For many, it's a challenge to be habitually reading poetry. If you were a student of poetry in college (like me), you were often given a list of recommended poetry works by your esteemed professors. Why was it always so impossible to penetrate these lists?
Because another person's list is simply that: another person's journey, not yours. Their list is all about them. And you need to build your own list, a list that is all about you! That’s the journey of life and it's the same with poetry.
You need to find your own way. And I can tell you that once you do, reading poetry becomes something you look forward to, if not an all-consuming adventure.
Start by thinking about your own interests and obsessions. As you search for books to read, one title or article will lead to another and, before you know it, you’ll have a lengthy list of poetry to find and read. Find those titles that connect with you. Soon it will start feeling like a quest.
1. Explore by Style
Are you’re interested in perfecting your own poetic style or exploring the tricks other poets are using? Are you looking for new ideas of craft? You can search for books of poetry based on style. Look for classical formalists writing in rhyme, meter or particular forms like ghazals or sestinas. I went through a phase of trying to figure out why sonnets were so satisfying in length and I can’t pass up a crown of them. Anthologies can help you find writers who are working in particular forms. You can also follow conceptual poets this way as well, poets working with types of automatic or computer-generated content, poets who have developed various experiments of chance and theory.
2. Topic Quest
Are you interested in psychological topics, historical topics, scientific topics? Are you interested in books about a particular place? Do you want to read food poems, murder poems, ghost poems, cowboy poems, Zen poems? I have gone through searches on all of these topics over the years. I even have a very eclectic taste for pop-culture poems that mention singer-actress Cher. Whatever your obsession may be, there are poems out there for you.
3. Meet the People
Soon you'll find your favorite poets and will want to read all their books. You might be swayed by the cult of celebrity and want to read books by poets who make the news or win awards. You can also develop your own quirky explorations. Recently, I’ve been buying the books of faculty poets at every college or university I visit. My sister-in law likes to buy t-shirts from colleges all over the country; I buy books of faculty poetry. I make an extra stop at the university bookstore in every town I visit. Essentially it’s about meeting people and hearing what they have to say. You can figure out a map-of-meeting that interests you.
4. Fancy a Publisher
Sometimes you find you like a certain publisher and the way they publish their books. You like their paper or binding style, their cover artwork, or the type of works they publish. Something about their style amuses your sensibilities or you appreciate their political, cultural or social mission. As a fan of a publisher, you can explore their catalog.
5. Support Your Friends
Sooner or later, we all have friends who publish. At least many of our teachers have already published. I try to buy all the books my friends publish and at least one book by all my teachers and published acquaintances. Yes, sometimes it's about your karmic bank account. But it’s also about listening to your friends and appreciating what they do. Knee-jerk support combats natural feelings of competitiveness, jealously and superiority.
6. Follow Your Sensibilities
Each generation has sensibilities: diner culture sensibilities of the 1950s, Beatles-era sensibilities of the 1960s, New Wave and GenX sensibilities of the 1980s. It’s not quite a style; it’s not quite a topic. It’s about experiences, living with old or new technologies, processing changes and modernity, and how your generation consumes and makes sense of it all. Because I’m a GenXer, I tend to seek out poets who write about pop culture, feminism and identity in an ironic, irreverent ways.
7. Poetry Readings
If you go to a poetry reading, which 99% of the time is a free experience, buy the poet’s book. I’d even say whether you like it or not. No one's getting rich here. If you support the cause, support the cause. You just might be surprised what treasures you bring home. And a book that doesn't speak to you now may speak to you in 10 years. I’m often dismayed to hear poets brag about supporting their local economies at the grocery store but they can’t seem to bring themselves to do it at the local book store.
8. Unlikely Places
Be on the lookout for poetry in unlikely places: garage sales, art shows, history museums, local city museums. I found a poet in a local city museum in Bandon, Oregon, during a family reunion. The woman who wrote the book was about the age of my mother and had experienced a remarkably similar childhood as my mother had on the coast of Oregon. Finding that book enabled me to understand my mother’s experience in a fresh way. (I also found a picture of my grandfather on the wall at that museum!)
As I mentioned earlier, recommendations are often problematic but, once in a while, a friend will let you in on a great, secret find. I’ve been sent boxes of books by friends and it sometimes takes me years to get to a book. I can't tell you how many times I've cried out, “Book! Where have you been all my life??” and fretted that I hadn't made my way to the book sooner. But that’s how life is: stuff comes to you when it comes to you. Also be on the lookout for recommendations in journals, online and from reviews in old newspapers.
10. Free Books!
Big tip time: don’t assume everything marked "Free" is worthless. Don’t be a hoarder but take a book or two from the free pile at events, garage sales and those boxes on the stoops of used book stores. Give it a shot and see what you find. It’s like supermarket surprise!
Soon you’ll find that one book truly does lead to another and another. You can look for ideas in bookstores, literary journals, poetry anthologies, poetry textbooks, publisher catalogs like Copper Canyon's seasonal catalog. I’ve found a few amazing Zen books there. You should also be open to finding poetry in museums, on TV shows, or from teachers in other disciplines. My mindfulness teacher used to start each week’s class with a poem!
Without opening yourself up to finding new poetry, you'll miss out on reading friendships, surprising epiphanies and the amazing journey of reading your books.