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Singing School: Learning to Write (and Read) Poetry by Studying with the Masters

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Quick, joyful, and playfully astringent, with surprising comparisons and examples, this collection takes an unconventional approach to the art of poetry. Instead of rules, theories, or recipes, Singing School emphasizes ways to learn from great work: studying magnificent, monumentally enduring poems and how they are made— in terms borrowed from the “singing school” of Will Quick, joyful, and playfully astringent, with surprising comparisons and examples, this collection takes an unconventional approach to the art of poetry. Instead of rules, theories, or recipes, Singing School emphasizes ways to learn from great work: studying magnificent, monumentally enduring poems and how they are made— in terms borrowed from the “singing school” of William Butler Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium.” Robert Pinsky’s headnotes for each of the 80 poems and his brief introductions to each section take a writer’s view of specific works: William Carlos Williams’s “Fine Work with Pitch and Copper” for intense verbal music; Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” for wild imagination in matter-of-fact language; Robert Southwell’s “The Burning Babe” for surrealist aplomb; Wallace Stevens’s “The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm” for subtlety in meter. Included are poems by Aphra Behn, Allen Ginsberg, George Herbert, John Keats, Mina Loy, Thomas Nashe, and many other master poets. This anthology respects poetry’s mysteries in two senses of the word: techniques of craft and strokes of the inexplicable.


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Quick, joyful, and playfully astringent, with surprising comparisons and examples, this collection takes an unconventional approach to the art of poetry. Instead of rules, theories, or recipes, Singing School emphasizes ways to learn from great work: studying magnificent, monumentally enduring poems and how they are made— in terms borrowed from the “singing school” of Will Quick, joyful, and playfully astringent, with surprising comparisons and examples, this collection takes an unconventional approach to the art of poetry. Instead of rules, theories, or recipes, Singing School emphasizes ways to learn from great work: studying magnificent, monumentally enduring poems and how they are made— in terms borrowed from the “singing school” of William Butler Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium.” Robert Pinsky’s headnotes for each of the 80 poems and his brief introductions to each section take a writer’s view of specific works: William Carlos Williams’s “Fine Work with Pitch and Copper” for intense verbal music; Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” for wild imagination in matter-of-fact language; Robert Southwell’s “The Burning Babe” for surrealist aplomb; Wallace Stevens’s “The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm” for subtlety in meter. Included are poems by Aphra Behn, Allen Ginsberg, George Herbert, John Keats, Mina Loy, Thomas Nashe, and many other master poets. This anthology respects poetry’s mysteries in two senses of the word: techniques of craft and strokes of the inexplicable.

30 review for Singing School: Learning to Write (and Read) Poetry by Studying with the Masters

  1. 4 out of 5

    Scott

    Meh. It was really just an anthology with a few comments.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Jsavett1

    I'm sorry. It's possible I just don't "get" Robert Pinsky, but I doubt it. I know his poetry and anthologies are almost universally beloved, but I can't find much to love in either. I'll limit my comments in this review to ones regarding only Singing School. While the introduction was promising and had me reaching for my highlighter and pen to add excited marginalia, once the book proper began, I was wholly disappointed. For two reasons. First, Pinksy's analyses of the poems are limited to a pith I'm sorry. It's possible I just don't "get" Robert Pinsky, but I doubt it. I know his poetry and anthologies are almost universally beloved, but I can't find much to love in either. I'll limit my comments in this review to ones regarding only Singing School. While the introduction was promising and had me reaching for my highlighter and pen to add excited marginalia, once the book proper began, I was wholly disappointed. For two reasons. First, Pinksy's analyses of the poems are limited to a pithy sentence or two which serve to highlight some formal element and pose a writing challenge for the reader. Granted, he discusses some of the poems in each chapter introduction, but these go no more than detail and surface deep. Second, while Pinsky suggests early in the book that he'll be focusing on older works as examples because doing so inhibits imitation and forces aspiring writers to discover essence. Fine. But the poems he selects just don't move me. Yes, they may embody a particular point Pinsky is making but I find it hard to believe those were the "best" he could find. Excerpting INCREDIBLY long passages from these poems also gives the impression of his trying to turn a much slimmer volume into a longer work. I was inspired to create my own anthology of poems which make me see anew. Maybe that's a good lesson from Singing School.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Ruth

    Pinsky himself admits that this book is his personal collection of poems that exhibit one or more masterful elements of poetry as a craft. I loved his introductory statements to each poem; some invited the reader/poet to try his or her hand at a similar poetic style or varied subject. Some mention the need to look more closely at one stanza or particular wording. As a reader, I came away impressed not always with the poems included in the collection (as is the case with most anthologies, I loved Pinsky himself admits that this book is his personal collection of poems that exhibit one or more masterful elements of poetry as a craft. I loved his introductory statements to each poem; some invited the reader/poet to try his or her hand at a similar poetic style or varied subject. Some mention the need to look more closely at one stanza or particular wording. As a reader, I came away impressed not always with the poems included in the collection (as is the case with most anthologies, I loved some and dismissed others that didn't really speak to me)--but also impressed with the desire to create a personal anthology of poems that speak to me. That, at least in part, is a goal of this book. Pinsky wishes the reader to make his or her own poetic anthology and include the "know by heart" choices as well as the "always read aloud" or "hold deeply in your heart" choices. I am so glad I heard the author speak in person and recite several of the poems in this volume. And I'm happy to add another poetic volume to my shelves.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Kevin

    I think if one reads this book, plus The Sounds of Poetry, plus his selected poems, one gets an advanced degree in the sonics and application of poetry.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Samantha

    I've found some of Pinsky's past work helpful in my poetry studies, but this book seemed thrown together for the sake of putting out another book. I don't mind that he selected somewhat less popular poems by certain poets, but many of them don't seem like the best teachable examples (and many of them didn't grab me, stylistically, as much as I expected them to). Additionally, there is barely more than a few sentences of analysis from Pinsky on each poem...sometimes even less. And, while I don't I've found some of Pinsky's past work helpful in my poetry studies, but this book seemed thrown together for the sake of putting out another book. I don't mind that he selected somewhat less popular poems by certain poets, but many of them don't seem like the best teachable examples (and many of them didn't grab me, stylistically, as much as I expected them to). Additionally, there is barely more than a few sentences of analysis from Pinsky on each poem...sometimes even less. And, while I don't particularly support a hand-holding method when it comes to "teaching" poetry, this could have been a great volume to use in poetry courses if there was more analysis that prompted group discussion. Overall, this is just a seemingly random anthology of poems not worthy enough, as a whole, to justify a whole book. Even the separate sections are nonsensical, as Pinsky frequently references poems from previous sections in other ones. You also get the feeling he's trying to fill space, as some poems are referenced more than once. Bottom line, if you're looking for Pinsky, go for The Sounds of Poetry, instead.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Ann

    Really enjoyed this one. Pinsky's poetry selections are inspired. Maybe too sophisticated for a novice. For beginning students of poetry, I'd recommend Mary Oliver's Poetry Handbook or Ted Hughes' Poetry in the Making.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Andrea Lakly

    This is a great compilation of poetry. Pinsky calls it a "literary" study of poetry, but without any of the pejorative connotations of that term, and I would agree. Writing suggestions accompany each poem. I haven't actually written anything, but I've dreamed that I might.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Claire

    I cannot wait to get this one. What a profound contribution RP has made to the next generation of readers and authors with this work. So awesome!

  9. 4 out of 5

    Karlan

    Our former Poet Laureate does a wonderful job of introducing different styles and ideas. The introduction to each of the four sections is easily read and inspiring.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Nathan Eckles

    Singing School: Learning to Write (and Read) Poetry by Studying with the Masters by Robert Pinsky is not a conventional poetry book. Most poetry books just have an anthology of poems or a story told through poetry, but this book analysis many poems from some of the greats poets and Pinsky puts his own notes on the poems. These notes help people understand what the poet may have been trying to convey with the poem. While I am not a fan of poetry in the slightest I can respect the poems that were Singing School: Learning to Write (and Read) Poetry by Studying with the Masters by Robert Pinsky is not a conventional poetry book. Most poetry books just have an anthology of poems or a story told through poetry, but this book analysis many poems from some of the greats poets and Pinsky puts his own notes on the poems. These notes help people understand what the poet may have been trying to convey with the poem. While I am not a fan of poetry in the slightest I can respect the poems that were analyzed in this book. It is also easier to read the poetry with the headnotes that Pinsky provided. I would suggest this book to anyone that may not like poetry but would still like to see how someone may interpret some of the greatest poems.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Dan

    A rare five star book from me, this time for unique reasons relative to my other five star ratings. This one earns its rating from the fact that I found 10 to 12 new poems in this book to add to my short list of favorite poetry. I consider myself a lover of poetry, but a picky lover who spurns the overwhelming majority of the poems that cross my path. I didn't find Robert Pinsky's little intros especially helpful nor did they increase my enjoyment of the poems (for the most part), but he did a g A rare five star book from me, this time for unique reasons relative to my other five star ratings. This one earns its rating from the fact that I found 10 to 12 new poems in this book to add to my short list of favorite poetry. I consider myself a lover of poetry, but a picky lover who spurns the overwhelming majority of the poems that cross my path. I didn't find Robert Pinsky's little intros especially helpful nor did they increase my enjoyment of the poems (for the most part), but he did a great job picking poems for this book. I intend to buy a copy to revisit these new favorites again and again for years to come.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Dave

    This is mostly an anthology, that over laps with Pinsky's other anthology - Essential Pleasures. Most of these poems are classics that you've either read or heard of. Pinsky adds a few comments and some writing prompts before each one. You could read a lot worse, but I don't think he put much into this. I think he's more talent and passionate than this.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Colette

    The section introductions were good. I liked the final section on imagination. The first section in particular was not as much to my liking. There is a wide selection of poems throughout, some more enjoyable and instructive than others. This book just didn’t work well for me. I didn’t find the ”exercises” very helpful.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Christian

    The very idea that one must be schooled in poetry, and schooled by the old masters, is refreshing. I enjoyed Pinsky’s prompts (even followed some...), found some new favorites, and enjoyed reading familiar poems with fresh attention.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Lee

    Pretty simple anthology. Not sure if worth the money, but I enjoyed the brief introductions at the beginning of each section.

  16. 5 out of 5

    L.B. Sedlacek

    A must read for poets! A cleverly put together workshop of how to write poems presented in a totally new way.

  17. 5 out of 5

    T.J.

    Disappointing. If this book were simply an anthology of Pinsky's favorite poems, it would be merely adequate. There are the traditional heavy hitters like Keats and Dickinson (and you can probably guess which obvious poems are included), Frost and Shakespeare, Whitman and Langston Hughes. "Jabberwocky" shows up too. That's not to say there aren't a few pleasant surprises here; there's the delightful "Big Mystical Circus" by Jorge de Lima, a saucy 17th century poem about erectile dysfunction, and Disappointing. If this book were simply an anthology of Pinsky's favorite poems, it would be merely adequate. There are the traditional heavy hitters like Keats and Dickinson (and you can probably guess which obvious poems are included), Frost and Shakespeare, Whitman and Langston Hughes. "Jabberwocky" shows up too. That's not to say there aren't a few pleasant surprises here; there's the delightful "Big Mystical Circus" by Jorge de Lima, a saucy 17th century poem about erectile dysfunction, and a poem by Christopher Smart that I thought must have been a lost Beat classic until I realized he wrote in the 18th century. I suppose Pinsky could have dated the poems. But the problem is that this book isn't billed as just a collection, but rather as a study of the masters. The blurbs on the cover commend Pinsky as a "teacher" and celebrate his "pedagogical legacy." With the notable exception of the few pages of that mark each section ("Freedom," "Listening," etc.) there is little instruction, analysis, exegesis, or even help with the poems. Instead of introducing each poem or highlighting elements worth noting, he provides fragmentary "head notes" that offer little insight. For example, his introduction to a Dickinson poem is the four word dictum: "Get it by heart." Nice sentiment, but not particularly illuminating. I pity the student writer who gets writing directions like this: "Try your own, contemporary version of this, in your own world, keeping it fresh yet recognizable--good luck." That's essentially the gist of Pinsky's teaching. Read master poets. Try it yourself. As for any more direction or tips, well, good luck.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Kerfe

    Pinsky teaches poetry at Boston University, and this book is most likely based on his approach to his classes. The basic premise is simple: to learn about writing poetry, read poetry. Lots of it, and lots of different poets, writing in different styles, from different centuries. His "prompts" are really just guides to looking at what each poet brings to their words and form and learning from that. And he urges the reader to speak the words aloud. Like notes on a page, the sounds need to be heard t Pinsky teaches poetry at Boston University, and this book is most likely based on his approach to his classes. The basic premise is simple: to learn about writing poetry, read poetry. Lots of it, and lots of different poets, writing in different styles, from different centuries. His "prompts" are really just guides to looking at what each poet brings to their words and form and learning from that. And he urges the reader to speak the words aloud. Like notes on a page, the sounds need to be heard to truly come to life, using in this case the instrument of the human voice. Nearly all the poetic examples are written in English; these are not translations for the most part. I know that when I read poetry originating in another language, the translators always note the difficulty of their task. I would be interested to know if Pinsky feels that a poet writing in English should learn mostly from other poets writing in English. Although obviously poetic translation will always remain inexact (just look through the different versions of Basho's haiku for one), I don't think you should exclude the poets of other languages from the learning process. Pinsky is not telling you "how" to write. By grouping diverse examples into different approaches to verse, he provides a good start to a foundation in the many ways poets show us the world. Might as well begin by learning from, and imitating, the best.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Gabrielle

    This is a good resource for students of poetry writing, or just wanting to know more about poetry, similar to a workshop, minus the writing part This is a good book, I am not familiar with most of the poets featured in the book. What I like about this book is Mr. Pinsky encouraged readers to practice reading poems they really like and writing it down by copying or memorizing, putting it into practice in knowing the poem by "heart". Also the book is divided by parts that talks about free form, l This is a good resource for students of poetry writing, or just wanting to know more about poetry, similar to a workshop, minus the writing part This is a good book, I am not familiar with most of the poets featured in the book. What I like about this book is Mr. Pinsky encouraged readers to practice reading poems they really like and writing it down by copying or memorizing, putting it into practice in knowing the poem by "heart". Also the book is divided by parts that talks about free form, listening to the poems like a song and how the words flow through, variety of forms that used traditional and yet has its own unique voice, and dreaming things up, which has that surreal feel of the poem. If you are looking for a book that teaches you the basics of poetry, this is not for you, this is just a handy guideline or short workshop that talks about different aspects of Poetry, based on different examples of poems written by the masters of the field. Mr Pinsky's explanation in each parts is simple with a dash of Philosophical, and starts each poems with a question a tidbit of explanation about the poem. W.W. Norton is for me one of the best publication of academic books that doesn't look like textbooks.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Skylar Burris

    I had been hoping for more advice on reading and writing poetry from this book, or more insight into poetry in general, but the introductions to each chapter, while occasionally thought provoking, were generally vague. There was no analysis of the individual poems, but only a short blurb atop each, sometimes with no more than a sentence along the lines of, "Try writing a poem like this." In other words, the book did not make me a better reader or writer of poetry. It entered my library alongside I had been hoping for more advice on reading and writing poetry from this book, or more insight into poetry in general, but the introductions to each chapter, while occasionally thought provoking, were generally vague. There was no analysis of the individual poems, but only a short blurb atop each, sometimes with no more than a sentence along the lines of, "Try writing a poem like this." In other words, the book did not make me a better reader or writer of poetry. It entered my library alongside all the poetry books as yet another anthology of poetry, and not one of the best. The poetry selections are wide ranging, covering classics to modern verse and hitting on many of the most renowned poets in the western cannon. I came across a few poems I had not read, but with most I was familiar. It would have been useful to have a date next to the title of each poem, however. In the back of the book you will find paragraph-long biographies of each poet. I underlined seldom, but a few comments that struck me included: "The more I read, the less literary my writing became." "The past can offer a useful way of rebelling against the orthodoxies of the present." "Strictly speaking, you don't write a poem, you compose it."

  21. 5 out of 5

    Alex Diaz

    The downfall of this book is in the very nature of what Mr. Pinsky set out to do: namely, to show the beginning poet the fundamental blocks of poetry writing through a handful of his own favorite poems. It sounds like a good idea, but ultimately the subjectivity of the worth of the poems he singles out as his favorite cripple the effect he might have achieved with this book. In all honesty, it reads a bit too much like an admittedly sophisticated MySpace page, missing only a tinny recording of a The downfall of this book is in the very nature of what Mr. Pinsky set out to do: namely, to show the beginning poet the fundamental blocks of poetry writing through a handful of his own favorite poems. It sounds like a good idea, but ultimately the subjectivity of the worth of the poems he singles out as his favorite cripple the effect he might have achieved with this book. In all honesty, it reads a bit too much like an admittedly sophisticated MySpace page, missing only a tinny recording of a punk-rock song in the background - or in this case, perhaps a Purcell aria. Either way, I was distracted from the writing advice Mr. Pinsky gave by the questionable choice of poetic example, and I would love to clock him in the jaw just for subjecting me to "Upon Appleton House" by Andrew Marvell, one of the most long-winded and boring poems ever written (in my humble opinion). Still, to add a shred of dignity to what was a valiant endeavor, I can see how this would be a valuable read to anyone with an actual inclination towards writing poetry. Overall Rating: Probably useful to a poet, anathema to yours truly.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Rachel

    I've really enjoyed Pinsky's poetry, his translation, and really anything he has to say about it since I went to a reading in Berkeley back in college.I wanted to like this, and kept plugging on, but about halfway through I realized I wasn't looking forward to reading it at all, and it was making me irritated with poetry. There are a few interesting selections and suggestions, but as I looked at the remaining part of the book I decided not to trudge through it anymore. I don't write poetry, and I've really enjoyed Pinsky's poetry, his translation, and really anything he has to say about it since I went to a reading in Berkeley back in college.I wanted to like this, and kept plugging on, but about halfway through I realized I wasn't looking forward to reading it at all, and it was making me irritated with poetry. There are a few interesting selections and suggestions, but as I looked at the remaining part of the book I decided not to trudge through it anymore. I don't write poetry, and maybe this is the problem. Oddly, I find myself wanting to use the word "cussedness" when I think about the inclusion of Upon Appleton House, I think it was. Was that a test to see whether we'd break down and Google it? I didn't, and I'm sorry I didn't, because I spent most of the time reading it thinking it was an inventive catalog of English navy ships, rather like Homer, now that I think of it, but without the reward of the following chapters. I'll go find The Sounds of Poetry and read that instead.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Matt Snee

    short, but sweet. Some good points, and some unfamiliar poets.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Christina

    To be fair, I read this with a book group and not because I enjoy poetry. So, I'm likely not his target audience. And, I found in the beginning that I wasn't really moved by his selected poetry, so I skipped most of the poems (which makes for a pretty short book). He has some interesting thoughts about poetry in general, and I think someone who was actually interested in seriously reading / writing poetry would get more out of it than I did. I have decided poetry doesn't work with my style of ski To be fair, I read this with a book group and not because I enjoy poetry. So, I'm likely not his target audience. And, I found in the beginning that I wasn't really moved by his selected poetry, so I skipped most of the poems (which makes for a pretty short book). He has some interesting thoughts about poetry in general, and I think someone who was actually interested in seriously reading / writing poetry would get more out of it than I did. I have decided poetry doesn't work with my style of skim reading.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Mark Folse

    Still working through this, but can only recommend it as an interesting anthology. What you get from Pinsky is an interest essay in the form of an introduction. The actual commentary around each poem amounts to little more than a Tweet of an idea, not a genuine guide to what is valuable about the poems. The introductory essay is a good essay, and applying its ideas to the poems that follow is also a good idea. But there's not much meat on the bones from the editor in terms of the book as an inst Still working through this, but can only recommend it as an interesting anthology. What you get from Pinsky is an interest essay in the form of an introduction. The actual commentary around each poem amounts to little more than a Tweet of an idea, not a genuine guide to what is valuable about the poems. The introductory essay is a good essay, and applying its ideas to the poems that follow is also a good idea. But there's not much meat on the bones from the editor in terms of the book as an instructive anthology.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Mark Valentine

    How can Pinsky go wrong when the plan of his book is to use Master Poems to serve as models for reading and writing poetry? I especially liked his selections--they were from major poets but were not the typically anthologized poems so the freshness was palpable. I found this a very serviceable, practical book. In fact, inspired from it, I was able to apply his technique today with my Creative Writing students.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Murray

    The reason I picked up this book was to hopefully stimulate my desire to write poetry again, but it didn't do that. It was nice to read a few classics but more so poems I was not familiar with by some of the masters, like Thomas Nashe. It also made me appreciate William Carlos Williams, who I thought was a hack, when I was in college.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Nancy

    Massive appreciation for the concept and the careful selection of sometimes difficult poems. But not every poem's preface seemed enough for me. (Maybe I need more hand holding?) And the final section on "Dreaming Things Up" didn't seem nearly as strong as the other two chapters. "Listening" was the best: Pinsky nails how important the music of language is to making a poem sing.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Gerry LaFemina

    Pinsky's choices for poems are surprising, and his ability to talk about these poems (and his love for them) is impressive. Here is someone trying to step away from the neo-formalist/free-verse debate, and someone not bemoaning the rise of MFA programs, but rather someone saying what it truly means to study poetry.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Sasha

    As other reviewers have pointed out, this is more anthology than "school" - if we are to learn to sing, we must learn from reading (with, through) the masters on our own, without much verbiage or guidance from Pinsky. An enjoyable anthology to get the muse humming in meter or pentameter, but not a how-to or writing prompt book.

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