I don’t know many people who like poetry, though I do know a good number of people who read. Poetry remains rarefied and uninviting—or is the better word unappealing?—which is why I suspect National Poetry Month consistently passes uncelebrated and unacknowledged in the lives of most Americans. Poetry is the country music to those who might otherwise fancy themselves readers of everything, the form of writing almost all otherwise enthusiastic readers (of fiction and history and short stories and essays…) are excused for eschewing.
That isn’t to say people hate poetry. On the contrary, those who don’t read it often look upon the genre with benevolence, maybe even fond indulgence. When someone finds out I went to grad school to study poetry, they are almost inevitably charmed, if only with my precocious embrace of un-employability. What a cute, quaint, harmless pastime, their smiles imply, like I actually got a Masters in Floral Management.
Though it’s arguably the most persistent, adaptable, iconoclastic form of art, poetry has more unpleasant stereotypes to buck than any other. It’s been a few years since I was in grade school, but I remember the poetry taught then as written almost exclusively by long-dead British men and a handful of more recently dead white American men. Oh, and Emily Dickinson.
Those poets rhymed and used strict meter, which sounded silly and childish to me, and they concerned themselves with being clever, somber, or impenetrable on topics such as fleas, fences, and birds. Even if they were sometimes fun—“The Raven” is fun!—they didn’t move me. They didn’t feel vital or connected to life, and so I learned that poems were either trifles you could forget as soon as you left class, or boring, old codes you were saddled with cracking to pass a class.
It wasn’t until the summer after high school that I came to love poetry by accident, on my own, while reading a book that quoted a Russell Edson poem. Just a few lines were enough to get me hooked, and lead me to plumb the depths of my local library for more from Dadaists, haiku masters, and Nobel Prize winners (like Czeslaw Milosz). I kept hunting for another hit of the good stuff. Poetry accesses—and sometimes articulates—a deeper emotional level than conversation. If you drink from the right cup, you get drunk; once poetry has grabbed you, it won’t let go. When I meet another member of the poetry cabal, we recite our favorite stanzas and eagerly swap names of little-known poets, the ones whose work we treasure the most.
In honor of National Poetry Month, then, here are some poems that might inspire non-poetry readers to reconsider their abstinence. My only criteria for inclusion: the poem had to be written by a living American, and it had to be good. There’s no pressure to “get” anything about a certain poem and no quiz about symbolism or syllables at the end. This is purely for pleasure, not for points.
Think of it as a poetry tasting menu. You may encounter some new flavors and new combinations, and you won’t like them all equally. But what you do like might expand your palate. You can read more from each of these poets online and in print, so the party doesn’t need to stop here.
All their fences
All their prisons
All their exercises
All their agendas
Thomas Sayers Ellis’s “All Their Stanzas Look Alike” is a scathing indictment of whiteness, capitalism, academia, hegemony, and the poetry sanctioned and propagated by institutions shaped by those forces. There’s no poem more perfect to help buck off the old order and usher in the new.
My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn’t,
dammit: No tears.
Vietnam vet Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Facing It,” his poem on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, is powerful and pure, with an ending that masterfully unites devastation and hope.
For a month I tried to think of what to say
how many times you’ve swept a kitchen knife
across your neckline and said, This is how
you end a marriage, how many more wicks you light
EJ Koh’s poems are condensed, haunting, and specific. This one, “To My Mother Kneeling In The Cactus Garden,” is worth reading again and again.
Finally, one you don’t even have to read! Just sit back and listen to “Somewhere in the Bottom of the Rain,” Steve Roggenbuck’s earnest love poem that filters a narrator’s desire through a corn maze, rain, and raccoons. (If you’d rather read it in print, you can find it in DOWNLOAD HELVETICA FOR FREE.COM—but this one, like all his work, is best when he reads it aloud.)
I am always hungry
& wanting to have
sex. This is a fact.
Another love poem; I’m sorry, they’re unavoidable. This one, “Peanut Butter,” is by Eileen Myles and it’s almost excruciatingly sweet. It’s also a refutation of the idea that happiness or contentment can’t inspire or be the subject of great art.
Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil
probably fell down there.
And the drano won’t work but smells dangerous, and the crusty
dishes have piled up
waiting for the plumber I still haven’t called. This is the everyday
we spoke of.
“What The Living Do”: Marie Howe’s unaffected, conversational elegy accumulates intensity so subtly that the reader, too, is almost rendered speechless at the end.
These are the first days of fall. The wind
at evening smells of roads still to be traveled,
while the sound of leaves blowing across the lawns
is like an unsettled feeling in the blood
“How To Like It,” Stephen Dobyn’s allegory of a dog and a man, has to be one of the most likable poems of all time. And I know I promised no hidden meanings, so, if you’d like, disregard the “allegory” mention above and assume it features an actual talking dog.
Here’s another one you can watch. Denice Frohman’s “Dear Straight People” is an exuberant, tender tribute to queerness that slyly refuses straight people the satisfaction of the poem really being about them. Her charismatic delivery lends a lot; but this, like many poems, is also impressively funny on the page.
Poems don’t need to be long to have intensity and staying power. (And not all short poems are haikus.) Some, in fact, can even be 140 characters, the length of a tweet. Like this poem, “End Piece,” written by Yoko Ono. It appears, in its four-line entirety, as the last piece in her book Acorn: