Beyond the Sounds of Poetry

In a separate post, I’ve recommended Robert Pinsky’s little book The Sounds of Poetry. So maybe you’ve jumped in and grabbed your own copy of the book to get yourself educated in the values of poetry. What comes after Pinsky’s guide? Here are a few suggestions that vaguely parallel my own path toward greater understanding and appreciation of the riches of poetry.

  1. Listen closely to the poems introduced by Pinsky in The Sounds of Poetry. Identify a favorite or two and take note of the creator(s). Find other samples of poetry by the same author(s). Read the ones that look most appealing. Ignore the others (for the time being).
  2. Think about why these poems appeal to you. The pleasure you get will probably come from a combination of things having to do with the mechanics of each poem, themes, and perspectives embodied.
  3. Browse collections of poetry, looking for poems by other authors that have the same kinds of qualities. Keep thinking about why these poems appeal to you. Search out more poems by these authors.
  4. When you’ve discovered an author pick up a published collection of his or her poems. Work your way through each poem. Don’t expect every poem to bring you pure pleasure. The delight you experience reading some poems may derive from their power to disturb. Some poems may leave you completely unmoved. Think about why these poems lack the power that other poems by the same author have for you.
  5. Don’t expect too much from yourself. Go for the low-hanging fruit, the poetry that is most easily understood and enjoyed. A diet of this kind of poetry is good preparation for more challenging forms. William Baer is an accomplished poet, compiler, and instructor. It’s refreshing to hear him endorse the pleasures of rhyming poems and I look forward to owning a copy of his recent collection Rhyming Poems: A Contemporary Anthology.
  6. When you’re ready, advance to other guides to reading and writing poetry. The ones I recommend are The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets, by Ted Kooser, and Writing Metrical Poetry: Contemporary Lessons for Mastering Traditional Forms, by William Baer—in that order. Steve Kowit’s book In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poet’s Portable Workshop is also very popular among aspiring poets. Writing guides make important contributions to novice readers of poetry. They inspire readers to experiment with writing poetry, a natural effect of growing powers of poetry appreciation. And they continue the reader’s education in the enjoyment of poetry.
  7. Pepper your poetry reading with playful poems that make you laugh or smile. Collections for kids can fuel your enjoyment of poetry. Our family discovered the poems of Jack Prelutsky in 2002. His collection The New Kid on the Block is a good place to begin. Another family favorite is a collection of poems selected by Bruce Lansky called Kids Pick the Funniest Poems. It turns out that poems that make kids laugh also make adults laugh. A family favorite that can be found in this collection is the poem “I Saw a Jolly Hunter,” by Charles Causley.
  8. Check out the Favorite Poem Project, founded by Robert Pinsky. The Project’s aim is to enable Americans to experience and appreciate poetry. They’ve produced various resources, including collections of poems, and have helpful online tools. An example of their work is the collection Poems to Read, edited by Robert Pinsky and Maggie Dietz.
  9. Memorize a favorite poem now and then. Select poems that will mean something to you whenever they come to mind, poems that will strengthen your resolve in the face of a challenge, or speak meaning to your disappointments with life. Or memorize specific lines that you want close at hand when you need a better lens to understand better your many experiences.
  10. Read or recite poetry with others. Do this spontaneously when you discover a poem whose power you want others to experience. Plan an event around poetry reading with friends who share your growing enthusiasm. Each year near Christmas, our family hosts an “Evening of the Arts.” We invite family, friends, and students to come prepared to share a bit of art that means something to them, including poems they read for pleasure and strength, poems and songs they’ve composed, instrumental music, a monologue, a vocal performance, a short story. We wrap the evening with Christmas hymns and carols.
  11. If you value the practice of lectio divina, why not compile a handful of spiritually nourishing poems to read frequently and in one sitting? For an excellent introduction to lectio divina, I recommend Michael Casey’s book Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina. Why not combine the joy of poetry with aspirations to grow spiritually? A useful aid is the book The Poetry of Piety: An Annotated Anthology of Christian Poetry, by Ben Witherington III and Christopher Mead Armitage. Each brief chapter features poetry by an individual poet, with aesthetic analysis by Armitage and devotional meditation by Witherington and a handful of questions for reflection.
  12. James Tate begins his poem “Dream On” with this line: “Some people go their whole lives/without ever writing a single poem.” This is a lament. Such people “sit around the dinner table at night/and pretend as though nothing is missing.” Try your hand at writing poems. You don’t have to be brilliant. In the beginning, you probably won’t be. You may never be. But why should that stop you, if your life is improved by the effort?


Some of My Favorite Poets

  • Ted Kooser
  • Billie Collins
  • Czeslaw Milosz
  • Robert Service
  • Stanley Koonitz
  • Emily Dickinson
  • John Donne
  • Gerard Manley Hopkins
  • Dorothy Parker
  • Christina Rossetti
  • George Herbert
  • Thom Gunn
  • Wallace Stevens
  • James Tate
  • William Stafford

About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

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