National Poetry Month should be a festival, a time to rival Mardi Gras in the imaginations of the American people. Poems should be read on the radio daily — and not just by Garrison Keillor — be declaimed in bars and from street corners, and every time one connects to the Internet, one should be offered the arresting opportunity to engage with the muse.
But how to arrive at such an exalted state? In the words of Dana Gioia's famous book of criticism, Can Poetry Matter in our harried, twittering, dog-eared age?
I stand with my colleague Jae, who blogged on poetry earlier this month, on this issue. Poetry can matter, and it can come to play an important and irreplaceable role in our lives. The crux of the problem is to find the book, the author, even the poem that serves as a "good entryway" (in Jae's words) to the world of poetry. It is in that light that I offer up a few of my favorite books of poems of all time.
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Charles Simic's The World Doesn't End won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1990. And there's good reason for that. This slim book of meticulously crafted prose poems is a dazzler. Simic's work is deeply rooted in surrealism, and most of these poems reflect that influence, teasing us with a sly twist, a coy word play, or strange juxtapositions and unexpected turns of phrase. Subtle, funny, and profound, he invites us to engage with our world in a new way, to see our lives with new eyes, to refresh our vision and dreams at the well of a bountiful imagination.
It was the epoch of the masters of levitation. Some evenings we saw solitary men and women floating about the dark tree tops. Could they have been sleeping or thinking? They made no attempt to navigate. The wind nudged them ever so slightly. We were afraid to speak, to breathe. Even the nightbirds were quiet. Later, we'd mention the little book clasped in the hands of the young woman, and the way that old man lost his hat to the cypresses.
In the morning there were not even clouds in the sky. We saw a few crows preen themselves at the edge of the road; the shirts raise their empty sleeves on the blind woman's clothesline.
Each poem conjures a tiny mythos, a small slice of a world that lurks just over the horizon, waiting for the right moment to burst onto the stage of our senses in an explosion of wonder and good humor. Simic is a great way into the world of poetry. Try this book out; let it rest on your tongue. You will never see your existence in the same way again.
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Anthologies are a great introduction to the world of poetry. Sometimes it seems that there's a different anthology crafted to fit every taste. A single anthology crafted to fit every taste is Nobel Prize-winner Czeslaw Milosz's wonderfully-titled A Book of Luminous Things. This collection of over 300 poems lives up to its title, producing moment after moment of illumination, of transcendent experience, of insight into the most sublime states that the art of humane letters could possibly provide.
The poems are organized by theme. There are sections on travel, places, the moment, and nature, along with many others. The poets are international in scope, and date back to the dawn of the written word. Classical Chinese poets exists in this book alongside contemporary Polish poets; Robinson Jeffers is in here next to Steve Kowit and Buddhist poet Wang Wei.
There are really very few books that categorically provide an aha moment on every page. This exquisite book is one of them.
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The one anthology that I return to again and again, though, is Poetry Like Bread: Poets of the Political Imagination from Curbstone Press, edited by Martin Espada. At over 300 pages, this collection brings together an exceptional selection of the very best poems published by one of the very best independent presses of all time. Curbstone was dedicated to a progressive vision, and this shines through in the books they chose to publish. In their early years, many of their books were by Central American revolutionary poets like Leonel Rugama and Roque Dalton. Later they expanded their list to include Vietnamese poets and many progressive poets from the United States, including the likes of Jack Hirschman, Sarah Menefee, Margaret Randall, and Luis Rodriguez.
These poems vibrate with commitment. They provide a compelling witness to the fact that literature and life, poetry and struggle do not need to be divorced. These are poems that are meant to be read and internalized, to inform the very best parts of ourselves, and to seed our dreams and hopes and aspirations with the vision of a better world. Take, for example, the poem from which the title of this fine book was drawn, Roque Dalton's "Like You:"
Like you I
love love, life, the sweet smell
of things, the sky-blue
landscape of January days.
And my blood boils up
and I laugh through eyes
that have known the buds of tears.
I believe the world is beautiful
and that poetry, like bread, is for everyone.
And that my veins don't end in me
but in the unanimous blood
of those who struggle for life,
landscape and bread,
the poetry of everyone.
Books mentioned in this post