Many people write poetry, but don’t read it. This is missing half the equation. Writers are then disappointed and frustrated when magazines reject their work, because such markets are looking for identifiably contemporary poetry. Let’s say you have the impulse to write poetry from time to time, and occasionally jot something down. The poems you remember might be from your school years, but not much else. This initial impulse towards poetry may be positive, but it needs to be developed. Otherwise, you are like a gardener who weeds and plants some seeds just a few times a year–and then wonders at the poor result. Luckily, there are many ways to immerse yourself in poetry.
The first, most important, step in learning about poetry is to read it. Don’t just stick with a few old favorites. Contemporary poetry–both in English and in translation–is a vast and varied field. Begin to explore books of contemporary poetry. One of the best places to start is the simplest and least expensive–your public library. Libraries, even small ones, have a poetry section stocked with new poetry books that are well reviewed or prize winners. They will also stock local poets. A public library presents a wonderful selection of preselected books. And don’t be afraid to ask a reference librarian for suggestions–as a rule, librarians love to help writers and of course readers.
Anthologies of poetry can also be helpful, but don’t limit yourself to them. Joan Logghe, author of numerous books of poetry including Twenty Years In Bed With The Same Man and Blessed Resistance has this to say about reading: “It’s important to distinguish between reading a poem in anthologies, which is how so much poetry is taught, and really getting the voice of a poet by reading their books, and if you love them, everything you can lay hands on. Their are certain poets I love … my fellow Pittsburgher Gerald Stern for one, who bring me to write over and over, who saturate me with language, or
rhythm and I can’t resist the urge.”
Making The Poem Yours
There are steps beyond just reading a poem. When you find a poem that you really love, get close to it. Read the poem aloud to yourself. Then memorize it. A memorized poem is a gift you give yourself that you can’t lose.
Poet Carol Moldaw, who teaches at Stonecoast’s MFA program and is the author The Lightning Field and Chalkmarks on Stone has an intriguing way of getting to know a poem–she copies it out in her own handwriting. Take her advice–and then maybe post the poem in an inspirational spot.
Listening To Poetry
One of the most inspiring–and usually entertaining–ways to listen to poetry is to attend a live poetry reading. If you live in a big city, the local newspaper should list events almost every night of the week–at bookstores, Y’s, colleges and universities, and literary centers. As a rule, such events are free and open to the public. At a poetry reading, you can see the poet, sit back, and listen. Consider buying one of the poet’s books and getting it signed.
If you live in a smaller town or the country, events will be less numerous. But watch your local bookstore for events. Community colleges and small colleges also have visiting writers. And if live events aren’t readily available, do listen to some audio tapes of poets reading. Again, the local public library is your best initial resource. Poetry on video can also be dynamic. A classic video, “Poetry In Motion” is a few hours of lively performance. Also, Lannan Foundation has an excellent library of poetry videos with audio files available on the web. Look at http://www.lannan.org/lf/lit/video-library.
Magazines and Resources
Literary magazines are of course full of a variety of contemporary poetry. These may be uneven in quality and reflect an idiosyncratic editor’s taste, but be all the more interesting for it. To find literary magazines, look for them at independent and even chain bookstores, cafes with a good magazine selection, and again, the library. An excellent resource for finding magazines that publish poetry is: Poets and Writers (www.pw.org). Also, look at Poet’s Market from Writer’s Digest.
The web also has thousands of e-zines, electronic magazines, that publish poetry and can be read for free. Start with one you like, and then follow the links.
Some suggested E-Zines:
Big Bridge (http://www.bigbridge.org)
The Drunken Boat (www.thedrunkenboat.com)
Santa Fe Poetry Broadside (sfpoetry.org)
Some More Advice From The Experts
Nancy Fay is an editor and publicist who has worked for numerous literary publishers. She is currently running the poetry reading series at Collected Works Bookstore, the oldest independent bookstore in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
She has some very original observations: “I always tell anyone who wants to write good poetry that they need to read lots of great poetry. I also point out that they know lots of great poetry even if they don’t think they do. Many people know by heart thousands of song lyrics—many of them are great poetry. How many verses of Dylan’s “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” or Green Day’s “Losing My Religion” or a standard ballad like “It Had To Be You” do you already knows by heart? Many people also know huge amounts of sacred literature such as the psalms by heart without realizing that it is great poetry. Great poetry, a variety of forms, a passion for ideas beautifully expressed—- It can be a wonderful moment when people see that they already have an enormous amount of poetry in their lives, much of it memorized and dearly held. Adding to that treasury then becomes a more attainable undertaking.”
J.B.. Bryan is the editor of La Alameda Press, one of the premier poetry publishers in the Southwest. As a result, he sees a lot of work he doesn’t want to publish–as well as poetry that he does. What distinguishes the two?
Bryan says: “Folks who want to write poetry but don’t read it are similar to folks who want to paint but don’t study art history or go to museums,
are similar to folks who want to meditate but don’t engage with a tradition.
They have no sense of lineage and after awhile the enthrallment of self-expression runs dry. But some of the real joy is in the participation within the lineage, discovering others gone or alive who one resonates with
is part of the practice. This is why I thought former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky was on to something with his “Favorite Poem Project.’ What’s interesting about the current Slam Phenomena is that there is a lineage to it too. Performance poetry (has) roots through the Beats to Vachel Lindsay to Walt Whitman etc.”
And a bit of inspiration from Marguerite Bouvard, author of five books including the prize winning Journeys Over Water: “ Read for PLEASURE and discovery. Don’t look for the grandiose but for the simple wonders around you. Poetry opens a window in life…”