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This review is taken from PN Review 162, Volume 31 Number 4, March - April 2005.

SHEEP AND GOATS JEFFREY WAINWRIGHT, Poetry: The Basics (Routledge) £9.99
RUTH PADEL, 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem: A Poem for Every Week of the Year (Vintage) £6.99

There is a long-standing tradition in the teaching of poetry which thrives upon the resistance to simplification. I remember a professor of English noting with satisfaction my under-graduate decision to write about a long poem of Browning's, commenting that it always 'sorted the sheep from the goats'. But what about those who are not among the elect? Is appreciation of poetry necessarily subject to a kind of hermeneutical predestination? Such an outlook is comparable to that of Wittgenstein in the Tractatus, that his writing would only be comprehensible to those who had already thought his thoughts.

But that was the early Wittgenstein. His later work used examples from everyday language to work through its problems. This must be where the teacher of poetry begins: not with a concept of the poem as mystical and untouchable, but with a strong sense that poetry enacts difficulties and pleasures of language that are at least implicitly available to every language user.

Wainwright's book starts just here: with the notion that we are all involved in poetry. He throws us in at the deep end with his initial assertion: 'Because there is language there is poetry'. But as we continue to read, we realise that we were already, unavoidably, in deep water, because we were already, unavoidably, immersed in language itself. The rest of the book explores poetry's methods of dealing with this inevitable predicament: of staying afloat, or of diving to the depths.


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