Verse or Adverse

How to Read and Enjoy Poetry

by Dan Valenti (Author)
©2024 Textbook XXVI, 388 Pages


Poetry has been around for nearly five millennia, yet never has it been more puzzling. Technology, social media, and the blinding pace of contemporary life leave many students and readers in the dark. Just in time, this book comes to the rescue not just with a response to the problem of understanding and enjoying poetry, but it offers a solution. A widely published writer and poet, the author takes the mystery and madness out of verse with specific strategies designed to tame the poetic wilderness—not by dumbing down the poems but by raising the ability of readers to absorb this gem of literary form. Readers of all abilities and sensibilities will profit from the book’s ability to drill down to the bedrock of meaning. Valenti mines his decades of experience writing, publishing, and teaching poetry to provide innovative hints, tips, guidelines, and directives that will benefit anyone wishing to cultivate their enjoyment of literature’s highest form of expression.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Foreword
  • Introduction
  • Prologue
  • 1 F**k! Or the Amazing Power of Words
  • 2 Pieces and Pictures of the Puzzle
  • 3 Keys to the Kingdom
  • 4 The Riddle of the Work
  • 5 Explosions and Explorations in Word Power
  • 6 The Sound of Music
  • 7 Poetry: A Utility for Thought and the Rhythm of Life
  • 8 Hip Hop, Poetry, and Other Strange Bedfellows
  • 9 Formal, Blank, and Free Verse
  • 10 It Figures: Metaphor, Simile, and Personification
  • 11 Symbolism and Other Experiments in Language
  • 12 Values: Taking It to the Next Level
  • 13 It Is What It Is, But It Ain’t What It Seems
  • 14 “What on Earth Is the Poet Saying?”
  • 15 Lines of Analysis and What to Do If You Come Up Empty
  • 16 Going All In, Subtitle as Placeholder, and Other Distinctions
  • 17 Poems of Story, Description, Character, and Heart
  • 18 Core Principles, Resources, and Glossary
  • Afterword
  • Bibliography
  • Index



The first thanks goes to my parents, who thought enough about their children to fill 824 East St. with lots of books. They included illustrated dictionaries, encyclopedias, a volume of Edgar Allan Poe’s verse, and a beloved 10-volume set of world literature, much of it for children. To lose myself in these volumes provided as much enjoyment, though not as much fun, as playing Wiffle Ball at Cinder Field or running the bases. By giving us these books and by reading to me, Mom and Dad made me a reader. Priceless thanks.

To Lisa, for obvious reasons.

I next tip the fedora to the countless students and writers I taught over the years at LeMoyne College, Berkshire Community College, and in workshops and on informal occasions. In those classrooms and other spaces, I evolved from a sometimes funny stand-up comedian who taught by sheer instinct and the seat of the pants to a professor imparting lessons shaped by years of honing. Fortunately, the pants seat never gave way to tweed jackets with elbow patches, much less to bowties. It did, however, graduate to comfortable khakis and sharp dress shirts. No ties. My students ended up teaching me.

To Tom Curley, mentor and friend, who went over this manuscript and offered the feedback that put it over the top. Believe me, the gift basket wasn’t enough to show my appreciation.

Finally, to the team at Peter Lang Associates, for making the publishing experience a pleasure. When an author sends a manuscript to a publisher, he holds his breath, not knowing what “they” will do to it. Well, “they” in this case took what I gave them and improved it. This goes especially for my editor, Alison Jefferson. She joined Lang Publishers just about the time I pitched this book. Her belief in the project and in me gave this book life and made all the difference. Deepest gratitude, Ali.



Verse or Adverse: How to Read and Enjoy Poetry

It will come as no surprise to English teachers who have been in the classroom for a long time that the 21st-century student, in the face of a digital environment fostering speed and expectations of rapid information “payoffs,” might be challenged greatly by the unavoidable rigors involved in reading and responding to serious poetry. This difficulty has only increased over time, given the strong emphasis in today’s educational system upon preparing students for careers, even at the cost of de-emphasizing a strong liberal arts education.

Personally, I view this latter development as shortsighted, given that liberal arts study, in a field such as literature, sharpens students’ critical thinking skills while providing enhanced writing ability. These are the ultimate translational and cross-curricular skills, both of which will powerfully aid graduates in their careers, particularly in jobs that demand the ability to think through problems. These should be thought of not as add-ons and afterthoughts but bread-and-butter skills that can help provide engrossing meaning as well as paying a salary that can lead to comfortable circumstances.

In Professor Valenti’s Verse or Adverse, he demonstrates a keen awareness of this difficult situation facing the teacher guiding contemporary students in the study of poetry, a subject greatly valued throughout history, and justifiably so, but one that might understandably strike students as irrelevant as well as intimidating. In addressing this challenge, the author adopts a strategy and approach designed to reach these students and convey a love and enthusiasm about the subject while providing them with the necessary knowledge and tools to respond to poetry in a rich and satisfying manner that also hones their critical thinking skills, a key goal of the modern educational system and one that poetry is particularly equipped to fulfill. In teaching poetry for decades in both high schools and universities, I always viewed that study as a highly valued element in fulfilling the English department’s general education mission. Often the first-year English courses focus on the analysis of essays and the principles of effective argument. Eventually, in many programs, the study of poetry is also undertaken, which I welcomed. As I told my students, in comparison to the analysis of nonfiction essays, poetry analysis provides an additional challenge and reward. In this latter work, the students are faced with the task of hitting, if you will, a moving target, due to the genre’s added complexity, but also with that complexity, new pleasures and revelations are in the offing.

To accomplish his mission, Professor Valenti addresses a wide scope of topics necessary for the students to study. He particularly emphasizes the importance of diction and theme in poetry, but much attention is also devoted to figurative language, to the “music” of poetry, and to various verse forms. Importantly, in ensuring that the necessary learning objectives are achieved, he never loses sight that he is walking a tightrope (to use his term) between providing this necessary material and successfully engaging the students in the study of poetry. He employs a number of strategies so that his goal may be accomplished. Particularly distinctive is the author’s conversational, frank tone, his use of examples arising from common, everyday experiences, for example, childhood events with his siblings, first love experiences, and his recounting of his successes and failures as a student. These strategies are important means by which he engages the students’ interest in the discussion and helps them to relate to the teacher on a personal level. Indeed, the real originality of this text lies in the author’s strong, candid presentation. He proves to be an interesting, often compelling, guide for the students, one who shares with them his experiences, inside and outside the classroom.

Professor Valenti’s central argument here to students uneasily approaching poetry is that their reluctance is certainly understandable but that overcoming that reluctance is worthwhile for both practical and more personal reasons. Focusing on the practical is one of the author’s strengths, both because he provides good reasons for how the skills acquired will serve the students well in their careers and because he comes across to the students, I believe, as an educated person interested and knowledgeable about the arts but also genuinely interested in their learning and quality of life. Throughout the text, the author assures the students that he has tailored the teaching content and presentation to allay the students’ fears about poetry study and to provide a path for the diligent student to succeed. He makes clear that he is prepared to do all he can to guide the student but that the student has an equally important role in being conscientious.

I wish to make clear that in my role as Dean of Humanities at a community college, I worked with Dan for many years and had the occasion to observe his class numerous times as well as review his student evaluations. The classes I observed, the evaluations I reviewed, and the results his students achieved in later courses consistently spoke to the effectiveness of his methods. The teacher, colorful, engaged, and sincere, that emerges in this text is the instructor I grew to know and value.

Tom Curley

Dean of Humanities, Retired,

Berkshire Community College



This book will equip the earnest reader with specific strategies to handle poetry. Perhaps “untangle” might be a better word, for the way poetry delivers its payoff so unlike prose.

In prose, be it fiction or nonfiction, the direction is generally straightforward. Words build to phrases, then sentences, which stack into paragraphs. The prose writer places these rhetorical units logically, one following the other according to plan, held together by the accepted conventions of grammar, diction, syntax, punctuation, and even graphics (how the words appear on the page).

Poetry, on the other hand, particularly modern and contemporary work, builds into a thematic direction in ways that often are idiosyncratic, unplanned, and even chaotic. The progression of words into phrases and so on can lead to coherence (theme, message: always present) in ways so roundabout that logic may seem abandoned. It isn’t, of course—at least not in accomplished poetry. It’s just that poets work with language more like magicians rather than builders. They are both, of course, with emphasis on sleight of hand and mind in the construction process.

In this book, I share methods of instruction based on what I’ve learned after decades of reading, writing, publishing, reciting, and teaching poetry. I have designed my presentation in a way that will best enable readers to approach poetry comfortably, understand it, squeeze the meaning out of power-packed words, and maybe even enjoy it.

The best way of introducing what lies ahead is to present a chapter-by-chapter run-through. It serves as this book’s resume, so to speak, a comparison well-chosen since Verse or Adverse is applying for the job of tutoring you. This introduction is the interview process. I’ll know I landed the job after you’ve purchased the book!

Now a football analogy. The chapter summaries serve as our game plan. You’re like a quarterback, and these chapter abstracts serve as the wristband that contains all the plays.

Chapter 1—F**k! Or The Amazing Power of Words: This chapter provides the raison d’etre for the book. I want to take that reader who now hates poetry, who doesn’t “get” poetry, or who doesn’t read it but now has to, and show them that their dread, though it may be well founded by past experience or lack of it, is not chiseled in stone. It’s on ice in a room 10 degrees F. I want to turn that thermostat up above freezing and as comfortable as you’re willing to help me make it. The ice turns to water, and you can enjoy a refreshing drink. You will then be less averse to verse. Who knows? Maybe you’ll even come to like it.

Chapter 2—Pieces and Pictures of the Puzzle: This chapter defines poetry. For starters, it’s the easiest form of the English language to write badly, as most amateur efforts indicate. It’s also the most difficult to write with expertise. This chapter explains the structural components of poetry. Like it or not, chances are at some point in a student’s academic career, they will need to read poems. It need not be the gallows. It can be one of the most enriching experiences of your academic life, one that if cultivated will be with you a lifetime.

Chapter 3—Key Words: Every poem has keys that unlock meaning. Often, a key can be found in a title. In the text of a piece, poets give keys in the emphasis on certain words or hinge points upon which meaning pivots and advances. A poem, like a photo, can usually be “scanned” (read) in one quick sitting often involving no more than a few minutes. Also like a photo, a poem can then be studied at length and leisure. In reading as in viewing, you control the pace. In a picture, you look for details that are missed during the initial view. You also look for the point of focus. In a poem, you do the same thing.

Chapter 4—The Riddle of the Work: Poems are like riddles. They pose questions in the form of statements intended to prod thinking. In this chapter, I provide tips in solving the poetic “riddle.” They include:

  1. 1. Begin at the literal level.
  2. 2. Examine how the poem looks on the page.
  3. 3. Look carefully at word choice (diction).
  4. 4. Identity the poet’s rhetorical “tricks,” that is, techniques.
  5. 5. Realize that you are not reading prose.
  6. 6. Take notes.
  7. 7. Who’s the intended audience?
  8. 8. What is the poem’s intention?
  9. 9. What position does the poet take toward the subject?
  10. 10. Look up any unfamiliar words.
  11. 11. Stay alert and focused.
  12. 12. Summarize the poem in prose.
  13. 13. Note especially the title.
  14. 14. Come to a finding.

Chapter 5—Explosions and Explorations in Word Power: Words have explosive power. Poets use words similar to how a demolition expert handles dynamite and nitroglycerin. Poets use words carefully, deliberately, and strategically. They want their words not simply to matter but to do so powerfully. There are a million words in the English language, but a poem of 100 words will only make use of 1/10,000 of them. Knowing this can help with the proper frame of mind when approaching a poem.

Chapter 6—The Sound of Music or The Power and the Glory: Words are the feedstock of any piece of writing. Poets use words in a manner that injects them with enhanced powers and/or unleashes stored power. The poet composes word by word, one following the next. The reader partakes in the product the same way, word by word. Keeping this in mind helps the reader find a conceptual pathway into the piece. I advise reading a poem in such a way that you almost pretend you are the poet, writing the words. The chapter concludes by identifying the only two sources a reader has in giving their analysis of a poem: The poem itself and background research. There also is a tertiary source usually not mentioned. That would be YOU, the reader: likes and dislikes, filters and biases, prejudices and predilections.

Chapter 7—Poetry: A Utility for Thought and Rhythm: I address (and answer) the eternal student question: “What the heck good will poetry do me now or later on in life?” Short answer: Poetry addresses people’s internal lives. You have an internal. Instant connection. The musical element in poetry, its meter and rhythm, appeals to a universal human impulse, responding to “the beat.” Poetry uses the musical aspect of words to tap into this beat. Without delving into the deep technical aspects of poetic meter, this chapter identifies, defines, and gives examples of poetry’s “beat.” I walk the tightrope between saying nothing about technique and laying on too much. You will profit, however, if you bother with some of it, poetry’s “inside baseball.”

Chapter 8—Hip Hop and Poetry, Strange Bedfellows: A point related to meter that’s often overlooked is “sound.” It’s the reason why poetry recitations historically have been so much in demand. Hip hop is a musical genre that needs no introduction or historical explanation. Its wild popularity can be attributed to the effect of the pounding, infectious, bass-driven, low-range beat. What immediately strikes me is the connection between poetry slams and rap. One of poetry’s most traditional manners of sharing has been the recital, where a poet reads their work or the work of others. In verse, the oral tradition long precedes the written tradition, one that goes back to the beginning of language and continues to this day. Hip hop, rap, and slams are a 21st-century equivalent.

Chapter 9—Formal, Blank, and Free Verse: Formal verse is what many of us have grown up to believe is “poetry”—and it is. Most all of what we consider traditional poetry can be considered “formal,” and certainly many of the world’s greatest verse falls into this category.

  • Blank verse is poetry that has a defined, metric emphasis in the manner of formal verse, but it eliminates end rhymes and rhyme schemes.
  • Free verse includes works that have no strict metric requirements (although, as we’ve seen, the very nature of words assures a measure of “music”) and no definite or repeated rhyme scheme. Most modern and contemporary poets write in free verse, which allows much greater range in expression of thought. This chapter also mentions more poetic devices such as internal rhyme, straight rhyme, “magic” words, repeated words, and the like.

Chapter 10—It Figures: Figurative language makes use of a special kind of comparison called analogy. In writing but especially in poetry, figurative language injects the already-powerful connotative effect of words with a boost. It’s like words on steroids. In discussing this literary superpower for today’s readers, we can safely abandon the past. Used to be that in dealing with rhetoric and verse, a student had the problem of memorizing such confusing labels as “hendiadys” and “metonymy.” Each describes a perfectly relatable concept but not one that can be of much use when it slogs the mind with useless memorization. Thus, don’t let this next discussion throw you. Relax and open up to it.


XXVI, 388
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2024 (May)
Poetry formal verse blank verse free verse poetic forms rhyme meter the amazing power of words utility for thought hip hop figurative language simile metaphor personification symbolism linguistic fireworks imagery Verse or Adverse How to Read and Enjoy Poetry Dan Valenti
New York, Berlin, Bruxelles, Chennai, Lausanne, Oxford, 2024. XXVI, 388 pp., 4 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Dan Valenti (Author)

Dan Valenti is a poet, writer, editor, broadcaster, and blogger. With millions of published words and many awards, he is the author of numerous books. Dan has a B.A. in English, Union College, and a M.A. in journalism from Syracuse University, where he did post-graduate work. He lives in the Berkshires of Massachusetts with his wife, Lisa. Dan Valenti is the author of Write It Real: A Practical Guide for the Prose Writer, also published by Peter Lang.


Title: Verse or Adverse