Rhian Williams, The Poetry Toolkit: The Essential Guide to Studying Poetry (Continuum 2009)
Rhian Williams’s The Poetry Toolkit: The Essential Guide to Studying Poetry is a readable, well-organised, and highly accessible introduction to the study of poetry for beginners. The six main chapters of Williams’s book covers types of poems (such as epic, lyric, and ballad), poetic forms (variable, fixed, etc.), prosody, rhyme, stanzas, and wordplay (tropes, and schemes such as anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus). Williams departs from the norm for these kinds of books with this organization, delaying her explanation of meter until well past the half-way mark. As a result, she has to use and occasionally explain concepts that are not fully covered until much later in the book. Fortunately, these explanations are well integrated into the surrounding material, and even if they were not, the book is so transparently organized and presented that its chapters can be read in any order. Each chapter begins with an outline of its content and each point in the outline is marked within the chapter by a large header that includes a brief definition of the term covered. These headers are followed by section outlines in each section’s introductory paragraph. As a result, there is no reason that an instructor could not begin with chapter three, Prosody, and teach forward, ending the book with chapters one and two.
Williams’s coverage of poetic form includes discussions of the history of the form as well as its characteristics, just as her coverage of meter and other technical elements includes a discussion of the effects that these elements have been employed to achieve throughout the history of western poetry. Every discussion includes examples attended by clear explanations, so that Williams models effective reading and interpretation of poetry in every section of every chapter. She covers more different kinds of poems and elements of poetry than either Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled or Paul Fussell’s Poetic Meter & Poetic Form, but the only non-western verse form that Williams covers is haiku. Overall, Williams’s poetry handbook is more sophisticated than Fry’s (and, of course, less oriented toward poetry writing and more toward poetry reading), slightly less nuanced than Fussell’s, but also more consciously designed as a textbook for novice readers than Fussell’s. I highly recommend Williams’s book for the study of poetry, especially if paired with a reader organized by poetic form.