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‘A Poet’s Field Guide: Close Reading & Writing’

You’re out in the field, walking, and you see something move out of the corner of your eye. What is it? A poem? Are you sure? Can you narrow it down, what sort? How does it, well, fly?

Okay, perhaps the metaphor is a little strained, but identifying a bird and knowing how to approach an unfamiliar poem share some common features. Where, after all, should you begin – with shape, movement and rhythm, sound? These are all good places to start with what, on first reading, can often seem like little more than a fleeting glimpse from which it is hard to tell very much.

‘A Poet’s Field Guide: Close Reading & Writing’ leads you beyond these first sightings, into a deeper appreciation and understanding of 600 years of English poetry. The poems I’ve chosen form a subjective but representative tour through the varying landscapes of English poetry and poetics, metres and stanza forms, genres and rhetorical features. The common thread running throughout is a loosely interpreted engagement with pastoral and the poetry of nature, although this includes plenty of what we might think of as human culture!

The course starts in the Age of Chaucer, when the English language as we know it today first came into being, with the opening lines of William Langland’s famous dream vision Piers Ploughman, before progressing through an example of the remarkable formal experimentation of Mary Sidney Herbert’s translations of the Psalms of David, bouncing off some Milton and into one of Lucy Hutchinson’s immensely powerful and little-known elegies. And that’s just the start! From there we jump into the eighteenth century and Charlotte Smith’s experiments with the sonnet form and Wordsworth’s notorious ‘poem on the Wye’, ‘Tintern Abbey’, when we’ll think about poetry, tourism and picturesque painting. Skipping over the mid-Victorians (sorry Tennyson), we land on Gerard Manley Hopkins, who offers a bridge into modernist play with perception, musicality and language that is picked up on the other side of both World Wars by Basil Bunting’s late autobiographical magnum opus of the North East, Briggflatts. The fifth and final pairing are an example of Denise Riley’s playful, postmodern take on lyric, and R. F. Langley’s ‘Videlicet’, more on which below.

As we go along you’ll pick up plenty of practical knowledge that will be important in all sorts of ways for your own practice. A Field Guide, if you like. You may think that knowing your terza rima from your otava rima, or an iamb from a trochee, doesn’t make much difference if you’re interested in writing free verse, and in a certain sense you might be right. But there is social meaning attached to your decision to write in free verse (whatever that means, which we can certainly discuss) that, differently, other poets in other centuries felt constrained by, and rebelled against. Learning to identify the tensions, the way things fail to fit, is really the fun bit. It would be very boring if the rules were just that: rules. Only bad poets write in perfectly metrical verse, and you can hear it when they do, it’s dull and grates on the ear.

Rather, I would encourage you to see form and metre as a source of practical wisdom and a resource of things people have tried out, less definitive than the difference between an oystercatcher and a curlew at low tide. Here, perhaps, the analogy breaks down, because poems are hybrid species, made of what they’ve absorbed. Of course it’s not satisfying to simply tick things off a list. Then again, the pleasure of bird watching isn’t just in getting the right tag but in the kind of close, scrupulous attention – reading – of the bird that searching for its name leads you to undertake. The kind of close reading you wouldn’t otherwise bother with, dismiss as too much effort. What you are really looking at, ultimately, is the thing itself, or the text. And apart from anything else, the best way to write better is to read better!

The last and most contemporary poet we’ll look at on this course, the magnificent and under-read R. F. Langley, knew this hitch, this troubled space between identification and concentration on the thing itself. In ‘Videlicet’, our final poem for close analysis, the game is brought out in a passage that sums up this delightfully unsolvable problem:


Looking for something. Finding something else.
Any scribble is too easily made
into a face. First there is a flamboyant
use of space. Then the suspicion of an
awkwardness. I had thought there were two pairs
of harriers. One of the four is not.
The graphics roll into a scuffle, bind
a confusion, wrestle themselves for a
discovery. The sky is opening
to the touch of an anomaly: the
other bird, full splay, stamped with black on both
its wrists […]


Want to learn the ‘field marks’ of poetic technique and how to write meaningfully about another poet’s work? Join us on Dan’s new online course ‘A Poet’s Field Guide: Close Reading & Writing’ by booking online or ring us on 0207 582 1679.

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Image: Roseate Spoonbill

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