Recommending good poems for people is dicey, and I know that different people will disagree on what the best poetry is. I’m going to give it a try anyway.
My M.F.A. is in poetry. Many times, people have told me — often as a confession — that they don’t enjoy or read it. And the thing is, I don’t blame them at all.
For decades, a lot of poets and publishers have produced poetry with an audience of fellow poets and M.F.A. holders in mind. Many academic poets view timeless and noble ambitions of writing — to inspire, to entertain, to persuade, to elicit strong emotion — as outdated, lowbrow, or at least suspect.
The insularity of literary poetry has produced an inhibited, encrypted, and anemic body of work. Obviously, this doesn’t describe all poetry, and there are poets out there who are doing great things and who want to engage with the wider world.
If you think you hate poetry, here are twelve books that you still might like. Some are old classics, and some are newer. They are lyrical, passionate, and written to be understood, or at least felt. Maybe you already like a few of them!
You’ve probably read it. But if you haven’t, read it! Friends, there’s a reason why this was quoted in Dead Poets Society several times.
I’ve linked to the illustrated version, because it is gorgeous.
Mr. Whitman is absolutely my favorite, but the rest of these are not in a particular order.
Mr. Young is probably my favorite contemporary poet, and he’s really prolific. I think this book is a fun introduction to his work. It’s a sexy, clever film noir in the form of a book of poems. To get a little nerdy: if you write poetry, take a look at how he handles his line breaks. It’s masterful.
This book is about Ms. Olds’s divorce following her husband’s extramarital affair, and it is devastating. It won the Pulitzer for this book in 2013, and a lot of snobby litbros were mad about it for reasons that are unclear to me. Many also objected to Donna Tartt’s winning the Pulitzer in 2014 for her engrossing novel, The Goldfinch. I’m not saying these criticisms were sexist, haha just kidding, I totally am.
Ms. Olds writes very much in the tradition of Sylvia Plath, who I’ll talk about later. If you like Stag’s Leap, you will probably also dig her debut collection, Satan Says.
I don’t meet a lot of people who know who this guy was, but he is one of my all-time favorites! I first came across him in the excellent anthology of European and South American writers, Another Republic. His poem “The Dirty Hand” grabbed me (ha) at once, and you can read it here.
He was Brazilian, and I do not read Portuguese. Some people will sniff at poetry in translation and say, “It’s just not the same.” Of course it isn’t, and what are they suggesting? That you limit your knowledge to writers working in English? That you learn every language there is? Neither of these make any sense.
Ms. Oliver writes poems about nature that make you want to pay attention to the world around you and live every moment of your life. Some critics can’t stand her. I believe her enormous success — by poetry standards, at least — has something to do with that. I’m not one of those people who disdains popular things on principle, because sometimes they are popular for good reason.
I feel bad that so many artists on Etsy use quotes from her poems without asking, but not everybody understands that you are not supposed to steal others’ creative work (it’s okay if it is in the public domain.)
Oh, my goodness. So romantic and sexy. Here is my favorite one (possibly everyone’s favorite one.) Mr. Neruda was from Chile. I really like it that this volume has the original Spanish and the English translations side by side.
I think this is poetry that is likely to inspire you to want to write some. In fact, Ms. Sanchez was one of the first poets I really fell in love with in college. This book has haiku dedicated to all kinds of people, from jazz greats to Toni Morrison, and it’s lyrical and transports you into a whole other mindset.
Many people were introduced to the poem “Mayakovsky” by the TV show Mad Men:
The whole poem is excellent and considerably less hetero-masculine than this excerpt suggests.
Mayakovsy was a poet who, if I recall correctly, wrote some good stuff and then switched to writing a bunch of Communist propaganda. As far as I know, nobody can write Communist propaganda that’s any good at all — not even the great Langston Hughes.
I could just as easily recommend Mr. O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, which is a darling little classic book from City Lights.
Mayakovsky also inspired a Denis Johnson poem, for what that’s worth. Mr. Johnson has been writing fiction for decades, but he used to write poetry, about love and bad behavior and how the light looked.
I once heard a poet say that Mr. Johnson had inspired a whole generation of terrible poets, and I thought, “Friend, it’s more than you’ve done.”
10. Ariel, Sylvia Plath.
I am not a fan of Ms. Plath’s most famous poem, “Daddy,” because I think her Nazi/Jew metaphor is heavy-handed and in terrible taste. I suppose it’s in terrible taste on purpose, but whatever. I do admire its use of repetition and rhythm.
All of the other poems in here are fantastic — visceral and intense. If she hadn’t killed herself as a young woman, she might have been the greatest American poet of all time — who knows?
Rule #1 for writers: don’t kill yourself! (Carlos Drummond de Andrade, whom I talked about above, has a great poem called “Don’t Kill Yourself,” in which he addresses himself.)
Langston Hughes created jazz poetry and besides poetry, he also wrote plays, short story collections, children’s books, novels, and more. I don’t know how he did it, but being a genius probably helped.
Here’s something interesting: some critics in Langston Hughes’s time, including black critics, hated his poetry. After he published one book, the Pittsburgh Courier had a front-page headline that read, LANGSTON HUGHES’ BOOK OF POEMS TRASH, and the New York Amsterdam News went with, LANGSTON HUGHES—THE SEWER DWELLER. I’m mentioning this to make you feel better about any negative feedback or reviews.
My favorite poem by Langston Hughes is “The Island,” and it has gotten me through some very hard times — let’s leave it at that. It’s incredibly hard to write a poem that looks so simple.
Mr. Desnos was a part of the French resistance in World War II. He was arrested and sent to concentration camps in Auschwitz, then Buchenwald, and then in Terezin, where he died. Here is a story Susan Griffin told about him. I can’t vouch for its veracity, but it seems in keeping with the rest of his life and personality.
One day Desnos and others were taken away from their barracks. The prisoners rode on the back of a flatbed truck; they knew the truck was going to the gas chamber; no one spoke. Soon they arrived and the guards ordered them off the truck. When they began to move toward the gas chamber, suddenly Desnos jumped out of line and grabbed the hand of the woman in front of him. He was animated and he began to read her palm. The forecast was good: a long life, many grandchildren, abundant joy. A person nearby offered his palm to Desnos. Here, too, Desnos foresaw a long life filled with happiness and success. The other prisoners came to life, eagerly thrusting their palms toward Desnos and, in each case, he foresaw long and joyous lives.
The guards became visibly disoriented. Minutes before they were on a routine mission the outcome of which seemed inevitable, but now they became tentative in their movements. Desnos was so effective in creating a new reality that the guards were unable to go through with the executions. They ordered the prisoners back onto the truck and took them back to the barracks. Desnos never was executed. Through the power of imagination, he saved his own life and the lives of others.
This isn’t why I’m including his work, however. He’s a deeply romantic surrealist and I think you’ll love him. Here’s a sample: “I’ve Dreamed of You so Much.”
If you have other suggestions, please let me know! Honestly, I have other suggestions, but I didn’t want to make this list go on forever. Happy reading!