Questions about poetry.
February 8, 2007 7:29 PM   Subscribe

I don't know shit about poetry but have been enjoying Leonard Cohen, Charles Bukowski, Charles Simic, and Robert Creeley for years. (I mostly like works about relationships, romance, love...) Who else should I read? Also, in addition to "practice", how does one get better at reading/writing poetry. Can you also recommend journals / anthologies / web sites / quarterlies?
posted by dobbs to Writing & Language (39 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
From my English PhD-candidate roommate:

"If you like Bukowski, you might like Edward Dorn. If you like Robert Creeley, you might like Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, and Diane Wakoski. If you like Charles Simic, you might like Mark Strand."
posted by jacobm at 7:37 PM on February 8, 2007

He is a little more formal a poet than some of those guys, but I like the old drunk Hayden Carruth. Who I am relieved to know isn't dead yet.

Poetry is very hard. You probably want to write free-verse, but here's the secret: learn how to write highly-structured poems first. Once you've written a villanelle, you can write just about anything.

People say to read anything you write out loud, but it isn't always good advice. It's very good advice for poetry.
posted by Bookhouse at 7:39 PM on February 8, 2007 [2 favorites]

Norton anthologies, all the way. Great exposure to a very wide array of styles. You're attracted to a certain niche and you'll most probably stick with it, but it's good practice to observe other methods.
posted by Meifa at 7:41 PM on February 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

Gerald Stern. His best stuff is out of print, and the best anthology to start with is Leaving Another Kingdom.

I love Simic and can't stand Mark Strand, and another friend of mine obsessed with poetry concurs. (Shrug)

Ditto the Charles Olson if you like Creeley bit. Read their correspondence if you get a chance; it's collected in a book somewhere. Pretty good.

Jack Spicer maybe.

She doesn't fit with the stuff you provided, but in my opinion you cannot go wrong with Wislawa Szymborska.

Also off the top of my head, trusty favorites: James Tate's book Absences, Yusef Komunyakaa (particularly I Apologize For The Eyes In My Head), John Ashbery, Ted Berrigan (fairly new anthology came out recently too!), Alice Notley (ditto), Larissa Szporluk. Osip Mandelstam. Vladimir Mayakovsky. Kobayashi Issa, Tu Fu. Mallarme, Valery, Mauriac. Mm...more later, if I think of them.
posted by ifjuly at 7:43 PM on February 8, 2007

Oh yeah...Lorca, Neruda, Jimenez, Ondaatje, Brautigan, Cavafy, Odysseas Elytis.

It isn't centered on poetry, but my two favorite literary periodicals are Granta and Paris Review, for whatever that's worth.
posted by ifjuly at 7:47 PM on February 8, 2007

I love Kenneth Koch and Jeffrey McDaniel.
posted by eggplantia5 at 7:59 PM on February 8, 2007

Yes to getting the Norton Anthology of Poetry for starters. Work through some of the older canonical stuff, seeing just how freighted every word is with meaning, and how hard they work to fit them into tight metrical structures and make it sound natural. The poetry that's held up as being Great really is for the most part amazing. Flip around until something catches your eye and then read carefully, trying to find all the clues to the ten or fifteen meanings that are usually in there.

If you like dark, try Philip Larkin.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:02 PM on February 8, 2007

Harvey Shapiro
posted by hippugeek at 8:09 PM on February 8, 2007

I'm addicted to old anthologies, but I'll recommending Derek Walcott because nobody recommended him to me, and I love his stuff.
Maybe start with The Star-Apple Kingdom.
posted by conch soup at 8:09 PM on February 8, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers thus far. I'll check out all the people I haven't heard of--if you are recommending a poet and can recommend a particular publication as well, that would be appreciated.

ifjuly, yeah, I just found out Simic is the Poetry Editor for TPR and coincidentally sent off 6 poems to them Monday. I've no chance but I guess it's best to aim high. Granta I pick up used whenever I see them and usually find something in every issue that I like--just kinda pricey new.

I've read everything Brautigan and shoulda listed him in my Q as, though he's very uneven, he's written some beautiful stuff (Color as Beginning thrills me).

I had a Koch HC in my hands today but it was pretty damn pricey. I liked what I read, though.
posted by dobbs at 8:10 PM on February 8, 2007

James Tate and Wendell Berry (also) are favorites of mine and I also like the poets you mention. Richard Brautigan has some great love and relationship poems which are great in a melancholy way. This one has always been one of my favorites. He also wrote prose.
posted by jessamyn at 8:14 PM on February 8, 2007

I love Tess Gallagher. She was Raymond Carver's SO and then later his wife. Her style isn't really like the poets you mentioned, but she does write a lot about relationships. I particularly love her book Willingly.
posted by gt2 at 8:18 PM on February 8, 2007

Besides Charles Simic, who I've never heard of, those are some of my favorite poets. Because of that you may (or may not) like my other favorites: Richard Brautigan, Irving Layton, Mark Strand (The Tunnel is one of my favorite poems of all time), William Carlos Williams, and Pablo Neruda (Check out his book 100 Love Sonnets. Some of them are insanely amazing.)

In general, I find to be a wonderful resource for poems. I like to just randomly click around.

Writing poetry is hard, but reading poetry always motivates me to write. Once you figure out what works in poems that you enjoy, it becomes easier to critique your own work. For me, rhyming is to be avoided like the plague and the language should be simple & straightforward, but full of images. Lastly, rhythm! Read everything you write out loud.
posted by eunoia at 8:24 PM on February 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

As a poet, I would recommend you get an intro to poetry book. It's not very exciting, but reading a book such as this will give you the basics in a systematic and easy-to-understand way. A few I like are Poetry: An Introduction, by Michael Meyer (a real killer); An Introduction to Poetry by X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia, and Norton probably also makes a good one, but I haven't read it. Look around. The advantage here is that they discuss a technique, such as image, and then they give you some poems that really exemplify it, leading by example.

The next step will be more specific craft books, such as The Poet's Handbook, by Judson Jerome or John Hollander's Rhyme's Reason and others. These books focus primarily on prosody, which is the technique of organizing lines into units -- iambic pentameter being a famous example. This sort of thing is useful to know, even if you write free verse, because it teaches you both the history of verse, which is an ancient craft, and also economy of language -- or perhaps how to look at both the individual words and also larger structures. A good book for free verse is called Free Verse, and it's by Charles O. Hartman.

Practice is how you get better. Knowing as much about poetry, trying many different things over and over, getting the opinion of others whose advice you respect, knowing how to use the language, and viewing your work from the most objective position you can muster are all part of the puzzle. Other ways are, of course, reading criticism and dissecting other good poems. Also, one of the biggest secrets is knowing how to imitate. Pick some poems you like and recreate them. Think of it as an art student would as they copied the Mona Lisa, or some such thing.

Another avenue is the creative writing class. This should give you a basic overview, an audience, and an instructor to help you learn. A live body is always nice. (I know I wouldn't be where I am today without good teachers.) The way these classes are structured is that you submit your poem to the class and then it is workshopped, talked about, criticized, and torn apart, by the class. There is probably one in your community somewhere lurking about.

You've been reading good poets so far. Simic doesn't really seem to fit your description of being about relationships and etc., but he's got some of that, sure. You might like the confessional poets such as H. D. and Robert Lowell. I also suggest Hart Crane, John Berryman, and if you want to get crazy, Wallace Stevens. Emily Dickinson is also great. But there are a shitload. Just look around, like you would with any other interest. An exotic reading list is not required, but don't ignore writers outside of English.

As for journals, NewPages will give you an extensive list.

E-mail if you wish to know anything else, or would like more specific advice. And good luck.
posted by luckypozzo at 8:31 PM on February 8, 2007 [3 favorites]

Al Purdy. (I see by your profile you are in Toronto and might appreciate a little CanCon, but I would recommend him anyway.) Rooms for Rent in the Outer Planets is a decent survey of his work, or you could just spring for the collected works. I tried to find some examples online, but there's nothing that really does him justice.
posted by Urban Hermit at 8:37 PM on February 8, 2007

I enjoy Bukowski and Simic, too. If you like poems about relationships, I really agree with the other folks here that you will like Koch.

I don't understand the enimnity here against Strand, whom I also love and often find (imho) deeply moving. You might like his book "The Continuous Life," and also his "Elegy for My Father," which is in his Selected Poems.

Good luck!
posted by onlyconnect at 8:38 PM on February 8, 2007

enmity, dammit!
posted by onlyconnect at 8:42 PM on February 8, 2007

Just wanted to add that if you like Simic, you should try to score a copy of the Harvard Review, No. 13, Fall 1997. It's all about Simic and has reviews, photos, a great examination and presentation of his "White," and is an all-around great read.

Also: Verse, Volume 13, No. 1, in which he provides an introduction to the prose poem.
posted by herrdoktor at 9:34 PM on February 8, 2007

If you like dark and spare, I'll nth Mark Strand.

Also read Louise Glück:

Hesitate To Call

Lived to see you throwing
Me aside. That fought
Liked netted fish inside me. Saw you throbbing
In my syrups. Saw you sleep. And lived to see
That all that flushed down
The refuse. Done?
It lives in me.
You live in me. Malignant.
Love, you ever want me, don't.

If you like dark and somewhat less spare, read Weldon Kees:

For My Daughter

Looking into my daughter’s eyes I read
Beneath the innocence of morning flesh
Concealed, hintings of death she does not heed.
Coldest of winds have blown this hair, and mesh
Of seaweed snarled these miniatures of hands;
The night’s slow poison, tolerant and bland,
Has moved her blood. Parched years that I have seen
That may be hers appear: foul, lingering
Death in certain war, the slim legs green.
Or, fed on hate, she relishes the sting
Of others’ agony; perhaps the cruel
Bride of a syphilitic or a fool.
These speculations sour in the sun.
I have no daughter. I desire none.

Also, as a writer of poetry, you should own Paul Fussell's Poetic Meter and Poetic Form. I'll also nth the suggestion to read and write formal verse. It's like learning to walk before you learn to run.
posted by jesourie at 9:44 PM on February 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

You'll probably appreciate Sharon Olds.

The Daughter Goes To Camp

In the taxi alone, home from the airport,
I could not believe you were gone. My palm kept
creeping over the smooth plastic
to find your strong meaty little hand and
squeeze it, find your narrow thigh in the
noble ribbing of the corduroy,
straight and regular as anything in nature, to
find the slack cool cheek of a
child in the heat of a summer morning—
nothing, nothing, waves of bawling
hitting me in hot flashes like some
change of life, some boiling wave
rising in me toward your body, toward
where it should have been on the seat, your
brow curved like a cereal bowl, your
eyes dark with massed crystals like the
magnified scales of a butterfly's wing, the
delicate feelers of your limp hair,
floods of blood rising in my face as I
tried to reassemble the hot
gritty molecules in the car, to
make you appear like a holograph
on the back seat, pull you out of nothing
as I once did—but you were really gone,
the cab glossy as a slit caul out of
which you had slipped, the air glittering
electric with escape as it does in the room at a birth.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 10:18 PM on February 8, 2007

Recommendations are tough because what one likes is so intangible — the poets you list are straight-talkers for the most part, but it's not necessarily something stylistic that's caught your eye. When I think about Creeley, and when I think about people who "don't know shit about poetry," and when I think about good poetry about "relationships, romance, and love," I'm thinking of a certain kind of poem (if you'll allow a gratuitous self-link, that's the type of poetry that I try to write [pdf]).

At the risk of rambling, them, I'll list some poems and poets that give me that certain feeling of a Creeley poem. To clarify, I'm talking about the poem Something which once can not possibly re-read enough. Or Bresson's Movies. If you've never listened to Creeley read, do so right now. There are a ton of MP3s at Pennsound. Say, For Hannah's 14th Birthday. He's an unparalleled reader.

If this is the type of poem you like, do not miss Frank O'Hara. For a quick intro: Having a Coke With You and The Day Lady Died. If you're interested in writing yourself, as you seem to be, do not miss the poem Why I Am Not a Painter and especially the short essay Personism, which is all you ever need to know about writing a poem.

Kenneth Koch's older stuff gives me that same feeling. Don't miss, though, this reading of One Train May Hide Another.

Who else? For a while I've been telling anyone who'll listen that This is Just to Say by William Carlos Williams is the greatest love poem in English. And Koch's response to it (on our own languagehat's blog). Also don't miss Williams' "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower" (excerpt) one of the very few long poems that I think really holds up start to finish.

I've caught flack for some reason for liking Sharon Olds, but there it is. Olds' The Wellspring is a great collection; here's my favorite: First.

I've only read the collection Sun Under Wood by Robert Hass, but you may find what you're looking for in poems like Happiness or, better, Faint Music or "My Mother's Nipples," which I wish I could find online because it's every bit as worth reading as it sounds. Then again, you may not.

I'm getting astray, so I'll call it there. But feel free to email me about anything poetry-related. I (guiltily) don't keep up with journals or lots of contemporary writing, but one of the best ways to improve as a poet is to be part of a community of writers. (And I'd love to read your stuff — honestly, you're one of my favorite Mefites.)
posted by rafter at 11:14 PM on February 8, 2007 [4 favorites]

(General on-preview acknowledgment of all the duplicated suggestions. Opened the thread a bit ago, lots has happened since! —)
posted by rafter at 11:20 PM on February 8, 2007

Love Where the Nights Are Long is quite good, and going cheap on, too.
posted by kmennie at 1:02 AM on February 9, 2007

I agree with luckypozzo about getting an Intro to Poetry volume to develop some knowledge of terms and devices. You can't go wrong with a Norton. Contemporary Poetry Review will get you up to critical speed once you've grasped the basics. Basically, it's like prose or any other art: aside from some formal grounding, you have to read a shit ton of poems and write a shit ton of bad ones. That'll help you develop an informed aesthetic and frankly sharply set you aside from the overswollen ranks of those who write, write, write poetry but rarely stir themselves to read it.

As far as journals go, I like Ploughshares and The Kenyon Review. Regarding sites, you can get a free trial at The Columbia Granger's World of Poetry, a massive collection to browse.

Vital Signs had more influence on me than any single volume of poetry, in that it lead me to more contemporary poets than any other source, and to the poet I eventually studied with (Jonathan Holden). It came out in 1989, but I still consult it more frequently than just about any other book of poetry I've got. It's dated in some ways (lots of poems about writing poems, ugh) and some of it is fairly crappy uninspired academic poetry, but much of it is wonderful, accessible stuff. It's an extremely broad sampling -- a lot of the names already mentioned are here. Read through it and you're sure to find more names and titles that interest you. Just because I feel like it, here's a few samples from it, about love as you requested:

Stanley Plumly -- Heron

You still sometimes sleep
inside that great bird,
flopped out,
one wing tucked,
the other slightly broken over my back.
You still fall asleep before I do.
You still wake up
in tears.

You have what is called thin skin
if I put my ear to it
I can hear the wingbeat in your heart.
I can only imagine
how far down those long flights go.

Last night in my dream
about the heron
I stood at the edge
of the water with a handful
of stones.
I was twelve, I think.
The heron perfect, still, kneedeep,
looking at himself.

Once he lifted his wings
in a mockery of flight.
For a moment I was inside you:
I could hear the heart.
I had stones in my hands.

Judith Hemschmeyer -- The Skirmish

When you attacked with all the weapons I adore,
Wit, charming accent, classic fucked-up past,
Nonchalance bordering on cruelty,
I wanted to rush to all my borders
At once, throw in my best battalions
As the Yugoslavs did in World War Two,
Show you my dream book, my stare, toute la boutique,
Use others simply as steppingstones to you.
But I have done that before; each time I wake
To find the front moved on, my heart laid waste,
So I pulled back -- the Russian technique --
Ringing my love's core with tough, tight circles
Of pretended calm. I won; I didn't fall.
Now you are gone and I am safe and cold and small.

William Dickey -- Happiness

I sent you this bluebird of the name of Joe
with "Happiness" tattooed on his left bicep.
(For a bluebird, he was a damn good size.)
And all you can say is you think your cat has got him?

I tell you the messages aren't getting through.
The Golden Gate Bridge is up past its ass in traffic;
tankers colliding; singing telegrams out on strike.
The machineries of the world are raised in anger.

So I am sending out this snail of the name of Fred
in a small tricolor sash, so the cat will know him.
He will scrawl out "Happiness" in his own slow way.
I won't ever stop until the word gets to you.
posted by melissa may at 3:59 AM on February 9, 2007 [2 favorites]

And damn it, all that typing and I forgot one of my favorite contemporary poets, Li-Young Lee, and my favorite poem by him, The City in Which I Loved You. His books are all worth buying.
posted by melissa may at 4:08 AM on February 9, 2007

If you want poems about relationships, try W. B. Yeats. Lots of great poems in the Norton. Try "Adam's Curse," "When You Are Old and Gray," "A Bronze Head," "Among Schoolchildren," "The Collar-Bone of a Hare."

Yeats is the greatest lyric poet, IMO.
posted by josh at 5:14 AM on February 9, 2007

If you're into relationship poetry and the angry-drunk Bukowski vibe, you might enjoy Kim Addonizio. She's got an incredible eloquence, but she also writes with brutal sincerity about bad sex and breakups and such.

The Cohen and Bukowski also suggest Dylan Thomas, who was even more eloquent, drunk, bitter and brilliant than Addonizio, but who wrote more about God, death and innocence than love. Frankly, though, he's a much better poet than Addonizio, so if you're willing to wander outside your normal set of themes, you should read him first. You might need the head start — some of his poems take years to really get your head around, but they're gorgeous and well worth the effort.

(Seconding Yeats, Olds, O'Hara, Wakoski among others.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:36 AM on February 9, 2007

What everyone said. Wow. Especially seconding "Asphodel."

Also, there are currently 32 issues of Jacket, an excellent online journal with a ton of poems, critical writing, special features, etc. It has a more experimental tilt to it, but so do some of the writers you're already enjoying, so don't let it stop you.
posted by sleevener at 6:54 AM on February 9, 2007

If you like Leonard Cohen & Bukowski, then check out Insects by Iain Deans.
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 8:08 AM on February 9, 2007

Frank O'Hara, W.H. Auden, Wallace Stevens. I've discovered quite a few of my favorite poets just by checking out modern poetry anthologies from the public library. Kenneth Rexroth, is a good example.

When I've got a contemporary poetry jones, I like to go down to the stinkin' chain bookstore, and browse the "Writing" section of the periodicals stand, looking for the literary journals. Then I just flip through the current issues, looking for names I recognize, or poem titles that catch the eye. Barnes & Noble usually keeps quite a few journals in stock.

I let my subscription to the Virginia Quarterly Review lapse before they revamped and won a bunch of awards, dangitall.
posted by steef at 8:51 AM on February 9, 2007

I've always enjoyed Billy Collins. He was the poet laueate under President Bill Clinton. I'm not much of a poetry buff, but his work makes me smile.
posted by nsillik at 9:13 AM on February 9, 2007

If you like the sort of language which wells up from the deepest strata, and can stand immersing yourself in a scalding pool of pure madness, try Anne Sexton; especially Love Poems, Live or Die, and Transformations.
posted by jamjam at 9:15 AM on February 9, 2007

I thought of some more, but they start to get harder to find/out of print...

Jerome Sala and his wife Elaine Equi. Ron Koertge, who Bukowski mentioned admiring in his letters (have you read Bukowski's letters? They're awesome, all three volumes). Maybe Anna Akhmatova. Rabindranath Tagore. George Seferis (his notebooks rule, too). Yes yes yes on Frank O'Hara. Perhaps Matthea Harvey, Noelle Kocot, Brenda Shaughnessy...those are more iffy though.

Auden and Stevens are indeed wonderful.
posted by ifjuly at 9:19 AM on February 9, 2007

Response by poster: Awesome answers folks. Thanks so much! I'll try and find as many as I can.
posted by dobbs at 10:31 AM on February 9, 2007

I suggested Harvey Shapiro without recommendations--
here are a few examples, and I'd start with the volume National Cold Storage Company.

Perhaps Carolyn Forche--very stark, often political, unforgiving. The Country Between Us is her most famous ("the one with poem about the general and the ears"), but I prefer The Angel of History for its matured style and greater complexity of scope.

I second Sharon Olds--very physical, everything she writes. And Frank O'Hara.

Also seconding Dylan Thomas, not even so much because he has the bitter drunk thing going on, but because anyone trying to write owes it to themselves to read him. He has a marvelous way of dealing with words as sound and image and association, rather than meaning. A favorite.
posted by hippugeek at 11:48 AM on February 9, 2007

There's a ton of great contemporary poetry being published that might appeal to you, based on the fact you like Simic and Creeley anyhow. A scant few off the top of my head include Bernadette Mayer, Robert Hass, Hayden Carruth, Jack Spicer, Peter Gizzi, Elizabeth Willis, Lisa Jarnot, Anselm Berrigan. I'll stop there before it becomes a meaningless barrage. (My own tastes run from folks like these to the more experimental ((post-Language)) fringe of things -- and I find I simply cannot keep up with what's being published by great independant presses. It's exciting and frustrating at the same time. Note: if you can't get these folks' books at a local or big online outlet, try Small Press Distribution at And most writers have scattered samples of their work in online journals; I recommend googling some names from anthologies ((like the Best American Poetry annual)) and when you find someone who's published a few poems you like, buy a book or two & branch out from there.)
posted by aught at 12:18 PM on February 9, 2007

Lots of great suggestions above. I nth O'Hara.

Get the Norton Anthology, as suggested by several people above. But also be sure to get yourself a copy of Postmodern American Poetry ed. Paul Hoover. I'm surprised that hasn't been suggested already. It's at least as good as an MFA program, probably better.

Take a gander at this thread as well. A lot of the suggestions there are probably too "beginner" for you, but some good ones for you too. I list some journals and blogs I like over there.
posted by roll truck roll at 3:38 PM on February 9, 2007

If you can swing with William Carlos Williams, you might want to check out George Oppen who is my favorite poet ever.
posted by juv3nal at 12:35 AM on February 10, 2007

ah, geez, Richard Hugo. Really.
posted by tristanshout at 12:41 AM on February 11, 2007

« Older What color is yoga?   |   When will these 15 minutes end? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.