Poetry, my antilibrary

I’ve been reading this memoir of a pilot (Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot), and as he was quoting Walt Whitman it occurred to me the poetry is one of my antilibraries. I’ve always felt that I should appreciate more poetry. I’ve tried, reading some Bukowski in my 20s (I know, I know), and purchasing and reading Frank O’Hara’s “Lunch Poems”.

I’ve never gotten beyond that, though I’ve often felt I should, and have wanted to.

Does anyone have any recommendations? Should I buy some Whitman?

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Great topic! I think poetry is a big section of my antilibrary as well. I really enjoy creative, beautiful language, and exploring what can be done with it, but I don’t always read poetry all that often.

I think I do engage with language in a variety of ways, so I have a few recommendations, some that aren’t exactly poetry books proper, but relevant I think to the broader goal of engaging with poetry!

I’m a huge fan of hip-hop, and enjoy both listening and writing. I haven’t found many great books on hip-hop poetics (Book of Rhymes is an okay intro but super basic) but I always recommend e.g. just listening closely to great lyricists like Kendrick Lamar. If you’re into hip-hop you may find this book interesting; an anthology of poetry sort of aligned / inspired by hip-hop culture: The Breakbeat Poets

I really liked this one, about how metrical verse works. First half discusses the rules / how this kind of poetry works; second half is a great anthology of examples: Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse

This is one of my all time favorite books; it uses a lens of looking at a dazzling variety of different translations of one particular poem to explore all kinds of interesting topics around language and translation: Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language

Much shorter but similarly using translation / close reading as a lens for exploring poetry, is: 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, With More Ways

For books with really great poetic language, borderline prose poetry, a few favorites are: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Invisible Cities, and Time and the Art of Living

I also love playful experimentation with language and constraints. One literary movement that exemplifies this spirit is the Oulipo. This is a good anthology / introduction to their work: Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature

And some really cool specific books that came out of this kind of Oulipean experimentation, playing with language in interesting ways: Eunoia and Exercises in Style

I want to read more poetry too! It’s been a hard thing for me to appreciate—I feel like in a lot of cases (especially with the short ones) poems are better experienced read aloud so that the beauty of the language can sink in. At least that’s how it’s been for me. But I rarely hear it read aloud, so I miss out. (I guess this is how hip hop and rap are usually heard, so maybe they have an advantage…)

One thing I’ve seen floating around which seems fun: https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/columns/poetry-rx/
The Paris Review does this column where poets will recommend a poem in response to some situation or emotion.

The Poetry Foundation I think also has a service where you can sign up to be emailed one poem per day.

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Thank you for this thread! Some of my contemporary poetry favorites:

  • Hera Lindsay Bird’s hysterically weird & sneakily moving Pamper Me to Hell and Back
  • Michael Robbins. It’s only a minor exaggeration to say that hearing him read his poem Walkman for a Paris Review event was what got me back into reading/listening to/writing poetry.
  • Danez Smith. How Many of Us Have Them will make you laugh and weep, probably at the same time.
  • Really been enjoying Black Girl Magic collection (includes poet/vocalists like Jamila Woods and Noname)

Also, some other big name poets that I click with: Theodore Roethke, Elizabeth Bishop, Seamus Heaney, Eileen Myles

Also, related to poetry: Robert Pinsky’s The Sound of Poetry is a lovely and informative read


Another good book for people getting into poetry: Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist is a hilarious stream-of-consciousness novel about “Paul Chowder” a languishing poet with writer’s block trying to write an anthology about the history of rhyme for a poetry anthology. Ends up being a very accessible intro and history of poetry! Sample quotes:

“Poetry is prose in slow motion…Poetry is a controlled refinement of sobbing.”

“So what rhyming poems do is they take all these nearby sound curves and remind you that they first existed that way in your brain. Before they meant something specific, they had a shape and a way of being said. And now, yes, gloom and broom are floating fifty miles away from each other in you mind because they refer to different notions, but they’re cheek-by-jowl as far as your tongue is concerned. And that’s what a poem does. Poems match sounds up the way you matched them when you were a tiny kid, using that detachable front phoneme. ”

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Ah this sounds like a book I would love, thanks! I really enjoyed this collection by him as well (via @tomcritchlow) - any book lovers in the house, aka everyone here, very likely to enjoy:

Those earlier links look great as well, might have to pick up a couple of those.

I’d still really love to find some kind of serious treatment of hip-hip poetics. The Breakbeat Poets and Black Girl Magic are solid anthologies with hip-hop influence and I’ve seen some good books on the basics of hip-hop poetic form but I have yet to find like the equivalent of the grad seminar or even 300-level course on the subject. I kind of want to make a website exploring the topic at some point. Maybe after I get an album together!

Recently picked up a different one by Pinsky at Crow Bookshop, a great new + used bookstore in VT.

Basically just an anthology with brief prefatory notes for each poem, with a few essays sprinkled throughout. Perhaps could have more pedagogical detail, but I kind of like the idea of these very short more evocative poem intros, rather than exhaustive analytic close reading.