Doing poetry justice

26th May 2000 at 01:00
STUDYING POETRY. By Stephen Matterson and Darryl Jones. Arnold, pound;10.99.

This valuable book arises from a course called Poetry: Form, Language, Interpretation which is taken by first-year undergraduates in English Studies at Trinity College, Dublin. In what could be regarded as an implied criticism of A-level teaching, its authors observe in their introduction:

"it is a truth universally acknowledged that one of the challenges of teaching first-year university students in the humanities is to rid them of the idea that they are passive receivers of information." Although Studying Poetry is, in fact, packed with information (historical, cultural, and above all concerning prosody) its great virtue lies in the amount of questions it raises en route. "There are no easy answers to the many critical questions posed in this chapter", nor, indeed, in the book as a whole which engages with matters relating to - among other things - the diversityof critical approaches, the western canon as a "site of ideological struggle", the problem of sincerity in poetry, the uses and abuses of biography, poetry as public utterance, and ( in its final chapter) linguistic experiment.

Several of the chapters end with a detailed examination of key poems, including Keats's sonnet Bright Star and Auden's villanelle If I Could Tell You. The method here is exemplary, and although there are a number of points at which one questions whether the authors (lecturers) are not expecting rather too much background knowledge, their enthusiasm, engagement and occasional knowingly facetious asides ("it is my suspicion that you cannot be a great writer if you are called Ronald") should appeal to, and enlighten, bright sixth-formers. They will also find the glossary of technical and theoretical terms very useful.

John Mole is a freelance writer and head of English at St Albans School, Hertfordshire

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