(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In the current plethora of reference and writer’s guidebooks on the craft of poetry, it might seem that U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky’s short exploration of sounds in poetic diction and line structure is an unnecessary addition to the growing stacks of advice for writers. As Pinsky points out in his introduction, his tightly written guidebook (just over one hundred pages of content) is not intended to be a standard reference work. It is not likely to become a textbook for teachers seeking instructional material covering the range of terms and techniques all aspiring poets should know.

Instead, the Newton Corner, Massachusetts, professor’s purpose is to direct young poets to the importance of sounds in the building blocks of English language verse. While Pinsky claims in his introduction that he does not dwell on technical terms— and, indeed, his discussions on literary terminology are brief and select when he is not inventing his own interpretive language—this is a book of technical information meant for practical, serious study and not for quick reading. Alongside his two-volume 1976 set, The Situation of Poetry: Contemporary Poetry and Its Traditions, which explored the context of contemporary writing, Pinsky’s new book of instruction might seem slight if not for this very practicality. Moving logically from stress, accent, pitch, and duration in syllables to the importance of repeated sounds in blank and free verse, The Sounds of Poetry will interest, first, writers interested in creating music in their lines and, second, readers wishing to appreciate the aural qualities of verse more fully. Unlike Pinsky’s previous critical works, this study does not dwell on the meaning of poetry nor on historical or cultural contexts but simply guides newcomers to verse through the basics of sound, simplifying and clarifying an aspect of verse craft often lost in the forest of encyclopedic overviews.

Written in a warm, personal tone as intimate as his subject, each chapter of Pinsky’s study focuses on simple aspects of sonics, beginning with syllables, sentence syntax, line structure, and then stanzaic organization of lines. Along the way, he makes useful if not original observations, such as how line structure is not necessarily the proper unit for reading verse. At first glance, this truism might seem obvious to most experienced readers. Yet Pinsky moves from simple points into valuable teaching, as when he advises poets to first write out the complete poem, then determine the appropriate arrangement of line breaks. He clearly shows how such techniques have given past poems energy and drama, citing examples from more than fifty masters, including William Carlos Williams (“To a Poor Old Woman”), William Butler Yeats (“Leda and the Swan”), William Wordsworth (The Prelude), Emily Dickinson (“1068”), T.S. Eliot (“Little Gidding”), Elizabeth Bishop (“At the Fishouses”), Thomas Nash (“Litany in Time of Plague”), Thomas Campion (“Now Winter’s Nights Enlarge”), William Shakespeare (The Tragedy of Richard III, Sonnet 30), John Milton (“Lycidas”), Philip Larkin (“Church Going”), Louise Bogan (“Song for the Last Act”), Robert Browning (“My Last Duchess”) and Robert Frost (“Mending Wall,” “To Earthward”). Such discussions will prove useful for English teachers seeking material to demonstrate what separates the language of verse from English prose, and the volume’s index will assist teachers searching for insights on particular poems. For some readers, however, such choices—clearly an outgrowth of Pinsky’s teaching of graduate English courses at Boston University—may seem top-heavy in traditional voices, with little usage of contemporary writers. For most educators, however, Pinsky’s choices will...

(The entire section is 1554 words.)