The Craft of Poetry by Lucy Newlyn

Reviewed by Rob Spence

Lucy Newlyn is a intriguing literary figure. She had a career as an Oxford don, publishing well-regarded studies of Romantic poets as well as collections of her own poetry. She has also published a memoir of her experience of bipolar disorder, triggered initially by the death of her father, and reviewed here. In this new book, she presents a poetry primer, in which she explores the many facets of poetic style, technique and terminology. What makes this stand apart from other introductions to the poetic craft is that she presents everything through the medium of her own poetry. There is no commentary, or list of definitions, or discussion. Simply, each poem exemplifies a single aspect of poetic expression. It’s one of those ideas that seems so obvious once someone brilliant has come up with it.

The book is divided into sections, each of which focuses on a particular facet: Foundations, Figures, Techniques, Forms and Concepts. Within each section, the poems are entitled with the aspect which they exemplify. Thus, under Foundations, there are poems entitled “Sound”, “Line” and “Rhythm”; in Techniques, we find poems on topics such as “Alliteration” “Iambic pentameter” and “Personification”; in Forms, we read poems entitled “Spenserian sonnet”, “Ode”, and “Ballad.” The central conceit (and yes, there is a poem with that title) is that all of the poems are set in the village of Appersett in North Yorkshire, where the poet spent much of her childhood. Thus, as we learn about the craft of poetry, we also discover the community and its way of life. 

The Craft of Poetry is, then, both a handbook or guide, and an evocation through verse of rural life. And it is a delight. Lucy Newlyn demonstrates impressive linguistic dexterity, and an eye for the telling detail that hits the spot again and again. The poems are technically superb, as they have to be in order for the idea behind the book to work. But more than that, they are by turns meditative, playful, grave, complex: really exploring the whole palette of responses to life as experienced in a small rural community. Nature, and pastoral concerns generally are of course to the fore, but are not the only subjects to be covered. In a way, the poems constitute an interconnected narrative, in which we discover how this self-contained society works.

This undertaking must have been difficult. The techniques and forms are numerous, and many have tried and failed in each of them. I particularly wanted to see how Lucy Newlyn managed forms that are notoriously difficult to pull off. In each case, I was impressed with the example, and considered that it could stand scrutiny against the best of its type. Here, for instance, she tackles the heroic couplet, best known historically in the works of Pope:

Two banks in parallel, the beck between:
an even, regular, unlikely stream
which runs straight through the dale and stops each time
it finds its smooth flow up against a rhyme.
Who could remain forever in this mould,
angular, predictable, detached and cold?

As anyone who has tried to write in this form will attest, it is fiendishly difficult to produce ten-syllable iambic lines without developing a monotonously repetitive rhythm. Newlyn skips lightly through this minefield, producing fresh and delicately varied lines that preserve the structure without descending into uniformity.

Her “Dramatic Monologue” is a very meta production: a potential poet is also addressed as an imagined reader. At the same time, the physical situation is vividly pictured in a way that Browning might have attempted:

Stand over there now; look at that bridge.
Are you farmer, off-comer or child?
Give us your thought processes;
let them be private, free and wild
or constrained by public camouflage.
Not all motives are explicit
as in soliloquy.

The author is not afraid of tackling the most obscure concepts, either. Anyone for polysyndeton? I had no idea what this was, but now I do, and I know a poem that perfectly epitomises it.  It’s the insertion of conjunctions to link a number of concepts that might otherwise be a list.  One example I found when I looked it up was King Lear’s “So we’ll live and pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh at gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues talk of court news, and we’ll talk with them too.” Lucy Newlyn’s poem begins

She was walking for miles over turf and stone.
“Wish I could fly,” she said, “wish I could fly”,
and she was swooping down from on high
in the blue sky and she was alone
and there were golden fields after golden fields 
waiting to be mown and a beck ran by
and she flew sure as a kite in the arching sky
and it was the purest happiness she had ever known…

So, for budding poets, and for those who appreciate traditional forms, this is an ideal book, perfect for dipping into, as you are always likely to discover some new idea or some twist on a familiar theme. It educates on the sly, and does it with great skill. A very considerable achievement.

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Rob Spence’s home on the net is robspence.org.uk.  You can also find him on Twitter @spencro

Lucy Newlyn, The Craft of Poetry: a Primer in Verse (Yale University Press, 2021). 978-0300251913, 192 pp., hardback.

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