5 Poems to Read for National Poetry Month (and Why)

This is an essay by Chris Ciolli.

Even though poetry is generally shorter than the average feature article in a newspaper or magazine, some readers continue to avoid the genre as “boring” or “difficult to understand.” While poetry can certainly present readers with a challenge, it is a challenge worth rising to. Why? Because when properly digested, poetry is as nourishing to the mind as farm-fresh produce is to the body. It’s a great way to put on someone else’s skin for a few minutes and gain a new perspective. Besides, once you give in to the sounds, imagery and abandon of it, reading poetry can be just as satisfying as reading a new novel by your favorite author, not to mention much faster. Here are a few (five) poems to start out readers that are new or recently returning to the genre:

1.       “Where the Sidewalk Ends” by Shel Silverstein

“/And there the grass grows soft and white/”

Shel Silverstein is widely known as a poet that made poetry accessible, i.e. fun for children and their parents. His poem “Where the Sidewalk Ends,” from the book of the same title encourages us to escape to a different place, beyond our humdrum daily existence, where a sun burning “crimson bright” (4) and a cool “peppermint wind” (6) await us. While Silverstein is supposedly writing for children here, it is adults that he is urging to recognize children’s wisdom. Children know the joys and passion of imagined places, far from a sometimes dark and depressing adult world.  Also a songwriter, (the great mind behind Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue”), Silverstein keeps the poem perky and musical with the repetition of the word “and” at the beginning of lines throughout the poem, and a mixture of exact rhymes “white,”(3) “bright,”(4) “flight” (5) and approximate rhymes “ends,”(1) “begins,” (2) “wind,” (6). Easy to understand, and uplifting, “Where the Sidewalk Ends” is classic Silverstein, children’s literature for kids of all ages.

Read the complete poem here.

2.       Directive, by Robert Frost

“/The road there, if you’ll let a guide direct you/ Who only has at heart your getting lost/” (8-9)

Published when the widely read American poet was in his 70s, “Directive is not nearly as popular as other classics like Frost’s “Fire and Ice” or “The Road Not Taken.” Describing a walk through the woods past the site of a former town, Frost guides us to a few conclusions that he, now an old man, has reached—we may never find clarity or completeness in the course of our lives and that we may lose ourselves to find ourselves. Using bittersweet images like “shattered dishes” (42) and  “the children’s house of make-believe” (41) Frost conveys the sadness of fleeting youth and what once was and is no more. Employing poetic devices such as approximate rhyme, and repetition, to convey a complex and somewhat cryptic message, the four-time Pulitzer Prize winner doesn’t disappoint.  Readers will find that plowing through any initial confusion to the feeling behind the words is well worth a glimpse (however brief) into the later years of a great writer’s life.

Read “Directive” at the Academy of American Poets’ Site.

3.       “The Starry Night” by Anne Sexton

“/…one black-haired tree slips/ up like a drowned woman into the hot sky./” (2-3)

Known for her highly personal, confessional poetry often dealing with controversial topics, Anne Sexton battled depression and mental illness throughout her adult life. Her poem “The Starry Night” opens with a quote from Vincent Van Gogh, then launches into a vivid re-imagining of the Van Gogh painting of the same name and finally describes Sexton’s desire to lose herself in the painting itself. A loose rhyme structure, the incantation-like repetition of “Oh starry starry night! This is how/ I want to die. /” (5-6, 11-12) and strong imagery like “the night boils with eleven stars” (4) and “the moon bulges in its orange irons” pull readers into the world of Van Gogh’s swirling brushstrokes as seen through the eyes of this Pulitzer-prize winning poet.

Read “The Starry Night” at the Poetry Foundation here.

4.       Howl (Part I) by Allen Ginsberg

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, /” (1)

Part I of “Howl” is easily Allen Ginsberg’s most famous poem. While the sheer size of it can be intimidating–it extends multiple pages with lines that fill up the width of the page– the poem is an entertaining read that relates the often wild and definitely-not-PG stories and experiences of the Beat poet’s friends and contemporaries (Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, among others). Dedicated to and principally driven by Ginsberg’s sympathy for Carl Solomon, an institutionalized mental patient, the poem reflects upon the destruction of the “great minds” (1) of the era, their exploits and misadventures, with unsettling imagery “cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear”(8). Part I is written as a single run-on sentence and uses the repetition of sounds and words in a rhythm that Ginsberg himself explained as built on bop music. A short of call-to-arms or anthem for the Beat generation, “Howl” was originally a performance piece, and is notable as the first poem where Ginsberg’s signature long-line style based on the length of one breath emerged.

Read Part I and II here  or listen to Ginsberg himself read Part I on Youtube.

5.       “What Work Is” by Philip Levine

“ –if you’re/ old enough to read this you know what/ work is, although you may not do it./”(3-5)

The current U.S. Poet Laureate, Philip Levine grew up in industrial Detroit, and worked in the car manufacturing industry at only 14 years of age, before eventually becoming a published poet and university professor.  In many of his poems, Levine speaks of working class realities, and “What Work Is” is no different. Using a casually conversational tone, and simple, everyday vocabulary “/Forget you. This is about waiting./”(6) as well as the repetition of words and sounds, the poem’s narrator talks about waiting in line to apply for work, and the reality that most people work to survive, but that work is not the end-all and be-all of our existence as human beings. Published during the early 1990s recession, this poem is easily applied to the current economic situation for many Americans and puts the reader in the shoes of an out-of-work laborer for a few moments to begin to understand what it might feel like to wait in line for hours for even the slightest possibility of work, and the sheer determination that moves people to keep trying.

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A writer and translator by trade, Chris Ciolli spends her spare minutes reading, traveling and playing with art supplies. Okay, so sometimes she sleeps, eats and slurps coffee, too. Learn more about her at ChrisCiolli.com, read about her travels at Midwesternerabroad.com, or follow her on twitter @ChrisCiolli.

Photo by Paul Jarvis.

3 comments

  1. Anita

    Silverstein is always a good bet. And Frost. I’ll have to peruse some of the others.

  2. Read.Learn.Write

    I love the Silverstein mention as well! Also, love that you mention his song-writing prowess. He is an interesting man. Is there a good biography on him? I’ve never looked.

  3. Chris

    I adore Shel Silverstein, especially his adult book, Uncle Shelby’s Book of ABZs. My mom is a big fan of The Giving Tree, as well, which is a beautiful gift to any parent. I don’t know of any good biographies on Silverstein, but there’s a fairly good write-up about him on his official website. By the way, thanks for reading!

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