How to Read Poetry Progressively


We can only think of four:

  1. You read poems somewhat regularly and want some more suggestions.
  2. You dig poems when you come across them and want to come across them more often.
  3. You’re terrified of poems and want some ways to ease yourself in (as with water, jumping tends to work best).
  4. You hate poems and are, therefore, a deeply disturbed person, but you want to be healthy again.


Make Progress:

If we edited Webster’s, we write this simple entry for the definition of poetry: “the art of words, baby” Okay, maybe not the “baby” (but only maybe). I’m not sure I’m the one to make the case for poetry, other than to say it helped me cope and create, taught me to trust language more instead of less, and made me more an admirer, and less an envier, of others.

On the first day of my first year at Ohio University, my professor, Joe Bonomo, put this Galway Kinnell poem on the chalkboard:


Whatever happens. Whatever

what is is is what

I want. Only that. But that.

I didn’t understand it. I took it home and didn’t understand it. Only recently have I reached one possible understanding of it: poems, like prayers and even every day experiences, are beyond logic, but not beyond desire. And since that first day, I’ve craved more and more. To quote my former professor, the late David Citino, as he drove away from campus right before the close of the quarter: “Hey, Zambito! Poetry rocks, man, and don’t you forget it.” I haven’t.


Books of Poetry:

These are our progressive must-reads:

  • New and Selected Poems: Volume One by Mary Oliver should be as prevalent as the Gideon Bible. If you only read two contemporary poems in your life, we think they ought to be “At Blackwater Woods,” to celebrate in the face of loss, and “The Summer Day,” to celebrate in the face of life.
  • The National Book Award-winning What Work Is, by Phillip Levine, is old school. But not in terms of form or meter or details of a dusty history. Instead, Levine’s creative work punches you in the gut, when it’s not breaking your heart, in the most lovely ways. Each poem is like a shirt collar at the end of the day: salty and honest and therefore, hopefully, American.
  • John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Billy Holiday, and Marvin Gaye get a second life in Terrance Hayes’ first collection, Muscular Music. The poems here vary between accessible narratives and poems so full of linguistic harmony you wish there was a tune to go with them.
  • The Resurrection of the Body and the Ruin of the World by Paul Guest, besides having the best title of any book I’ve ever seen, mixes pop culture, wisdom, and lyrical acrobatics. Where else can you read verse written from the point of view of Foghorn Leghorn next to a piece that makes love seem like the only answer? The answer to the question, of course, is nowhere but here.


Other Poetry Resources:

  • Poetry Daily posts a new poem recently published in a literary magazine or book collection every day. The work could most frequently be called contemporary free verse poetry. That’s a very academic way of saying: “It doesn’t rhyme and I can’t figure out the rhythm, but I’ll be damned if you can’t still dance to it.”
  • Verse Daily does exactly the same as we’ve written above, but they’ve slightly more interesting tastes. If Poetry Daily is rock music, then Verse Daily is punk and prog and pop and rock.
  • The Academy of American Poets is, for all intents and purposes, the resource for poets. But it’s also a fantastic site for poetry fanatics, aficionados, and even the casually curious. You can search the site by poet and poem. They are the organizers behind National Poetry Month (it’s April, by the way), and they provide tools for teachers who want to share poetry with their teens and wee ones.
  • Simply put (which is exactly how founder and editor D.F. Tweney would want it), tiny words offers up a haiku each day, which readers can find and quickly digest using the web, cell phones, or email.
  • Ted Kooser, the Poet Laureate of the United States from 2004 until 2006, set up a web resource for newspapers and general readers called American Life in Poetry. The idea behind the project was to help return poetry to the daily press, and bring verse back into the lives of everyday folks. The columns and accompanying poems are accessible, genuine, and friendly. You can read more about the project here and more about Kooser here.

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