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The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide

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The Poet Laureate's clear and entertaining account of how poetry works.

"Poetry is a vocal, which is to say a bodily, art," Robert Pinsky declares in The Sounds of Poetry . "The medium of poetry is the human the column of air inside the chest, shaped into signifying sounds in the larynx and the mouth. In this sense, poetry is as physical or bodily an art as dancing."

As Poet Laureate, Pinsky is one of America's best spokesmen for poetry. In this fascinating book, he explains how poets use the "technology" of poetry--its sounds--to create works of art that are "performed" in us when we read them aloud.

He devotes brief, informative chapters to accent and duration, syntax and line, like and unlike sounds, blank and free verse. He cites examples from the work of fifty different poets--from Shakespeare, Donne, and Herbert to W. C. Williams, Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, C. K. Williams, Louise Glück, and Frank Bidart.

This ideal introductory volume belongs in the library of every poet and student of poetry.

144 pages, Paperback

First published September 1, 1998

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About the author

Robert Pinsky

123 books115 followers
Robert Pinsky is an American poet, essayist, literary critic, and translator. From 1997 to 2000, he served as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Pinsky is the author of nineteen books, most of which are collections of his own poetry. His published work also includes critically acclaimed translations, including The Inferno of Dante Alighieri and The Separate Notebooks by Czesław Miłosz. He teaches at Boston University and is the poetry editor at Slate.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 95 reviews
Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,559 reviews8,688 followers
July 31, 2017
"In the particular physical presence of memorable language we can find a reminder of our ability to know and retain knowledge itself: the 'brightness wherein all things come to see.'"
- Robert Pinsky, The Sounds of Poetry

"Nor is there a singing school, but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence."

- William Butler Yeats

Review as a bad poem:

Need to | review |using | iambs | and feet
yet my | poet|ic skill's | off by | a beat.
I hear | it, draw | near it, | and love | it, but
still -- like | music | -- I miss | something | quite big.
Pinsky | gives form, | draws maps, | easy | short cuts
guiding | ladders | down holes | I oft | en dig.
Profile Image for Ken.
Author 3 books925 followers
December 17, 2019
I am the book's target audience and I am *not* its target audience. I write free verse. And though I'm not the greatest dancer, I do think I have rhythm. I read my poetry aloud to "hear" the rhythms in my lines.

Robert Pinsky is here (well, in the book) to say, "Not good enough." Free verse writers with no sense of meter are setting themselves up for a fall, unless, maybe, they are the Rainmen of Free Verse.

(Uh-oh. Me, I'm Mostly-Sunny Man.)

Let's go to the book, then. For one, I have a library copy. It's always interesting when you get a library edition that's underlined in pencil by a previous borrower. Especially when the underlining fades out along about p. 32. Hmn. What would Sherlock Holmes say?

Right out of the gate, on p. 7, Pinsky writes, "There are no rules." The next word in the next paragraph? "However...."

He also writes "No instruction manual can teach as much as careful attention to the sounds in even one great poem." The next word in the next paragraph? "But..."

That said, the book did do me some good. Despite the fact that it reminded me of prescriptive grammar, which drives me batty. Despite the fact that Pinsky is an iambic pentameter homeboy if ever there was one (cheer in five feet, if you will).

But it does explain how rhythm hides in free verse, too. And it does correlate to the writing rule of so many teachers saying you can break the rules only after you have learned them. And in some cases it explains why your poetry submissions come back as rejections so quickly.

There are Pinsky editors out there, you see. They're taking names and numbers. Counting, lovely Rita, Meter Maid-like. And the submitting poet's line endings and syntactical break-up of lines (sure sign of the sophomore) help the editor to boilerplate reject in seconds flat.

So, yes. You can read this and practice on certain poems. A little iamb and a pesky anapest. I touch of trochee and a dash of dactyl. It would have helped if Pinsky's example lines had stress marks and whatever you call those unstressed symbols (sleeping C's?), but no.

A fight, then. For me. A guy who was decidedly NOT the target audience (sezame) and decidely so the target audience (sezePinsky).

duh-DUH-duh-DUH-duh-DUH-duh-DUH-duh-DUH, and to all a good night.
Profile Image for Joe Drogos.
99 reviews6 followers
January 6, 2011
Would make a great college poetry 101 text book. My only complaint is that, for all its simple revelatory strength, Pinsky eschews the technical just a little too much. His section on "like and unlike sounds" would have been a little clearer if he just allowed himself to use terms like alliteration, assonance, consonance. In the interest of avoiding technical terms, he just keeps talking about how words "rhyme a different way". That said, he does take a lot of the mystery out of ideas like accent, duration and meter. A great book for a young poet, and also for your mom who likes to read, but "just doesn't get poetry". Simple, precise and empowering.
Profile Image for Eliza.
464 reviews16 followers
July 21, 2012
7/20/2012: I was bowled over by this little book. I mean, how much more is there to say about the sounds of poetry? Haven't we all learned (at least the English nerds among us) the meaning and importance of iamb, caesura, enjambment? Ah, but there turns out to be so much more--convention and vocabulary can so easily obscure and deaden what we are actually searching for in poetry.

Pinsky's love of poetry and desire to convey that love is at the heart of what makes this guide so wonderful. TSOP is elegant yet intimate, acknowledging poetic conventions yet moving way beyond them. The author explains in crystal clear and precise language how to listen to poetry, how to hear the amazing nuances of the English language and through them the incredible beauty of some of his favorite poems. Starting with syllables and words, moving to groups of words in a line, then to rhyme and form, Pinsky carefully explains how to hear poetry, how to practice appreciating it for its particular value.

TSOP wants to help readers appreciate poetry without all the baggage that often makes people fear and misunderstand it. But it is still a "guide". So how does he escape this inherent contradiction? First, he writes with a wonderful tone of reluctance, not wanting to provide a reader with yet more rules, more terminology to obscure the actual work. He includes technical terms, but often in parentheses, as a kind of referral to that other world of convention, not as central to his argument. And he ends with "Recommendations for Further Study"--aha! you say…more advice, more instruction! But no. His "advice for further study is to identify a poem one loves, to read it aloud, perhaps to write it longhand or type it out, and to get at least some of it by heart. . .For an art is best understood through careful attention to great examples." Hm. Guess I'd better get reading.
Profile Image for Brett Glasscock.
119 reviews6 followers
January 30, 2022
i think Big Iambic Pentameter paid off Pinsky to write a defense of iambic pentameter. even the chapter on free verse is about how the best free verse is actually secretly iambic pentameter.

more seriously, this book is really poorly composed. the author's voice is borderline egotistical. there's no organizing logic to the book it doesn't actually get at anything. the book is so fucking prescriptivist, asserting that poetry should be written in iambic pentameter without any explanation of what it adds to a poem. it purports to be an educational guide, but it uses so little technical terminology that the stuff it talks about isn't even widely applicable because it only makes sense in the context of the specific poems the book talks about. a bad little book.
Profile Image for Emanuela Siqueira.
110 reviews45 followers
March 12, 2019
Um dos melhores livros para aprender e ensinar poesia. Pinski é tão apaixonado pela som e pelo funcionamento do corpo pela poesia que você simplesmente devora o livro e fica pensando que a poesia deve ser lida mais em voz alta, discutida e ensinada.

"I presume that the technology of poetry, using the human body as its medium, evolved for specific uses: to hold things in memory, both within and beyond the individual life span; to achieve intensity and sensuous appeal; to express feelings and ideas rapidly and memorably. To share those feelings and ideas with companions, and also with the dead and with those to come after us" (p.9)
Profile Image for Iris.
311 reviews318 followers
October 2, 2020
I read this for school, and it was one of the clearest guides to reading poetry I've ever read. I really loved how gentle and thorough this book is in a very short volume. It teaches you the pillars of interacting with written poetry including form, rhythm, and artistic expression.
Profile Image for Diann Blakely.
Author 7 books44 followers
October 16, 2011
Pinsky has been a strenuous and long-standing public advocate for the art, our country's sole three-time Poet Laureate. He’s also served the art as a translator, most recently of Dante’s INFERNO. While Pinsky doesn’t mention this work here, THE SOUNDS OF POETRY implicitly results from his immersion in a language largely unknown to him, and it ultimately addresses those readers for whom poetry yields meaning as readily as the Rosetta Stone. T.S. Eliot, another transmuter of Dante, explains the matter best: “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” That is, it can communicate as tone, inflection, raw sound, and by extension meaning, as spending a few minutes with pre-verbal children can attest. In other words, only when we insist on intellect as the sole means of comprehension do we become incapable of hearing what poems have to tell us.

Training the left brain to work with what the right brain absorbs intuitively is as helpful for readers as it is essential for aspiring poets, and this is each author’s ultimate task. Pinsky’s book is particularly clear, presenting us with chapters that are as concise and unintimidating as they are useful. For example, he reassures us that no writer in the process of creation mutters “about short and long, stressed and unstressed” syllables any more than “a boxer would ponder whether to fake a right cross to make more room for the jab.” A former pugilist as well as an enormously gifted poet, Pinsky can state with unusual authority that “the expert makes the moves without needing to think about them. But the more we notice and study, the more we can get from actual performance. And analysis of a fluid performance into its parts can lead to understanding, and perhaps eventually to the expert’s level of insight and the expert’s kind of joy.”
Profile Image for Brandon.
61 reviews1 follower
March 5, 2009
“…the stress on a syllable in English is not inherent in the sound, but relative. A syllable is stressed or unstressed only in relation to the syllables around it.” (Pinsky 12)

This principle, which I first read about in Timothy Steele’s works, has really unlocked the poetic world for me. I learned / reinforced several other ideas in this short, straight forwards guide to the landscape of poetic form.

1) Stress does not equal Rhythm. Meter concerns itself with stress or accent, rhythm more with duration or the length of each syllable, or the speed with which we say it. Rhythm can align with meter, or it can contrast with it: by default their relationship ebbs and flows.

2) A poetic line need not correspond with a grammatical unit, such as a phrase or sentence.

3) In addition to Rhyme, found in the spectrum between like and unlike sounds, there is another axis: That of roots. Contrasting a Germanic root and a Latin root produces a more subtle, but still noticeable effect.

4) Dividing pentameters among speakers, ala Shakespeare.

Profile Image for Rachel.
596 reviews33 followers
October 7, 2012
This took me forever to get through, snatching a couple pages of it here and there, but I have to say, I really, really liked this. I'm using it for my 387 class next semester as a replacement for An Introduction to English Poetry, which is great, but doesn't have the ease with which Pinsky lays out the basics for meter and sound in poetry. He relates everything back to how an attentiveness to aspects of form give you the essential tools for being a responsible reader.
Profile Image for mia elizabeth.
68 reviews337 followers
December 13, 2021
read for a poetry course this semester, very intriguing book. love the way pinsky starts this text by acknowledging the nuance of assigning 'rules' to poetry. didn't totally finish the book but what i read was really awesome and i'll definitely be coming back to this in conversations about poetry and accessibility.
Profile Image for Charles.
56 reviews9 followers
July 18, 2012
Spare, articulate, approachable, yet rich, this is an excellent survey of poetry as sounded, from stress and accent to rhyme and assonance/consonance, with particular attention to line/syntax having implications in the subtleties of blank and free verse.
Profile Image for Aidan Rogers.
50 reviews
October 9, 2022
Found a copy of this in our trip to NYC and loved it basically because it encouraged me to read poetry out loud more ❤️

Side note, people on good reads are literally insane this app sucks! People get really angry at pages and letters, makes me feel fortunate that I’m kind of a “love everything I read” type of person.
12 reviews2 followers
November 10, 2010
Pinsky makes some great points about appreciating the sounds of poems. This book is really aimed at novice readers of poetry, not at writers. At times he oversimplifies meter; start with iambs and end with iambic pentameter, everything else is just a variation or else completely unimportant. Also, it's apparently a good idea to rewrite other people's poems to show lines that could be iambic pentameter if only...

No book on poetic sound or form will ever be a truly enjoyable read, but Pinsky really jumps around. Very early on he states that when he quotes a poem he won't include the name of the author so as not to distract from the words, but then he immediately abandons that plan as if the author of each poem is a secret he's bursting to tell. In the middle of one chapter he suddenly gives a long preview of what's coming up in the next chapter before just as suddenly returning to whatever long-winded point he was trying to make.

I like the ideas he's working with, just not the way he indulges his own authority in trying to get those ideas across.
Profile Image for C.
34 reviews19 followers
June 13, 2008
I bought this after taking Theory and Practice of Poetry, and the two classes intersected really well. If you've been introduced as poetry purely as an intellectual exercise, you're missing out. Pinsky explores the importance of the oral nature of poetry in a way that can help you write poems and analyze them. Recommended for anybody who wants to develop as a poet or who wants to teach poetry.
8 reviews2 followers
October 23, 2010
More sophisticated than Oliver's discussion, Pinsky's examination of poetry is insightful but his discussion can be a bit elusive at times. Sometimes, Pinsky just makes me feel stupid. I have to read his sentences three or four times to translate what he's getting at; that said, it's well worth it. His intellect and prowess in poetry is simply dog-gone good and worth taking the time to read.
Profile Image for Davina Busted .
7 reviews50 followers
July 15, 2011
Oh, Robert Pinsky! With this slender tome you transformed me from an eye-rolling poetry-is-dead malcontent to an invigorated poetry puzzler. I took the time to notice power verbs, to marvel at the incredible draw of rhyming couplets (primal?), and finally, to allow poetry's ambiguity to wash over me instead of trying to subdue it. Marvelous.
Profile Image for Jessica Zu.
1,112 reviews126 followers
March 9, 2013
This would be a great book for teaching poetry in the setting of a world literature class. Many of the elements can be compared with the sounds of poetry in other languages... just the sound ... not the content ... musicality of poetry alone can tell you a lot.
Besides, it's such a fun read, I'm sure my students will love it as much as I do.
Profile Image for Isla McKetta.
Author 6 books51 followers
February 8, 2013
I'm a novice at poetry, and Pinsky's gentle look at rhythm, structure, and sound of a poem opened a whole new world to me. I can now feel the tension of a phrase as it pulls across a line. This book will make me a better writer of fiction, and maybe, just maybe, I'll try writing a poem.
Profile Image for Jason.
9 reviews
January 13, 2020
This may be a book for readers of poetry but there are a great many poets who would benefit from it. While Pinksy does simplify some things it remains an instructive book and a worthy companion to Mary Oliver's books on poetry writing.
Profile Image for Robin.
284 reviews25 followers
June 3, 2007
He really breaks it down elegantly. A must-have for any English teacher and/or lover of poetry who would like a refresher on scanning meter.
Profile Image for Cheri.
473 reviews16 followers
August 18, 2017
A helpful and unpretentious introduction to enjoying poetry. I'm so glad I read it -- I know I will refer to it again and again. Pinsky's pleasure in the sounds of poetry fills every page.
Profile Image for david.
199 reviews11 followers
April 9, 2011
it is what it sounds like: a poet laureate fulfilling obligations, little more.
Profile Image for Stan Badgett.
4 reviews2 followers
April 23, 2012
Pinsky has taught me to pay closer attention to differences between sounds. I appreciate better than before the richness made possible by even slight variations in sound.
Profile Image for Kristen.
185 reviews
March 24, 2020
Reading this book was like finding a recipe for cake that claims to be the only and ultimate cake recipe, and that any variation on it isn’t REALLY a cake, or is at least not nearly as good of a cake, and then the entire recipe just describes the ideal temperature for the eggs and the process of turning wheat to flour and the merits of brown sugar versus white sugar without ever giving any measurements or instructions. Kind of cool to know, but incredibly impractical on its own and not necessarily always true, depending on what kind of cake you’re trying to make.

The prescriptivist bent to this book, especially regarding meter (not everything is iambic pentameter and not everything SHOULD be iambic pentameter, sheesh) took this book from an impractical 3 stars to a useless 2 stars. Pinsky has some good things to say, but the ways in which he says them made my eyes gloss over. And I live for this kind of thing.

In 116 pages of dry, technical explanations and definitions, Pinsky uses tragically few technical terms. The result is a lot of gibberish that can only be understood in the context of his examples, with very little practical application in the wider world of poetry and composition. To someone who has background knowledge in the areas of poetry and linguistics, the work is surface level and unforgivably judgmental, lacking acknowledgement of exceptions to rules and leaving gaping holes in theories by way of cherry-picked and oft-repeated examples. For someone with no knowledge in those areas, the work borders on nonsensical given the minutiae Pinsky focuses on chapter after chapter, presenting only one side of a multifaceted idea and prescribing that it is the best and only way to understand poetry.

The purpose of pointing out unconscious knowledge should be to inform conscious decision-making. If you used any of the ideas presented in this book to read or write a poem, you would most likely end up with the most stilted piece of garbage to ever have existed. To talk of Germanic and Latin roots of words but not talk of English connotations is a massive oversight. To speak of sounds but ignore assonance, consonance, and alliteration (while also eschewing explanations of why certain sounds are more or less pleasant to us) is almost criminal. Pinsky says in the introduction that he actively works to avoid such matters, but in doing so he’s made this book fairly worthless. In the same introduction he makes the apt comparison of language to music, and then for some unexplainable reason drops it in favor of repeating the phrase “iambic pentameter” over and over and over.

There are a lot of good ideas in this book, but without context, the book is a lot of detail about pretty much nothing. A “what” without a “why” turns out to be pointless and painful to read.

I’ll leave you with a quote from page 59 that I think pretty accurately sums up the whole book: “I attempt to perceive more, but in fact I perceive less.”
Profile Image for Bernie Gourley.
Author 1 book80 followers
October 31, 2017
As the title suggests, this is a book about sound as a component of poetry. Besides the characteristics of noises made in reading poetry, the book details the various characteristics that shape the overall sound of a poem--such as the duration of a syllable and whether it’s stressed or unstressed. Having said that, a major theme of Pinsky’s work is that one shouldn’t be absolutist or rigid about these characteristics (e.g. stress versus unstressed) and should instead look at the relative traits (i.e. more or less stressed.) By adopting a more flexible view of the concepts like accent (stress), rhyme, similarity of sound, one opens up limitless options for poetry.

The book consists of five chapters. The front matter includes an introduction and a brief commentary on theory. The latter points out that there are no hard rules, but by paying attention to these concepts one can produce richer and more interesting sounding poems. Pinsky reviews the most common poetic terms (e.g. iamb, trochee, spondee, etc.) but also looks at how these are varied for effect in a way that is enjoyable to all but prosody hardliners.

The chapters are: 1.) Accent and duration; 2.) Syntax and line; 3.) Technical terms and vocal realities; 4.) Like and unlike sounds; 5) Blank verse and Free verse. (fyi: Blank verse is unrhymed verse that has a regular meter (most commonly iambic pentameter. Free verse is unrhymed verse with irregular meter.)

There are relatively few poems used as examples in this book. Some readers may find this a bit tedious and would prefer being exposed to more (and more varied) examples. However, other readers will enjoy drilling down into a few poems along several dimensions. That’s a matter of personal preference, but the reader should be aware of it.

The book is less than 150 pages even with the back matter, which includes recommended readings and glossary of names and terms. It’s a quick read.

I enjoyed this book. It’s not too technical, and can be followed by a reader whether they’ve had an extensive education into poetry or not. It’s not doctrinaire about prosody, which appeals to my personal preferences. It provoked some intriguing insights, such as the flexible approach to accent as well as poetry as an art that uses the body of reader as its medium—their respiratory systems, vocal chords, and related musculature how these sounds are produced.

I’d recommend the book for poets and readers of poetry who are serious about the endeavor.
Profile Image for Alarie.
Author 14 books77 followers
August 4, 2018
I loved both Pinsky’s “Introduction” and “Theory” (pp. 3-9). Once he gets away from theory and philosophy into instruction, however, I feel the book becomes too ponderous, repetitive, and even contradicts the observations that first pulled me in. For example, he says

“The hearing-knowledge we bring to a line of poetry is a knowledge of patterns of speech we have known to hear since we were infants. If we tried to learn such knowledge by elaborate rules or through brute, systematic memorization…we would not be able to use them as fluently as we do.”

Then he proceeds to try to give us elaborate analyses, rescanning the same passages over and over, implying we do need to memorize elaborate rules, even though he tells us in “Theory” that “There are no rules.” An especially annoying example of this is when he goes on for several pages about the powerful impact of combining words with Latin or French roots with Germanic words. (Isn’t that what the English language bestows on us already?) He says, ”I don’t mean to suggest that this combining and contrasting roots is a conscious process for the writer” and that Thomas Jefferson probably chose “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” because he relished the sound without thinking about roots, so why go on and on about them?

Nevertheless, there’s good information here, and the book’s short. One can skim over the parts that become tedious and enjoy it more than I did. The best message is to read good poetry and to reread or even memorize some favorite poems so you can carry the sound with you. You’ll absorb a lot of the magic without needing to label all the parts.
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