In college, while I was getting my degree in Creative Writing, I read at least a book a week. Finishing my degree with an emphasis in poetry, much of what I read for school was verse. As a post-grad, much of what I picked up from the local bookshop was not. Memoir, fiction, self-help--my favorite books from the last 4 years are almost poetry-free. I'd like to say that I just didn't think about buying poetry. But the truth is something a bit more complicated. Poetry sits on my stomach. Poetry sucks the air out of my lungs and blows it back in again with force. It lives in my skin for days after I read it. It repeats itself over and over in front of my eyes. If that sounds uncomfortable, that's because it sometimes is. It's not a mistake that I took a break from it.
Coming back from our recent trip to Scotland (many posts on that to follow), I knew I had to start reading more verse. In the raw wilderness and the many moments of stillness, poetry found me again. Nearly every day, four five six poems fell out of me. Back home, I got online and ordered three new books to try to keep my creative spirit flowing: two from poets who were some of my greatest influences as a student, and a new-to-me poet who I've since fallen madly for. I hope you'll consider taking home a book of poems yourself. Recite them aloud if you're not used to reading verse. You might find it hard to turn back.
The Dream of a Common Language: Adrienne Rich is one of our country's most important feminist poets. Published in 1978, this book is the first that Rich published after coming out as a lesbian. In it, she explores issues of power structures in love, politics and patriarchal society. While some of the issues seem almost over-explored now, at the time, this was revolutionary work. Still, there are moments where she takes my breath away. Nearly 40 years later, it's soothing to see how far we've come and uncomfortable to see how familiar some of her observations about the oppression of women still feel.
The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton: If you went through a dark and tortured Sylvia Plath phase in college but never quite got to Anne Sexton, it's time. One of the most radical confessional poets of her time, Anne Sexton was responsible for some of the most beautiful, fragile, and tragic lines in the English language. I've had to skip and skim and find my favorites in this mega volume of her work. She was a severely mentally ill person--a fact that makes some of her poems unbearably dark and incoherently obsessive. But when she was able to pull herself out of her intense depression, she was able to communicate an emotional complexity that I find simply overwhelming in its beauty. You can read some of my favorite pieces of hers here, here, and here.
Voyage of the Sable Venus by Robin Coste Lewis: This 2015 National Book Award Winner is in many ways the poet I feel I've been waiting for. In the center section of her triptych book, Lewis explores the evolution of the black female figure throughout history in a series of poems composed entirely of titles of ancient and contemporary artwork that feature a black female figure. Seemingly banal titles like "Young Black Female/Carrying A Perfume Vase" are rearranged with such intention and insight that they become an incantation illustrating the myriad ways the black woman's body has been tortured and twisted and made symbolic over the course of centuries. On either side of this center section, Lewis explores her own journey, her own body, her own story with colorful and emotional mastery. Above is "Summer," one of my favorites from the book.