Why This Book Now

Poetry handbooks and textbooks have a long and distinguished history. In our new textbook, Learning the Secrets of English Verse, we append a 200-item bibliography of the genre, along with a critical essay. While we don’t reach as far back as St. Augustine’s De Musica, a highly detailed handbook on how to write songs, we do include works in English from the beginning, which would be George Gascoigne’s “Certayne Notes of Instruction concerning the making of verse or ryme in English” (1575) and George Puttenham’s The Art of English Poesy (1589), crucial works of the English Renaissance. In America, poetry handbooks began to appear no later than 1848, which saw the publication of Erastus Everett’s A System of English Versification; containing rules for the structure of the different kinds of verse, and our bibliography suggests that, however popular poetry itself may be in England and America, books teaching people to write it are now almost a craze: since 1990, well over 150 such books have been either published or reissued and the trend shows no signs of slowing down. When we consider the explosive growth of graduate MFA programs in creative writing (there are now well over 400), it would seem that there is a tremendous amount of interest in learning how to make poems, even if readership can seem scattered.

Given all of the above, why write yet another poetry composition textbook? The answer is that we believe the vast majority of the books out there are weak, lacking a strong curricular scaffolding, a meaningful pedagogy, a clear critical vocabulary, and a sound historical narrative. Those seemed like good enough reasons to us. If poetry is to survive as an art that resonates in our national life, we need to do better, creating curricula and pedagogy that directly address its complex structure and lengthy history.

Our book derives directly from the teaching of Robert Fitzgerald, the great translator, poet, critic and teacher, with whom David studied at Harvard in the final year he taught his course “Versification,” in the spring of 1981. At that point, Fitzgerald was one of only a handful of teachers keeping the tradition of teaching English verseform and scansion alive (notable others were J. V. Cunningham at Stanford, Miller Williams at Arkansas, and Lewis Turco at SUNY Oswego). Fitzgerald’s course was radically different from any other David had ever encountered, as Fitzgerald had no interest in the typical Iowa University-style workshop, in which students simply bring in drafts of any poem whatsoever for open group discussion. Instead, each week Fitzgerald assigned a metrical or stanzaic form, required students to read about its structure and history, to read and scan examples of it, and to write and scan an original exercise. As David recalls, he covered classical forms like the Sapphic and Catullan hendecasyllable, Anglo-Saxon strong-stress alliterative meter, ballad meter, iambic tetrameter couplets, blank verse, triple meters, several forms of free verse, the Rime Royal stanza, the sonnet, and several more.

Learning the Secrets of English Verse follows a very similar trajectory, with several deviations and additions, notably a thorough consideration of all the rhyming stanza forms generally used in English long poems, from the couplet up through the Eugene Onegin stanza (which is 14 lines). It thus has a clear structural and historical scaffolding and progresses in a logical way through both the history and structure of English verse, with each lesson building on the previous ones, something only a handful of other books in print now do.

The pedagogy also differs markedly from almost all other books in print. Whereas most encourage students to “speak from the heart,” or to pursue prompts that could be executed in prose just as easily as in verse, we follow Fitzgerald again and encourage them not to tackle high-stakes subjects at first, or to write about any particular theme or subject whatsoever, but rather to focus on making music. The exercises must construe and make sense (and not be offensive…), but beyond that, the main point is to write and scan lines of verse accurately and gracefully, as, to coin a phrase, those move easiest who have learned to dance. After all, Neruda wrote a great ode to his socks—that might be a better place to start than trying to describe the death of a loved one or a major social issue, as we find that allowing students to pursue charged subjects too early in a curriculum generally interferes with the focus on acquiring skill.

Further, we introduce several innovations. First, our book may be the first to teach the Fitzgerald scansion system, which we believe combines the best of traditional scansion with the insights of structural linguistics, all using a simple and elegant method that involves only five diacritical marks (micron, macron, accents aigu and grave, and the caesura mark). Second, we secured the rights from Susan’s advanced high school students to print their exercises when they pursued this curriculum, including their scansions and our commentary. Few if any textbooks or handbooks (and we have examined hundreds) have ever included student work in this way, building a bridge from the classics to the contemporary classroom.

For David, the book represents the culmination of many decades of work as a student, then poet, teacher and designer of curriculum at the high school, undergraduate, and graduate levels. It presents and carries on the tradition he was fortunate enough to encounter in Fitzgerald’s class. Susan came to this tradition as his graduate student, and her story exemplifies what can happen when we pass along what we have learned to others.

When Susan was an undergraduate English major, taking every writing course available, she asked all her teachers how to write metered lines of poetry. None of them knew how to answer her. They could recognize villanelles, blank verse, and sonnets, but, like David’s poetry teachers before he met Fitzgerald, they could not explain how to write a metered line that sang. It wasn’t until she signed up for David’s eight-week online workshop entitled “Verseforms” at Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver that she had her introduction to rhythm and rhyme.

Learning what David had learned from Fitzgerald and others, Susan in turn discovered that the field of prosody is deep and wide. After five years and several workshops through Lighthouse, she entered the MFA Program at Western Colorado State University that David then directed. In the first summer workshop, affectionately called “Metrical Bootcamp,” the students pursued exactly the exercises now in the book, and she began to develop rhythmic strength. She in turn has now taught her own adaptations of that material to her high school and undergraduate students, and also now in turn has experienced the thrill of seeing some of them publish their own poems in fine journals. Just last week she heard from a former student that she has published her first chapbook and is living a “life of poetry.” The beat goes on.

During the MFA courses, Susan also discovered how effective the pedagogical tools Fitzgerald had passed on to David can be in practice. Each meeting, students would read their exercises aloud to the group and David commented on craft (NB: he rarely commented on content!). He pointed out faulty meter, awkward line breaks, uneven tone, and other aspects of craft. She noticed that she was not only learning from her own successes and errors; she was learning from the successes and errors of her classmates. A trained musician like David, she recognized this as conservatory master-class pedagogy. Initially this felt vulnerable, but when she realized how it compounded learning, she didn’t care. She decided she would rather suffer a little embarrassment and learn, than remain safely ignorant.

When Susan tried this technique with her own creative writing students, they quickly adapted. Because her college classes had 20 students and not all could present each week as in a small graduate course, she created a schedule. The students always knew when they were going to be asked to present their work. She projected their work on the board and went through the poem. After she spoke, she gave the students time to chime in, and if there was extra time, she would look at the poems of other volunteers. After a semester or two, she incorporated this method of writing instruction into her composition classes as well. She asked permission from the student before she projected the work and sought to present exercises with varying strengths and weaknesses. For example, if she showed a paper with a good thesis and weak evidence, she would also show one with good evidence and a shoddy thesis. This ensured that she covered what the students needed. And in this way, she became a stronger writer, a stronger teacher, and participated in the precious chain of learning in which Fitzgerald himself was also a link.

Learning to write is recursive. It requires grit, practice, and a dash of grace. It also requires comprehensive and well-designed curricula, highly disciplined pedagogy, and, at more advanced levels, an ever-deepening understanding of history. This is what we have sought to provide in our book, in the faith that learning some of the secrets of English verse—secrets hiding in plain sight that are now rarely if ever taught and seem at times in danger of extinction—will inspire both teachers and students to join this great conversation themselves and sustain the art that has given so much to all of us.



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