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Poetry transplants us. It jars us awake with its pace and rhythm, so different from everyday life. It grabs us by the shoulders and says, as Rilke did so brilliantly in “Archaic Torso of Apollo”:

You must change your life.

A good poem distills truth and beauty into sanguine and heady (but never obnoxiously histrionic) lines. This is just to say, I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox, and which you were probably saving for breakfast. William Carlos Williams conjures for us that cold, crisp bite into a refrigerated plum, and also lets us know that so much depends upon a red wheelbarrow. Gertrude Stein pleasantly and maddeningly loops in our head: Very fine is my valentine. Very fine and very mine. Yeats has us slouching towards Bethlehem, and Keats: seeing a bright star. The beautiful, strange world is replete with poetry – and visa versa.

Read the following when you’re in the mood for poetry. They can’t begin to cover the vast versified landscape, but they’re a good start.

The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. Go with the edition translated and edited by Stephen Mitchell, which offers the authority and depth of Rilke’s German originals. Start with the Apollo poem, and “Going Blind.” Move onto “The Panther” and then some excerpts from the arcane Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Then onto the Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus when you’re ready. Only when ready.

Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth, by Warsan Shire. The words of this London-based Kenyan-born Somali poet will stick with you like the cloying humidity of a summer evening. Shire writes of women’s bodies swept over by war and compressions both external and internal. You will, at random moments in your day, think back on phrases like, “Your daughter’s face is a small riot, / her hands are civil war,” and consider how womanhood is even more dimensional than you already knew it to be.

Lyrics, by Bob Dylan. Listening to his music and sitting down with his lyrics are two entirely different activities. Freed of his iconic voice and music, his words sit on the page, smoking their little cigarette and staring back at you with a boldness that makes you squirm. Read them in the evening with a coke. Open the window to hear the crickets before turning on an album (make it Blonde on Blonde) to end the night.

A Thousand Mornings, by Mary Oliver. This Pulitzer Prize-winning poet will give you a gentle push into nature and yourself. This latest collection continues Oliver’s trademark fixations on her animals, the marshland of her home in Provincetown, and the quiet episodes that make up life. I picked up the book and read “Blake Dying” and couldn’t put it down. Notoriously private, Oliver likes to let her work speak for itself. Trust me – no, trust her – it does.

What is your favorite poem and how did you come upon it?

Image via Emily Reiter

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7 comments

  1. I can’t read Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” without weeping just a little. Also, E. E. Cummings “Poem 53” about the little birds is something I read all the time to remember what life is about.

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