I have always been mostly a fiction writer. In high school, I could come up with a poem if forced, but it was hardly my forte. In college, the first writing class I took was a poetry class, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. It enhanced my sense of the intensity and musicality of language, but more than that, it taught me the tremendous weight that can be carried by a single word (which certainly slowed down my fiction writing).
There are lots of good reasons to read poetry, but these are some of my favorites:
It breaks the mind out of its usual linear, prosaic way of thinking. In this way, reading poetry is a meditation. It encourages us to simply take in what’s presented – a word or image or rhythm.
It is a non-analytical practice. Or it should be. You can analyze a poem, and maybe in school you learned to, but it’s far more fun to just sit with it, liking it or not liking it, listening to it in your head, letting your mind add its own associations and images to those of the poem. Most of us do enough thinking.
It says what cannot be said in prose. A cardinal rule of good writing is that if something can be said more simply, it should be. Good poetry, then, uses imagery, metaphor, and sound to say what cannot be said in any other way. What is communicated has a completeness to it that can’t be accomplished otherwise. It hits its mark like nothing else.
Ultimately, reading poetry amounts to wandering around in corners of your mind (and corners of other people’s minds) that are otherwise tragically neglected. I can think of few more worthwhile practices.
Most of us know poetry as a dead art, something written by Shakespeare, Keats and Wordsworth and, maybe most recently, Robert Frost. There are relatively popular poets these days, like Maya Angelou, but for the most part, poetry as a living, vibrant art form goes unnoticed.
There are a lot of good poets out there. But like anything else, often you have to do some digging to find what’s worthwhile.
For this reason, here are some poems by excellent poets to browse through. I’m somewhat limited here by what’s available online (poetryfoundation.org is a great resource), but if you find one or two poets whose work you might want to read more of, then I’ve done my job. This is my suggestion: Read a few poems from the list below. Find one that you like. Go to the bookstore and find a book it’s in, then buy that book. Read poetry in the morning, or late at night, some time when your mind isn’t so awake it shuts down and insists on logic and linearity. By all means, find a favorite poet. Discover some new poems, then come back and tell us about them. Add to the list below.
“The Innocent One” and “Weightless, Like a River” by Chase Twichell
“Heaven for Helen” by Mark Doty
“The Journey” by Mary Oliver
“That sounds wonderful…” by Hafiz
“Meditations at Lagunitas” and “Misery and Splendor” by Robert Hass
“Bible Study: 71 B.C.E.” by Sharon Olds
“Litany” by Billy Collins
“Eagle Poem” by Joy Harjo
“The Man Splitting Wood in the Daybreak” by Galway Kinnell
“A Ritual to Read to Each Other” by William Stafford
“For the Anniversary of My Death” by W. S. Merwin