Which Poets Should I Be Reading?

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  • Josh Duncan

    I considered posting this in The Poet’s Corner, but why limit the conversation?

    If you were going to recommend a poet or two to me (or anyone, for that matter) who would it be?

    It could be one of the greats of the past, or someone more recent that you just can’t get enough of. Tell me who, and why you recommend them.

    Shel Silverstein.

    From page to page, each poem and drawing presents a surprise. All at once he can be clever, silly, sad, dark, cynical, hopeful, heartfelt, and oftentimes downright naughty. (He did hang out with rock musicians, after all…) As a whole, Shel Silverstein is fearless. He’s not afraid of disturbing you or unsettling you, and he’s not afraid of writing, on many occasions and always with a great dose of poignancy, about God. I come back to his work again and again, to be humbled, re-ignited, and inspired. No matter what he wrote about, you always got the sense that he was inviting you into his world and to participate in his creative process, that he was speaking directly to you, as a true storyteller and a friend…a friend who was a little rough around the edges (the photos of him on the back of his books always freaked me out a bit), but someone you could trust to walk with you into the dark.

    This might be jumping into the deep end, but I say John Milton, because Paradise Lost is a work of staggering breadth and genius, and T. S. Eliot, because The Four Quartets is one of the most profound and mysterious things I’ve ever read.

    ---Hutchmaster Prime, wielder of great and terrible cheeses

    William Cowper. Every. Single. One.

    William Cowper. Every. Single. One.
    He is both hilarious and profoundly deep–anything from writing a letter in poem form about clams sent to him that went bad en route to God Moves In a Mysterious Way.

    Yes to all so far!  Also George Herbert and the modern day Malcolm Guite.

    Josh Duncan

    This is a fun topic! Thanks for all your responses so far.

    I honestly didn’t read much poetry when I was younger. I think my poetic imagination was formed by hymns and Psalms. At some point along the way though, there were some poets that began to stand out. Or maybe it would be better to say there were individual poems that “wowed” me in what they did with language.

    “Old Age Sticks” by ee cummings comes to mind, though I haven’t read much of his work beyond that. Robert Frost as well.

    As far as recommendations are concerned, here are a few of mine (if anyone is interested):

    Gerard Manley Hopkins, though I think he is fairly beloved around these parts. I could read “God’s Grandeur” every day.

    I love Billy Collins. One of the few things better than reading his poetry is hearing him read his poetry.

    B.H. Fairchild, who I only discovered in the last year or two, writes some specatacular narrative poetry. Great imagery, very well-crafted.

    I also enjoy Aaron Belz a lot. Good humorous poetry, but also insightful in other moments.

    I said “one or two poets” didn’t I? I guess I need to learn to obey my own guidelines.

    The poetry that means the most to me in the whole world is Pete’s Jubilations. i don’t even know how to talk about them and i’ve been reading them for two years. They’re in the first Molehill.

    i was also going to say Billy Collins, but you beat me to it. 🙂 Check out the Yokels (Chris and Jen) and Anne Overstreet, too.

    This is a great idea for a thread. i’ve not read much poetry either but am trying to learn how.

    I am going to plug this book: http://www.jacarpress.com/threshing-floor/

    This was written by my wife and is very good.  It is a poetic retelling on the book of Ruth, steeped in deep study of the book for biblical accuracy.


    It is a poetic retelling on the book of Ruth, steeped in deep study of the book for biblical accuracy.

    ::gasp:: Whoops, bought a book.

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    @kenpriebe, your recommendation of Silverstein does not surprise me. I think the story I told my children recently about Cheesebeard the Gnome was likely implanted in my subconscious by the poem you shared.

    In our current homeschooling endeavors, we’ve been reading a lot of Robert Louis Stevenson’s poetry in “A Child’s Garden of Verses” and a collection of William de la Mare. My kids are latching on to the poetry and wanting to have it rattling around in their brains.

    @joshua-duncan, thanks for asking the question. I hope to be able to peruse all of the suggestions and hope that, if you’ve not already, you would check out Douglas McKelvey’s poetry. Also found in The Molehill, his collection of poems around the TVA floodings is striking.

    Jonny Jimison

    These are typical recommendations I think, but that’s because they’re really really ridiculously good:

    – Lewis Carroll

    – A A Milne

    – Edna St Vincent Milay

    …Douglas McKelvey’s poetry. Also found in The Molehill, his collection of poems around the TVA floodings is striking.

    +1. Gosh. Those poems are so good and so hard.

    1 user thanked author for this post.

    -It might seem obvious, but Robert Frost. He is slyly brilliant.

    -Mary Oliver’s musings on the natural world are wonderful.

    -And for something completely unusual, Jack Kerouac’s haiku.

    A few more:

    Louise Glück
    Robert Pinsky
    Sharon Olds
    Todd Davis
    Bobby C. Rogers

    Louise and Robert were my wife’s grad school professors (both former US poet poet laureates).  I have a signed copy of Robert’s translation of Dante’s Inferno that reads “I hope you enjoy the hell out of it”.

    Bobby was my (and my wife’s) creative writing professor in college

    I have also had the pleasure of meeting both Todd and Sharon at various occasions.

    Haven’t heard a voice for Robert Burns yet.  An older Scottish romantic poet that wrote in the vernacular familiar to him.  Very fun to read aloud!  Start with “To a Mouse”.

    Gerard Manley Hopkins, Shakespeare’s sonnets, Donne’s sonnets, Keats, Shelley, John Crowe Ransom. And there’s a very nice new collection of almost all of C. S. Lewis’s poems called The Collected Poems of C. S. Lewis: A Critical Edition edited by Don King. Includes some fantasy stories in poetic form which Lewis wrote. Didn’t mean that to sound like a commercial. But there’s something like 300 pages of Lewis poetry in it!

    Take the time to really work on some Anglo-saxon poetry. Specifically, the Dream of the Rood, the Battle of Maldon, and of course Beowulf. Malcolm Guite’s Faith, Hope, and Poetry has a wonderful chapter on the Dream of the Rood which will help you get the fullest sense out of the original language of the poem. As for Beowulf, Tolkien’s translation and commentary is infinitely superior to Seamus Heaney’s poetic translation, though the latter is a very fun read as well. I suggest reading the Tolkien translation and then going and watching Benjamin Bagby perform it, either live or via the DVD. Alternatively, you can listen to Dr. Michael D. C. Drout read the entire Anglo-Saxon corpus from his website.

    I also didn’t see the Aeneid in here, so I’m going to throw that one into the mix. The translation I used to read it is Robert Fitzgerald, but you can also get a free audio version of other translations on Librivox.

    TL;DR: Read the classics. When you get to the modern stuff later, you’ll appreciate all the allusions they make to those classics you already read.




    Is there a book collection of Cowper that you would recommend? Would you be referring to the Olney Hymns he wrote with Newton or something completely different? Looking for a book maybe on Amazon that I could pick up.

    Amy McCoy

    I have a complete works from the 1800’s that I picked up in Cambridge. Not sure what Amazon has. Anything he wrote is worth it, but I love having all the genres.

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