I believe in the power of poetry, which gives me reasons to look ahead and identify a glint of light.
A poem is a portrait in miniature: A fragment, a moment, an experience. A story told in its most compact form with just as much impact as any novel.
Starting near the 1920s with the Harlem Renaissance (Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson) and moving through the Beat Generation (Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Anne Waldman) and Confessional poetry (Anne Sexton, W.D. Snodgrass, Robert Lowell), twentieth-century poetry evolved from the stuffier prose of centuries past to a form far more free and unfettered. As a result, modern poetry is more approachable than ever. But where do you start the search for a poet who speaks to you?
The answer is that it depends on what you’re looking for. Today’s poets run the gamut from conventional to offbeat. Kay Ryan, Claudia Rankine, Danez Smith, Eileen Myles, and Dana Giola (who famously asked “Can Poetry Matter?”) are all examples of the kaleidoscopic voice of modern verse, which brings us to perhaps the best thing about poetry: its inclusivity. Anyone anywhere at any time can write a poem, and because of that, no matter who you are and what you’re going through, there is always a poet out there who understands.
If you’re feeling contemplative, try Charles Wright:
We go to our graves with secondary affections,
Second-hand satisfaction, half-souled,star charts demagnetized.
We go in our best suits. The birds are flying. Clouds pass.
Sure we’re cold and untouchable, but we harbor no ill will. (Black Zodiac)
Feeling a little sillier? How about Ogden Nash?
A flea and a fly in a flue
Were imprisoned, so what could they do?
Said the fly, “let us flee!”
“Let us fly!” said the flea.
So they flew through a flaw in the flue. (“A Flea and a Fly in a Flue”)
Leaning political? Go with Bernadette Mayer:
Give me your gentrificatees of the Lower East Side including all the well-heeled young Europeans who’ll take apartments without leases
Give me your landlords, give me your cooperators
Give me the guys who sell the food and the computers to the public schools in District One
Give me the IRS-FBI-CIA men who don’t take election day off. (“The Tragic Condition of the Statue of Liberty”)
And when happiness is at your door, remember Thich Nhat Hanh:
Peace is every step.
The shining red sun is my heart.
Each flower smiles with me.
How green, how fresh all that grows.
How cool the wind blows.
Peace is every step.
It turns the endless path to joy. (“Peace Is Every Step”)
Finally, for one of the most out-of-the-box poetry ideas we’ve seen lately, take a look at I Wrote This for You and Only You by Iian S. Thomas, which blends dreamlike photographs with short, vigorous poems for a truly unique and stirring experience:
If you want to meet your grandfather
get in a car and head out to the desert
put your hand out the window
and feel the air slide through your fingers
listen to the music pouring out the engine
watch the world disappear behind you
and where the highway ends and the road turns to dust
where the world shimmers and disappears
you’ll find him there
in every quiet breath. (“Meeting Your Grandfather”)
Like a powerful song or an expressive painting, the message you take away from a poem is uniquely your own, based on your own experiences, and the best poems change their meaning as you, too, change and grow. As Diane Setterfield wrote in The Thirteenth Tale:
There is something about words. In expert hands,
manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind
themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when
you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your
skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you
they work their magic.