Poetry is a kind of food, shelter, and clothing for which I am thankful. It nourishes my being, builds a dwelling for my ecstasy and my awe, and keeps me warm when I grieve. Books on my shelves and on the shelves of libraries and booksellers, poetry sites on the Internet, movies about poetry and poetry programs on TV are a cornucopia, an overflowing horn of poetry plenty. I am very, very grateful for such availability of great poetry for me to read, to embrace, to resonate with, to study and to use as a vehicle for understanding the inner world.
I can’t imagine my life without William Wordsworth’s pensive recollections and urgings about “blissful solitude,” without Emily Dickinson’s capture of afternoon light that reminds me there is more to the universe than I see, without Gerard Manley Hopkins’ fervent praise to God for “dappled things–/For skies of couple-color as a brinded cow; and without John Keats’ pouring forth bluntly, “When I have fears that I may cease to be…” Would I smile so much when I see a bagel without David Ignatow’s account of bending to pick one up, “rolling away in the wind” and then finding himself “head over heels, one complete somersault/ after another like a bagel”?
For those of us writing poetry, reading poetry is essential. It is our opportunity to keep the company of those whose focus, whose concerns, and whose celebrations we understand and admire. The more we ingest and digest and assimilate their work into our writing systems, the more our writing grows. But like the cook who never sits down with the guests at the table, we work so hard on our own writing, we sometimes don’t take the time to sit back and feast on what other poets have written.
What follows is a banquet menu from which you can select a feast to enjoy over a period of time:
For your appetizers:
Small portions of poetry and big variety are available on a number of platters. The poetry publisher Knopf has instituted an on line feature in which it emails a poem a month from new collections it is publishing by today’s established poets. To enroll in the program and get a poem emailed to you each month, sign up at their website www.randomhouse.com/knopf/poetry/. For another online nibble, visit the Poetry Tonight website www.poetrytonight.com for new poems every few days. Poetry Daily at www.poems.com is an “anthology of contemporary poetry which each day brings you a new poem from books, magazines and journals currently in print.” These sites feature one poet at a time in addition to keeping archives of past featured poets. In addition, a website entitled Poetry and the Enneagram posts poems selected to resonate with specific personality types.
In print media, one to three poems appear in each monthly issue of The Atlantic Monthly Magazine and Harpers Magazine. The New Yorker has poems in each week’s issue.
Your salad and rolls:
When Robert Hass was US Poet Laureate, he began a syndicated poetry column for newspapers. Each week, he featured a poem he liked with brief comments on what the poem meant to him. These columns are collected in The Poet’s Choice: Poems for Everyday Life, which offers up great mixed greens! In addition, if you are lucky enough to get your hands on a video of Bill Moyers’ 1999 PBS program “Playing with Words,” about an annual poetry festival, you’ll have a whole bread basket of contemporary poets to fill up on. Don’t worry about saving room for your meal, though. Digesting one poem seems to make room for dozens!
Another way to get a good mix of contemporary poems is by reading literary magazines available at libraries, newsstands and bookstores. “American Poetry Review,” “Poetry Northwest,” and “Calyx” are among the many, many I like. Your librarian can help you select from among the thousands available.
For your entree:
There are many wonderful poetry anthologies available that have hundreds of pages of poems by poets writing before the Renaissance through today. Here are three I enjoy The Heath Introduction to Poetry edited by Joseph De Roche, the poetry section in Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama edited by X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia, and Poems, Poets, and Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology by Helen Vendler
As if this meal is not rich enough! Here are some works that polish off any meal of fine poetry: Sam Hamill’s translation of Lu Chi’s Wen Fu, the Art of Writing is one of my favorite sweet treats:
Out of non-being, being is born;
Out of silence, a writer produces a song.
When you read this elegant work, you will feel the completeness poetry brings. For something more decadent, try renting “The Source,” a movie about the Beat Poets which includes footage of them as well as of acclaimed actors reading their work.
Treat yourself over the course of the year to lots of fine poetry meals. You can find good choices six times a year in the Associated Writing Program’s The Writer’s Chronicle, which carries ads and listings of books by emerging and established poets. You can join the Poetry Book Club sponsored by the American Academy of Poets. Its mission is to bring the public the best and most significant contemporary poetry at discounted prices.
It is up to you to make sure you have as much valuable poetry nutrition coming in as you possible can. It feeds your spirit, your soul, and your own poem making! Instead of reaching for spiritual fast food such as books of sayings on how to lead a good life, reach for poetry. Each poem is enriched with the growth experience of the poet. You get to live the poet’s process, not just hear didactic wisdom words. As the great Paul Valery wrote in Poetry and Abstract Thought, the job of the poet is to create the poetic state in others.
This article first appeared in the November, 2000 issue of Writer’s Digest Magazine.