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Book Recommendations for Poets

by Lisa Hiton


The stigma around poetry is longstanding, for in many contemporary cultures, our earliest encounters with poems are in classrooms—much like the ones you young writers may find yourself in now. We are asked to read poems and analyze them as though the process should be the same as reading a novel. Or, we are asked to write poems as young tots even though we have never had poetry read to us. In both cases, poems are treated as ordinary—as the same as prose or speech. And so, we continue to find poems “hard” or “enigmatic”. We think of them as complex riddles. In some ways, they are—they are shaped by lines and stanzas. They sometimes rhyme and have distinct rhythms. Poems are an elevated form of speech. And this elevation allows poems to express what we think and how we feel in a given moment of our human experience.

Poetry comes from an oral tradition. If we treat a poem almost as a sheet of music, we can let the poet’s decisions—linebreaks, stanzas, enjambment, rhyme, and meter—guide our reading experience. Because poems demand this much attention to detail, it’s also important to re-learn how to read: we must tune our ears and eyes to slow down. Though lines are shorter than paragraphs, instead of speeding through more quickly, we need to allow more time to hear all of those elevated elements. These details will help us as we advance our reading practices to learn how to read like a poet.


The eyes roll asleep as if turned by the wind
and the lids flutter open slightly like a wing.
The world is an iceberg, so much is invisible!
and was and is, and yet the form, it may be sleeping

—“Sleeping on the Wing” by Frank O’Hara

The title of this blog series, “Reading Like a Writer”, is taken from Francine Prose’s book of the same name. As readers and writers of poetry, this month’s book in the spotlight, Sleeping on the Wing by Kenneth Koch and Kate Farrell take Francine Prose at her word. The book focuses on learning to read poetry, talking about poetry, focusing on specific poets, and finally, the practice of writing poems.

“This book is arranged so that all of a poet’s poems are together. There’s enough of each poet’s work to help you start getting to know it. Sometimes before they know much about poetry, people have the idea that all poetry is more or less the same—a way of writing about special poetic subjects in a certain poetic way. This would make poetry rather uninteresting if it were true, but it isn’t.

Every good poet has an individual and original way of writing. When you first read a poet’s work, that originality will be part of what makes it seem strange and unfamiliar. It’s something like what happens when you go to a foreign country. It’s possible to find the strangeness exciting right away. Of course, what’s strange can also be confusing at first and can make things seem difficult.

Accompanying each poet’s work in this book is a short essay about the poet and the way [they write]. This will help you become familiar with the poet’s style, help you see the point of writing that way, and in general give you a way to begin to feel at ease with reading the poems. After a while you can get to know the styles of various poets, the way you know the personalities of your friends or the sounds of different musical instruments. You will probably like some poets better than others and will be able to think about the differences and talk about your own ideas.”

(Koch and Farrell, 4)


Sleeping on the Wing is organized to bring you into the world of reading poetry first and foremost. Instead of being asked to write an essay about it, you’ll get to luxuriate in it long enough to fall in love with it. Even if you don’t love every poet or poem, you’ll get a sprawl of some of poetry’s greatest hits until you find the styles of poetry that speak directly to you. And like Prose says, you’ll learn to write by writing, yes, but also—and perhaps foremost—by your love of reading.

As you enter this stranger land of language called poetry, Koch and Farrell have specific advice for reading poetry. For starters, they introduce us to the idea that reading poetry is not like any other reading experience. This can be confusing as we are used to words in speech and reading. They tend to mimic how we speak and think. But poems are different. The words are not meant or arranged in the ordinary way we are used to hearing or reading them. Poems are art. And we must consider words as the artist’s material.

It doesn’t make sense to read poetry the way you read a newspaper article. It is good, in general, to read a poem with the kind of freedom, openness and sensitive attentiveness to your own thoughts and feelings that you have when you write a poem yourself or when you listen to a friend talking, or when you hear music. You understand the meaning of the words in the poem with your intellect, but you also respond to the poem with a part of your intelligence that includes your feelings and imagination and experience.

You can like a poem before you understand it, and be moved by it, and in fact, that is a sign that you’re starting to understand it, that you’re reading the poem in a good way. Being moved by a poem—laughing or feeling sad or full of longing—or being excited by it, or feeling (maybe you don’t know why) the “rightness” of the poem is a serious part of reading and liking poetry. You may find what you read to be beautiful, or be reminded of places and times, or find in it another way to look at things. All this can help you understand the poem because it brings it closer to you, makes it a part of your experience. And the better you understand a good poem, the more you’ll like it.

(Koch and Farrell, 8)

Koch and Farrell give us the freedom we need to read poems, whether we already love poetry or have no idea what it is. With a little guidance, we can begin to walk into the water before we’re expected to tread on our own.

Sleeping on the Wing also shows readers how to begin talking about poetry, and then, how to start writing. The more familiar you get with reading poetry—aloud or just on the page—the more you’ll notice you want other words and experiences to be elevated. As in the art of music, this art slows us down and intensifies our experience of thinking and feeling throughout the poem’s duration.

A Little Book on Form: An Exploration into the Formal Imagination of Poetry by Robert Hass: One of the most estranging qualities of poetry to new readers is form. Poetic forms are so different than what we are used to in our speech and reading practices that it would be wise to familiarize yourself with some of the tropes of the genre. Some poems are free verse. Some are blank verse. Others are pantoums. Some are ghazals. Poems about grief and death are elegies. Some love poems are sonnets. Hass guides us through all these forms so that when we encounter one in a book of poems, we might light up knowing the exact words to use to describe it.



Poetry is one of our oldest art forms. From Homer’s The Odyssey, to Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays, to today’s BreakBeat poets who are influenced by hip-hop music and culture, poetry continues to incorporate our idealects, tropes, and nuances no matter the time or nation we find ourselves in.

Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness edited by Carolyn Forché: During the darkest hours of human experience, poets write. As W.H. Auden wrote in his poem “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”, “For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives / in the valley of its making […]”. Forché’s anthology brings us poems from the 20th century from every inhabited continent that illuminate one of poetry’s most important and deep uses: to bear witness. As Nelson Mandela said of the book, “poetry cannot block a bullet […] , but it can bear witness to the evil we prefer to forget, but never can—and never should.” As you read the poems in this anthology, try to identify what makes a poem—in its form and/or content—one of “witness”.

  • What is a poem of “witness”? How do the poems selected by Forché bear witness in form and/or content?
  • What poems or poets are you most drawn to in this collection? What do they share in common? In content? In form?
  • As referenced in the anthology, in the words of Bertolt Brecht, “In these dark times, will there also be singing? / Yes, there will be singing. / About the dark times.” What does this say about poetry? What does this say about the human desire to make poems? Based on the themes in this book, what is the relationship between suffering and art? How do the poems express that connection?

Americans’ Favorite Poems edited by Robert Pinsky and Maggie Dietz: As poet laureate from 1997-2000, Robert Pinsky founded the Favorite Poem Project. After receiving thousands of letters from Americans about their favorite poems, Pinsky and Dietz put together an anthology of these beloved poems. Whether ancient or contemporary, the poems celebrate and represent many corners of our cultural and interpersonal experiences. Each poem is paired with a passage by the reader who chose it as a favorite. This passionate anthology is unlike others in its breadth and accessibility, entering the poems with no theme other than their belovedness to a given reader.

  • How do the poems in this anthology, and the letters which accompany them, paint an image of the cultural importance of poems? How do poems connect people and communities?
  • What is your favorite poem? What would you write about it? Would you submit it to the Favorite Poem Project today?

As you dive into the wreck of human experience through reading poems, experiment by reading poems aloud, reading poems on the page, and of course, reading the poems you love over and over until they sound and seem more like a great song than they do like our ordinary way of speaking. It is in the experience of a poem that this art form best captures the elements of human emotion.


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