Ten Poetry Collections to Read Again and Again (via The Atlantic)

As editors who review poetry for The Atlantic, we read a lot of poems. Each week, there are new PDFs in our inboxes; our desks are covered with chaotic piles of books we’ve yet to crack open, and our shelves are already packed with old favorites. We’re also frequently asked, “What poetry should I read?” The question couldn’t be more reasonable, but embarrassingly, it tends to make our minds go blank. There are a trillion different collections for every mood: some cerebral; some wrenching; some playful, goofy, even strange. “That depends,” we’re tempted to say. “Do you want to cry? Or chuckle? Or wrestle with history, or imagine faraway futures, or think about the human condition?”

Perhaps the most honest approach is just to share some of the books that stick in our heads: ones that keep pulling us back, whether they comfort, shake, or perplex us. Still, choosing 10 collections was difficult. We wanted poems rich with detail and poems frugal with their words. We wanted poems that refreshed conventions and poems that took the top of our heads off, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson. In the end, the volumes we chose have very little in common except a belief that language, when compressed, rinsed, and turned even slightly from its everyday use, still has the power to move us.

The Mooring of Starting Out, by John Ashbery

Ashbery is the poet I take the most reliable pleasure in rereading, because of the multitudes his lines contain: I am just as happy to visit his late-20th-century meditation on an encounter with a 16th-century painting, in the poem “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” as I am to return to his experimental collages such as “The Tennis Court Oath.” More than anything else, though, I love Ashbery’s wistful lyricism, and the five books in The Mooring of Starting Out show him at his best. The poet has an ear for everyday, conversational English, which he scrambles and rearranges until the most tossed-off phrase seems like a love lyric from an old song you half remember. “A Blessing in Disguise,” to my mind his single greatest poem, concludes its ecstatic post-meet-cute delirium with the only thing left to say: “And then I start getting this feeling of exaltation.”  — Walt Hunter

Sun in Days, by Meghan O’Rourke

Early in her 2017 collection, O’Rourke refers to life’s “inevitable accumulation of griefs”: the losses that build over time in any human existence. This book charts her own accumulating sorrows—losing her mother, struggling to conceive, developing a debilitating chronic illness. It’s filled with particularities: As a child, she talks to her mother through Styrofoam cups connected with string; as an adult, she obsessively watches videos of a gymnast, longing for a body that won’t fail her. But even the specific details unfold into universal, existential questions. (“I just need to find one of those Styrofoam cups / and what about you,” she asks her mother. “Where did you / go what kind of night is it there.”) Sun in Days reminds me that beauty and loss are inextricable—and random, in a way that’s both shattering and strangely relieving. “A life can be a lucky streak, or a dry spell, or a happenstance,” O’Rourke writes. “Yellow raspberries in July sun, bitter plums, curtains in wind.”  — Faith Hill

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