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How to Write a Preface for a Book of Poems

by Michael Stratford

A preface to a book of poems can take several forms: it can discuss poetry in general, it can explore the poems and the themes they present or it can discuss the poet. If you're the poet, it's a good chance to let readers know why you write poetry and what you experience when you do.

Prefaces and Ideas for Them

William Wordsworth produced a spectacular preface to his own volume, which discusses poetry's value, use and future at length -- too much length for you to copy, but it may lead you to innovative ideas for your own preface about poetry. Walt Whitman, also over-wordy, nevertheless gives much history and background to his opener; consider his ideas for a cultural preface. Keep the words and style your own, of course, but study these masters for their thoughts.

In his anthology "Poems and Stories for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages," Harold Bloom includes a preface that explains poetry by theme. That's an excellent idea: set up three or more themes and comment on them. If your work -- or another's -- is love poetry, try the thematic evolution of "love found," "love lost" and "love re-awakened." If your poetry is autobiographical, try a chronological discussion of your early, middle and late periods. If your poetry is grounded in your culture, borrow from Whitman and try "traditions," "cultural pride" and "our future."

One unassuming preface by E.E. Cummings says "the poems to come are for you and for me and not for most people." If you don't want to overburden your preface with values, cultural references or themes, get personal as Cummings did and say in a few words why you wrote what you wrote or chose what you chose, what you were feeling when you read or wrote it, how you felt about the finished work or how you feel now. It needn't be poetic; let the work speak for itself.

Items you will need
  • Study prefaces to several poetry volumes. Decide whether you want your preface to represent poetry in general, a specific poet or the themes found in the poems. If you are the poet, make it all about you. Be prepared to write intelligently but concisely about any of these.

Tips

  • If you are the poet, don't be modest. Sell yourself by explaining your creative process.
  • Keep the preface at one or two pages; avoid Wordsworth-like length.
  • Make sure your preface conveys your enthusiasm for the poetry.

Warnings

  • Don't share poetry quotes from the volume to get the reader interested; let your thoughts about the poetry do that.
  • Don't get over-technical about how to write poetry.
  • Don't get over-aesthetic about your "art." People dislike pretentious authors.

About the Author

Michael Stratford is a National Board-certified and Single Subject Credentialed teacher with a Master of Science in educational rehabilitation (University of Montana, 1995). He has taught English at the 6-12 level for more than 20 years. He has written extensively in literary criticism, student writing syllabi and numerous classroom educational paradigms.

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