How to Research Poetry
January 14, 2005
by Louise Bergstresser,
Mid-Manhattan Library, Literature and Language Collection
To locate biographical material or criticism in books, perform an alphabetical SUBJECT SEARCH in the Library Catalog (catalog.nypl.org) typing in the last name of the poet followed by the first name.
The search yielded six different subject headings. It is important to look deeper into each one of these headings, especially the one that indicates "Criticism and Interpretation." In this example, there are nine books of criticism and interpretation of Sexton's poetry.
- Once you find a book of on the shelf, check books nearby with similar call numbers for other sources.
- Pay special attention to the bibliographies and suggestions for further reading. These lists will contain titles of other books and journal articles that are related to the subject.
- Biographies do more than tell the life stories of a poet: they often contain criticism of specific poems that is accessed through the index in the back of the book.
REFERENCE BOOKS - Multi-volume and self-indexing sources
**The information in the following Magill's books is also available at the Mid-Manhattan Library from the online database Magill On Literature Plus.
- Magill's Critical Survey of Poetry-English Language Series**
This 8-volume set presents an essay on each poet included. Each essay contains essential information that includes: Principal poetry, Other Literary forms, Achievements, Biography, Analysis, and Bibliography. An excellent introduction to poetry criticism. The index at the end of the eighth volume is very useful.
- Magill's Critical Survey of Poetry-Foreign Language Series**
Arranged similarly to the English Language Series, this series contains extensive essays on poets who wrote in a language other than English. The essays include the same information found for poets in the English Language Series. Volume 5 indexes the entire set and contains longer essays that discuss an entire country's poetry. Examples of some essays include: "Hungarian Poetry," "Ancient Greek Poetry", and "Third World Poetry."
- Magill's Masterplots II-Poetry Series**
This multi-volume set focuses on analyzing specific famous poems. Use the index in Volume 9 to locate the poet, then the poem you are researching. Each signed essay has three sections: "The Poem," "Forms and Devices" and "Themes and Meanings."
- Explicator Cyclopedia (in 2 volumes)
Ref 820.9 E; Kept at Librarians Desk.
References to brief but important criticism of specific poems arranged alphabetically by poet. Each entry originally appeared in the journal The Explicator. The contributor's name and date of publication is given.
- Poetry Criticism
This very popular reference series contains "excerpts from criticism of the works of the most significant and widely studied poets of world literature." Ask at the librarian's desk to see the "Annual Cumulative Title Index" to determine the exact volumes and pages that mention the specific poem or poet you are researching. In addition, you can use the Gale Literary Index from the Literature Resource Center database to get an index to articles in a wide variety of literary criticism sets.
BIBLIOGRAPHIES - books that direct you to other books and journal articles that discuss the poet you are researching.
The following helpful bibliographies refer you to the exact pages a given poem is discussed in periodicals or books.
- Kuntz, Joseph M, ed. Poetry Explication: a Checklist of Interpretation since 1925 of British and American Poems Past and Present
- Martinez, Nancy C., ed., Guide to British Poetry Explication (in three volumes)
- Coleman, Arthur, ed., Epic and Romance Criticism
- Anderson, Emily Ann, ed., English Poetry , 1900-1950
- Aubrey, Bryan, ed., English Romantic Poetry. (Magill Bibliographies)
- Leo, John R., ed., Guide to American Poetry Explication, Vol 2, Modern and Contemporary
REFERENCE BOOKS - Complete in One Volume
REF 821.914 Kept at librarian's desk
Concise, signed, articles about poets that include personal information, a list of publications, and a critical examination of the complete body of works with a look at a few specific poems.
The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics
REF 808.103. Kept at librarian's desk.
If you are seeking definitions of poetic terms, poetic movements, and an essay on the poetry of a given country, this is an excellent place to start. Each entry, though often brief, is exhaustive, and is signed, often with a bibliography.
Encyclopedia of American Poetry: The Twentieth Century
Ready REF 811.5
This is a good starting source for researching American poets and poetic movements of the 20th century. A concise biography and a useful list of suggestions for further reading follow a signed essay discussing the poets and their major achievements. In depth analysis of one or more specific poems is often included.
ONLINE POETRY CRITICISM
The New York Public Library subscribes to many databases that contain either citations to, or in many cases the full text of, critical articles from literary journals and books. Some of these databases are available from home with a valid New York Public Library card at www.nypl.org/databases. The Literature Resource Center and Magill On Literature Plus are two excellent databases that provide many full-text articles of criticism and biography. Other databases such as JSTOR and the MLA Bibliography are more advanced, but link to information from the best literary journals and chapters of books.
For more help on using these and other online databases ask the literature librarian and consult the guide entitled ONLINE LITERARY CRITICISM: A Guide to Research available at the library.