A few of the books I enjoyed reading, or rereading, in January 2019:
- Patrizia Cavalli’s My Poems Won’t Change the World: a selection of Cavalli’s poems from 1974’s My Poems Won’t Change the World through to 2006’s Lazy Gods, Lazy Fate, edited by Gini Alhadeff, with translations from the Italian by Alhadeff, Jorie Graham, Kenneth Koch, Susan Stewart, and Mark Strand (poetry: Penguin, 2007).
- Pablo Neruda’s The Captain’s Verses (Los versos del Capitán): translated from the Spanish by Donald D. Walsh (poetry: New Directions, 1972).
- Autumn Royal’s She Woke and Rose (poetry: Cordite Publishing, 2016).
- Clare Nashar’s Lake (poetry: Cordite Publishing, 2016).
- John G. Trapani Jr’s Poetry, Beauty, and Contemplation: The Complete Aesthetics of Jacques Maritain (philosophy: Catholic University of America Press, 2011).
- Albert Camus’ Selected Essays and Notebooks (essays: Penguin Books, 1970).
- Franz Wright’s Earlier Poems: a selection of Wright’s poems from 1982’s The One Whose Eyes Open When You Close Your Eyes through to 1995’s Rorschach Test (poetry: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007).
A few practical ideas for getting (a little more) poetry into day-to-day life:
- Keep a book of poems on your bedside table. Reading a poem or two at bedtime is a vastly better prospect than falling asleep halfway through the next chapter of that novel you’re reading. A poem or two is a perfect nightcap for those who sleep alone; for those who don’t sleep alone, there’s Pablo Neruda’s The Captain’s Verses (Los versos del Capitán), a collection of the 20th century’s most ecstatic and passionate love poems.
- Keep a book of poems on your coffee table, or wherever it is you sit down to drink your cup of daily grind. Poetry is a perfect companion for good coffee, good food, good wine and good company, even if ‘company’ means a few quiet moments by yourself.
- Print out a favourite poem and put it on your fridge.
- Carry a small book of poems with you. You’ve got a spare minute or two? Your lunch date is running late? Why pull out your phone, when you can flip open a book of poems instead?
- Use poems as part of your mindfulness practice. Read a poem. Be attentive to the words: their meanings, their sounds, their feel in your mouth, the rhythm of your breath, the resonances or reminiscences, the textures of the book or page… Choose a word or phrase that speaks to you. Carry that word or phrase with you during your day.
- Write a few lines from your favourite poem or song on a bookmark.
- Read a poem to your kids at bedtime. Anyone for Dr Seuss? All those nursery rhymes you remember from your childhood? They’re all poems.
- Sign up for Poetry Foundation’s Poem of the Day. We’re all busy people: why not have poems sent straight to your device of choice? The Poetry Foundation site has a wealth of resources, including poems for children and teens, audio poems, information about poets and schools of poetry, collections of poems by theme, and guides for poetry newcomers.
- If you’re keen on Australian poetry, try the Australian Poetry Library. The poems can be browsed for free. The site also enables you to save poems to a personal selection, which you can download or email for a small copyright fee. The poems are searchable by title, author, theme and form. Looking for somewhere to start? Try the poems of David Malouf, Judith Beveridge or Thomas W. Shapcott.
If you’re new to poetry and don’t know where to start, try getting hold of an anthology of contemporary poetry from your local library or bookshop.
What is a poetry anthology? It’s a book that includes poems by a variety of poets, rather than just one poet. Anthologies often have a particular theme (e.g. Harbour City Poems: Sydney in Verse), or focus on a particular place and/or time (e.g. The Best American Poetry 2018, or The Forward Book of Poetry 2019), or present a survey of poetry over time (e.g. The Norton Anthology of Poetry, which includes poems in English from the 7th century to the present, or Australian Poetry Since 1788, or Puncher & Wattmann’s Contemporary Australian Poetry).
Why an anthology? Because an anthology includes poems by a variety of poets, though usually only one or two poems by each. This helps you get acquainted with a range of poems, in a range of styles, with a range of themes, and by a range of poets. It increases the likelihood you’ll come across poems you enjoy. As you read the anthology, trust your judgment on which poems you like or dislike, enjoy or don’t enjoy, are engaged by or not engaged by. Follow up on the poems you like best: see if you can find more poems by those poets online, or try getting hold of a book of poems specifically by that poet.
Why contemporary poetry? Because contemporary poetry, meaning poetry from the 20th and 21st centuries, generally uses words and syntax that are familiar to us – in contrast to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 20, for example, which reads: ‘And for a woman wert thou first created, / Till nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting.’ There’s a good argument for reading Shakespeare’s sonnets, but if you’re new to poetry, why not start with something closer to home, in terms of what a poem describes and the way it uses language to describe it.
The truth is we can live without poetry.
Many or most people live perfectly fulfilling and contented lives without much exposure to poetry, day to day, month to month, or year to year. Yet I’m convinced that a good life, even the best life, is better with poetry. And, of course, many people still turn to poetry during the profoundest moments of their lives, so we still often hear poems being read at weddings and funerals.
But, by and large, we can live without poetry.
I would say though, to the many people who live without much poetry in their lives, if you find yourself in a world in which talk is cheap, in which words have become a devalued currency, in which politicians, shysters and hucksters have eroded the substance of truth and meaning, and in which a person’s word can be all but worthless – and if this aggrieves you, then maybe look again to poetry for what it can offer.
Poetry – through its careful trust and distrust of words, and its determined pursuit of meaning – is one of the antidotes to that world.