April may be the cruelest month, but it also happens to be National Poetry Month, a nationwide celebration of verse. An entire month may seem an outsized fete, but the medium, which continues to decline in readership, may need the recognition.
The National Endowment of the Arts’ most recent arts engagement survey shows that fewer than 7 percent of Americans read poetry in 2012, down from 8.3 percent in 2008, and 12.1 percent in 2002.
The claim not to understand or enjoy poetry isn’t only made by disgruntled teens. In a 1919 poem, poet Marianne Moore wrote the oft-quoted line about her own craft: “I, too, dislike it.”
She clarified, however, that, in spite of the form’s imperfections, poetry is capable of evoking images and feelings that are both concrete and genuine. Moore’s lamentations were quoted in an essay by Ben Lerner, whose poems earned him a MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship. He says the phrase “I, too, dislike it,” “echoes in [his] inner ear.”
In his forthcoming book Why Poetry?, poet and editor Matthew Zapruder discusses Moore’s poem, too, focusing specifically on the idea that, in order to appreciate poetry both as a writer and reader, one shouldn’t focus on images as symbols or codes, but as literal, sensual experiences. This way of reading poetry, he says, “is what draws us into real strangeness.”
Zapruder goes on to argue that there are some things only poetry can do. Reading poetry, he says, urges the reader to think associatively, to immerse herself in the “half-dreaming” “reverie” of unconscious thought.
Sounds fun, right? But where is a could-be poetry lover to start? Zapruder’s book ― part personal essay, part criticism, part literary guidebook ― is interwoven with suggestions. Below, he recommends “poems that everyone — poets, scholars, specialists, but also general readers — can agree are not only worthy, but a pleasure to read.”
1. W.S. Merwin, The Essential Merwin
“W.S. Merwin, aka The Wizard, writes spooky lyrics that somehow simultaneously manage to be weird and completely clear. Reading his poems is like being in a lucid dream. In this excellently curated book of selections from his entire career, I am particularly partial to the poems from his 1967 volume The Lice, which include great poems of protest against the Vietnam War and ecological destruction, and from his 1997 book The Vixen. His later poems chronicle his old age with stoic clarity.”
2. John Ashbery, Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror
“A slightly riskier choice, but if you are ready to let language carry you away, try reading this. If you read it without resistance to its strangeness, the book can transport you. And, paradoxically, if you are able to relax and stop looking for big themes, or to exact a single coherent message from every poem, deep ideas will (as in poems like ‘The One Thing That Can Save America’) emerge.”
3. The Golden Shovel Anthology, ed. Peter Kahn, Ravi Shankar, and Patricia Smith
“This is a good choice, because it will not only introduce you to the work of Gwendolyn Brooks, one of America’s great poets, and the first African American author to win the Pulitzer Prize, but to a wide variety of contemporary American poets. ‘The Golden Shovel’ is a poem by Terrance Hayes (from his book Lighthead), which invents a form based on Brooks’s famous poem, ‘We Real Cool.’ Hayes’s poem uses each word of Brooks’s poem as the last word of a line, so that you can read ‘We Real Cool’ all the way down the right margin of the poem (this makes more sense if you see it on the page). The Golden Shovel Anthology presents poems by hundreds of American poets using poems by Brooks to write poems based on Hayes’s form. The book is a pleasure to read, and a generous, wide-ranging anthology.”
4. Selected Odes, Pablo Neruda, trans. Margaret Peden
"Though not written in English, these poems have had a profound and continuing influence on American poetry. Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s 'Odas Elementales' were originally written to be published on the front page of a newspaper, and were designed (like so much of Neruda’s poetry) to be read by anyone. Each poem meditates on an object (often a common household one, like socks or a table or an orange), and uses it to speculate, associate, play, and dream. I like these particular translations, as well as the fact that the poem in the original Spanish is in the book. I also like a more recent edition, All the Odes, ed. Ilan Stavans, which includes an extensive introduction and different versions by multiple translators of many of the best known odes."
5. James Tate, Dome of the Hidden Pavilion
"The great American poet James Tate died in 2015, leaving behind a body of work that includes some of the most memorable, funny, strange and exciting American poetry of the past 50 years. In his recent work, he wrote poems that were close to short stories, pushing the form as close as possible to a kind of folksy, casual anecdote. Somehow, in bringing the poems so close to prose, what is essential about poetry — what continues to be there whether or not the poems rhyme, or contain imagery or metaphor, or any of the other things we usually associate with poetry — remains. This is Tate’s most recent book, and contains some of his most haunting and appealing poems. It’s a great gateway drug for people who think they prefer prose to poetry."
6. Frank O’Hara, Lunch Poems
"Imagine you have the most incredibly charming, handsome, witty, brilliant, kind friend, one who is willing to walk all over Manhattan with you, talking about books and art and also what he sees around him, and what that all makes him feel inside. Imagine his favorite thing to do is to spend his lunch hour with you. That’s what reading these poems is like. These poems were the prototype for a chatty, casual, intelligent, witty, occasionally biting but just as often sweet and tender poetry that continues to be written by American poets today. San Francisco’s City Lights Books, the original publisher of the volume, recently reissued this 50th anniversary edition that includes some supplementary material, but retains the book size and shape, perfect for being placed into a pocket for a walk."
7. Victoria Chang, The Boss
"This harrowing, at times funny, ultimately heartbreaking book was written by a poet who makes her living in the financial industry, conjures the anxieties of being a cog in the capitalist machine. But the book is also deeply personal, weaving together the concerns of a daughter to a father suffering from dementia. You can read all the prose you want about these sorts of things, but only the best poetry can bring you so dangerously close to these familiar experiences, in a way that comforts, disturbs, clarifies and complicates what we think we know."