Back in 2007 one of the editors at London publishers, Continuum — Anna Fleming — asked me if I would like to submit a proposal on poetry to their ‘for the perplexed’ series. I really liked this series title, but in the end Anna suggested that my book would work better as a standalone title and I’ve been very lucky to have great support from my publishers (Continuum was taken over by Bloomsbury) ever since. My editor at Bloomsbury, David Avital, went on to suggest a second and now a third revised and expanded edition, which was been a great opportunity.
My intention was to write a student-aimed text book that would also appeal to the general reader, and to write something that would work really hard to draw people in to the world of talking about poetry (note: talking about poetry; this is not a creative writing guide). Too often, people either are entirely put off by poetry, finding it obscure or confusing or being encouraged by ‘guardians’ of culture to believe that understanding poetry requires special, mysterious skill. Or else they enjoy poetry, but struggle to articulate what it is that they appreciate about it.
I strongly believe that poetry is importantly of the demos (it is of the people and for the people), but also of all existence, human and non-human. I wanted to write a book that would help people to understand the strange logic of poetry, of words that don’t just express pre-conceived ideas, but actually think them: that poetry is generative, it interprets, it makes the world. To do this I felt I needed to provide some kind of pathway through all the technical types and traditions that have shaped histories of poetic construction and expression (see also here). That is what this book aims to do. Of course it isn’t entirely comprehensive; of course it has weaknesses — it is my attempt, my essay.
An aspect that held me back in writing was the cost of paying copyright fees to be able to include even very short extracts (of 3 lines or more) from poems written in the last seventy years. It’s a complex field. I believe in poets being paid. I struggle a bit more with descendants of poets being paid; and with very powerful agents being paid. But it’s complicated, I appreciate. Still this is what determined some of the content and it has cost me several thousand pounds to publish this book. But the publisher gave me more financial support for the third edition, and I did my very best to include more and more voices I care about.
The third edition also has an accompanying website with which I’m quite pleased. It includes recordings and an interview with nick-e melville, a fantastic poet. and recitations by students and friends. And several ‘think pieces’ that couldn’t fit in the book, but which I wanted to explore. You can find it here.
The book is used in many universities across the UK, USA and Europe. It book was never easy to write (in fact, very exhausting), and some reviewers have been pompous and dismissive (which I actually found quite hilarious… especially as it serves only to show their own weakness). But many, many people have been really lovely and I am quite proud of it. I hope it’s done the job of bringing people in to poetry and poetics.
Rhian Williams, The Poetry Tookit, 3rd edition. London: Bloomsbury, 2019.