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Some Useful Books on How to Read Poetry

Finally, a book that does justice to the power of saying poetry! Kim Rosen’s Saved by a Poem: The Transformative Power of Words, published in the fall of 2009. Eve Ensler, who wrote the Foreword, puts it like this: This book puts forward poetry as literary ecology, concerned with the protection and preservation of our souls. It is a call, a guide, an invitation to know poetry, to find poetry, to remember poetry. It suggests that turning to poetry can become a necessary practice, like turning off a water faucet or not using a plastic bag. . . . For those who are afraid of poetry, this is a door opening; for those who love poetry, this is a sure deepening.”

The other books I can recommend come at the reading of poetry from other angles, each of which has its own value.


 Jane Hirshfield, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, 1997. A delightful collection of essays on where poetry comes from, on the nature of its power, on the way specific poems work, meant to help poets as well as readers think about what poetry can do to us. This one I had to buy. Jane Hirshfield has been a serious Zen practitioner for many years, and it shows. Here are the opening words of the preface: “Poetry’s work is the clarification and magnification of being. Each time we enter its word-woven and musical invocation, we give ourselves over to a different mode of knowing: to poetry’s knowing, and to the increase of existence it brings …. This book … is an exploration of some of the pathways words take toward meaning, and an effort to map a part of the terrain where [poetry] lives.”
Edward Hirsch, How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry, 1999. Somewhat the same project as Hirshfield, but undertaken by a very different person. More attention to how he reads specific poems, more quotations of other poets on poetry. Much more attention to poems in other languages. If he were a Buddhist, Hirsch would be more likely to be a Tibetan Buddhist than a Zen Buddhist.
Frances Mayes, The Discovery of Poetry: A Field Guide to Reading and Writing Poems, 2001. Much more of a systematic approach, aimed at complete beginners. Emphasis on basic terminology, and useful for its explanations of that.

David Whyte, The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America, 1994. An attempt to use great poems and stories to bring to light what is hidden and ignored in corporate life, based on the work Whyte has actually done in corporations. If you like Whyte, you’ll enjoy this, even though it’s not all that specific.

Discovering Poets and Getting to Know Them

ANTHOLOGIES are a great way to discover poets you can love, and anthologies with insightful commentary are the most useful kind. Here are three of my favorites:

Women in Praise of the Sacrededited by Jane Hirshfield. From ancient Sumer to the present, with useful introductions to each poet.
The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart: A Poetry Anthology, edited by Robert Bly, James Hillman, and Michael Meade. Poems that have worked in men’s groups, offered in the context of interesting commentary that will help the reader get into some slightly more challenging poems. Many of the poems are translations.
Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times, edited by Neil Astley. The American edition of an anthology that appeared in England soon after 9/11 and became a bestseller there. The emphasis is on contemporary poetry, with some early twentieth-century poems and many more recent poems, and the editor is concerned with trying to help people understand that poetry that does not have regular rhythm and rhyme still has meaningful form. Above all, though, he wants us to feel the way “real poems” can keep us alive. The introductions to each section often tell us enough about poems that may be a bit less accessible to help us read them with pleasure.
 

BILL MOYERShas written two books based on TV shows he filmed at the Geraldine Dodge Poetry Festival, and they contain interviews with powerful contemporary poets, interviews that are full of poems and include some discussion of the poems. The interviews aren’t all that profound, maybe, but they’re a great way to meet poets.Fooling with Words: A Celebration of Poets and Their Craft, 1999. Fewer poets—just 11—and more depth. To name three, Coleman Barks again, Robert Pinsky (recent poet laureate), and Stanley Kunitz, who died recently at the age of 100, having continued to write poetry almost until the end. He made it into AARP, the magazine with the biggest circulation in the U.S.

The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets, 1995. Meet 34 poets, including Coleman Barks (translator of Rumi), Robert Bly, William Stafford, Rita Dove, Li-Young Lee, and Gary Snyder.

Biographies

Once you’ve found a poet you resonate with, it can be fascinating to read the story of his/her life as you read the poems. In fact, much as I loved the Yeats I read in college, I only got really serious about reading all of his work during my hippie dropout years, when I read the poetry with A. Norman Jeffares’ biography. I was delighted to see that such an accessible and fascinating account has recently been completely rewritten, under the title W.B. Yeats: A New Biography, 2001. That’s only one volume—if you’re thirsty for more, there’s the impressive, insightful two-volume W.B. Yeats: A Life, by R.F. Foster. The second volume came out in 2003.

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