What poetry should I read?
October 17, 2012 7:22 AM   Subscribe

Can you suggest a poet or two to me? I'd like to have some poems to read at night before I go to sleep. I don't know anything about poetry and I'm afraid that buying something at random or because it has won a prize will leave me with poetry that is too dense and unapproachable.

I didn't read much English-language poetry in school. My high school wasn't good, and I focused on Russian and Political Science in college. I've read some T.S. Elliot (I selected a volume at random from the bookstore). I couldn't hack The Wasteland, but liked the Four Quartets and some of the other poems. And I love Wislawa Szymborska (the book was a gift), but aside from those two, a bit of Emily Dickinson, and some of Shakespeare's sonnets that even my city high school couldn't avoid teaching, that's about it. I don't know the name of a single living poet and only know the names and approximate historical periods of the prominent dead poets. During my post-college life, I've focused my reading on novels, history books, social science and short stories, and really don't know where to start with poetry.
posted by Area Man to Writing & Language (46 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Czeslaw Milosz won the Nobel Prize in 1980. This is "Gift".

A day so happy.
Fog lifted early. I worked in the garden.
Hummingbirds were stopping over the honeysuckle flowers.
There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess.
I knew no one worth my envying him.
Whatever evil I had suffered, I forgot.
To think that once I was the same man did not embarrass me.
In my body I felt no pain.
When straightening up, I saw blue sea and sails.

posted by Egg Shen at 7:26 AM on October 17, 2012

I'd start with some Billy Collins. He's all kinds of popular and well-known, and what I love about him most is that his writing is really accessible. There's volumes of stuff going on if you dig into it, but it's enjoyable even if you stay at the surface. Simple and complex at the same time.
posted by ferociouskitty at 7:30 AM on October 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

Here are some poets I like:

Cavafy, one of the great modern Greek poets.

WH Auden ("As I walked out one evening/Walking in Bristol Street/The crowds upon the pavement/Were fields of harvest wheat...")

Adrienne Rich ("A woman in the shape of a monster/a monster in the shape of a woman/the skies are full of them")

Also, what about buying an anthology? I have seldom encountered a "Poems of A Region Over A Long Span of History" book that I didn't enjoy skipping around in.
posted by Frowner at 7:33 AM on October 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

Robert Frost, by God. Any sentence that begins with "where to start with Poetry..." should end with "Robert Frost." You won't get a less dense, more approachable poet who still has lyrical beauty in his phrasing and depth in his imagery. He has a fairly large canon as well - it's more than just "Mending Wall" and "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening."
posted by BigLankyBastard at 7:37 AM on October 17, 2012 [8 favorites]

Wislawa Szymborska
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 7:39 AM on October 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

Options that cost you nothing but time:

Project Gutenberg (IMO one of the better things ever created by our flawed species) has all sorts of poetry, including some more anthologies. Also it's organized so at least you'll know what sort of poetry you're reading, even if you don't "get" it.

You could wander around the Poetry Foundation website and see if you like anything. They have articles that can help you understand more about poetry. Heck, you could try contacting them directly; getting people into poetry is sort of their raison d'être.

An archtypal anthology of the sort described by Frowner is The Oxford Book of English Verse, an older edition of which is available free on Bartleby.com.
posted by Wretch729 at 7:40 AM on October 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Poetry Foundation also has an app that gives you thousands of poems to explore.
posted by roger ackroyd at 7:42 AM on October 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also seconding BLB's Robert Frost recommendation. He is wonderful, and fie on any snooty Modernists who hate on him. The Poetry Foundation has a very nice bio and a selection of his work on their site.
posted by Wretch729 at 7:43 AM on October 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

Just get a (used) anthology from abebooks or Amazon.
posted by BadgerDoctor at 7:44 AM on October 17, 2012

Russian and Political Science? You might like Anna Akhmatova—she wrote a lot about the Stalinist era, and her poems are hauntingly beautiful (and not too difficult to parse, especially if you have a bit of an understanding of Russian culture/history).
posted by rebekah at 7:44 AM on October 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Greg Brown. Officially a songwriter, but my personal favourite poet.
posted by whalebreath at 7:48 AM on October 17, 2012

Old-fashioned, perhaps, but I still love both Robert Service and Robert Frost.

As BigLankyBastard says, Frost is an approachable poet with depth and beauty; Service --- especially in his Yukon poems --- has a lyricism that ranges from the lightness of "The Cremation of Sam McGee" to the yearning of "The Spell of the Yukon".
posted by easily confused at 7:54 AM on October 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Rainer Maria Rilke. Gorgeous stuff!
posted by Hanuman1960 at 7:57 AM on October 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Mary Oliver writes about nature and life. She's very easy to access and the poems are uplifting and full of purpose.
posted by araisingirl at 8:01 AM on October 17, 2012 [4 favorites]

To get started, listening to The Writer's Almanac can introduce you to some lovely, accessible poems. I would also recommend Wallace Stevens, e.e. cummings and Frank O'Hara. You can buy almost any book of their poetry, flip through it, and find something to make you feel a larger feeling than you might be feeling on your own. I like to put ribbons in my favorite pages, or mark them with post-it-notes to annotate the poems with the names of friends who I think might enjoy each one.
posted by amoeba at 8:03 AM on October 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

A little bit of humor, perhaps? Ogden Nash.
posted by HuronBob at 8:08 AM on October 17, 2012

Pablo Neruda! Get an anthology!

Here is a good poem of his: XCIV.
posted by kellybird at 8:09 AM on October 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Such, such, SUCH a fan of Philip Levine.

If you have to start somewhere, get "What Work Is".
It's amazing, that's what it is.
posted by THAT William Mize at 8:13 AM on October 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

I will admit that most of my poetry knowledge comes from school. But hey, that means these recommendations come from a similarly non-poetry-inclined person, so maybe they'll be perfect for you! (Mostly linking to specific poems I remember here... these have stuck with me for 6-7 years so they must be good)

Edna St. Vincent Milay
Countee Cullen (Harlem Renaissance poet, I find him very accessible)
Margaret Atwood
John Donne (this poem took me forever to get through but once I understood it, I loved it.)
seconding Pablo Neruda! Chills!

My dad recommended this Carl Dennis poem to me, which I find both troubling and comforting.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:39 AM on October 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Also, what about buying an anthology? I have seldom encountered a "Poems of A Region Over A Long Span of History" book that I didn't enjoy skipping around in.

Seconding an anthology. Adding that "Poems About A Given Topic" is another good anthology approach (you could get ones about sleep if it's for nighttime reading, an anthology of erotic poems if you're looking for OTHER bedside reading, ones about travel if you want to take them with you, etc.).

You also are introduced to poets that you may then want to go on and read more by that way (this is how I discovered Yeats and Rumi).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:39 AM on October 17, 2012

William Carlos Williams. Clean, elegant, beautiful. Perfect for reading before bed.

Also, seconding Mary Oliver. Her poems are always appropriate for everything.
posted by ghostiger at 8:48 AM on October 17, 2012

Anthologies are good. Garrison Keillor has a couple. I also love Jane Kenyon, very accessible.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 8:52 AM on October 17, 2012

I spent one very amused month reading Hal Sirowitz before bed every night. Very, very accessible; like being lovingly tucked in by your insane overprotective paranoid mother. Bonus: You will always wear clean underwear the next morning.
posted by apparently at 8:57 AM on October 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I might follow up with specific favorites later, but I want to second amoeba's suggestion of Writer's Almanac and add that the greatpoets livejournal community has also been a good source for me--I follow it via RSS and get to read a few to several new poems a week and see what I like.
posted by Vibrissa at 9:05 AM on October 17, 2012

One of my favorites is Taylor Mali; his work is accessible, modern and lyrical. I adore his poem "How Falling In Love is Like Owning A Dog" and used it as a reading at my wedding. Also, I dream of mailing his poem "What Teachers Make" to every politician that attempts to cut education funding. All his poems are fun, thoughtful, and thought-provoking at the same time.
posted by Ardea alba at 9:12 AM on October 17, 2012

Billy Collins and Mary Oliver (as mentioned above) are excellent recommendations. Pablo Neruda's accessibility varies a bit IMHO but his Twenty Poems book is a classic-- even where it gets a bit difficult to follow, it is still gorgeous writing.

Going a bit further afield:
Richard Hugo - Selected Poems
William Stafford
Olga Broumas - Beginning with O is my favorite book
Donald Justice
Marge Piercy
Robert Bly
Alice Walker - Horses Make a Landscape More Beautiful
posted by tuesdayschild at 9:13 AM on October 17, 2012

If you like Szymborska, you may also like Adam Zagajewski. Also Charles Simic.
posted by judith at 9:17 AM on October 17, 2012

In addition to the Szymborska, Simic, Milosz and Akhmatova, I came to recommend Charles Wright. His Black Zodiac and especially Appalachia are my favorites.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 9:23 AM on October 17, 2012

Seamus Heaney!

Do you have a public library nearby? Go there and browse.
posted by mareli at 9:48 AM on October 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would ditto an anthology.
I really like Poems for the Millennium (3 volume set) as it gives a good sampling of the breadth of styles people have written in. But it's not great as a thing to lug to the coffee shop as they're quite large and heavy.
posted by juv3nal at 10:48 AM on October 17, 2012

Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle is a collection of modernist poetry selected for children ... but it is one of the best anthologies I've run across. It's charming. It's very accessible because it's intended for children, but it's not accessible in the "here's a dumb kid poem" way. A lot of it is very visual; the metaphors are accessible but surprising; the poetry is really GOOD poetry, that is accessible to children, rather than indifferent poetry written specifically for them. Wonderful introduction to modern poetry. I'm sad I didn't find it until I was a parent!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:51 AM on October 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

So, performance poetry tends to get a bad rep because the poets have to “sell” themselves to the audience. Which I think is kind of crap, because any successful writer needs to sell themselves to their audience.

I love page poetry, too, but there’s something about watching a poet read her/his own words that is really powerful.

The best example that comes to mind is "Clowns" by Robbie Q. Telfer, which would read very differently on the page.

Anis Mojgani has a ton of books, but nothing beats hearing him read.

“[This one is for] the two year olds who cannot be understood yet because they speak half English and half God... for those who are told to speak only when they are spoken to, and then are never spoken to.

Andrea Gibson

“When you’re halfway finished writing that letter to your mother that says, ‘I swear to God I tried, but when I thought I hit bottom it started hitting back.’”

Dylan Garity and the rest of the Poetry Observed crew do an amazing job of linking poetry with film.
posted by karminai at 11:12 AM on October 17, 2012

David Ignatow. Self-Employed. "I stand and listen, head bowed..."

William Stafford, What's in My Journal. "Odd things, like a button drawer..."

Howard Nemerov. To David, About his Education. "The world is full of mostly invisible things..."

Also, if you're looking for a good anthology, I think Robert Pinsky's Poems to Read: A New Favorite Poem Project Anthology is a good one.
posted by colfax at 11:14 AM on October 17, 2012

Okay, I'm back with another recommendation - Ted Kooser. Highly accessible. Give "Delights and Shadows" a whirl.
posted by THAT William Mize at 11:29 AM on October 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

2nding Rainer Maria Rilke, Auden, Collins, William Carlos Williams

Langston Hughes
Leonard Cohen
Theodore Roethke
Roald Dahl (for silly/fun)

Richard Brautigan, if for no other reason:

The Memoirs of Jessie James

I remember all those thousands of hours
I spent in grade school watching the clock
waiting for recess or lunch or to go home.
Waiting: for anything but school.
My teachers could easily have ridden with Jessie James
for all the time they stole from me.

Finally, some Kenneth Koch to go with William Carlos Williams

Variations On A Theme By William Carlos Williams

I chopped down the house that you had been saving to live in next summer.
I am sorry, but it was morning, and I had nothing to do
and its wooden beams were so inviting.

We laughed at the hollyhocks together
and then I sprayed them with lye.
Forgive me. I simply do not know what I am doing.

I gave away the money that you had been saving to live on for the
next ten years.
The man who asked for it was shabby
and the firm March wind on the porch was so juicy and cold.

Last evening we went dancing and I broke your leg.
Forgive me. I was clumsy and
I wanted you here in the wards, where I am the doctor!
posted by she's not there at 11:34 AM on October 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Tom Wayman. His poetry is humorous and humane at the same time. An excerpt from his poem "Routines":
By four o'clock the body is tired
and even more surly. It will hardly speak to me
as I drive home. I bathe it, let it lounge around.
After supper it regains some of its good spirits.
But as soon as I get ready for bed it starts to make trouble.
Look, I tell it, I've explained this over and over.
I know it's only ten o'clock but we have to be up in eight
If you don't get enough rest, you'll be dragging around all
tomorrow again, cranky and irritable.
"I don't care," the body says. "It's too early.
When do I get to have any fun? If you want to sleep
go right ahead. I'm going to lie here wide awake
until I feel good and ready to pass out."
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:25 PM on October 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

How about translations of epic poetry?

There are excellent translations of Beowulf, the Kalevala and (not quite an epic poem, but...) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

With good translations, these works (especially the Kalevala) tend to have a pleasantly relaxing metre and are somewhat episodic in nature, meaning that they can be interrupted fairly easily.
posted by Talkie Toaster at 12:48 PM on October 17, 2012

nth-ing Auden and Emily Dickinson! What about Edgar Poe? Here's Annabel Lee for example.
posted by mugitusqueboom at 12:49 PM on October 17, 2012

Mixing in with all the heavier stuff, nothing wrong with adding a little Dorothy Parker.
posted by Houstonian at 5:40 PM on October 17, 2012

Heartily endorsing the recommendations for Service and Frost, two of my personal favorites, and that an anthology is an excellent introduction. I grew up with an anthology called The Book of Living Verse and loved it. I still have a much-thumbed copy, and it amazes me to note that it dates back to 1939(!). I enjoy the poems just as now as I did growing up.

Edgar Allen Poe, again, yes, absolutely. Easily accessible and memorable, and just so much love for the language! His word choice is absolutely fabulous. Tintinnabulation! Porphyrogene!

aside from those two, a bit of Emily Dickinson, and some of Shakespeare's sonnets that even my city high school couldn't avoid teaching, that's about it.

Emily Dickinson?! Oh, heavens, no. I'm so sorry that's been the exposure you've had until now, OP.

Emily Dickinson sucks. Do not read Emily Dickinson.

I'm sorry, that was dismissive without being illuminating. Why not read Emily Dickinson? I'll tell you why:

Because nearly all of her poems can be read to the tune of The Yellow Rose of Texas (I dare you NOT to hear it now, all you Dickinson lovers!).

Because she was Emo and obsessed with Death.

Because, despite her Emo obsession with Death, she does not even leave the reader the satisfaction of feeling pleasantly macabre, the way Poe does, after reading her work.

Because she is not insightful but inane.

Because her rhyming scheme (always the same, see above Yellow Rose of Texas comment) is as maddeningly chirpy as her insights are inane and sappy. Consider this gem: "There is no Frigate like a book to take us lands away/ nor any coursers like a page of prancing Poetry. "

Blearrgh. I like reading, boats and ponies (hence my love for Mefi!), but she could turn me off all three.

Emily Dickinson is the Madelyn Bassett of poetry. No wonder you are desperate for better stuff!

Funny: Dorothy Parker for dry, acerbic wit. Ogden Nash and Shel Silverstein for pure silliness.

Romantic and Erotic: e. e. cummings, Amy Lowell's Carrefours, Trying to Write a Poem While the Couple in the Overhead Apartment Make Love.

Classic: Tennyson wins, every time. Maude is a gorgeous gem of poem to start with; the flower references always remind me of Ophelia and her mad Hamlet. Follow it up with Summer Night and if you want to go deeper, delve into Locksley Hall, with all of its passionate, problematic imagery (If you are a Star Trek fan, a line from this poem appears on Voyager, "For I dipt in to the future, far as human eye could see; Saw the vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be.") .

Go back a bit to Coleridge, and you really must read the opium-induced Kubla Khan before The Rhyme of The Ancient Mariner (which is all anyone seems to know of him these days) to appreciate how great Coleridge was. The rhythmic flow of the former is completely at odds with the stark story-telling characterizing the latter poem.

What else, what else? This comment is way too long, but I could go on forever, so I'll just end by saying I don't know anyone who doesn't like Yeats' When you are old....
posted by misha at 6:47 PM on October 17, 2012

George Oppen:

If It All Went Up In Smoke

that smoke
would remain

the forever
savage country poem's light borrowed

light of the landscape and one's footprints praise

from distance
in the close
crowd all

that is strange the sources

the wells the poem begins

neither in word
nor meaning but the small
selves haunting

us in the stones and is less

always than that help me I am
of that people the grass

blades touch

and touch in their small

distances the poem

Robinson Jeffers:

Rock and Hawk

Here is a symbol in which
Many high tragic thoughts
Watch their own eyes.

This gray rock, standing tall
On the headland, where the seawind
Lets no tree grow,

Earthquake-proved, and signatured
By ages of storms: on its peak
A falcon has perched.

I think, here is your emblem
To hang in the future sky;
Not the cross, not the hive,

But this; bright power, dark peace;
Fierce consciousness joined with final

Life with calm death; the falcon's
Realist eyes and act
Married to the massive

Mysticism of stone,
Which failure cannot cast down
Nor success make proud.

John Berryman:

Dream Song 29

There sat down, once, a thing on Henry's heart
so heavy, if he had a hundred years
& more, & weeping, sleepless, in all them time
Henry could not make good.
Starts again always in Henry's ears
the little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime.

And there is another thing he has in mind
like a grave Sienese face a thousand years
would fail to blur the still profiled reproach of. Ghastly,
with open eyes, he attends, blind.
All the bells say: too late. This is not for tears;

But never did Henry, as he thought he did,
end anyone and hacks her body up
and hide the pieces, where they may be found.
He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody's missing.
Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up.
Nobody is ever missing.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 7:23 PM on October 17, 2012

Off the top of my head... Almost anything by the following poets:
Mary Oliver
Robert Frost
e.e. cummings
Billy Collins

Also be sure to check out:
Baudelaire (Be drunk, The Cat)
Auden (As I Walked Out One Evening)
Elizabeth Bishop (Argument, The Shampoo, One Art)
Archibald MacLeish (Ars Poetica)
Wendell Berry (The Peace of Wild Things, Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front)
T.S. Eliot (The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock)

If you want to be introduced to more poets (both older & contemporary) there is a blog meme called Poetry Friday. The hosting rotates but I believe children's poet Irene Latham is hosting this week (Nov. 19, 2012).
You can find the full list of hosts at:

While it was started as a kid-lit meme, only about 1/3 of the entries will be kid-lit oriented. People post both older and contemporary poems and even (good to excellent) original poems. There are usually 30-40 entries a week. I have been introduced to a number of wonderful poets this way (in the interest of full disclosure -- I often participate). Most of the participants are teachers, librarians, writers, and working poets.
posted by LittleMy at 5:19 AM on October 18, 2012

Start by picking up a hardcover copy of The Top 500 Poems.

It's a collection of the top 500 poems in the English language as determined by how often they were anthologized, so it's essentially the poetry canon (not counting longer works that don't fit well in anthologies). You don't have to accept the canon as the word of the poetry gods, but you ought to be familiar with it.

Write your name in the front; this is your book to do with as you like. With pencil in hand, start reading all 500 of these. You can read chronologically or use the popularity index in the back to read them in order of how often they were anthologized. Make a lot of marks in the indexes for poems and poets you like and poems and poets you don't like. Work out your own simple code. Do the same in the margins -- pencil in some comments to yourself or at least draw a vertical line down the edge of great passages. Use a pencil so you won't be afraid to mark it up; you can always change your mind and erase certain notes.

And start memorizing the poems you love. If you aren't sure where to start, pick something from the top 10 or 20, something that many other poetry critics (you are now one of them) have thought worth telling the world about when they selected poems for their anthologies. Blake or Keats or Shakespeare or Donne or Herrick or Frost or Hopkins. If you live in the northern hemisphere, "To Autumn" (number 3 on the list) is right for now. Read it and write it over and over until it's in your mind forever.
posted by pracowity at 6:56 AM on October 18, 2012

I agree you should try out some Auden. May I also suggest Mark Strand? I find his work beautiful, funny, and a little sad.

The Continuous Life

What of the neighborhood homes awash
In a silver light, of children crouched in the bushes,
Watching the grown-ups for signs of surrender,
Signs that the irregular pleasures of moving
From day to day, of being adrift on the swell of duty,
Have run their course? Oh parents, confess
To your little ones the night is a long way off
And your taste for the mundane grows; tell them
Your worship of household chores has barely begun;
Describe the beauty of shovels and rakes, brooms and mops;
Say there will always be cooking and cleaning to do,
That one thing leads to another, which leads to another;
Explain that you live between two great darks, the first
With an ending, the second without one, that the luckiest
Thing is having been born, that you live in a blur
Of hours and days, months and years, and believe
It has meaning, despite the occasional fear
You are slipping away with nothing completed, nothing
To prove you existed. Tell the children to come inside,
That your search goes on for something you lost--a name,
A family album that fell from its own small matter
Into another, a piece of the dark that might have been yours,
You don’t really know. Say that each of you tries
To keep busy, learning to lean down close and hear
The careless breathing of earth and feel its available
Languor come over you, wave after wave, sending
Small tremors of love through your brief,
Undeniable selves, into your days, and beyond.

Mark Strand
posted by onlyconnect at 8:01 AM on October 18, 2012

Nthing E. E. Cummings*. Although I'm not a theist, "i thank You God" is one of my favorite poems ever, and was one of my mother's favorites as well — I can't read it aloud because it almost always makes me weepy.
i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
* Cummings should be capitalized, according to both his widow and himself.
posted by Lexica at 7:06 PM on October 18, 2012

Nthing picking up an anthology to browse through-- The Rattle Bag was compiled by Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney so you're in good hands.

For specific recommendations.. If you usually like narratives and history, The Illiad and some reinterpretations

The Illiad
War Music.
posted by Erasmouse at 1:23 PM on October 20, 2012

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