As its title suggests, Annie Finch’s A Poet’s Craft: A Comprehensive Guide to Making and Sharing Your Poetry attempts to be all things to all people—a daunting task indeed. As Finch notes in her preface, her book “aims to combine the best of all other poetry-writing guides in one volume,” including “poetry-writing exercises,” “classic and contemporary poems as examples,” and “a complete overview of the elements of poetry.” Ambitious as it is, A Poet’s Craft often succeeds in achieving its goal, though the very nature of “comprehensiveness” intimates that any reader is likely to find areas that may, in fact, be less than comprehensive. By aiming for “a lively and a mature tone suitable for independent and adult students as well as undergraduate and graduates,” Finch is targeting a vast audience of readers who must by its very size and nature represent a wide range of needs and abilities. As a result, at times she runs the risk of losing one of these audiences to another though she addresses all her readers rather intimately by using the second person; surely the undergraduate using this text in a poetry-writing workshop for the first time differs greatly in experience from most students pursuing an M.F.A. in Creative Writing or a Ph.D. in Literature.
Among A Poet’s Craft’s many strengths are the immensely enthusiastic and genuinely loving tone of its author and well-chosen poems she provides as examples. It is clear throughout that Annie Finch is an experienced poet in her own right; among her volumes of poetry are Eve (1997), Calendars (2003), and the forthcoming Spells: New and Selected Poems (2013), and her texts about the art of poetry include Multiformalisms: Postmodern Poetics of Form (with Susan M. Schultz, 2008) and the forthcoming A Poet’s Ear: A Handbook of Meter and Form (2013). Chapters often begin very personally, inviting a young poet into the text, as in chapter 2, “Poetry as Nourishment: How to Read Like a Poet”: “Giving a poetry reading years ago at a nursing home,” she writes, “I met Sally, a vibrant woman in her early nineties,” or chapter 7, “Turn, Turn, Turn: Metaphors and Other Tropes”: “When my grandmother began teaching me to read at the age of three….” Confiding to her reader how she practices the art of poetry roots her craft in the real world and in the actual making of poetry, be it in collecting dictionaries for “several languages [she doesn’t] speak” in order to browse and be inspired by strange words or in discussing how meter has returned to a younger generation of poets, including herself, by relating how she listened to Robert Creeley read a poem written in iambic couplets a few weeks before he died in 2005 and how he told her “that day that meter ‘had been there all along’ for him.”
Chapter 3, “Thirty-Nine Ways to Make a Poem: A Generative Resource” offers the relatively inexperienced, burgeoning poet many helpful suggestions for getting started. The chapters on form and meter that constitute part 3, “Breathing Poems: Rhythm and Meter,” and part 4, “Shaping Poems: Structure and Form” are especially strong, although given the in-depth attention to “The Metrical Palette,” with its focus on such meters as “Amphibrachs, Dipodics, and Hendecasyllabics,” chapter 15, “Forms of Free Verse” seems wanting in its depth and range and suggested exercises. The endings of each chapter offer useful “Questions for Meditation or Discussion,” which address readers’ differing levels of sophistication; pertinent “Quotes” connected to the content of the immediately preceding chapter; and “Poetry Practices” that involve engaging exercises for both a group and for the individual poet.
While she does not attempt to replicate the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, Finch does include numerous familiar as well as more rarified terms that define many aspects of poetry, often including the etymologies for these terms. While readers may...