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How to Read and Understand Poetry

Learn to savor all the pleasures of poetry—the joys that come from "the best words in the best order"—to a fuller degree than you might have thought possible.

How to Read and Understand Poetry is rated 4.1 out of 5 by 44.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful ! I strongly agree with the review of VASTLY UNDERRATED! I own about 20 humanities courses from The Teaching Company, including some more popular and higher rated, but Professor Spiegelman's is the best. I have listened to it at least four times in the five years or so that I have owned the CDs, and I glean new insight each time. A mindful listener does not need a printed version of the poem at hand to get the point of the poem or the gist of the lecture topic. I majored in English at a prestigious (though not Ivy League) private university. I had wonderful professors and was inspired to achieve Magna C Laude, Phi Beta Kappa etc. But I can honestly say that none of my college courses were as cogent or enjoyable as this set of lectures from Professor Spiegelman. I especially appreciated his introducing me to the depth and quality of Elizabeth Bishop's poems. His discussion of Keats' First Looking into Chapman's Homer was astounding in it's insight, and the last two lectures in this course are awe inspiring in their scope and depth. One reviewer's complaint that Professor Spiegelman is not a poet himself is nonsensical. The professor is the embodiment of erudition. He regularly writes wonderful essays for the Wall Street Journal on arts and culture. He has written a brilliant collection of essays, Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness, which I highly recommend, as well as scholarly works on Wordsworth and others. He is the editor of one of the oldest and best university affiliated literary journals. I write poetry. That fact does not qualify me to create a quality course like this. How silly! I will say that Professor Spiegelman's work has inspired me to write more and better poems. I hope to meet him someday to thank him personally. That is on my bucket list. Meanwhile, I am re-reading Seven Pleasures and about to go load the first half of these CDs into that six disc changer in my Ford ...
Date published: 2013-02-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Vastly Underrated I have now reviewed 70 courses and never before found such a substantial gap between my evaluation and that of several other reviewers. In my judgment, this course is among the very best literature courses available from the TGC. Yes, it would be nice for the student to be able to read all the poems while taking the course. Yes, the professor shares his own (rather profound) analysis of the poems during his treatment of them. Yes, there's a lot here. And, yes, poetry is difficult. But none of these expressed views diminishes the extraordinarily high quality of this course. Even against Weinstein's, Thorburn's, and Kinney's fine courses, one can make a case that there's none better than Spiegelman's here. First, I believe he made wise decisions on all the major issues he faced in constructing the course. He chose to spend limited but effective time on introductory, biographical, and historical matters. He chose mostly shorter poems so the student could grasp much or all of the text. For the most part, he chose superb, powerful poems to study. And, finally, and most important, he chose to devote most of his teaching to reciting, exploring, and analyzing the text itself. The structure of the course is fine. Spiegelman covers the elements and key features of poetry, the major forms poetry has taken over time, and the aims and approaches major poets have brought to their work. But, again, the success here lies largely in the fact that throughout the course, we're always confronting the text of a poem. It's mostly about the power of language, the richness of the literature itself. The magic here is due, I think, to three things. One, as I've mentioned, is the focus on text in all lessons. Two, it's poetry! The professor and student are always deep at it because of the compactness of the form. Three, the professor is brilliant, prepared, and consistently outstanding. I cannot think of any real flaws. And, while I usually resist mentioning high points in superb courses, I must here. The lectures on Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn," Yeats' "Among School Children" and "Leda and the Swan," Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey," and several of Shakespeare's sonnets are beautiful and alone worth the price of admission. Yet, there's great value in each lesson. I realize we all can get carried away in reviewing a course we especially liked. So, I'll be disciplined in merely saying I can't remember a course from TGC that I appreciated more than this one.
Date published: 2012-10-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Well designed course It is clear that much care and consideration was given to the topics and specific poems taught in this course. The lectures are clear. I appreciated that the course did not follow a chronological development, but rather took a thematic approach. I also enjoyed that the themes considered different types of poems (e.g., there are lectures specifically on sonnets and villanelles), as well as topics (e.g., there are lectures on echoes in poetry, heroism, and falling leaves, etc.). This diversity of considerations was well selected and I can imagine difficult to execute well, but Professor Spiegelman has done it. Many of the poems used to examine specific topics are drawn from the 17th, 18th, 19th and early 20th century (i.e., not much modern free verse), although one lecture is devoted entirely to free verse and several lectures focus on 20th century poems. This was neither a plus or a minus in my view -- simply something to be aware of when considering the course. I was able to easily find and print virtually all of the poems on the Internet. It was beneficial to read them and the accompanying notes in the course book before listening the lecture. Having the poems printed out also helped in terms of taking notes about specific words or passages in the poems while listening to the CDs. A familiarity with some terms used to discuss poems, or a willingness to consult the glossary in the course book when the words are used in the lectures, is helpful but not entirely necessary as Professor Spiegelman generally defines terms as he uses them.
Date published: 2012-06-24
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Too much info! I listen to the Teaching Company's CD's while exercising or driving. While the content of this course was excellent, Professor Spiegelman spoke so quickly that I had to listen 2-3 times or more to really absorb the took me almost 2 months! My suggestion would be to update the material (it was from the 1990's and significant events such as 911 have impacted us as poets) and to stretch it out a bit...maybe even 36 sessions to included more recent poetic trends.
Date published: 2012-02-22
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Enjoyed the course: Good analyses In college and graduate school, I took many poetry-related classess ranging from prosody to all major (and some minor) British and American poets and their works. So this Teaching Company course (CD version) is a refresher for me. Yet I still learned a lot from Prof. Spiegleman's analyses and interpretations, and enjoyed the course overall. I agree with the reviewers who said that including the text of the poems discussed (or pointing out where one can readily find the text) would be helpful. However, I am troubled by the following unjustified (if not mean-spirited) criticism from a reviewer: " I searched the net looking for any actual poetry Mr. Spiegleman has written, but found only criticism - not that such is bad, in itself - only that this lack perhaps points to a deficiency of perspective and sensitivity." This attack on Prof. Spiegleman's background is like saying the great conductor Toscanini lacks perspective and sensitivity in his interpretation of Beethoven's symphonies, or Verdi's operas, for that matter, because Toscanini did not write symphonies or operas. Absurd!
Date published: 2012-02-14
Rated 1 out of 5 by from I do not recommend this course This course is clumsy; clumsily produced and devoid of a course guidebook with any utility. Of the scores of TTC courses I have enthusiastically enjoyed, this is the first one I have not recommended. It is impossible to read along in the course guidebook, as NONE of the verse snippets are in the guidebook...HUGE error. I religiously read the entire guidebook with every course...impossible here. Professor Spiegelman is the only bright spot, with a clarion presentation. However, without even basic course media, I cannot lead you into this disappointing course.
Date published: 2012-02-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fresh limn for an old subject Frustrated with intermittent attempts to learn more about poetry over the years, I turned to the Teaching Company and to the course by Professor Willard Spiegelman. At the outset, Professor Spiegelman offers a systematic approach for reading poetry. The topic is thereafter arranged in a creative manner, discussing the methodology and mechanics of poetry followed by a review of various genres of the art. Professor deemphasizes esoteric “perhaps non-existent hidden meanings” and favors concentration on how things are said. The poems used and listed in the course are readily accessible by searching almost any remembered fragment on the internet and obtaining these and reading them is essential to get full benefit from the lectures. I found my interest intensified by this lively and straightforward work.
Date published: 2011-12-22
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Audio Only Not Right For Course One would think that "audio only" would work perfectly with an aural artform such as poetry. It doesn't. Although the Professor asserts in the introduction that poetry isn't hard, he then proceeds to prove that it is. And even though he explains his points before and after reading passages from poems, and even though his diction is reasonably good, it simply isn't enough - unless you have a wonderful memory or know the poems. To get the most out of this course, one needs to listen to the lecture and read the poems at the same time, to go back and forth so one can understand the points that are being made. Most of the poems can be found in the Norton Anthology of Poetry but, of course, they are not in the same sequence as the lectures and some poems in the course are not in the anthology. Unfortunately, I found the effort to seek out the poems in each lecture and print them out in sequence before listening to the lecture to be exhausting, requiring way more effort than I was willing to spend on the course. I assume that the reason the poems are not included is due to copyright issues. But many if not most of the poems are in the public domain and surely "fair use" would apply to the snippets of poems presented that are protected by copyright. In short, this course cries out for either a DVD on which the lines that are being read are presented, or a course book that contains said lines. That said, if understanding poetry matters to you, and you can either absorb what is being said without having the poems in front of you, or you are willing to put in the effort to get the poems in a format that makes it easy for you to read them as you listen, then this course will, I think, accomplish what it sets out to accomplish.
Date published: 2011-07-17
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Poetry is the primal literary art form, the oldest and arguably the most supple art form. For its combination of concision and richly suggestive expression, it has no rival. With help from this course, you can learn to savor all the pleasures of poetry—the joys that come from "the best words in the best order"—to a fuller degree than you might have thought possible.


Willard Spiegelman

Marilyn Monroe said she read poetry because it saves time. It also expands time and awareness, by using language in the most condensed, most suggestive ways.


Southern Methodist University

Dr. Willard Spiegelman is Duwain E. Hughes Jr. Distinguished Professor of English at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. He earned his A.B. degree from Williams College magna cum laude and with highest honors in English. He did graduate work at Harvard, where he held Woodrow Wilson and Danforth fellowships and earned an A.M. and a Ph.D.

Professor Spiegelman has won three fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, as well as major grants from the Rockefeller and Guggenheim Foundations.

He has been twice named an “Outstanding Professor” at SMU, and all of his books have been named “best faculty publication” by the university. He is also the recipient of the Perrine Prize of Phi Beta Kappa for distinguished intellectual achievement.

Professor Spiegelman is the author of two books about the English Romantic poets: Wordsworth’s Heroes and Majestic Indolence: English Romantic Poetry and the Work of Art. He has also written The Didactic Muse: Scenes of Instruction in Contemporary American Poetry and dozens of scholarly articles on English and American poetry. He is a regular contributor to the “Leisure & Arts” page of The Wall Street Journal, and since 1984 he has been the editor-in chief of The Southwest Review, the country’s fourth-oldest, continuously published literary quarterly.

What to Look (and Listen) for in Poems

01: What to Look (and Listen) for in Poems

What's the difference between verse and poetry? What is the crucial determinant of poetic utterance? What gives a poem its "sound" or "music"? Short lyrics by Robert Herrick ("Upon Julia's Clothes") and A. R. Ammons ("Beautiful Woman") will help you answer these and other questions.

33 min
Memory and Composition

02: Memory and Composition

Two famous poems by William Wordsworth—"I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" and "The Solitary Reaper"—mirror each other as they speak of time and memory, experience and eternity.

31 min
Poets Look at the World

03: Poets Look at the World

The poets include Shakespeare (Sonnet 130), Yeats ("The Lake Isle of Innisfree"), Edna St. Vincent Millay ("The Buck in the Snow"), and the New Jersey obstetrician-poet William Carlos Williams ("The Red Wheelbarrow"). Our focus is on how they combine visual imagery with sound to create unique poetic effects.

28 min
Picturing Nature

04: Picturing Nature

We consider how four poets from the 19th and 20th centuries render various aspects of the natural world. The poems are by Hilda Doolittle, Tennyson, Thomas Hardy, and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

31 min
Metaphor and Metonymy I

05: Metaphor and Metonymy I

Description and imagery (the material of Lectures 3 and 4) begin to assume more important and suggestive dimensions for both poet and reader. Poems by Burns, Shelley, Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, William Blake, and Randall Jarrell.

31 min
Metaphor and Metonymy II

06: Metaphor and Metonymy II

We continue the investigations of the preceding lecture by looking in depth at Robert Lowell's "Skunk Hour" and Keats's great sonnet (and first great poem of any kind), "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer," written when he was only 20 years old!

31 min
Poetic Tone

07: Poetic Tone

What are the two meanings of the word "tone" as applied to poetry? What does a poem's subject have to do with its tone (in either sense)? Poems by Wallace Stevens, George Herbert, Donald Justice, Ben Jonson, and Wordsworth.

31 min
The Uses of Sentiment

08: The Uses of Sentiment

What separates an original, persuasive, and appropriate appeal to feeling from mere poetic "gush" or sentimentalism? To answer this question, we turn to the work of seven very different poets, from Elizabeth Barrett Browning to W. H. Auden.

32 min
The Uses of Irony

09: The Uses of Irony

What is this ancient rhetorical device? Why and how do poets use it, and to what effects? Poems by Dorothy Parker, William Blake, D. H. Lawrence, Henry Reed, and Thomas Gray.

31 min
Poetic Forms and Meter

10: Poetic Forms and Meter

This lecture, the first of four on traditional poetic forms and meters, will teach you how to identify the predominant meter (or rhythm) of any poem.

30 min
Sound Effects

11: Sound Effects

Poems by Matthew Arnold, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Emily Dickinson, Robert Browning, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and others serve to illustrate how poets use a variety of devices—and especially rhyme—to play upon the reader's ear.

32 min
Three 20th-Century Villanelles

12: Three 20th-Century Villanelles

The villanelle is a demanding 19-line form that many poets of the 19th and 20th centuries have handled. The three considered here are by widely differing authors, yet in each case Dylan Thomas, Theodore Roethke, and Elizabeth Bishop produced a classic.

32 min
Free Verse

13: Free Verse

Robert Frost compared it to "playing tennis with the net down," but free verse might also be thought of as an attempt to play a new poetic game with new rules. Examine its roots in 18th-century verse that echoes the cadences and repetitions of the King James Bible, and look at its fuller development by Walt Whitman, e. e. cummings, Alan Ginsberg, and others.

34 min
The English Sonnet I

14: The English Sonnet I

The first of three lectures on the most enduring of lyric forms. Invented by the Italian poet Petrarch in the 14th century, it is still being used by poets today. Sonnets by Sir Philip Sidney and Shakespeare are among those you'll read in this lecture.

31 min
The English Sonnet II

15: The English Sonnet II

Continue your study of the sonnet form with two by Shakespeare's younger contemporary John Donne, two by Milton, two by Wordsworth, and one by Shelley, whose sonnets are few in number but remarkable in quality. Finally, learn which poet has written the most sonnets in English.

31 min
The Enduring Sonnet

16: The Enduring Sonnet

Twentieth-century sonnets by William Butler Yeats, Robert Frost, and Marilyn Hacker reveal the continuing vitality and flexibility of a form that must have 14 lines but can (as in the case of Frost's "The Silken Tent") have as little as one sentence.

30 min
Poets Thinking

17: Poets Thinking

What do poets do when they want to introduce abstract thoughts, make logical or figurative arguments, or reach philosophical conclusions? Donne, Andrew Marvell, and Alexander Pope all turned their hands to these tasks, versifying with wit and cogency about serious subjects.

30 min
The Greater Romantic Lyric

18: The Greater Romantic Lyric

What did the critic M. H. Abrams mean when he coined the phrase that forms the title of this lecture? How do Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" and Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight" exemplify this type of lyric? What are the vastly different effects that it can achieve?

30 min
Poets Thinking—Some 20th-Century Versions

19: Poets Thinking—Some 20th-Century Versions

Proceeding from the previous lecture, this one shows how poets can express thought (or particular thoughts) through an array of means that includes, but is hardly limited to, direct statement. The examples you will ponder include works by Robinson Jeffers, Wallace Stevens, and Robert Hass, as well as Yeats's "Among School Children."

32 min
Portrayals of Heroism

20: Portrayals of Heroism

Ever since Homer, poets have sung of heroes and heroic actions. While epics are beyond the scope of these lectures, we can look to shorter lyrics on heroism, including the anonymous ballad of Sir Patrick Spens, Dryden's elegy on his friend John Oldham, and Tennyson's stirring and unforgettable "Ulysses."

30 min
Heroism—Some 20th-Century Versions

21: Heroism—Some 20th-Century Versions

Although often thought of as a time when heroism has been rendered obsolete, the 20th century has seen poets from Yeats to Adrienne Rich pondering types of heroism and harnessing their ideas about it to their poetic craft. Elizabeth Bishop's "The Fish" and Robert Lowell's "For the Union Dead" are also studied in this lecture.

32 min
Poems Talking to (and for) Works of Art

22: Poems Talking to (and for) Works of Art

One of the glories of poetry is its ability to speak to, of, or for an otherwise-silent work of art. Poets have been doing this at least since Homer described the divine shield of Achilles in "The Iliad." Here you will consider Keats's famous "Ode on a Grecian Urn," a particularly beautiful example of this species of poetic utterance.

28 min
Echoes in Poems

23: Echoes in Poems

Poetic echoes can be as obvious as the repetition of words within a single poem, or as subtle as allusive gestures that one poem may make toward earlier poems with which it shares a common theme or trope. Poems that "echo" one another in this way form traditions. One such tradition, in fact, is woven precisely around what the poet and critic John Hollander calls "the figure of echo" itself. You'll examine it in this lecture as you read poems by Wordsworth, Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, and Hollander himself.

27 min
Farewells and Falling Leaves

24: Farewells and Falling Leaves

Among the most richly suggestive and often-echoed tropes in all of Western literature is that of the falling leaves. In this lecture, you will trace this figure of natural change and human finitude from its first appearance in Homer through Virgil, Dante, Milton, Shelley, Ezra Pound, and Howard Nemerov, all the way to A. R. Ammons, whose lapidary "Beautiful Woman" closes—as it opened—this course.

31 min