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An introduction to English poetry by James…

An introduction to English poetry (2002)

by James Fenton

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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. ( )
  shanaqui | Mar 24, 2014 |
If you need a very brief introduction to English poetry, then this short book by James Fenton would be an excellent place to start. In 22 very short chapters, he covers everything from the history and scope of English poetry to form, iambic pentameter, the genius of the trochee, stanzas long and short, sonnets, rhyme, free verse, song, and poetic drama and opera. So, you can imagine that things move rather quickly. But perhaps it would be better to say that there is no dross bulking out this text. Just thoroughly serviceable, and often memorable, encounters with the various aspects of English poetry.

The style of this introduction is especially engaging. Fenton is immediate and honest in his opinions and prejudices (he doesn’t think much of free verse or poetry written for the eye rather than with an eye to oral presentation). But he backs up his views with reference to fabulous examples from the history of English poetry. For example, he thinks the villanelle—a form borrowed from the French—can’t be much more than trivial or comic. And then he proceeds to show how in the hands of a master, like Dylan Thomas, even this trivial form can be immensely effective and powerful. Think of Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”.

Fenton is also very good on linking the aspects of poetry (rhythm, rhyme, metre) to meaning. This is always a challenge, since it can sometimes seem that a poet is merely technically brilliant. But Fenton argues persuasively that a mark of good poetry is when technical brilliance serves the meaning that the poet wishes to express. I find him convincing.

The final few chapters on free verse and song and opera and such seemed to race a bit. Certainly I could have stood a bit more content on just why free verse has apparently been so dominant in the 20th century and whether any of it is any good. But you can’t do everything in such a brief introduction to English poetry. And after all, it is an introduction. As such, it should and will prompt the reader to want to pursue an interest in English poetry further. Recommended. ( )
  RandyMetcalfe | Mar 16, 2013 |
James Fenton's name was mentioned numerous times in Hitchen's memoirs, and since I knew far less than I really should about poetry I thought that I might look something of his up on Amazon. I'm very glad I did. This slim volume is the perfect combination of erudition and accessibility, teaching the reader about poetry, illuminating the craft, and generally helping people like me to derive more pleasure from the art than I had thought possible. So, thank you Fenton, and thank you too Hitchens. ( )
  soylentgreen23 | Dec 26, 2011 |
This textbook is a must for undergraduate students and poetry amateurs who wish to know more about some of the forms used for poetry. This is useful too for analyzing specific types of poems - explanations are clear, concise and easy to understand. ( )
  soniaandree | May 14, 2009 |
"What have we got, and how good is it?" James Fenton's book is there to help answer these two fundamental questions about poetry in English, discussing first when English poetry begins and how far it extends. Good technical discussions of major and minor verse forms, with examples of their use.
  gibbon | Nov 29, 2005 |
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English poetry begins whenever we decide to say the modern English language begins, and it extends as far as we decide to say the English language extends.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0141004398, Paperback)

James Fenton's "An Introduction to English Poetry" offers a master class for both the reader and writer of poetry. Simply and elegantly written and discussing the work of poets as wide ranging as W. H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, Tennyson, Kipling, Milton and Blake, it covers all varieties of poetic practice in English. 'It is hard to imagine a beginner who could not learn from this book. If you know a young poet, give them this' - "The Times Literary Supplement".

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:08:50 -0400)

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"This introduction, which is designed with writer and reader in mind, looks at the variety of poetic practice in English and discusses, in the simplest and most approachable manner, the character of different poetic lines and forms. What is metre, anyway, and is it essential to our definition of poetry? What is an iambic line, and is the something important to know? What is a trochee, and is it something inferior to an iamb? What are couplets, quatrains, ottava rima and sonnets? Are they out-moded forms? Is there any such thing as a proper training for a poet? Is light verse the enemy of true poetry, or is it a kind of poetry? And what makes a great song lyric? Are great song lyrics poems, or do they belong to some different category? Is verse drama a thing of the past? Does a composer need a librettist in order to make an opera - or could one do just as well with randomly chosen texts?"--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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Penguin Australia

An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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