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On Poetry

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"This is a book for anyone," Glyn Maxwell declares of On Poetry. A guide to the writing of poetry and a defense of the art, it will be especially prized by writers and readers who wish to understand why and how poetic technique matters. When Maxwell states, "With rhyme what matters is the distance between rhymes" or "the line-break is punctuation," he compresses into simple, memorable phrases a great deal of practical wisdom.

In seven chapters whose weird, gnomic titles announce the singularity of the book--"White," "Black," "Form," "Pulse," "Chime," "Space," and "Time"--the poet explores his belief that the greatest verse arises from a harmony of mind and body, and that poetic forms originate in human necessities: breath, heartbeat, footstep, posture. "The sound of form in poetry descended from song, molded by breath, is the sound of that creature yearning to leave a mark. The meter says tick-tock. The rhyme says remember. The whiteness says alone," Maxwell writes. To illustrate his argument, he draws upon personal touchstones such as Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost. An experienced teacher, Maxwell also takes us inside the world of the creative writing class, where we learn from the experiences of four aspiring poets.

"You master form you master time," Maxwell says. In this guide to the most ancient and sublime of the realms of literature, Maxwell shares his mastery with us.

176 pages, Paperback

First published November 15, 2011

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About the author

Glyn Maxwell

43 books42 followers
Glyn Maxwell is a poet and playwright. He has also written novels, opera libretti, screenplay and criticism.

His nine volumes of poetry include The Breakage, Hide Now, and Pluto, all of which were shortlisted for either the Forward or T. S. Eliot Prizes, and The Nerve, which won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. He was one of the original ‘New Generation Poets’ in 1993, along with Simon Armitage, Carol Ann Duffy and Don Paterson. His poetry has been published in the USA since 2000. His Selected Poems, One Thousand Nights and Counting, was published on both sides of the Atlantic in 2011. He has a long association with Derek Walcott, who taught him in Boston in the late 1980s, and whose Selected Poems he edited in 2014.

On Poetry, a guidebook for the general reader, was published by Oberon in their Masters Series in 2012. It was described by Hugo Williams in The Spectator as ‘a modern classic’ and by Adam Newey in The Guardian as ‘the best book about poetry I’ve ever read.’

Fifteen of Maxwell’s plays have been staged in London and New York, including Liberty at Shakespeare’s Globe, The Lifeblood at Riverside Studios, and The Only Girl in the World at the Arcola, as well as work at the Almeida, Theatre 503, Oxford Playhouse, the Hen and Chickens, and RADA. He has written extensively for the Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre in Chester.

His opera libretti include The Firework Maker’s Daughter (composer David Bruce) which was shortlisted for ‘Best New Opera’ at the Oliviers in 2014, Seven Angels (Luke Bedford) inspired by Paradise Lost, and The Lion’s Face (Elena Langer), a study of dementia. All of these were staged at the Royal Opera House and toured the UK.

He is currently working on a screen adaptation of Henry James’s The Beast in the Jungle for the Dutch director Clara Van Gool.

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5 stars
128 (34%)
4 stars
144 (38%)
3 stars
73 (19%)
2 stars
21 (5%)
1 star
8 (2%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 62 reviews
Profile Image for Jim Coughenour.
Author 3 books172 followers
December 1, 2013
Earlier this week I was reading Knausgaard:
poems never opened themselves to me, and that was because I had no "right" to them: they were not for me… they always said: Who do you think you are, coming in here? That was what Osip Mandelstam's poems said, that was what Ezra Pound's poems said, that was what Gottfried Benn's poems said, that was what Johannes Bobrowski's poems said. You had to earn the right to read them. How? It was simple, you opened a book, read, and if the poems opened themselves up to you, you had the right, if not, you didn't.
I remembered this passage when I picked up Glyn Maxwell's little book a couple days ago. I think he'd probably agree with this severe sentiment.

On Poetry is for people who've struggled to write a poem – a well-crafted poem, I mean, not some simple exudation of sentiment.
The fissure in writing poetry, the chasm between what I believe absolutely and doubt profoundly, is not between the "metrical" (say Frost) and the "musical" (say Pound) – which is a crude reduction of the work of both… the fissure is between having a governing aesthetic like either – or having no governing aesthetic at all, which leaves you with nothing but your next thought, or your latest feeling. That's an impulse which waited ninety years to find its true literary form. It's called a blog.
which echoes TS Eliot's dictum "the division between Conservative verse and vers libre does not exist, for there is only good verse, bad verse, and chaos."

I have a small shelf of salutary books on the hard craft of poetry. As instruction goes, Maxwell's in the middle – not quite as learned as Fenton; not nearly as fun as McLane or Ruefle; not as savage as Logan or as impenetrable as Hill, but in another dimension from most academic or popular criticism. He's best at the beginning, in his exploration of the White of the page and Black of the text and the vital polarity between them. "Songs are strung upon sounds, poems upon silence." But as he finds his way to the end, the book becomes a bit precious, even silly as he coaches imaginary students. His examples are the classic ones – and classics are always worth reading again – but I would have liked to see his analysis applied to poets who've written, say, in the last 70 years. Eliot and his crew can use a rest.

Quibbles aside, I did enjoy being reminded of Osip Mandelstam's "Conversation about Dante," which Maxwell dubs "the most challenging and sublime essay I know on poetry." And he pointed me to what may be the earliest bit of recorded poetry ever, which is both spooky and comical.
Profile Image for Liam Guilar.
Author 10 books42 followers
January 4, 2013
There are so many books "About" poetry: how to read, how to write, what not to read, what fashions to follow: books that make ludicrous claims for the power of the poem,books to inoculate the idiot reader against the ideological viruses carried by this or that poem. Books about poetry outsell books of poems.

This one is magical. It does not hide the difficulty of writing a good poem or the pleasures of reading a good one. It gives good advice on both, but in a way that credits readers with enough intelligence to think for themselves. If you only read one book About Poetry, I'd recommend this one.
Profile Image for Zoe Mitchell.
6 reviews29 followers
November 8, 2012
I loved this book: clever, witty, moving and most of all inspiring. I'll feel less alone next time I sit down to write because of it. Recommended for anyone with a love of poetry as a writer and a reader and just the book to encourage a few more people to start reading it.
Profile Image for Donald.
460 reviews35 followers
May 25, 2015
This will probably be the best book I read this year. It's fantastic as a polemic, a meditation on teaching, and a celebration of writing and reading poetry. Maxwell does not hide his arguments in jargon or niceties. He comes right out with it: poetry is verse and ought to use meter or rhyme, preferably both. "Prose poetry" is merely prose written by poets. Line break and stanza break are at the heart of poetry. He has a deep love of the English language and its poetic tradition that is infectious and makes me want to grab Donne and Wordsworth from the bookshelf.

Maybe the most interesting part of the book is that Maxwell argues the 'white' of the page is how poems mark time. I found his argument and examples convincing. It makes a lot of sense. He contrasts poetry and songwriting, which uses music to mark time.

I'm predisposed to like this book because I agreed with it before I read it, but I think the book would also be great for someone on the opposite side of these questions.

If you care about poetry at all, you must read it. Then check out the reviews in the NYRB and Poetry for some of the debate it's kicked off.
Profile Image for Kirsten.
243 reviews26 followers
June 4, 2015
A writing exercise from Glyn Maxwell:

"Take nine sheets of blank paper and pretend the following things about them:
That the first page is physically hurt by your every word.
That the second page is turned on by every syllable.
That every mark on the third page makes you remember more.
On the fourth, less, like dementia.
That God can only hear you if you're writing on the fifth page.
That only touching the sixth page are you hidden from God.
That every word you write on the seventh prolongs the time from now until the moment you meet the mythical creature known as The One.
That every word you write on the eighth brings that moment closer, yes, but makes your time together shorter.
The ninth page says you have only nine words left in your life.
The nine sheets are nine battlefields. The black will win some, the white will win some, it will be silly as war and bloody as chess. If you get any poems out of it, any lines at all, pin them to your breast. If you get any white sheets, bury them with honours. Remember where you won, remember where you lost. Wonder why."
Profile Image for Kevin Lawrence.
117 reviews22 followers
December 18, 2013
Worthy and serious observations about the necessary formal qualities of poetry get buried in a determinedly affable jocular/professorial tone addressing a recurring group of cloying workshop students. I dread the day someone writes a Woolf-like stream-of-conscious novel all exploring the "creative" dynamics of a workshop class. Ugh. The book culminates in a workshop-meets-Rime-of-the-Ancient-Mariner that is already soul-suckingly bad. On the bright side, the author quotes hid own play "After Troy" that makes me want to go read it.
Profile Image for Karen Douglass.
Author 12 books11 followers
January 28, 2014
The style is a bit strange, almost stream of consciousness;my biggest complaint is the heavy emphasis on formal poetry for much of the second half. I understand the historical value for poets to recognize and learn from the formalists, but I didn't expect this focus, given the relaxed approach to poetry at the opening.
Profile Image for Natalie Homer.
Author 2 books30 followers
March 28, 2018
What insights there are bury themselves in his strange style of writing, which is meandering yet also harsh at points. He makes a lot of “clever” moves, e.g. his faux workshop students and his witty little asides to the reader. Ultimately it became tiresome.
Profile Image for Lauren Merkley.
56 reviews5 followers
January 26, 2013
Imbued with the same brevity and beauty of a poem, Maxwell's book gorgeously elevates his readers' understanding and appreciation of the hard-fought craft that is true poesie.
Profile Image for Nancy.
911 reviews36 followers
May 17, 2019
Huge disappointment!
Pointless, boring,
unrelated batch of Maxwell's " ice-breaking"
exercises for his poetry classes.
Not interested!
...pretty much a snooze fest.
390 reviews
February 25, 2013
What a delight to read: a book about poetry that inspires you, invigorates you and makes you laugh out loud.
It was like listening to your mad poetry tutor who thankfully has character and a sense of humour. Best of all it made me go back to reread poems I'd not read for years or look for ones I never have. It was beautifully lyrical about the whole business of reading it, writing and imagining it yet unflinching about the work and the discipline to producing those magical forms. Can't wait to reread it and dip in and out again in the future when I come upon a poem that stands up to the scrutiny.
Profile Image for Carol.
825 reviews
June 2, 2015
Totally different from anything I learned in school. In seven chapters, Glyn gives us a "modern" guide for writing poetry. Seven chapters on "white" -- "black" -- "form" -- "pulse" -- "chime" -- "space" -- and "time." He, the poet, explores his belief that the greatest verse arises from a harmony of mind and body. "The sound of form in poetry descended from song, molded by breath, is the sound of that creatures yearning to leave a mark. The meter says tick-tock. The rhyme says remember. The whiteness says alone," Maxwell writes.
Profile Image for Julie.
Author 11 books30 followers
March 4, 2017
Slim and slender books are as enticing as thick tomes to me. Slip them in your purse; read them clandestinely. His voice is brilliant, his advice is inspiring without being vague or boring, and he has stuffed the book full of ways to start writing poems. I’m looking forward to collecting all of his teaching books. Also, I hope he writes more about Ollie and the others. His ability to write characters is made clear in his economy and humor. Another skill I'd love to master!
Profile Image for Lauren.
34 reviews1 follower
August 12, 2016
A lovely series of essays on poetry. Each essay encompasses a particular aspect of poetry: from the black white of the page, to the grouping of words, the form, the spacing. I recommend this to everyone who wishes to learn more about poetry, enjoys reading poetry, and writers as well.
Profile Image for rumbledethumps.
302 reviews
January 31, 2020
When I was on page 10, I loved this book, in no small part for this quote: "What evolutionary psychologists - and I - believe is that aesthetic preferences, those things we find beautiful, originate not in what renders life delightful or even endurable, but in what makes life possible."

Then I hated it by page 13, when he puts poets on a pedestal above pop musicians. "Songwriters stir up a living tradition, poets make flowers grow in the air." But I continued on, and by the end of the book I realized I had come to it with the expectation that it was a poetry primer, when it was in fact one man's experience and opinions about poetry. Once I understood that, and shed my preconceptions, I settled in and listened.

Overall not exactly my bag, but good enough and interesting enough that I finished it. If you like reading a poet waxing poetic about poetry, then you will probably like this book.
Profile Image for Donna .
131 reviews
October 3, 2020
This was a mixed book for me. I found it interesting but hard to read; this would possibly benefit from a slow second read and more understanding/knowledge.
Profile Image for Victoria Jane.
569 reviews
January 29, 2021
As part of my quest to connect to and understand poetry better, I picked up this non-fiction book on the topic.

It’s broken down into short chapters that focus on specific elements of poetry - such as rhyme, form etc - but I just could not get my head around it!

This might be useful for those who want to take an academic approach to poetry but I think I’m going to need a more organic way in.
Profile Image for Kasandra.
Author 2 books42 followers
June 4, 2017
I really enjoyed (and took notes on, and agreed with much of) the first 5 chapters. But 6 and 7 bored me, and both felt self-indulgent, so I ended this feeling disappointed. I could hear Maxwell's cleverness in his prose (okay), but the cleverness in his poetry was simply irritating. A mixed bag, but the first two chapters are superb ("White" and "Black").

2nd review: I read this again because I forgot I had read it already, and bought a copy. My overall former review stands, though I must say I enjoyed his chapter "Form" immensely and should have mentioned that the first time. If you are a practiced poet who's been published at least a bit, much of this won't strike you as new. I agree that much of the contemporary poetry out there now seems to think both form and rhyme are obsolete, for all the wrong reasons, but if you're coming to this to learn how to write better poems, you're already reading what came before you and trying to understand why and how it works, so there's not a lot "new" here. Again, much of this is written in a faintly condescending style, assuming the reader hasn't read or doesn't respect a lot of classic poetry, and that's just annoying.
Profile Image for Toby.
596 reviews14 followers
May 12, 2017
The first chapter left me feeling a little ambivalent. Wasn't the author just a little bit too jokey? Trying just that little bit too hard? Was the remainder of this short book going to be read with me biting my tongue at the rather annoying companion and guide?

But no, mid-way through the second chapter I had been won over and this book - part essay, part exploration, part sturdy defence of form and assault on historical amnesia - had me thoroughly in its thrall. Maxwell's style may not be for everyone but I laughed out loud in a few places and loved the final chapter of poetic pandemonium.

Having recently finished the rather worthy (though invaluable) The Poetry Handbook, with its detailed descriptions of trochees, spondees, dactyls etc. this was very much a breath of fresh air, though I'm pleased that I read the text book first as I think Maxwell's sudden changes of direction could have left me behind had I not.

This was one of those rare books of which I was genuinely sorry to reach the end.
Profile Image for Bethany.
42 reviews1 follower
July 4, 2017
Maxwell discusses poems on a spiritual level and explaining with different examples from poets who have lasted through time. If you want to learn about poetry read this book. If you want to learn about poetry read more poems.

"Songs are strung upon sounds, poems upon silence. Songwriters stir up a living tradition, poets make flowers grow in air."

"Dickinson's are slight and skeletal against the white, like the bones of birds"

"We will know what 'free' verse means when we learn if it can survive"


Profile Image for Emily Purcell.
102 reviews4 followers
December 13, 2017
This book, and Glyn Maxwell's fiction sibling to it "Drinks with Dead Poets" are the books that broke my GoodReads. I so looked forward to reading them and schemed with my library's hold system to get them together. I have never been so dissapointed in my life. They read like drunken mush. Could anyone point me to some real books about poetry please?
Profile Image for h.
1,105 reviews59 followers
December 9, 2012
maxwell writes a beautiful book that revels in what makes poetry and what makes a poet. at times, the language gets a bit in the way of language. still, he never loses sight of the thing itself. worth visiting and revisiting.
Profile Image for Lew Watts.
Author 2 books30 followers
March 26, 2017
In this beautiful book, Glyn Maxwell's makes a passionate case for the importance of form in poetry. It is a deeply philosophical work, told through a series of essays that mix seriousness with delightful bursts of humor. Quite simply, it is a gorgeous read.
Profile Image for Tom.
14 reviews3 followers
February 22, 2013
Accessible, unpretentious, enlightening. The explanation of an imaginary creative writing class was an unnecessary device though and became a bit repetitive.
Profile Image for Andrada.
Author 3 books48 followers
December 31, 2018
As I read more and more poetry, I began toying with the idea of trying to write it as well. Not really knowing where to start though, I asked a friend of mine - who actually is a poet - if she could recommend some books that might help me. Glyn Maxwell's On Poetry was one of the first she suggested.

To be honest, I expected it to be on the dry and informational side, but it wound up pleasantly surprising me and actually being a lot of fun to read. I did not account for Maxwell's charisma and his obvious experience teaching poetry.

On Poetry provides a good overview of what makes poetry tick (time pun intended) and what poets should look out for when writing. It also feels interactive as Maxwell often suggests exercises you can try your hand at to expand your understanding of the concepts he's talking about and provides plenty of examples as well.

The book also made me rather eager to try my hand at poetry and I even came up with an idea for a poem while reading it. Now all I have to do, I suppose, is write it.

The reason I only gave this four stars is because I felt Maxwell looked down on fiction writers a bit too much and as a fiction writer, I could not help but be (slightly) bothered by it.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 62 reviews

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