Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Poets & Writers Best Books for Writers List

Before you buy all 79 books, maybe I can help!

Have been out of commission for a while, having some fun with my uncle and then nursing my mother through a sprained ankle. I’m thinking of a “what I did on my summer vacation” type post later, but I thought I’d get the blog rolling again by posting about Poets & Writers intriguing “BestBooks for Writers” list. I saw some old favorites on it, some I’ve not read but would like to, and a couple of glaring omissions. I thought I’d share my reactions with you, dear reader.


Graywolf Press’s “The Art of” Series

There were many selections on this list from Graywolf Press’s excellent “The Art of” series, including my very favoritest, The Art of the Poetic Line  by James Longenbach (2007). I’ve talked about this book many times before, because it changed the way I think about lineation forever. Unlike other treatments of what one might consider an “esoteric” subject, Longenbach’s writing is clear and his logic easy to grasp. The examples are perfect. This is my second-favorite writing book of all time, and my No. 1 favorite book on poetry. You don’t know a thing about lineation until you’ve read this book. Another selection from “The Art of” series is Charles Baxter’s The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot (2007), but I found this one rather hard to get through. Unlike Longenbach, Baxter assumes a very well-read, semi-professional (at least) reader, so at some point one wonders whether such a reader wouldn’t be apt enough already to grasp the subtleties of subplots.

This is indeed a classic, one I first read as an undergraduate. Every poet knows this book, owns a copy, loves it so much that she will go into a burning building to retrieve it. This book is psychology as much as mechanics. Hugo writes about words, but also about the writer’s mind, in beautiful prose of his own. A must-read indeed.

This is another one of my go-to recommendations, and I’ve even used it a couple of times as a textbook. Do not assume that this is a guide for genre writersKing’s advice here is solid for all types of writers. I also love that it’s part writing memoir, part writing instruction. The memoir is of interest even to those who are not King fans (those three sad people), and it’s an eye-opener to the beginning writer who assumes the road to bestsellerdom is paved with sex, drugs, and fancy typewriters. King writes about his early struggles candidly and with humility and humor. I’m not his biggest fan, but I was charmed from page one. The “to-do” section stands alone and has great advice on all the basics: plotting, characterization, even sentence-level editing.

Put this next to The Triggering Town, so you won’t have to scramble during the fire. True, you can find a lot of this info on Wikipedia now, but no one is going to present it to you in a way that makes sense the way Turco does. This is the definitive book on form. You cannot call yourself a poet if you don’t have a well-worn copy of this book.


I’ve been looking for a decent book I could use to teach scene creation for a while, and read some real duds along the away. According to P&W, this book is “straightforward,” which is exactly what I’d like to get.

Despite having spent so much time in school and having read so much all my life, despite all the degrees I’ve accumulated, I still think I’m (gulp!) woefully ignorant. Here is an important writer on important books promising to enlighten me. From P&W: “Originally published in 1934, Pound's book serves as a guide for those interested in honing their critical thinking through reading the classics. The book is based on the premise that to be a good writer one must be a good reader, aware of the traditions out of which the best literature has emerged.” Who can disagree with that?

I’m intrigued by the title of David Orr’s book, Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry (HarperCollins, 2011). From P&W: “Award-winning poetry critic David Orr provides a tour and guide to contemporary poetry and the ways in which to appreciate it. Beautiful & Pointless examines what poets and poetry readers talk about when they discuss poetry, such as why poetry seems especially personal and what it means to write ‘in form.’”

Mark Doty wrote an “Art of” book and I didn’t know about it? About description, which is, like, his unbelievable forté? What is the matter with me? I must read this immediately.

The Poem’s Heartbeat: A Manual of Prosody by Alfred Corn (Copper Canyon, 2008)

This sounds good to me. Pun fully intended. Perhaps a good textbook? I know a little bit about prosody, but this looks like it can fill out the empty spaces. From P&W: “In ten progressive chapters, Corn covers everything from metrical variation and phonic echo to the basics of line and stanza.”


You can’t blame anyone for overlooking one of my favorite little books, Panning for Gold in the Kitchen Sink: Everyday Creative Writing by Michael B. Smith and Suzanne Greenberg (McGraw-Hill, 2000). It’s not a well-known book, much less a classic, and it’s geared toward the beginner more than most of the books on P&W’s list. Nevertheless, I always recommend it, and have used it as a textbook a couple of times. It’s exercise driven, which is not unique, but what is unique is the way it forces writers to mine, if you will, the everyday experiences that make for good writing, i.e., the kitchen sink. One of the greatest obstacles a beginning writer must overcome is the tendency to overdramatize, to succumb to melodrama. Spies. Golden bathtubs. Evil characters with bombs. Nothing that speaks, as Faulkner would say, to the human heart in conflict with itself. The exercises in this book will help you find what all good writers know about already: the gold in the everyday life of everyone.
Another dark horse favorite of mine is Structure and Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns by Michael Theune (Teachers and Writers Collaborative, 2007). I don’t know of any other similar study in poetics. Theune looks at typical poem “patterns,” ways in which successful poems are structured as wholesnot in particular forms, but as objects. For example, many of you may be aware that sonnets have a volta, a turn or shift in the subject that usually occurs after the octave. That’s the sort of analysis Theune provides in this book, only on poems that may or may not have any set form. He discusses relationships of contrast, for example, between beginnings and endings. Full of examples, this book is not only a great read for the poet who is struggling to find ways to guide a poem to the final draft successfully, but also would make a great textbook. I wouldn’t recommend it for an introductory class, but any advanced class that is studying poetry, whether creatively or critically, would find this book eye-opening.

There is one book that didn’t make the list at all that left me clicking for more. How can anyone compile such a list and leave out William Zinsser’s On Writing Well (Harper Perennial, 2006)? Could it be that the rift between journalism and “creative” writing is so exaggerated that they failed to see the enduring wisdom of this book? Me no comprende. This is THE BEST BOOK ABOUT WRITING EVER WRITTEN. Period. It can take a talentless buffoon and polish him into a decent writer. I was about to say “polish him up” and caught myself. Why? Because of Zinsser. Because once he gets into your bones, you will never be able to write badly again without a twinge of guilt. The man is a verb in my classeswe speak of “zinssering” a sentence. I mention this book in almost every post. I have to read it once a year. If you only own one book about writing, it should be this. And . . .

Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (Longman, 1999). I can see why they omitted this book, howeverit’s really a reference book, to sit along your dictionaries and your Rodale’s. (Did I mention Rodale’s?) So, I forgive P&W for not putting it on the list. Put it on yours and you’ll be okaydespite being now almost 100 years old, this classic (now updated several times, of course) continues to be the definitive style maker for good writing. This book is to writing what Chanel is to fashion.

Hope that helps you out. There’s a lot of terrible writing about writing out there. You could spend the rest of your life reading how-to manuals and peppy you-go-girl guides, so choose what you put on your reading list wisely. And, at the end of the day, remember: it’s better to write than to read about writing. While it’s important to widen your knowledge of the craft, the best way to do that is still to learn by doing. And doing. And doing . . . .


  1. I think P&W's list concentrated on newer books, omitted some classics. Lamott's Bird by Bird isn’t one of my favorites, but others seem to enjoy it (I prefer Annie Dillard's and Stephen King's books on writing). Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones is good for inspiration but not for craft, imho.

    Of course, my list will be skewed toward poetry and non-fiction...Muriel Rukeyser’s The Life of Poetry; Addonizzio’s & Laux’s The Poet’s Companion; Donald Hall’s books, especially Life Work, Writing Well, and To Read a Poem, and Turco’s book on forms; then there is the classic book If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland and the equally classic Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. I also liked Wendy Bishop’s Released into Language (though it is aimed more at teachers, as is Climb into the Bell Tower by Myra Cohn Livingston–-but both are still useful). For inspiration and instruction on CNF and, to some extent, fiction, I recommend Tell It Slant by Miller & Paola.

    Of course I could go on and on....

    1. Yes, there are really too many wonderful books out there to be able to do a "best of" list. I have to thank you for telling me about Theune's book--it's turned out to be a favorite.


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