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For years, aspiring poets have asked three-time US poet laureate Robert Pinsky one seemingly simple question: “What should I read to learn about writing poetry?” And for years, the College of Arts & Sciences professor of English has advised them to “find things they like a lot, and study them,” a better course, he says, than consulting a textbook or an expert’s reading list.
Now, in his new anthology, Singing School: Learning to Write (and Read) Poetry by Studying with the Masters (W. W. Norton, 2013), Pinsky writes that he is able, at last, to show what he means, by example. The author of eight volumes of poetry and several previous anthologies says the book is designed specifically for people who write, or intend to write, poetry.
The aim of the slim volume of 80 poems, he says, is “to offer aspiring poets ways to learn from the poetry of the past: an avenue toward creativity based not on fashion or doctrine, but on close, personal attention to magnificent examples.” You won’t find theories or rules for what it takes to write a great poem here. The book is meant to be a guide, serving up useful hints and suggestions for the journey of becoming a poet. “I hope to show readers a world larger and more interesting than schools, -isms, academic categories, and fashions,” Pinsky says. His premise is that by studying the masters, aspiring poets learn to become better writers: “It’s like listening to music or looking at art. Stravinsky knew Mozart’s music and Charlie Parker knew Stravinsky’s music. Picasso looked at African masks and Japanese cigarette papers. Art that is unlike you and your context can free you and inspire you.”
Singing School, which takes its title from a line in William Butler Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” (“And there’s no singing school but studying/Monuments of its own magnificence”), is divided into four sections: “Freedom,” “Listening,” “Form,” and “Dreaming Things Up.” The sections have their own short prefaces, and Pinsky provides a brief note to introduce each of the poems, inviting readers to consider something of particular significance. In the one for Thomas Campion’s “Now Winter Nights Enlarge,” he asks the reader to look at the rhyming verbs at the ends of lines and the energy they impart to the poem. He treats other poems in the anthology as jumping off points, encouraging readers to use them to devise their own writing exercise. Introducing Robert Frost’s “An Old Man’s Winter Night,” he suggests that readers might take the poem as a model to write their own poem in five-foot, unrhymed lines.
One of the qualities that sets this anthology apart is the dazzling juxtaposition of poems. It’s startling to read Michelangelo’s “On Painting the Sistine Chapel Ceiling” on one page, and on the next Marianne Moore’s “Silence.” Centuries separate the two, but both, he notes, offer instructions in the freedoms afforded by poetry.
In deciding which poems to include in Singing School, Pinsky had several criteria. “First of all, the poem had to sound great to me,” he says. “And I had to imagine learning from it. A lot of the choosing was partly intuitive: like making a bouquet or an ice cream sundae, or choosing colors and furniture for a room.” He also wanted poems that provide an element of surprise. “I wanted to include many poems that would not be familiar from other anthologies,” he says. Many of the poems here helped him learn to write poetry, and to that extent, the anthology is something of “an entirely personal account of poetry.” He says he also tried to assemble a collection of poems that would be fun and elicit a sense of pleasure when read aloud.
There’s a reason Pinsky didn’t include selections from living poets. “I wanted to emphasize the depth and usefulness and attractions of the past,” he says, adding that by excluding living poets, he was also able to avoid squabbles, and by emphasizing historical models, reduce the risk that readers would try to imitate the poets included. “Precisely because their language is that of the 17th or 19th century, not the 21st, you are not likely to parrot the voices of Jonson or Dickinson,” he says. “You probably will not just ape their moves in some superficial way, as might happen with a contemporary.”
Pinsky hopes that Singing School will lead readers to create their own anthology of poems that have inspired them. It is a commitment that is “demanding and lifelong,” he says, and essential in the act of becoming a poet.