“You and the friend
remain twisted together, thinking your simultaneous
and inarticulate thoughts in physical lawlessness,
in chemical awkwardness”
A friend recently asked me to send her some good poets and poetry to explore, as she was considering doing some further poetry writing of her own. I started by just thinking of my favorite poets, and then realized that, with just a little reflection, I could trace my own poetry timeline: when I was introduced to certain poets that remain with me, how my perception of them has changed, what they have meant to me, and how my writing has been influenced by theirs. I find that, for many struggling to find an entrance to poetry, some discussion around the poem can be a helpful way to open the poem up, and find its accessible points.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge Marie Epply, my high school English teacher, as an essential part of my poetic upbringing. Her encouragement of the pleasure in poetry, and her constant attentiveness in critiquing my early stumbling attempts at poems has had such a profound effect on the course of my life, I have an eternal wellspring of gratitude to her.
I did a poetry recitation contest in high school, and “Another Feeling” was the first poem I memorized, and really fell in love with. Stone was a great poet to start with. She’s accessible, funny, narrative. She’s also such an interesting sounding poet. Lots of down to earth, visceral language, as well as cosmic/scientifically dense material. The way “Another Feeling” ends is so abrupt, so gut hurt, it always makes me tear up! The video of her reciting is also really cool (she’s in her 90’s there!), and her biographical info (on poetryfoundation) is tragically fascinating. It says something about her that the only academic work written about her is a collection of essays that mostly focus on intimate stories of visiting her home in Goshen, VT.
Once I found the video of Ruth, I started looking into more poetry on youtube. This has probably been the most helpful resource to me learning how to approach reading and listening to a poem. Hearing these poems, individually, and over and over again, delivered in voice and with energy from the poets themselves, is such a gift. This is, as she describes in the video, a “found poem,” comprised of lines delivered by her son. Nye’s is a language of pleasure, real pleasure. It reminded me, in my angsty teenage writing life, that poetry always starts in play, and can be playful not just in language manipulation, but in topic and theme. These little nuggets are just so good and so friendly and so simple, it’s a good way to experience poetry. Her reading of it shows a lot of her personality, and the way poetry is also performative; that is, not every poem needs to be hammed and emoted like Hamlet’s soliloquy, but that a poem read in silence from the page can never be as well-examined as when heard from someone else’s mouth. A note of advice to new readers: subvocalize whenever you’re reading. You may strike others as being a little unusual, but you should always be moving your mouth, even if you’re not intoning, along with the words. So much more is revealed by the physical process of a poem moving from your mouth.
While I don’t read Ted often, this video was also one I found when I was still in high school and I return to it again and again. It’s also one of those poems that I could never fully enjoy without hearing Ted read it. I realize now that my early reading, thankfully, veered towards the colloquial, post-confessional poets that started in the 60’s and continued through the 90’s and early 21st century. Theirs is a good voice to enter poetry from: their language is familiar to us, they have the autobiographical interest of the confessionals but without the obscure and hierarchical vestigial limbs of the Modernists. “Pearl” is also probably the first piece of what might be called “Magical Realism” I encountered, in poetry or fiction. The way the ghosts and spooks exist in this poem is well constructed and eerie, and I can constantly hear the influence of this poem in the way I write surrealism.
Like Ted, Levine is a poet I return to mostly because of a single poem. This is also probably the most famous poem in Levine’s bibliography, and stands as perhaps the most iconic “American” poem of his generation. The poem is sheer fury; I feel the same sort of heart-racing trepidation when reading this as I do while climbing a precarious peak or when part of a protest. It’s violent, it’s accusatory, and it’s also great writing. There’s a lot of protest poetry and writing out there that is good on intent, and poor on creative language and thought. Levine brings a firm command of poetic language to meet his labor-class fervor. He also was the first poet to break grammatical rules in a way I could really understand. I had seen the purposeful manipulation of syntax before, but it usually served to obscure the poem from me, and not to add clarity. This poem’s interesting grammatical scheme is easy to understand and accept, and adds to the sonic effect of the writing. Levine’s voice is also perfectly matched to the poem’s diction.
While I am glad to see a renewed interest in poetry through the rise of “performance/JAM poetry,” of this genre’s writers, only about 5 or 6 stand out as really talented writers. Danez Smith, later, and Saul WIlliams are two of these great writers. Williams primarily focuses on music, but has pure poems and performance poems as well. Black Stacey, a rap, is almost more effective in this acapella version than on the album. He brings a standard of wordsmithing to the genre that doesn’t otherwise exist.
Anyone with any interest in 20th century American history should read Ginsberg, specifically “America” and “Howl.” Read Regardless of political view or squeamishness to graphic and suggestive content. Ginsberg’s voice best represents the radical social upheaval and change that the country underwent, and sets the stage for modern identity politics. I went to a screening of James Franco’s “Howl” film during my first year in college, and became fascinated. I was fortunate enough to read Walt Whitman before Ginsberg, which if you’re interested in pursuing him deeply is recommended. Anyone who questions establishment governing, corporatism, or their own identity, should be reading these poems. Ginsberg is an experimentalist in true form, however, so to find the good in his huge bibliography, you have to necessarily wade through a whole bunch of what can only be described as crap.
I found Kay Ryan’s poetry in Goodwill, and read about half the poems standing in the book section. If you’ve absolutely never read or enjoyed a poem in your life, start with Ryan. These short, often single sentence poems are lively, funny, entertaining, and absolutely perfectly sculpted. I think of a book of Ryan’s poetry like I think of a really great tapas restaurant. Small plates with tons of flavor, immaculately crafted, and creating a whole from difference. She’s hilarious as well, and her readings play closer to stand-up comedy routines. Blandeur is a word she made up, and she loves making fun of her audience when they pretend to know the word already.
Maya Angelou needs no introduction. Her presence in popular culture is more pronounced than any other modern poet. I had the great pleasure seeing Angelou speak in person at Mohawk Valley Community College in 2011, and while few of her poems really entrance me, she was the most magnificent speaker, even this late in her life. She was funny, sexy, quick. She spoke with no prompter, and it was difficult to tell when poetry ended and plain speech began, everything about her was pure poetry. There are a few true gold nuggets of language in Angelou’s poetry bibliography–“Still I rise,” “Phenomenal Woman”–but her inaugural poem is on a whole different level. It’s extended conceit is compelling, deeply rooted in history and literary predecessors. Her delivery shows just how huge her presence was, and sends chills in me every time I hear it. When I started reading Angelou, I was just starting to delve into my undergraduate English Lit studies, and my tastes had become rather snobbish. While much of her writing remains too populist for my taste, this poem bridges the gap–appealing to a universal, while resting in the language of the specific. It’s monumental, and is required listening.
Adrienne Rich’s command of the poetic conceit is unparalleled. She obscures her symbols just enough to leave us bewildered and entranced. Read Diving Into the Wreck slowly, pause a lot. Atmosphere is everything here. I drop into Rich’s poems and utterly disappear. Like Ted, Rich’s surrealism exists in perfect harmony with the real world. She’s daunting, she’s challenging, but hers is a rhetoric of quiet, reflective smoldering rather than Levine’s fury. I’ve memorized Diving Into the Wreck before, and it’s a wonderful poem to carry with you.
I have only encountered Matt Hart in a single poem, published in Poetry magazine last year. But this poem remains my absolute favorite poem. It tells a truth that I can so familiarly apply to my own life and relationships. I feel so represented by Hart’s world. I share this poem with as many of my friends as possible. I am left wrecked in nostalgia and reminiscing every time I come to it.
Good luck with your reading, everyone! Let me know if you have your own lists, or want to dramatically contradict my claims here!