If you’re like most people these days, on most days you probably don’t deal with that much poetry. But you used to. Think about it.
“What do we read to our children every night?” asks Derek Sheffield, Poetry Editor of Terrain.org (and author of the recent collection of poetry ). Right. Nursery rhymes. Which is just another name for poetry for kids.
And maybe you don’t think of poetry as all that important in our era, given the news cycle blur, social platforms aplenty, our personal daily grinds, and the explosion of media of all types. But how do humans mark our major moments? “We still turn to poetry at the moments of greatest personal and cultural significance,” says Sheffield.
In other words, we turn to carefully crafted words to make sense of life. Now, to be fair, he’s a guy who has spent a lifetime with the art form, while most of us tend not to read much poetry after those nursery rhyme years. Even if you have not picked up a book of poetry since 10th grade English, now is as good a time as any to give it another go. Here are 11 books of poetry that will have you well versed in no time.
The Penguin Book of Romantic Poetry
Alright, yes, a lot of Romantic poetry is dated and over-the-top and a bit ridiculous, but a lot of it is wonderful stuff, too. And even the flourishes and melodrama that might miss the mark today were all an important part of the development of the art into its modern form. In other words, without “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” there may have been no “Howl.” So if you want to appreciate poetry, you have to at least respect the roots.
Leaves of Grass – Walt Whitman
Modern American poetry arguably began with Walt Whitman, and his fluid, often manic and joyful words still spring off the pages with as much excitement for the modern reader as they did more than 150 years ago. Far from a relic of a bygone era, Whitman and his words are vital today, and not in a timeless sense, but in a timely sense. If there is one great takeaway from this great collection, it’s that we are all in it together, and aren’t we ever thus? “Listener up there! Here you… what have you to confide in me? | Look in my face while I snuff the sidle of evening, | Talk honestly, for no one else hears you, and I stay only a minute longer.”
The Waste Land and Other Poems – T.S. Eliot
Yes, “The Waste Land” is Eliot’s best-known poem and perhaps rightly so. It is epic, it references myriad works from the past while commenting on its present, it’s competent throughout and at turns excellent, and so on. But it’s not the best poem in this collection. That’s arguably “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which reads fresh even 111 years on. But read the collection through as a whole and what will strike you is that it does not feel dated. Sub in a smartphone for the “Boston Evening Transcript,” for example, and you’ll see yourself (and all of us) right there in the poem.
100 Selected Poems – e.e. cummings
To fully embrace and enjoy e.e. cummings, you need to get over the punctuation, syntax, word placement, and grammar, or rather the lack thereof. Yes, he played with form. Yes, he broke rules and made up new ones. But it wasn’t to be cute or campy or to confuse in order to feign profundity. Rather Edward Estlin Cummings, author of nearly 3,000 poems (and some books and plays) just really hated being bogged down by the order of things. His freeform approach to syntax and grammar was not the point, they were rather a removal of barriers to the point, which was what the words said and made the reader think and feel.
The Essential Neruda – Pablo Neruda
Though this 2004 volume was published on the hundredth anniversary of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s birth, the writing does not feel old and dirty at all. Rather the work of the Nobel Prize winner is filled with heartache that knows no age, and that in terms of history and of a human beings’ years. His poems are often filled with a sadness in which we can find a companion to aid in our own grieving: “On nights like this I held her in my arms. | I kissed her so many times beneath the infinite sky….. My soul is not at peace with having lost her.” And so on.
The Collected Poems – Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath’s poetry is something of a bridge spanning the realm of classic and modern. Her diction sometimes reads almost 19th Century, while her meaning was often ahead of its time, time ended by suicide in early 1963 while she was just 30 years old. This Pulitzer Prize-winning collection is a gift to the ages from an ageless poet whose short life was a misery but which can enrich ours and will surely still do so for future generations.
The Complete Poetry – Maya Angelou
When you think of Maya Angelou, you likely think of her as a novelist. (Or rather make that multi-award winning, voice of a generation novelist.) You’re not wrong, unless you do so at the expense of reading her poetry. Her poetry managed to be oft spare of in terms of word count, yet dripping rich in meaning. Read the 66-word poem “In a Time” and you will see exactly what that means. And you will see yourself within that poem (and many more) several times over, despite it being all of 12 lines of verse.
The Essential Ginsberg – Allen Ginsberg
Allen Ginsberg was a thoroughly modern artist in that he used his status as a recognized public figure to advance causes ranging from the sexual revolution to human rights to religious freedom (or freedom from religion) and beyond. But to think of him first as an activist and second as a poet is to get it backward: first and foremost, the outspoken man was an amazing writer of poetry, and in an era where poetry drew more clout than it does these days, no less.
The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry
Sometimes you want to listen to an album straight through, especially if it’s “The Wall” or “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” Other times, you want a mixtape. Or playlist, that is. This “playlist” of excellent American poetry from the 1900s has Frost, Stein, Merwin, and more, and if you want a great sense of the great writing from that storied century, add this one to the mix.
Where the Sidewalk Ends – Shel Silverstein
For the record, this is a book of poems for kids. If you have kids, you should have this book in your home. If you don’t have kids, you should not. It’s as simple as that. Yes, some of the poems are weird, a bit gruesome, a bit dated, even, but all of that’s OK: just as you can enjoy Eliot and cummings and Whitman, your kids can (and should) enjoy Silverstein, just as their kids and their kids and son should, too.
3 Sections – Vijay Seshdari
In this 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, this Indian-American poet uses approaches to the language itself, at times using rhyming couplets, at times writing almost in prose. So too does the content vary, at times focused on the immigrant story, at times quintessentially American. His poetry feels entirely current today, for it is. Quite likely, in the form of a latter-day Eliot, that will remain true for decades hence. Or more.
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