The best books of poems for people who don’t usually read them

Mark Yakich Author Of Poetry: A Survivor's Guide
By Mark Yakich

Who am I?

As a child I did not enjoy reading of any kind, detested English class, and loathed poetry in particular. I simply couldn’t comprehend what relevance poems had to my life. Then, while living overseas, in my mid-twenties in a country in which I didn’t speak the language well and had no friends, I took refuge in an English-language bookstore. There, I would find the slimmest books I could find, which happened to be poetry collections, and I’d pull one down hoping for commiseration. At some point, I realized that I could make certain friends with certain poems. Twenty-five years of growing friendships later, now I read and write poetry for a living.  

I wrote...

Poetry: A Survivor's Guide

By Mark Yakich,

Book cover of Poetry: A Survivor's Guide

What is my book about?

I wrote the first edition of this book to fill a gap in the understanding of poetry. When I was a student, I desperately searched for a book that would explore the experience of poetry without obscuring poems in theoretical jargon or dumbing down the practice of writing poetry as mere self-expression (“write what you know”) or exercises in beauty (“a poem is a painting in words”). As I became a poet and professor, I found the need for such a handbook to be even more crucial—especially one that was playful and enjoyable to read!

Updated and expanded, including six new sections, the second edition of Poetry: A Survivor’s Guide probes a range of strategies for inspiring students and aspiring poets on how poetry relates to their lives.

The books I picked & why

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A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry

By Czesław Miłosz,

Book cover of A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry

Why this book?

Czesław Miłosz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980. But that isn’t the reason to seek out this book. In fact, the book contains none of his poems; it’s an anthology of poems he selected from across the ages and across the globe. The poems are idiosyncratic to Miłosz’s taste—and he has excellent taste, offering us brief personal header notes to guide our reading. Most of the poems are less than half a page long, none more than a page and a half—and some just a handful of lines. These are delicate, thoughtful poems that never become syrupy or stringent. Even after decades of reading poems, I’ve returned again and again to this book when I want to remind myself of why I turned to poetry in the first place.

The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara

By Frank O'Hara, Donald Allen (editor),

Book cover of The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara

Why this book?

Frank O’Hara is most talked about as a “city poet” who, on his time off from working at an art museum, walked around Manhattan writing about what he felt and saw. A poet of “I do this, I do that,” O’Hara is lauded for his finding the beautiful in the quotidian. But that’s the lesser half of the story. O’Hara’s greatest feat is writing tender, quirky and deeply satisfying love poems. If you are not enviably moved by his poem Having a Coke with You,” there’s little reason to continue reading poems at all.

Sleeping with the Dictionary

By Harryette Mullen,

Book cover of Sleeping with the Dictionary

Why this book?

“Pillow talk of the highest order” ends one review this book. Out of context that would seem to indicate this is a book about romance. There is romance, I suppose, but it is for the English language itself. Open the book at any point and you are likely to be knocked over by the sheer sounds and textures of words bumping into each other—literally and metaphorically. The greatest trick Mullen performs—and there are innumerable tricks here, including anagrams, puns, parodies, borrowed forms—is that she makes poems that are fun to read aloud but also serious in their fun.

Antipoems: How to Look Better & Feel Great

By Nicanor Parra, Liz Werner (translator),

Book cover of Antipoems: How to Look Better & Feel Great

Why this book?

Pablo Neruda is the Chilean poet everyone knows. But Nicanor Parra is the Chilean poet everyone ought to know. If you enjoy sending up poetry’s preciousness, Parra is your poet. From daily living to romantic love and from political upheaval to climate disaster, Parra parses irreverence and satire in ways that make his sentiments cut much deeper than other poets’ straight-forward sincerity. “Butterfly:” he writes, “you have to pull off its wings / to see how it flies.”

How to Tell If You Are Human: Diagram Poems

By Jessy Randall,

Book cover of How to Tell If You Are Human: Diagram Poems

Why this book?

This book will challenge your notion of what a poem is or can be. Let it. Subtitled “Diagram poems,” these works mix both word and illustration to get at their playful effects. The illustrations come from “found” or ephemeral sources, e.g., a manual on textiles, or a guide to common beetles of North America, or a grammar on computer languages, or the layouts of American playgrounds. The interplay in the poems creates a wonderful uncanniness. The friction, say, caused when you read “You are special” next to a few numbered puzzle pieces in Figure A. and “Everyone is special” next to a completed puzzle in Figure B, and yet when you try to superimpose the one on the other, you realize that some of the pieces have had to adjust themselves to fit the whole. The sudden epiphany is: How special is anyone? And yet answering that question becomes the great fun of the book.

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