. There were things I was expected to know, things I was meant to understand after the most brief of explanations. This didn't really cut it for me. However, I still read the book cover to cover and sort of enjoyed the way the more difficult parts of it washed over me- I knew that I'm still a novice, so I didn't feel bad about finding some parts hard to understand. The bits that I did understand were enlightening. I started to get more of a feel of how a poem works, why a poet would choose structure over free form, and yes, the book did persuade me a little to give stricter forms a chance. I'm going to be having a go at a sestina one day, I can feel it. So, the book wasn't all bad and wasn't totally unforgiving. However, it is the moments of inaccessibility that held the book back.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Dan Graser

    This is such a curious little volume on English Poetry that, unsurprisingly, is a pleasure to read whilst imparting a great deal of wisdom from one of today's finest poets. What's curious is that this seems to serve as an effective introduction to several basic elements of poetry while at the same time providing a wealth of insight that those already familiar with many of the techniques and poets discussed will find particularly interesting. Having long admired Fenton as a poet (actually my pers This is such a curious little volume on English Poetry that, unsurprisingly, is a pleasure to read whilst imparting a great deal of wisdom from one of today's finest poets. What's curious is that this seems to serve as an effective introduction to several basic elements of poetry while at the same time providing a wealth of insight that those already familiar with many of the techniques and poets discussed will find particularly interesting. Having long admired Fenton as a poet (actually my personal favorite living poet) seeing him work here as an effective and engaging educator is a great pleasure and I'm certain many will enjoy this work, from beginners to seasoned readers.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Rachel

    This is a really great, flexible text—I'm pairing it with An Exaltation of Forms in the fall for a forms-based workshop and I'm glad that it doesn't go terribly into depth. The book does an excellent job of introducing formal ideas and offering the range of possibility they have, without marching students through 40-page chapters of scansion. (Also? A really nice revisiting for me, too!) This is a really great, flexible text—I'm pairing it with An Exaltation of Forms in the fall for a forms-based workshop and I'm glad that it doesn't go terribly into depth. The book does an excellent job of introducing formal ideas and offering the range of possibility they have, without marching students through 40-page chapters of scansion. (Also? A really nice revisiting for me, too!)

  15. 5 out of 5

    TimInCalifornia

    Perfect. Just what I was looking for. This is a neatly written encapsulation of poetic form. I must have been absent the day they taught poetry in school because I have gone for 47 years in virtual ignorance of this body of literature. Lately I've developed an interest in poetry and have started seeking it out. I wanted to understand the scaffolding on which poetry hangs, the framework and the language to describe and distinguish its different forms. Fenton delivered exactly what I needed here a Perfect. Just what I was looking for. This is a neatly written encapsulation of poetic form. I must have been absent the day they taught poetry in school because I have gone for 47 years in virtual ignorance of this body of literature. Lately I've developed an interest in poetry and have started seeking it out. I wanted to understand the scaffolding on which poetry hangs, the framework and the language to describe and distinguish its different forms. Fenton delivered exactly what I needed here and did so with panache.

  16. 4 out of 5

    V

    This is a good book for those starting out with poetry. If you want to write your own, or understand how the poetry you're reading works, I would recommend this book. It explains in simple language the technicalities of poetry, the different forms, and why they sound the way they do. The author uses real examples of poetry to illustrate the point he's making, rather than made up examples. It's a book I'm going to keep on my shelf for reference for a long time. This is a good book for those starting out with poetry. If you want to write your own, or understand how the poetry you're reading works, I would recommend this book. It explains in simple language the technicalities of poetry, the different forms, and why they sound the way they do. The author uses real examples of poetry to illustrate the point he's making, rather than made up examples. It's a book I'm going to keep on my shelf for reference for a long time.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Adam

    An accessible and engrossing resource, Fenton's book changed my ideas of poetry, reacquainting me with the terms I had given lip service to learning in school and challenging me to begin composing for myself and to take on some of his assertions on the limitations of form. This book has been a resource for my own lectures on the similarities of newspaper headlines and poems. An accessible and engrossing resource, Fenton's book changed my ideas of poetry, reacquainting me with the terms I had given lip service to learning in school and challenging me to begin composing for myself and to take on some of his assertions on the limitations of form. This book has been a resource for my own lectures on the similarities of newspaper headlines and poems.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Jason

    James Fenton has written one of the clearest books about reading English poetry that you could hope to find. I also like his collection Out of Danger. This is a great book for A level English students. However, I think it should be read by almost anyone who has an interest in poetry: a serious person, writing intelligently about poetry is such a rare thing.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Debbie

    I do have a complete phobia when it comes to reading poetry and thought this might help me understand poetry better. However I did struggle with it. It is informative but I think it's more appropriate with a basic understanding of poetry. Saying that I did enjoy it and gained from reading it, I would recommend it to someone with a passion for poetry. I do have a complete phobia when it comes to reading poetry and thought this might help me understand poetry better. However I did struggle with it. It is informative but I think it's more appropriate with a basic understanding of poetry. Saying that I did enjoy it and gained from reading it, I would recommend it to someone with a passion for poetry.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Kathy Shuker

    A good first stage introduction to the basics of English verse in all its forms. It is accessible, interesting and even witty at times. I found it offered a fine overview and was just what I needed at this point. For a more in-depth analysis, further reading is required but this book is an excellent starting point.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Alistair

    This is a little gem of a book, which does precisely what it says on the cover, leading the reader simply and succintly into the ideas and methods of English poetry. [Review continues at The Pequod] This is a little gem of a book, which does precisely what it says on the cover, leading the reader simply and succintly into the ideas and methods of English poetry. [Review continues at The Pequod]

  22. 4 out of 5

    Emylie

    I'm not going to rate this one because I think my complete lack of understanding of poetry might cloud my judgement. That being said, I did learn a lot reading this book and he has a style I really enjoyed. I might pick this up again after the year is over and re-read it. I'm not going to rate this one because I think my complete lack of understanding of poetry might cloud my judgement. That being said, I did learn a lot reading this book and he has a style I really enjoyed. I might pick this up again after the year is over and re-read it.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Shoshana

    This goes on the very short list of textbooks that have made me laugh out loud. Snark on, James Fenton.

  24. 4 out of 5

    John

    an expert, swift, accessible primer to the basics of poetry--meter, rhyme, sestina, etc--in the english language. with wonderful examples throughout.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Ryan Roberts

    Fenton is a poetic genius, and this collection of essays is extremely accessible and fun to read.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Phil

    Informative and accessible in equal measure. I can't say it better than another review: "thorough, yet conversational". A quick read and highly recommended. Informative and accessible in equal measure. I can't say it better than another review: "thorough, yet conversational". A quick read and highly recommended.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Biro Tomodachi

    " a poem with grandly conceived and executed stanzas... should be like an enfilade of rooms in a palace: one proceeds with eager anticipation, from room to room.." J.Fenton p. 61 I begin with this quote as I feel it best captures Fenton's style and tone in his concise and clear introduction, covering basic poetic structures and stylistic details like "an enfilade of rooms" without getting bogged into the full historically and stylistic complexities of the epic landscape of English Poetry. I reall " a poem with grandly conceived and executed stanzas... should be like an enfilade of rooms in a palace: one proceeds with eager anticipation, from room to room.." J.Fenton p. 61 I begin with this quote as I feel it best captures Fenton's style and tone in his concise and clear introduction, covering basic poetic structures and stylistic details like "an enfilade of rooms" without getting bogged into the full historically and stylistic complexities of the epic landscape of English Poetry. I really appreciated its accessible style leading us through the strengthens and challenges of various forms and concepts being discussed Like all good introductions, it shouldn't be a definitive primer nor a comprehensive course into English Poetry but through it's brevity (of 130 pages) is designed to stimulate your interest, to continue your own independent learning and to explore aspects of topics raised under your own direction.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Troy Solava

    I picked this book up because I need an introduction to English poetry. And yet, this seemed way beyond an “introduction.” I would imagine if one is skilled or knowledgeable in the mechanics of poetry, this is a good book of reminders! Even the glossary in this book is complex and at times requires a foundation. I don’t have that foundation. I did learn a lot! I would need to reread several times to follow along. But if you already know the difference between a trochee and a dactyl, this book is I picked this book up because I need an introduction to English poetry. And yet, this seemed way beyond an “introduction.” I would imagine if one is skilled or knowledgeable in the mechanics of poetry, this is a good book of reminders! Even the glossary in this book is complex and at times requires a foundation. I don’t have that foundation. I did learn a lot! I would need to reread several times to follow along. But if you already know the difference between a trochee and a dactyl, this book is for you!

  29. 5 out of 5

    Sam O’Brien

    A good exploration of the diverse world of English poetry. Of course is not in depth, but it explains things like meter and stanzas very well. The examples included are also like a Greatest Hits of poetry

  30. 5 out of 5

    John Fredrickson

    This book is generally about the various forms that come into play in English poetry, as well as which ones work well and which don't . As an introduction, it is very good, although the focus on forms ends up becoming a bit tedious. This book is generally about the various forms that come into play in English poetry, as well as which ones work well and which don't . As an introduction, it is very good, although the focus on forms ends up becoming a bit tedious.

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