What’s a Reader to Do?
Poetry makes you a better writer, a better reader, and it fills a space in your life that nothing else can in quite the same way that poetry does.
I know this. But I’ve often struggled with formulating a good poetry reading plan. I’ve watched stacks of poetry collections teeter on my nightstand. I’ve stood frozen in bliss/terror at the hundreds of colorful volumes in independent bookstores. I’ve even struggled with the guilt of not having read “enough” of the classics.
For this school year, however, I’ve developed a plan, and it’s one you can easily adopt for yourself if you wish. These three cool tips for bolstering your poetry reading can provide you with some structure, a sense of accomplishment and, above all, the wonder and beauty of hundreds of new poems in your life.
1) Go all-out fangirl/fanboy, with one classic poet per season.
Carolyn Forche, a wonderful poet whose works include the haunting collection The Country Between Us and the anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, suggests choosing one pre-WWII poet per season and immersing yourself in his or her work. You can also absorb any other information you’re able to find, such as letters, biographies, and interviews. She suggests keeping these materials at your bedside or favorite chair–wherever you normally do your reading–and picking up the work whenever you can.
This approach has been liberating for me. At the end of the summer, my nightstand and bedroom floor were piled with books. Many people welcome this “problem, ” but for me, the image was a daily reminder of the time I lacked, even a source of guilt.
So I took the books down to the basement office, shelved the ones I suspected I wouldn’t get to for awhile and built a “to-read” stack that would remain safely out of my daily line of vision.
Then I ordered Wallace Stevens: The Collected Poems.
While studying creative writing as an undergraduate, I read a number of the famous Stevens poems, such as “Anecdote of the Jar, ” “The Emporer of Ice Cream, ” and Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. In my book How to Read a Poem, I feature one of his earlier poems, “The Snow Man, ” as an example of expert imagery. But I’ve always known I had so much more to learn from Stevens. Personally, I’ve been interested in this insurance executive/poet because, like me, he lives an “atypical” poet’s life.
These days, I keep just one thick book on my nightstand. I take a few moments each night to enter the mysterious rooms of these Stevens poems, savoring lines like “But on the first-found weed/She scuds the glitters” or “Fill your black hull/With white moonlight.” Even if I don’t really “get” the poem (one reason, I believe, I avoided Stevens for so long), I allow the light to shine through and the words to buzz until I feel the poem in my bones.
2) Remodel your bathroom–with poetry
Forche also recommends staying in tune with contemporary poetry by always keeping a current volume in one of those other popular reading spots, the bathroom. The choices are endless. Where do you begin? Word of mouth is always my favorite way to pick up ideas for new collections of poetry. When I start to recognize a fresh poet’s name from Facebook or Twitter, I pay attention. Reviews from Tweetspeak Poetry or The Poetry Foundation also abound with interesting titles. Sometimes, the best approach is to just pick a book you’ve never heard of from the poetry shelf at your library or local bookstore. That’s how I discovered Li-Young Lee and Sharon Olds as a college student–I closed my eyes and picked.
For a couple of weeks now, I’ve had Andrew Hudgins’s selected poems, American Rendering, in my upstairs bathroom. In fact, it was the first book I grabbed from that basement “to-read” pile. I’ve always enjoyed his work, including Tree, which I use to teach line breaks in How to Write a Poem. This book includes many of his best poems from six volumes that cover a twenty-five year period. His voice is fresh, dark, and funny, but I often get through just one stanza at a time.
“If you can’t finish a slim volume of poetry per week, ” Forche says, “you’re not spending enough time in the bathroom.”
3) Get poetic, by email
You can subscribe to a poetry delivery service that sends daily poems to your inbox. I suggest Every Day Poems, sponsored by Tweetspeak Poetry. Poets and editors lovingly curate a variety of classic and contemporary poems paired with beautiful artwork, exploring a monthly theme. Consider the daily poem as important as any of your other emails and take a few minutes to breathe and read (and find a little inbox peace!). With 260 weekdays in the year, you will have read the equivalent of several more books of poetry by this time next year.
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How to Write a Poem uses images like the buzz, the switch, the wave—from the Billy Collins poem “Introduction to Poetry”—to guide writers into new ways of writing poems. Excellent teaching tool. Anthology and prompts included.
“How to Write a Poem is a classroom must-have.”
—Callie Feyen, English Teacher, Maryland