Kristen challenged me to dig more into poetry this month. I remember well the poetry unit in high school English. My favorite teacher, Mrs. Peng, had us use a text called Sound and Sense, with a green cover. I hated the unit, and could not wait for it to be over. I could not get into “Ode to a Grecian Urn” by John Keats, which it seemed we spent at least a month on (it was probably two class periods, but it felt like torture). When we were required to choose a poem to analyze line-by-line, I picked “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell, in the hopes that the semi-scandalous subtext would excuse me from digging too deeply into anything other than strict meter and rhythm. (It did not; I believe I got a B.)
I did my best to forget about poetry until years later when I read Neil Gaiman’s collection Smoke and Mirrors, which contains several poems scattered among the short stories. This collection blew my mind for many reasons; first, because he includes a lengthy introduction that tells a bit of the story behind each selection in the book. Second, it was the first time I saw poems as being anything other than overblown melodrama. Gaiman’s poems made me squirm, and shudder, just like his short stories and novels do. It had never occurred to me before that, outside of limericks, poetry could take on a variety of tones and genre. And his explanation of a sestina (a particularly rigid form of poetry with six verses followed by an envoi, with certain words repeating in a certain order—it’s dizzying, truly) made me want to play with words again.
But I did not actively seek out poetry until after my mother died, and my dear friend Cassidy Hall sent me a copy of ’Mary Oliver‘s Thirst. Grief can do really odd things to a person, and different griefs can do different things to the same person. After my mother’s death I found it hard to read anything “pleasant,” opting instead for horror novels, with the exception of Mary Oliver. There was something about her poems—short, accessible, everyday—that made me feel like she was saying, “Yes, I see that tender spot. It’s real. I have felt that too. Come listen to geese with me; they know it too.” Her poetry kept me grounded in a way that the Bible itself could not through that grief. Without preaching, it allowed me to sit, to feel, to listen, to be whatever I needed to be in the moment, and that was pure gift.
Since I’d found it so useful, I went out on a limb and took a poetry class last April (which is National Poetry Writing Month, so heads up: get your quills and ink pots ready, friends). The class was offered through Convivium School, by instructor Rebecca Bratten Weiss. We studied a different type of poem daily for the entire month, and wrote our own examples of each. I was smitten, and have been seeking out poetry to read (and attempting more writing) since.
Below are some of my favorite collections by “feel.”
Are you in the mood for something comforting? Want to commune with nature? In addition to Thirst, I recommend Mary Oliver’s A Thousand Mornings. There is nothing that Oliver cannot make lovely. (Incidentally, this was also a gift from Cassidy, who also makes everything lovely.)
Are you in the mood for something to break your heart and put it back together again like only an Irish poet can? Try anything by Padraig O’Tuama. I’m currently reading In the Shelter, which is a memoir with poetry interspersed. He is truly phenomenal.
Are you in the mood for something uncanny? Try Joanna Penn Cooper’s The Itinerant Girl’s Guide to Self-Hypnosis. She will have you looking at ordinary things upside-down and through a veil.
Are you in the mood for some biting feminism? Try anything by R. Bratten Weiss. If you’d like to combine some uncanniness with some biting feminism, Penn Cooper and Bratten Weiss have a remarkable collaborative work, Mud Woman.
Are you in the mood for something uncanny, horrifying, and grief-driven? I know that sounds like an odd combination, but if you grieve like I do you may really enjoy The Mobius Strip Club of Grief by Bianca Stone.
Are you in the mood for historical fiction that’s also horrific? This one is a tough read, but I highly recommend The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded by Molly McCully Brown. McCully Brown writes fictional poetry based on actual records from the asylum. This one is disturbing.
Are you in the mood for feminist horror, with a bit of whimsy? Try Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty by Christine Heppermann. You may chuckle and cringe at the same time.
Are you in the mood for whimsy, with just a touch of horror? Try Pinpricks: A Book of Tiny and Terrible Oddities by Jason Pell. This book is described as “micro fictions and illustrations.” It may be like flash-graphic novel? I find it downright poetic.
You’ll notice that many of my selections are horror-related; that’s just my genre of choice. I can guarantee that if you’re more into, say, westerns, or romance, or science fiction, there will be collections out there to suit your preferences. Feel free to share some of your favorites.