- Hardcover: 240 pages
- Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1st edition (August 5, 2013)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0393050688
- ISBN-13: 978-0393050684
- Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 0.9 x 8.6 inches
- Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 22 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,031,935 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Singing School: Learning to Write (and Read) Poetry by Studying with the Masters Hardcover – August 5, 2013
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In this sparkling teaching anthology, Pinsky—poet, poet laureate (1997–2000), and poetry editor for Slate—focuses on how poets read poetry in order to learn how to write poetry, taking his instructive title from William Butler Yeats: “Nor is there singing school but studying / Monuments of its own magnificence.” Pinsky has selected a tremendously fresh and exciting variety of salient poems and organized them into sections titled “Freedom,” “Listening,” “Form,” and “Dreaming Things Up.” He introduces each of the 80 selections with an illuminating bit of analysis (Robert Frost is “a sexier, more adventuresome poet than he may get credit for”) and a challenge: Can you “write something as master-of-fact, yet as far-out” as Emily Dickinson? Knowledgeable and puckish, Pinsky seeks to foster a deeper sense of the meaning of words and a fuller understanding of their “feel and aroma” while praising the imagination for how it “transfigures” perception. With brief bios of the poets, from Sappho to Andrew Marvell, Langston Hughes, and Marianne Moore, this stimulating and creative guide will intrigue and enlighten everyone interested in poetry. --Donna Seaman
“Singing School is nothing like the usual anthology of safe and sane selections. Instead, it is a gathering of poetry designed to stimulate the young and startle the old practitioner, with a surprise around every corner. Where else might you find Sterling Brown's 'Harlem Happiness' next to Queen Elizabeth I’s 'When I Was Fair and Young,' and two poems away from Plath's 'Nick and the Candlestick'?…a book that will instruct and charm every reader.”
- Alicia Ostriker
“Robert Pinsky is, everyone knows, one of the great poetry teachers of our time. The tone of his discussion always combines patience and delight, and he is especially valuable to us because the knowledge he imparts is systematic―to read one of his explications of a poem is to understand something more about all the poems you'll read from that moment on.”
- Tony Hoagland
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1. The review must tell what the book is about.
2. The review must tell what the book's author says about that thing the book is about.
3. The review must tell what the reviewer thinks about what the book's author says about that thing the book is about.
A good review would amount to a deft integration of the three topics; be forewarned that, due to constraints of time and sloth, this is not such a review.
1. What the Book is About
Singing School is about learning to read like a poet. The book is not an instruction manual; it is an anthology of great poems. The poems represent a broad range of eras, backgrounds, and styles, suggesting that there is no particular feature that makes a poem great; there are as many ways to be great as there are great poems. Each poem is preceded by comments from Pinsky intended to guide the reader's attention toward a particular feature of the poem that makes it great. Sometimes the comments include a writing prompt intended to help the reader to explore, rebut, imitate, answer, or otherwise respond to the feature or the poem. The poems are also grouped into larger sections, with further comments by Pinsky introducing each section. The sections are titled "Freedom," "Listening," "Form," and "Dreaming Things Up." In the back of the book, Pinsky includes brief biographies of each poet the book anthologizes. The reader is encouraged not only to study the poems in Singing School, but also to type out and then study her own anthology of poems she considers great, taking Singing School as a model for such an anthology.
So, to recap: this book is about various ways that aspiring poets can learn to be great poets by studying great poems, and the book offers resources to help with this learning.
2. What the Book's Author Says About That Thing the Book is About
In the book's introduction, Pinsky writes, "If you want to learn singing, you must study--not just peruse or experience or dabble in or enjoy or take a course in, but study--monumental examples of magnificent singing...'Magni-ficent': the Latin roots of the word mean 'making great.'" Thus, Pinsky contends that great poems, if studied well, can make the reader great, perhaps even a great poet. It could be inferred that all poets who have become great have done so by studying well. Pinsky believes that studying great non-contemporary poetry is particularly helpful for one's growth as a poet "because historical models can ensure that the student will not be merely imitative . . . You probably will not just ape their moves in some superficial way, as might happen with a contemporary. Ginsberg learned from Milton, but he did not write like Milton." One of the functions of Pinsky's poem selection is to introduce novice poets to poems that may fall outside their zone of comfort or familiarity. One of the functions of Pinsky's headnotes to the poems is to guide novice poets in how to study and learn from such poems. Pinsky intends the selections included in the anthology to serve as a springboard for the reader; the reader can easily use the Internet or a local library to research further about a poem, poet, genre, or era he newly encounters and admires in this book in order to discover further poems to include in his own personal anthology.
So, to recap: Pinsky says that learning to read like a poet requires careful, creative attention to masterful poems of many kinds. Pinsky helps the reader achieve this attention by suggesting aspects of a poem to pay attention to, asking the reader questions about the poem, and posing writing prompts based on the poem. Pinsky believes that skill in reading can transition into skill in writing, and he seeks to help the reader of his book to accomplish this.
3. What the Reviewer Thinks About What the Book's Author Says About That Thing the Book is About
I think that Pinsky is correct about how one learns to read like a poet. As a consequence of my thinking this, I further think that all aspiring poets and appreciators of poetry will make good use of their time, calories, and oxygen by reading this book. Reading this book was similar to sitting down with Robert Pinsky and having him show me many of his favorite poems, explain why they are his favorites, and suggest to me how I can learn from them. The main difference was that Robert Pinsky was not physically present. Since he is presumably a busy person and can only be in one place at a time until he eventually dies, this book is a reasonably good substitute for sitting down with him. If anything, I would have wanted even more comments from him in the book, but I understand that his intent is to introduce the reader to great poems so that the reader can encounter them for herself and learn to make her own comments instead of relying on Pinsky's.
The book takes only a few hours to read through once from cover to cover, but it may well inspire the reader to spend many further hours rereading certain included poems many times, memorizing some of the poems, writing good poems that the reader would not otherwise have written, and gaining a new level of devotion to poetry. I had not previously read most of the poems included in Singing School and was unfamiliar with many of the poets. I was also led to see greatness in poems of certain styles and eras that hadn't been of much interest to me before. Too often aspiring poets read shallowly or ignore many types of great poems, causing their work to suffer; alternately, aspiring poets may get too bogged down in reading to write much of their own. Singing School could help an aspiring poet to reach a healthy equilibrium by encouraging reading that fuels writing that fuels reading that fuels writing, etc., etc. Robert Pinsky's work as a poet, translator, and critic has been of immeasurable help to me in my development as a poet and human being, and this book is no exception.
So, to recap: I think that Singing School's guidance and exhortations toward careful reading of the included great poems are useful, its selection of poems is sound, and its perspective is refreshing. It is a good answer to many of the needs of an aspiring poet. If you are one, read it and improve. If you aren't one, read it and become one.
Robert Pinsky's anthology, Singing School: Learning to Write (and Read) Poetry by Studying With the Masters, reminds us of the millennial history of the English language. Born of a marriage to the French in the Middle Ages, we think English a homogeneous whole today.
But it is the challenge that Robert Pinsky issues that has caught my attention. It is a challenge to create, to compare and to edit. The challenge is to create one's own anthology of poetry that one might copy into a booklet. I accept!
I have a vision for Stein and Baudelaire.