Ray Bradbury once said, “you must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you” in his book, “Zen in the Art of Writing.” For most of my life, this has rung true. Writing poetry is an escape, an outlet for expression, a way to dump the contents of my own mind out on the page, pick up the pieces and arrange them in a way that makes sense to me. Reading poetry has a similar effect. Sometimes I don’t even know what I’m thinking until I read it in a poem and think, “That’s it. That’s what I’ve been looking for.” If you’re into poetry, you know exactly what I’m talking about. If you’re not, here’s eleven poets to get you started.
Born in San Francisco in 1874, Robert Frost did not gain critical acclaim for his work until he was 40 years old. For the next 50 years, he made a name for himself as the unofficial “poet laureate” of the United States. He experienced unexplainable tragedy in his adult life, including the deaths of 4 of his 6 children. Frost searches for meaning through his poetry, focusing on those moments when the physical and spiritual realms intersect. In “Education by Poetry”, Frost explains that “Poetry begins in trivial metaphors, pretty metaphors, ‘grace’ metaphors and goes on to the profoundest thinking that we have. Poetry provides the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another… Unless you are at home in the metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere.”
E. E. Cummings
Ranked among the best love poets of his time, E. E. Cummings decided to pursue writing when he was still a child. He wrote a poem every day between the ages of eight and twenty-two. As an innovator, his work is highly experimental. He invented his own personal style through a dynamic use of language, ignoring conventional punctuation and syntax. Through his poetry, he explored themes of love, childhood, innocence, individuality, and commercialism. Cummings explained, “So far as I am concerned, poetry and every other art was, is, and forever will be strictly and distinctly a question of individuality.”
Leonard Cohen is a Canadian artist who explored religion, politics, isolation, sexuality and personal relationships through his writing. Cohen is a man of many mediums, taking to music, poetry and painting. This is not surprising as he was born to intellectual parents who always encouraged him to pursue his passions. He attended McGill University, however, writing often took priority over his studies. He published his first collection the year after he graduated, titled “Let Us Compare Mythologies”. It wasn’t until well into his thirties that Cohen began to explore New York’s music scene, enchanting the world with his debut album “Songs of Leonard Cohen.” In 2006, he released his final book of poems “Book of Longing” which contains 167 previously unpublished poems and drawings. He passed away ten years later, leaving behind a legacy as one of the most consistently daring artists of our time.
After a while
I started playing with dolls
I loved their peaceful expressions
They all had their places
in a corner of Room 315I would say to myself:
It doesn’t matter
that you can’t breathe
that you are hopelessly involved
in the panic of the situation –
It is the will of G-d
I’d light a cigarette
and a stick of Nag Champa
Both would burn too fast
in the draft of the ceiling fanThen I might say
for the terms of my life
which make it so painfully clear
that I am powerless
to control Youand I’d watch CNN
the rest of the night
from a completely different
point of view”
(Leonard Cohen 2006, “Book of Longing”)
Cohen delves into existential themes, religion and the mundane in “Religious Statues.” I love this poem because of its simplicity. Cohen doesn’t use eloquent language, depicting a scene where he smokes a cigarette and ponders life. It is widely relatable.
Linda Hogan is a novelist, essayist, environmentalist and poet. Her poetry deals with environmentalism, feminism, the relocation of Native Americans and historical narratives. She is currently the Chickasaw Nation’s Writer in Residence. As the first person in her family to go to school, Hogan never thought she would become a writer. She said, “I don’t believe in such a thing as talent. It takes perseverance. I will do it over and over again until I get it right.” When asked, “How do you know when you get it right?” Hogan explains, “It’s intuitive”.
Writer of intimate, familial poetry, Louise Glück is considered to be one of America’s most talented contemporary poets. She delves deep into heavy topics like loneliness, family relationships and death. New York Times critic William Logan described that “her poems have been dark, damaged and difficult to avert your gaze from.” Wendy Lesser noted in the Washington Post Book World that “The strength of the voice derives in large part from its self-centredness – literally, for the words in Glück’s poems seem to come directly from the centre of herself.” Glück herself explains that “Writing is a kind of revenge against circumstance too: bad luck, loss, pain. If you make something out of it, then you’ve no longer been bested by these events”.
Are you healed or do you only think you’re healed?I told myself
nothing could be taken away.
But can you love anyone yet?
When I feel safe, I can love.
But will you touch anyone?
I told myself
if I had nothing
the world couldn’t touch me.
In the bathtub, I examine my body.
We’re supposed to do that.
I was vigilant: when I touched myself
I didn’t feel anything.
Were you safe then?
I was never safe, even when I was most hidden.
Even when I was waiting.
So you couldn’t protect yourself?
erodes; the boundary, the wall
around the self erodes.
If I was waiting I had been
invaded by time.
But do you think you’re free?
I think I recognize the patterns of my nature.
But do you think you’re free?
I had nothing
and I was still changed.
Like a costume, my numbness
was taken away. Then
hunger was added.
(Louise Glück 1999, “Vita Nova”)
“Mutable Earth” explores pain and vulnerability. The poem begins, “I told myself from nothing, nothing could be taken away”, depicting the mentality that to avoid pain, you must avoid everything. Throughout the poem, Glück asks “but do you think you’re free?” By the final stanza, she realizes “I had nothing and I was still changed.” That is to say, growth is inevitable. To be alive is to suffer, whether you are numb or open to possibility. “Mutable Earth” has served as a reminder for myself to stay open in spite of fear.
Alejandra Pizarnik is considered one of mid-century Argentina’s most powerful and intense lyric poets. Since her suicide at age 36, her poetry has gained an audience among those coming of age. Described as a “tormented talent”, she revealed that “I would have preferred to sing the blues in some smoke-filled hangout than spend the nights of my life scrabbling through language like a madwoman.” Pizarnik utilized repetition, contradiction and ambiguous words to paint a picture of the madness that ran through her own mind. She explained, “You write poems because you need a place where what isn’t may be.”
My favourite poem
” (9th poem on page)
Naomi Shihab Nye
Naomi Shihab Nye spent her childhood in both Jerusalem and San Antonio, Texas. As a result, her experience of cultural difference has influenced much of her work. Nye has said that, “the primary source of poetry has always been local life, random characters met on the streets, our own ancestry sifting down to us through small essential daily tasks.” Identified as a “wandering poet”, her poems are written in free verse and explore the theme of a journey or quest. Nye explained, “I have always loved the gaps, the spaces between things, as much as the things. I love staring, pondering, mulling, puttering. I love the times when someone or something is late – there’s that rich possibility of noticing more, in the meantime… Poetry calls us to pause. There is so much we overlook, while the abundance around us continues to thinner, on its own.”
While Sexton’s childhood was comfortable, her relationships with her parents were borderline abusive. Struggling with depression for most of her life, she died by suicide at age 46. Considered a confessional poet, Sexton explains, “All I wanted was a little piece of life, to be married, to have children…. I was trying my damnedest to lead a conventional life, for that was how I was brought up, and it was what my husband wanted of me. But one can’t build little white picket fences to keep the nightmares out.” Fellow writer Erica Jong notes that “she is an important poet not only because of her courage in dealing with previously forbidden subjects, but because she can make the language sing.”
As one of the most respected Beat writers, Allen Ginsberg first gained attention in 1956 with the publication of “Howl and Other Poems”, full of angry and sexually explicit poems. Deemed a “thoroughly honest poet”, Ginsberg explored the complexities of familial relationships, spirituality, and libertarian politics. Ginsberg explains that, “poetry is not an expression of the party line. It’s that time of night, lying in bed, thinking what you really think, making the private world public, that’s what the poet does.” He urges fellow poets to “concentrate on what you want to say to yourself and your friends. Follow your inner moonlight, don’t hide the madness. You say what you want to say when you don’t care who’s listening.”
Warsan Shire is a poet and activist whose work explores gender, war, sex and cultural assumptions. Shire explains in an interview that “character driven poetry is important for me — it’s being able to tell the stories of those people, especially refugees and immigrants, that otherwise wouldn’t be told, or they’ll be told really inaccurately. And I don’t want to write victims, or martyrs or vacuous stereotypes.” Her writing is unapologetic, nostalgic and thoroughly captivating.
Born in New York City, Richard Siken is a poet, painter and filmmaker. Writer Nell Casey explained, “he effectively juxtaposes holy wishes with mundane images—making them both seem beautiful by some strange lyrical alchemy.” In 2004, his book “Crush” won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, selected by Louise Glück. Siken has also written, “War of the Foxes”, a haunting 49 page book of poems that explores the problems of representation, questions of human capacity and the ways in which we look to art for meaning. It is full of existential themes that we share collectively as humans, which is what makes it so captivating.
My favourite poem: “Landscape with Fruit Rot and Milipede”
Are you into poetry? Who would you add to this list of must-read poets? Share with us @RUStudentLife.