So you want to read some poetry!
As we have wound up National Poetry Month 2022, as a final summation I earlier reposted an older post about why it’s important for writers specifically to read poetry (besides the simple fact that poetry is art and it should be enjoyed on that basis alone). Now, I offer up some thoughts on how to start building your poetry section of your personal library. (There is an earlier post in the archives along these same lines, but I looked at it and decided it warranted rewriting.)
Like any subject, it can be daunting to approach buying poetry books if you’ve no idea what’s good and what’s not. My belief is that it’s best to start with a small collection of general poetry volumes, and then branch out into more specific areas as your poetic tastes start to make themselves known. You don’t want to fill your library with single-author collections at first; there’s time for that later on.
The really good thing about exploring poetry, though, is that since poetry has been around since we started chiseling words into rock and painting pictures on cavern walls, so too have books of poetry–so this is where your used bookstores and your library’s used book fundraiser sales can be huge. For not a whole lot of money you can stock a pretty nice little starter library of poetry! For an area of literature that is supposedly so intimidating, poetry is actually very easy to find.
Here’s a small tour of some of my poetry library. This is not exhaustive, but these books are representative of my approach.
Two copies of a very fine collection you might want to start with! It’s two different editions, separated by over fifty years, so while there is a great deal of overlap, there is sufficient difference between the two to warrant both being in my library. The later edition (right) obviously has more recent poetry, but to make room, some older work has been dropped from the earlier edition (left). The old edition was a library discard that I’ve owned for forever. There’s nothing the least bit wrong with it, so in my library it lives, and I turn to it often.
(Now, by “English” verse they’re referring to specifically English poets, not all poets who wrote in English, so there’s a companion Oxford Book of American Poetry. Which I also own!)
Sticking with collections, there is this favorite of mine:
Poetry isn’t just an English-language thing, or a Western world thing, so having a collection or two of verse going beyond the confines of English is a good idea. If you’re multi-lingual, great! You can get collections in whatever languages you have sufficient fluency to read. For me, I have to rely on translation. (This particular volume was expensive, and I bought it new, but in terms of return on investment, it’s long-since earned its keep. I do have another, older volume of world poetry that I acquired at a library sale.)
Once you start to home in on specific poets, collections of their work will become valuable. I don’t go nuts with these, but I can’t lay off a pretty Tennyson collection. I own several. The first here was a gift from The Daughter, and a lovely volume it is!
That cover is stunning, by the way; hi-res image here.
Another Tennyson collection:
One caveat about older poetry volumes like this, which turn up at library book sales: these were often used as school books a hundred years ago, so they will often have signatures inside, along with underlining and marginalia from students of many decades ago. If you’re building your own poetry reference library, this shouldn’t be a deal-breaker. (If you’re approaching this as a book collector, then have care. Nothing wrong with being a book collector! That’s just not my approach. My library is a working library.)
And then there are themed collections! Often worth owning not only for their focus, but for the commentary of the anthologists.
I should make honorable mention of this, the poetry book I’ve owned the longest. I bought this at my college bookstore in my freshman year. It’s still in good shape.
For reference volumes of American poetry, you can’t do better than the Library of America. You can join the LoA as a subscription service (they’ll mail you a book from their extensive catalog every six weeks or so, and you get to pick the ones you want), or you can search out the individual volumes on their own. Not a cheap way to go, unless they turn up at the library or a used bookstore, but these are very high-quality volumes. (LoA volumes do not provide any commentary on the works they contain, so bear that in mind.)
As you search for poetry books, you’ll come across volumes that you want not just because they contain wonderful poetry, but because they are interesting and lovely objects in themselves. This copy of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám is one that I found in an antique mall one time. (Some antique malls will have booksellers amongst their vendors. Some do not. Your mileage will vary!)
Isn’t that gorgeous? Poetry really lends itself to beautiful book-making.
Here are two unique items in miniature. I should have included a 3×5 index card for scale, but the Browning book is about 3×4 inches and is less than 1/4in thick.
From the book on the left:
Finally, you might want to have some nonfiction books about poetry in your library. Sometimes you need some background, whether it’s “What are the formal expectations in a sonnet?” or “What were the prime events in Byron’s life and how does his work fit into the poetical canon?” Books like these are good for that. (The one on the left is somewhat intimidating the first time you see it. You don’t have to read it cover-to-cover! I haven’t. I keep meaning to, but…yeah.)
As noted, this is hardly exhaustive. I could write about some collections that Garrison Keillor edited in his long years of hosting short poetry items on National Public Radio, or themed collections like my collection of Holocaust poetry or the one collecting poems about music. Or collections I own by classic poets or modern ones (poetry is very much a going concern, especially on the Internet!). I could write a lengthy post just summing up my Shakespeare collection. I haven’t had great luck with collections with titles like Poems to Inspire Americans or Happy Poems for Rainy Days (not real titles, but reflective of real titles), which in my experience tend to contain schmaltzy poetry of the type that most often resides inside Hallmark cards, but again–your mileage may vary! It’s your library. Curate it to your needs and your tastes!
And now, on to May.