- literary work in which special intensity is given to the expression of feelings and ideas by the use of distinctive style and rhythm; poems collectively or as a genre of literature.
The idea that poetry is a thing that can be defined by an immediate handful of words is an ignorant one. Many have tried, but still, in the twenty-first century nobody has agreed summarily on a single, choice definition.
Yet we can all agree that we know a poem when we see one, surely. And that you would like to read these. But you don't know where to begin, or even how to begin. That's what this wiki is for.
Meter, Form, Structure, and What it Means to You
A person interested in reading (and writing, eventually) poetry should learn the technical side of it. The reason for this is because it allows you a deeper understanding and appreciation of a poem and for the talent of a poet; consider that every good poem written in verse has a metrical scheme for a reason, consider that the form used serves a purpose: each nuance to the meter, each inverted foot is purposeful. It's the nuance, and the hand for it that a good poet has in manipulating his medium that makes it worthwhile to understand, deepening your ability to appreciate and marvel at a beautiful piece of verse. They add atmosphere, emphasize an idea, symbolize things and so on. These are things you won't and can't notice or appreciate if you're not even aware they're happening.
Furthermore, should you eventually decide you'd like to try writing a poem, you'll find one's abilities and possibilities are expanded tenfold by learning form.
|Poetic Meter and Poetic Form||Paul Fussell|
|Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry||David Mason & John Frederick Nims|
|A Poetry Handbook||Mary Oliver|
|Rhyme's Reason||John Hollander|
|The Ode Less Traveled||Stephen Fry|
The Greeks (and Romans). So many poets reference and allude to greco-roman mythology that you'll miss out on a lot if you're not familiar with it. For a cursory overview of the mythology, I've included a selection of the most notable Greek and Roman authors.
Assuming for some reason you choose not to read the firsthand material, there are guides to classical mythology that one can read to become summarily acquainted with it.
|The Greek Myths||Robert Graves|
|Gods and Heroes of Ancient Greece||Gustav Schwab|
Now, consider that mythology plays a large role in many poetic traditions, and it exists outside the Greco-Roman mythos. Yeats for example draws largely on Irish tales in his early poetry, but Greek and Roman myths are generally at the forefront of influence in English poetry. Biblical allusions are also extremely prevalent in English verse, so it couldn't hurt to be familiar with the Old and New testaments either. Of course, one can read poetry without reading myths and look up references as you go, but you might not pick up on some of the more subtle ones.
A good place to begin reading poetry after one has become familiar with form and history is with an anthology. An anthology offers a comprehensive overview of English poems from the beginning to contemporary that you can skim through to get a feel for your taste. Norton's Anthology of Poetry spans from Chaucer up through the last few decades, but it mostly drops you in with little background, so if you're not confident in your ability to contextualize the development of the medium throughout the various poems it might not be your favorite option. Alternatively Harold Bloom offers his collection of "The Best Poems of the English Language", which includes quite a few poets from Chaucer through Frost, and he prefaces each poet with biographical background and usually commentary on his or her poetry. There are also collections of poetry that focus on specific periods and movements, so if you have an idea of what era of poetry in particular you like you might start with one of those.
|The Best Poems of the English Language||Harold Bloom|
|The Norton Anthology of Poetry||Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter & Jon Stallworthy|
|A Folio Anthology of Poetry||Carol Ann Duffy|
|The Winged Horse Anthology||Joseph Auslander & Frank Ernest Hill|
|The Oxford Book of English Verse||Arthur Quiller-Couch|
|The New Oxford Book of English Verse||Helen Gardner|
|The Rattle Bag||Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes|
After you've looked through an anthology and understand better your own preferences, you can pick through the poets you enjoyed and study them further individually, then branch back out by reading poets similar to them, reading about their period and others in the period, read those they influenced or were influenced by, and so on.
I feel that adding a list of recommended poets to read here is unnecessary, should one follow the recommended reading of the previous entries. After even skimming through an anthology one should have a plethora of poets that they're interested in and should, on their own, be able to read from there.
Nonetheless, a VERY cursory list of poets:
- Ibn al-Farid
- Geoffrey Chaucer
- William Dunbar
- Thomas Wyatt
- Sir Walter Ralegh
- Edmund Spenser
- Sir Philip Sydney
- Lope de Vega
- Michael Drayton
- Christopher Marlowe
- William Shakespeare
- Thomas Campion
- Thomas Nashe
- John Donne
- Ben Jonson
- Robert Herrick
- George Herbert
- Thomas Carew
- John Milton
- Anne Bradstreet
- Richard Lovelace
- Andrew Marvell
- Henry Vaughan
- John Dryden
- Aphra Behn
- Jonathan Swift
- Alexander Pope
- Samuel Johnson
- Friedrich Gottlieb
- Johann Von Goethe
- William Blake
- Robert Burns
- William Wordsworth
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge
- Walter Savage Landor
- George Gordon Lord Byron
- Percy Bysshe Shelley
- John Clare
- John Keats
- Heinrich Heine
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
- Edward Fitzgerald
- Edgar Allen Poe
- Alfred Lord Tennyson
- Robert Browning
- Herman Melville
- Walt Whitman
- Dante Gabrielle Rossetti
- Victor Hugo
- Théophile Gautier
- Charles Baudelaire
- Emily Dickinson
- Christina Rossetti
- Lewis Carroll
- Algernon Charles Swinburne
- Thomas Hardy
- Paul Verlaine
- Gerard Manley Hopkins
- Arthur Rimbaud
- A.E Housman
- Rudyard Kipling
- Paul Valéry
- Gottfried Ben
- Max Ernst
- W.B Yeats
- Robert Frost
- Rainer Maria Rilke
- Wallace Stevens
- William Carlos Williams
- D.H Lawrence
- Ezra Pound
- T.S Eliot
- Wilfred Owen
- e.e cummings
- Hart Crane
- Jorge Luis Borges
- Pablo Neruda
- W.H Auden
- Philip Larkin
- Allen Ginsberg
- James Merrill
- John Ashbery
- W.S Merwin
- Ted Hughes
- Seamus Heaney
There's an unlimited amount of secondary texts that'll contribute to your appreciation of poetry. Essays, letters, handbooks, commentaries, poetics, conversations, all sorts of things. Odds are if you have a favorite poet they've had something to say about the medium. A few Google searches will surely provide you with something to read if you're interested.
- A Poet's Glossary - Edward Hirsch
A glossary of poetic terms and phrases concerning poetry and its tradition. Very useful for looking up things you may forget or reading through and learning things you might not have known. Somewhat friendly in tone so it's approachable as something more than just mechanical definitions.
- Princeton's Encyclopedia of Poetry
Like Hirsch's glossary of poetic terms, but much more comprehensive and more academic in tone.
- Letters to a Young Poet - Rainer Maria Rilke
Rilke talks about what it means (to him) to be a poet and his process of poetry and the nature of it.
- In Defense of Poetry - Percy Bysshe Shelley
Shelley discusses what he thinks poetry is and what poetry does and means.
- The Anxiety of Influence - Harold Bloom
Bloom's take on influence and how a writer interacts with his predecessors.
- ABC of Reading - Ezra Pound
A manual for reading and on literature. Pound discusses the importance of literature and what it does, how it's done, why it's done, and how he thinks it should be done.
- The Routlege Anthology of Poets on Poets - David Hopkins
A collection of poems, letters, etc by poets regarding the medium of verse, what it means etc, and of poets discussing other poets. Very interesting, and gives you a feel for how the tradition developed and morphed throughout the ages.
- Bloom's Critical Studies/Bloom's Major Poets
Essays and studies on various movements and poets, edited and introduced by Harold Bloom.
On Translation in Poetry
A translation is an x-ray. That is, it allows one to see the "bones" of a poem, but beyond that much is lost. When you read Ezra Pound's translation of Confucius, you are reading a poem by Ezra Pound in which he attempted to imitate Confucius; this is because language is not 1-to-1, and the disparity changes from language to language. For example, translating a poem from Chinese into English is extremely difficult, as the Chinese written language operates on entirely different grammar concepts than English, as Chinese characters are closer to being symbols that represent an idea or group of ideas rather than individual characters that conjoin to form a word with an agreed-upon definition. A translation at best is an interpretation or imitation of the original.
So, to judge Confucius' ability as a poet based on Ezra Pound's interpretation of him is ignorant, as one is not reading Confucius.
This is not to say that translations are entirely a waste of time in poetry. Many translations prove to be amazing pieces of verse on their own, Alexander Pope's translations of Homer for example, or Joseph Cadora's translations of Rilke's 'New Poems'. Just keep in mind that you are not reading Homer or Rilke.
Author's Note for Writers
For those of you interested in writing poetry, as a teacher, preacher, and fan of poetry I ask that you do two simple things:
- Know and appreciate form.
- Read more poetry than you write.
Otherwise, I can guarantee that you will never write a single piece of redeemable poetry in your entire life, regardless of whether you write free verse or not. Reading is the single most important part of writing. Try to set a standard of some sort; for every one poem you write, read ten. I promise you that over time, the quality of your work will increase parallel to the amount of poetry you read (and more importantly, understand, as simply reading a poem does nothing for you if you fail to understand what's going on and what makes it good or bad).