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This review is taken from PN Review 237, Volume 44 Number 1, September - October 2017.

Cover of A Little Book on Form: An Exploration into the Formal Imagination of Poetry
Tony RobertsThe Poetry Gym Robert Hass, A Little Book on Form: An Exploration into the Formal Imagination of Poetry (Ecco);
Stephen Burt, The Poem is You: 60 Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them (Harvard)

There is a moment in A Little Book on Form in which Robert Hass offers his students (and now readers) ‘a small exercise. Take an afternoon and reread Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” and “Immortality Ode” and maybe one other Wordsworth ode or the first book of The Prelude and Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight” and his “Dejection: An Ode” and then read – written about twenty-two years later, the five Keats odes – “Psyche,” “Melancholy,” “Nightingale,”, “Grecian Urn,” and “To Autumn.’’’ One’s first reaction is that this is a demanding workout – but there is a point to it: ‘I don’t know if you will share my experience of them, but I found that when reading them in that order, the striking thing about the Keats poems was that they seemed so beautifully finished and a little old-fashioned.’ This sort of statement is characteristic of Robert Hass’s critical writings. It combines insight, admiration and commitment with an open personal touch.

In this highly stimulating, though hardly ‘little’, book the acclaimed poet and essayist goes beyond metrical rules and rhyme schemes, to consider the ‘formal imagination in poetry’. He is searching for a language to explore its intuition and creativity. Hence the tentativeness of ‘notes toward’ in the following: ‘It seemed possible to construct notes toward a notion of form that would more accurately reflect the openness and the instinctiveness of formal creation’.

Mercifully this is not nearly as abstruse as it sounds. In fact, Hass offers quite a comprehensive course, developed to guide young poets ...


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