Paul Fussell: Poetic Meter & Poetic Form

March 14, 2023

      This is a pretty old book – even the revised edition is over 40 years old – but I found myself thinking, “I wish I’d had this when I was teaching.” It’s a slim volume that does what it says on the cover, comprehensively. I like Fussell; his books on the effects of the First World War, and on war itself, are great insights into how people and artists have been affected by this plague on the species. He is American, and at times his scansion reveals this…

This book is quite technical, almost mathematical at times, but always in a useful sort of way; it requires serious concentration as the different kinds of poetic meter are explained and illustrated, in a logical and historical sequence. It’s highly informative, and very much worth the effort, and even after years of teaching poetry and practical criticism in the English school system, I had a greater awareness of the hidden or unnoticed artifice in the construction of poetry.

There are myriad excellent helpful examples and illustrations in the section on metre, with relevant parts inflected for clarity. He offers pithy and cogent judgements throughout, particularly about free verse and its excesses; he illustrates both bad and good, which is illuminating, and there are helpful comparisons at times. I found him particularly good on the sonnet.

Overall, the book offers a good and logical way into the joys and complexities of practical criticism, and despite the necessary analytical approach, nowhere does Fussell lose sight of what poetry actually is, what it does and how it can affect us. His ultimate aim is clear: the ‘trained reader’, for ‘the innocent eye sees nothing’. If you can track down a copy, well worth it.


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