How to Find Poetry You Actually Like: A Gift Guide
Recently I wrote about the importance of poetry in hard times. Perhaps you’re on board and already read poetry, but perhaps you haven’t been able to get into it. My friend’s story will help.
Unsure About Poetry?
Not long after Unsalted Blue Sunrise was released, a new friend posed this dilemma.
“I want to read poetry,” he confided, “but I’ve never known how.”
Knowing this man is religious, I asked if he had ever read the Psalms. Of course. Does he like them? Of course. Has he ever read the words to a hymn? Again, most certainly yes.
Both, I told him, are poetry.
He quickly accepted the point that he had indeed read poetry and that he enjoys it. And that’s all there is to it.
To read and enjoy poetry, you must find poetry that you like.
How to Find Poetry You Actually Like
Consider the following questions. Do you prefer:
- Rhyme or free verse?
- Short or long (haiku vs. epic)?
- Nature or narrative?
- Inspiring or dark?
- Serious or humorous?
Expert poets always say that to write good poetry you need to read lots of it. But for years I struggled with this advice. I tried to read popular, contemporary poetry in all the ‘right’ journals and it often left me with dark, disturbing images–some of which I still can’t shake. I don’t know about you, but there seems to be enough darkness in the world for me to want to seek it out in my free time.
Then, in Jane Morris’s kitchen in Cleveland, I encountered Why I Wake Early by Mary Oliver. I was so enthralled that Jane inscribed her book and gave it to me on the spot.
Mary Oliver’s poems are full of light and nature–the type of poems I strive to write myself. Since then I have widened my net of exploration and continue to find many poets who I enjoy reading, poets that provoke thought and creativity.
Three Important Lessons About Poetry
Through my experience, I learned a few things:
1. I want my own poems to always leave the reader with a sliver of light, hope.
2. There is a plethora of worthy poetry to read that is not full of dark, disgusting imagery.
3. Poetry is accessible and varied and there’s something for everyone.
To help you on your quest to read more poetry, I’ve created the following gift guide (for you or for others!) based on my personal favorites. Know before you delve in that I prefer free verse, short poems with at least a sliver of inspiration–so if you select from this list, you will be thought-provoked but not depressed!
Kathryn’s Gift Guide to Poems You Will Love
*Each book is linked to its listing at one of my favorite independent bookstores, Pegasus Books. They are fantastic about shipping and will even wrap the books for you if you request wrapping in comments during purchase. I find their shipping fees to be modest, worth every penny to ensure that bookstores can keep existing!
Poetry of Nature
Why I Wake Early by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press, 2005) sheds a beautiful, wise new light on daily observations. “Why I Wake Early: Hello, sun in my face./ Hello, you who make the morning/ and spread it over the fields/ and into the faces of tulips . . .”
If you prefer a compendium of Mary Oliver’s best work, pick up Devotions (Penguin, 2017).
Kate Baer is a mother of four and she understands mom life and womanhood. Her poems are evocative, fun, and shed light on the absurdities and demands of life. What Kind of Woman (Harper Perennial, 2020) is her best book of poems, in my opinion, for poems like “Some Nights: Some nights she walks out to the/ driveway where the lilacs bloom and/ lies down on the warm pavement even/though the neighbors will see and wonders/ what kind of woman does such things.”
Bright Wings: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems About Birds edited by Billy Collins with paintings by David Allen Sibley (Columbia U press, 2012)
Sibley is one of the most accomplished illustrators of birds, and in this book his drawings are paired with a wide variety of avian poetry. Billy Collins did a masterful job choosing poems of many different genres and eras, from Whitman to Wordsworth, Thoreau to contemporary poets like Jane Hirshfield.
Philosophical and Contemplative Poetry
The Asking by Jane Hirshfield (Knopf, 2023)
Published this year, the book includes work from throughout Hirshfield’s career, including recent poems. The collection includes a wide variety of work in her contemplative, wise style. “To Hear the Falling World: . . . the way the light bends in the trees/ this time of year,/ so a scrap of sorrow, like a bird, lights on the heart.”
One Hundred Poems from the Japanese by Kenneth Rexroth (New Directions, 1955) is a wonderful introduction to the elegance and imagery of classical Japanese poetry. Each poem appears in English, Romaji script, and Japanese calligraphy. Pegasus carried the sequel, One Hundred More Poems.
I go out of the darkness
Onto a road of darkness
Lit only by the far off
Moon on the edge of the mountains. (Izumi)
Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years edited by Jim Kacian, Philip Rowland, and Allan Burns (W.W. Norton, 2016) is a comprehensive and accessible overview and introduction to the form, with a preface by Billy Collins.
Tiny Book of Favorite Poems
For those who have heard my Unsalted Blue Sunrise talk, you know that one of my all-time favorite poems is The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams. You can imagine my delight when I came across this tiny, gift-worthy book The Red Wheelbarrow and Other Poems by William Carlos Williams (New Directions, 2018). This little red-covered volume contains many of Williams’s most beloved poems. If you are feeling brave, and comfortable with ambiguity, read Spring and All (New Directions, 2011), the book in which Red Wheelbarrow first appeared.
Several years ago I picked up Carver: A Life in Poems by Marilyn Nelson (Wordsong, 2001). The poems read like a narrative and they move like vignettes through former slave and inventor George Washington Carver’s life, from early life to his observation of the Milky Way when it was first named to lessons he imparted to his students. (Link above and on the image go to Amazon as Pegasus doesn’t carry the hardcopy.)
Unsalted Blue Sunrise: Poems of Lake Michigan is a perfect gift for friends and family who may or may not read poetry. It is accessible, delightful, humor-laced, and its subject is something everyone can get behind: water.
Through December 15, purchase through our Sparkitivity shop, and we will personalize, WRAP, and ship it to you or to your recipient.
Kathryn Haydon helps you maximize your creative strengths so you can do your best work. Through keynotes, workshops, and consulting, she trains individuals, leaders, and teams to find the unique spark that leads to deep engagement and productivity.