The Puzzle of Poetry
  • Publication Date: May 19, 2020
  • ISBN: 9781554814824 / 1554814820
  • 306 pages; 6" x 9"

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The Puzzle of Poetry

  • Publication Date: May 19, 2020
  • ISBN: 9781554814824 / 1554814820
  • 306 pages; 6" x 9"

The Puzzle of Poetry offers students a readable, reliable guide to understanding poetry. Instead of carving poems up into their elements, The Puzzle of Poetry describes how experienced readers of poems go about understanding them. Each line, sentence, or syntactical unit in a poem is a clue to the “puzzle.” As with crossword puzzles, figuring out the answer to one clue can help you figure out the answer to others. This book teaches the reader to check what they know in a poem against what else they know to find meaning, a systematic but creative approach that can help language to come alive.

Each chapter contains a lively and personal discussion of one part of the art of reading poetry; a short guide to writing about poetry is also included. The book introduces students to a variety of poems, from Anglo-Saxon verse to Hamilton and Jay-Z.


“John Marsh, who wrote one of the best books you’ll ever read about Walt Whitman, has done it again. Fear no more: The Puzzle of Poetry cracks the code, clarifying the mystery of poetry without ever sacrificing the art. As Marsh puts it so very well, Whitman sounded his ‘barbaric yawp’; Allen Ginsberg answered back with ‘Howl’; many others answered Ginsberg; and, indeed, ‘so might you.’ Marsh’s book is a bold declaration that the republic of poetry is a democracy, and that all of us belong here.” — Martín Espada, University of Massachusetts Amherst

“John Marsh provides an exciting avenue into teaching students the keys needed to interpret poetry. Using the metaphor of a puzzle, this guide asks students to fit individual parts to form a whole and provides a witty and engaging strategy to read and make sense of poetry. Not only focused on how to read and interpret poetry, Marsh includes the deeply essential aspect of writing about poetry. Accessible, strategic, and entertaining, this guide provides a much-needed corrective to current handbooks and textbooks. A must-have for literature and writing teachers and their students.” — Heather Bozant Witcher, Auburn University at Montgomery


Why Read Poetry?

Whitman’s Specialty:How to Solve the Puzzle of Poetry

How to Read a Poem

The Play of Language

“No Ideas Except in Things”: The Image in Poetry

“Like 52 Cards Went Out”: Figurative Language in Poetry

“Not This Pig”: Who Speaks in Poems?

“Listen, My Children, and You Shall Hear”: Sound in Poetry I

“Listen, My Children, and You Shall Hear”: Sound in Poetry II

“Fret Not at … Narrow Rooms”: How to Read a Sonnet

“The Dancer from the Dance”: Form and Content in Poems

Evaluating Poetry

Thirteen Ways of Writing about Poetry

Coda: “Imaginary Gardens with Real Toads in Them”

Appendix: Stanzas and Forms

Permissions acknowledgments


John Marsh is Associate Professor of English at Pennsylvania State University.

  • • Presents an original and distinctive theory of reading and understanding poetry
  • • Has a personal, poetic, and beautifully crafted writing style (with a bit of humor)
  • • Provides varied and unexpected poetic examples throughout