Book Review — Don’t Read Poetry: A Book About How to Read Poems

Don't Read Poetry: A Book About How to Read Poems

Burt provides an intriguing primer on poetry for those who are just discovering the art. She states that this is not a book for those looking for justification of popular poetry, but it is a book that helps one navigate through the many types of poetry. Burt uses well-known poets of different eras like O’Hara, Shelly, Byron, and Frost as well as a host of other lesser known poets. The exploration of poetry leads to the (human) commonality of many types and eras as well as differences in style.

It’s not uncommon to like on poet and not another even if they are in the same period and style. It can go even farther, for example, I like Shelly’s lyrical poems but don’t care much for his narrative ones. Even in the different styles of poetry that confine its structure, there are variations that poets use to construct their writing. Langston Hughes reinvented the folk quatrain. Phillis Wheatley, the first published African- American poet in the late 18th century, reinvented the freestanding couplet. Both took the rules and made them their own.

Poetry also teaches about the poets. The example of Willam Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy are used as an example (and sheds some light on the cover art of this book). Many times poets are thought to be stiff and formal, but poets like Byron shatter that idea with the epic poem Don Juan. One of my favorite lines from the poem:

In the case our Lord the King should go to war again,
He learned the arts of riding, fencing, gunnery,
And how to scale a fortress—or a nunnery

Byron keeps to a rhyme scheme and even included an ottava rima, a complex structure used originally in heroic Italian poems, but here it is used for a different sort of “hero.” Byron uses the strict form to create a farce of ivory tower poetry.

Poetry ranges from the easy to understand to the very difficult.  Tiny Buttons by Gertrude Stein is used as a popular example.  There is so much that a collection, of seemingly incoherent words, can build. Other poets are even more complicated.  It took me over a year to get through and somewhat understand Eric Linsker’s La Far.

Burt writes for those who have seen a spark of poetry — maybe a quote in a movie,  or a bit of Walt Whitman in a Levis commercial, or even a poster on a commuter train.  Something that grabbed a person’s attention and left him or her wanting more.  Burt will be the curious readers Virgil through the levels of poetry.


Stephanie Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of [her] generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published four collections of poems: Advice from the Lights (2017), Belmont (2013), Parallel Play (2006), and Popular Music (1999).

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