Poetry: A Very Short Introduction

14th January 2020


Wadham Emeritus Fellow and poet Bernard O’Donoghue is author of one of the latest in Oxford’s ‘Very Short Introduction’ series of books.

  • Bernard O’Donoghue

Providing a fascinating look at the many different forms of writing which have been called 'poetry'—from the Greeks to the present day – Bernard questions what poetry is and what it is for.

He asks whether there is a universality to poetry and whether it has a duty of public utility and responsibility.

Poetry, arguably, has a greater range of conceptual meaning than perhaps any other term in English. At the most basic level everyone can recognise it—it is a kind of literature that uses special linguistic devices of organisation and expression for aesthetic effect. However, far grander claims have been made for poetry than this—such as Shelley's that the poets 'are the unacknowledged legislators of the world', and that poetry is 'a higher truth'.

Describing the book, Simon Armitage writes: "[It] achieves an air of indispensability, as both a guidebook for the enquiring beginner, and as a handbook of poetic values for the determined practitioner."

And according to Andrew Motion :"Everyone near the beginning of their life in poetry will want to have this book, and everyone further down the track will value it as a stimulation."

In an interview with Oxford University Press Bernard comments: “Poetry seems to have been thought important in all known societies, often without argument. Poetry is often thought to represent values other than the dominant materialist assumptions of society. I think it is important that poetry, while representing alternative values in this way, also takes seriously the interests of the society it operates in.” 

Bernard O'Donoghue is an Emeritus Fellow of Wadham College, where he taught Medieval English and Modern Irish Poetry. Also a poet and a literary critic, his poetry collection Gunpowder (Chatto & Windus, 1995) was awarded the 1995 Whitbread Poetry Award. He has authored and edited several titles, including The Cambridge Companion to Seamus Heaney (CUP, 2008) and Reading Chaucer's Poems: A Guided Selection (Faber, 2015). In 2006, his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was published by Penguin.