On Poetry

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

7 thoughts on “On Poetry”

  1. Hey, thanks for posting these. Interesting stuff.

    As a person who has never taken a poetry class, I’d like to ask a question.

    Why do poets break the line in the middle of a phrase where you wouldn’t expect there to be a pause? Are they counting syllables in each line or something?

    Example from one of your examples:

    One day you finally knew what you had to
    do, and began,

    Why is there a line break after “to” instead of “do”?

    I realize I could probably take a class and learn this stuff like a normal person, but, hey, I’m lazy, what can I say?



  2. North Node said:

    I’m sure there are many answers to this question, but I tend to think of line breaks as a type of punctuation in poetry. Believe it or not, there is a great deal of contention as to whether or not one should read a line break as a pause when reading a poem out loud; people on either side of the debate feel quite passionately about their point of view. I will venture an opinion that line breaks do not always indicate pauses but can also be used such that words or images on the following line are grouped together. In that same stanza, for instance, Oliver breaks the line so as to put “shouting” on its own line, giving it greater emphasis. Yet, if I were reading this poem aloud and paused before and after the word, that kind of overstated emphasis would come off as pretty hokey.

    That said, I’m hard pressed to determine why Mary Oliver put a line break there, in the example you used.

  3. Thanks. The line break thing has vexed me forever. On other poems, I have spent hours counting syllables trying to find some pattern that the clever poet was using. Figures I’d assume it was mathematical.

    In the Oliver poem, I tried singing the lines and pausing at the end of the lines and it sounded pretty cool. Like the Psychedelic Furs (if you’re old enough to know who they are). 😉


  4. My elementary, high school and college eduction rarely involved poetry. And if it did, it wasn’t ever discussed with passion. I always got the drift that my teachers were as eager to pass over it as the students. For me, I just felt like I wasn’t smart enough to “get it”.

    When I was about 20, my friend, Tallu, gave me my first two books of poetry. They were poems by Sharon Olds and Mary Oliver. About a year or so later, you, Kathryn, gave me some Galway Kinnell to read. Then The Rag and BOne Shop of the Heart, anthology; which you gave to Neil, but ends up on both sides of our bed quite often.

    These books rocked my world. They were given as gifts, by people who love literature, so I thought there must be something I can find inside these poems. I read them and was hooked. I love how you describe it as “wandering around the corners of your mind”… I am so grateful for what you and Tallu did for me in giving me those first books of poetry. My life is richer for it.

  5. Hi again!
    Just have to say that I love your gift of a list of poems to share…and you have picked one of my favorites–the one by William Stafford. I had it framed and made into a caligraphy.
    The connection is interesting between our sites and passions…mine is northnodeastrology.blogspot.com and I’ve also created a chapbook of my collected poems.
    I love what you have to say about poetry bringing one out of the analytical mind into a more spacious place. I’m wanting/needing to go more in that direction now, and wondering how it is for you? Are you still considering graduate school? It’s not always easy to balance the inclinations of
    our heart and mind…..by the way, your site is as insightful as it is delightful~ elizabeth

  6. Clear and useful direction – thank you.Will certainly spend time reseraching these poets – only aware of Mary Oliver I’m ashamed to admit!! Redaing Elizabeth Bishop ‘One Art’ has pushed me onto other diaries – Keats + Coleridge – that fill in the gaps of how the poet approaches their art. It’s a rather wonderful journey so far. What do you think of Ruth Padel’s The Poem and the Journey? Coming from a nothing starting base this book revealed huge windows of discovery and put me onto Bishop. Thanks again, Julia

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