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This review is taken from PN Review 188, Volume 35 Number 6, July - August 2009.

PLAIN SPEAKING RHIAN WILLIAMS, The Poetry Toolkit: The Essential Guide to Studying Poetry (Continuum) £55 (hardback) £15.99 (paperback)

Poetry makes little happen. Poetry cures cancer. Poetry is precious nonsense. Poetry can kiss it all better. Poetry is your best friend. Poetry understands you - even if your partner doesn’t. A poem a day keeps the doctor away… Amidst what seem outlandish and diverse claims for poetry now made in introductions, anthologies and handbooks, Rhian Williams has decided that poems are big boys’ toys and, if you aren’t careful, they’ll have your eye out. Moreover, when you carry this bracing approach home from the hardware store and take it out of the box, you find that for once the instruction manual is remarkably lucid, sharp to the point of bluntness. Williams neither sentimentalises poetry nor patronises poetry’s readers, and there is no place here for poetry as any form of therapy. While The Poetry Toolkit is not the ‘essential’ guide that its subtitle claims to be - could there ever be such a thing and would such a thing be even desirable? - it is an unusually good introduction to the hard work of reading poems.

Poetry as work. This is a utilitarian approach which believes poetry is useful. While always alert to the idea that poems are something other than, or in addition to, politics, the work which Williams finds poems doing is usually political, whether in respect of nationality or class or gender or sexuality. The responding reader is never going to be allowed to emote in a vacuum, and the aesthete who values ...


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