read poetry

On the importance of reading poetry.

I started writing poetry just after hitting my teens and quickly fell in love with the artistry, wordplay, and rhythmic challenge of crafting poems.

A few years later, it occurred to me that I should be reading poetry, so I looked at a few books of poetry but found nothing that spoke to me. For years afterward, I continued to write poetry but did not read the works of established poets. Fortunately, I eventually went to college, where I was forced to read poetry and finally found works and poets that resonated with me.

It’s not unusual to encounter young poets who don’t read poetry. Some say they don’t want their work to be influenced by other poets, but many have faced the same difficulty I did: they haven’t been able to find poetry that they like.

As a young poet, most of the works I encountered were irrelevant to me. I didn’t care about the topics, and the language felt outdated. A lot of it was form poetry, and I have since discovered that I prefer free-form. It was like digging down a massive mountain to unearth a few small, sparkly gems. Frankly, it took too much effort to find one poet or poem that interested me.

But that was back before the internet. Nowadays, it’s much easier to scan through the available works of poetry to find the good stuff. However, I think the internet has presented a new problem; there’s so much poetry out there that it’s hard to find something that clicks. And because it’s so easy to publish nowadays, a lot of available work is amateurish.

How a Lack of Reading Shows in Your Work

There’s no rule that says every person who writes poetry must read poetry. Plenty of poets write for the sole purpose of personal expression. Poetry writing can be therapeutic, cathartic, and enjoyable. Nobody needs to read in order to write such poetry. But there’s a difference between writing for oneself and writing for an audience of strangers.

When you don’t read or study poetry, it shows in your work. There are identifiers that expose a lack of readership; here are some of the most common clues:

  • Forced rhymes: You can only think of one word that rhymes with lonely, so you force it into your poem even though it makes no sense or interferes with the poem’s focus.
  • Meter mishaps: You can’t find a way to arrange the words so that the meter remains intact. Oh well, you decide, and break the meter pattern for that one line. You hope nobody will notice, but everybody does, because that one line throws off the entire flow of the poem.
  • Square pegs: Similar to meter mishaps, this is when the language is forced to meet the meter, resulting in phrasings that sounds super awkward because the poet is trying to say something in five syllables that simply cannot be said in less than ten.
  • Word blizzard: Probably the most common mark of an unread poet is the sheer wordiness of a poem. There are often tons of unnecessary words, and the poem reads more like natural speech or choppy prose than crafted poetry.
  • Art has no editor: This is the mark of many amateur writers, not just poets. But it’s especially common for poets to think that a poem must remain pure, existing in its first-draft from for all of eternity. No editing! These poems are unrefined, peppered with typos, and often display all the other hallmarks of poets who are not well read in their form.

It’s not just poets whose work is affected if a writer isn’t well-read. If you read a piece of fiction by an author who doesn’t read fiction, the lack of readership will show in their work. Can you imagine this approach in any other art form? Musicians who don’t listen to music? Filmmakers who don’t watch movies?

Reading poetry and studying the craft strengthens a poet’s work. It is only through reading and study that a poet can make the journey from novice to master.

A Quest for Poetry

Blogs, bookstores, podcasts, and open mics are packed with poetry. It’s true that you’ll have to read a lot of it to find the stuff you love, the poems you’ll want to read over and over, and the poets whose catalogs you’ll want to memorize. Although reading poetry will strengthen your own craft, you will also find it incredibly inspiring. Nothing makes me want to write a poem like reading a poem that I can feel in my bones!

Think about it this way: Most poems can be read in five minutes or less. In fact, most poems take less than a minute to read. So there’s really no excuse. It should be easy to read a poem a day. If you do that—read a poem a day for a year, then by the end of the year, you will surely have discovered some poems and poets that resonate with you.

Here are some tips and resources for your poetry quest:

  • Anthologies: From anthologies used in college courses (filled with classics from the canon) to modern anthologies, these books are an awesome way to read a lot of poets in a short space.
  • A Poetry Handbook: This book is a perfect introduction to poetry reading; it’s a quick and easy read that advises on both reading and writing poetry.
  • Literary journals: Like anthologies, literary journals will expose to you a bunch of poets very quickly. You can find them in bookstores and online. As a bonus, lots of online poetry magazines are free. My favorite is Rattle, which is an ad-free print publication that also publishes poems on its website that you can read free of charge (they are of excellent quality).
  • Sound and Sense: To date, this is the single best book on poetry that I’ve encountered. It’s pricey but worth every penny. Sound and Sense covers tons of literary devices and poetic techniques. Plus it offers plenty of poems for reading and study. If you’re serious about poetry, this is your best investment.
  • Sneak Peeks: Maybe you’ve used the “Look Inside” feature at Amazon to read the first few pages of a novel so you can decide whether you want to buy it. This is also a great way to read some poetry, and if you find anything you like, you can support the author by buying their book.
  • This site is packed with short bios of poets as well as their poetry. An excellent resource for discovering poetry, it’s completely free.
  • Podcasts: You don’t have to park in front of a book or computer to discover poetry. With podcasts, you can listen to poetry while cleaning, exercising, and commuting. Look for a “Poem a Day” podcast. My personal favorite was the now-defunct Indiefeed Performance Poetry, which is archived online and features poetry that is mostly designed for performance and that tends to be modern and edgy.

Good luck with your quest to find excellent poetry! Keep writing, and don’t forget to read!

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