A few of my favorite poetry collections (and a promising bedtime ritual).

Top nine reasons to read poetry (if you're not a berét-wearing hipster)

Now that Will and I are done staying up crazy late binge-watching Blacklist, I’ve been reclaiming the 5:00 a.m. hour. I’ve been acquainted with the pre-dawn hours regularly throughout my life, but not much in the past six months. These past two weeks I’ve been rediscovering just how much I can get done in the wee hours (thanks to the two-hour jump on my kids) before it feels like the day’s truly begun.

As much as I love my morning shot of productivity, there’s a big drawback to getting up at 5:00 a.m.: I need to go to bed early. (Sleep is not an area where I can afford to be low-maintenance.) My bedtime is now uncomfortably close to my children’s.

I have a well-established routine of reading before bed to decompress, but if I need to fall asleep fast I can’t read just anything. (Especially not the crime novel I’m currently racing through.) To wind down quickly at the end of a long day, I’ve been relying on a little trick a friend gave me years ago: turn to poetry.

Poetry forces me to slow down. I’m a fast reader, but I cannot read a poem quickly. Poetry forces me to attend to every word; it requires me to think, carefully, about what’s happening, and what it means. Good poetry isn’t too demanding to read when I’m tired, but it’s demanding enough to make me realize how tired I am—and that makes it excellent bedtime reading.

These Intricacies, Harrity

My friend Dave Harrity has a new poetry book out with Cascade Books, as part of their highly regarded Poiema series. It’s called These Intricacies, and it’s what I’ve been reading before bed this week. It’s a diverse, interesting, and challenging collection. (Favorites include The Hole, Confession, At Pleasant Hill to Visit Shakertown.)

Dave’s new book has revived my enthusiasm for poetry as a genre. I’m not a rabid reader of poetry (although I might become one if this turns into a nightly ritual), but These Intricacies has me thinking about a few of my favorite collections. Another plus for bedtime reading: I usually dip in and out of them instead of reading straight through.

5 poetry collections to read before bed
Wendell Berry: New Collected Poems

Wendell Berry: New Collected Poems

I adore Berry's evocative, deceptively simple style, in prose or poetry. This collection holds so many favorites: a few include To My Mother, Window Poems, Manifesto: The Mad Farmer to the Liberation Front, and The Blue Robe (google that one right now). More info →
The House of Belonging

The House of Belonging

Whyte is one of my favorites, for his poetry and nonfiction. (Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of identity is currently on my nightstand.) This is worth reading for The Truelove alone, but I also love the title poem and What to Remember When Waking. More info →
E. E. Cummings: Collected Poems

E. E. Cummings: Collected Poems

I'm pretty sure it's not cool to like E. E. Cummings anymore, but I don't care. When I first got my driver's license and could drive myself to the bookstore all by myself, this was one of the first collections I bought. I've always loved his playful way with words. I carry your heart with me is a favorite. More info →
Dream Work

Dream Work

This wonderful collection contains The Journey, which may deservedly be Oliver's best-known poem. Other favorites here include Coming Home, Wild Geese, and Dogfish. More info →
Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems

Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems

A poignant collection from a former U.S. poet laureate (Yes, that's really a thing!) Introduction to Poetry, Winter Syntax, and Dharma are favorites. More info →

P.S. Top nine reasons to read poetry.

Do you have favorite poets, poems, or collections? I’d love to find your favorites: tell us about them in comments. 

Good poetry isn't too demanding to read when I'm tired, but it's demanding enough to make me realize how tired I am—and that makes it excellent bedtime reading. Add these poetry collections to your bedtime ritual.


Leave A Comment
  1. Elizabeth says:

    You should subscribe to the “poem a day” email from the Academy of American Poets if you don’t already. Early each morning I have a fresh poem in my inbox. Weekdays are usually modern poets — weekends some of the older classics. It’s a fun way to taste-test different genres, poets etc. They also have a new (also free) subscription service this year called “Teach this Poem”. It is basically a free lesson plan for introducing a new poem to kids each week. https://m.poets.org/

  2. Elizabeth says:

    BTW — Favorite collection of the moment: “Without” by Donald Hall. He was married to Jane Kenyon (also a poet), and the collection is like a long, beautiful grieving love letter as she goes through treatment for cancer and eventfully dies. It sounds morbid, but really it’s beautiful to see how he tackles common themes like grief, love, and being married to your best friend. I heard him read when I was in college, but there are also recordings of him reading some of his poems on the Academy of American Poets website. (As well as recordings of lots of other poets reading their work.)

    • Anne says:

      I haven’t read Donald Hall since college! He was included in my “writers on writing” seminar and I haven’t thought of him in years. Thanks for the reminder.

  3. A ritual I would like to put in place is reading poetry with my kids. I know they’d love it, but I’ve never identified a particular time of day and committed.

    I love the idea of claiming the early morning to myself. I have always been a late night mom, savoring the time alone after chores and finished and kids are asleep. However, I realize that lately, I’m not doing much “savoring,” more zoning out and mindlessly surfing the net. Maybe I’ll do a week-long experiment with going to bed earlier and getting up earlier.

    • Victoria says:

      Poetry Teas are becoming a “thing” right now! Every family designs their own, but it usually involves something like this: held once a week or just once a month, there is a theme (which is often seasonal or tied to some major point of study in school), SIMPLE snacks and tea, Mom gathers the poetry books and sets them around the table. You meet to read poetry and everyone chooses one to read out loud. I’ve heard that SOMETIMES, the poems fit the theme, but most aren’t making it a hard and fast rule.

      I love idea! Alicia Hutchinson introduced me to it and you can read a post (or maybe she has two) over on her blog!

  4. Andrea says:

    I have the same struggle: I love having the wee hours of the morning to myself, but I have a hard time forcing myself to go to bed early. And yet I’m finding that both are kind of essential for me. I’ve been instituting some rituals lately to help make going to bed early a little more palatable for me, and I LOVE the idea of incorporating poetry into my nightly routine. Thanks so much for this terrific list. One favorite poetry book of mine is Good Poems, an anthology compiled by Garrison Keillor. It’s a wonderful collection of modern and classic poetry, arranged by subject.

  5. Anne says:

    I googled The Blue Robe like you told us to, and it was really lovely. I enjoy poetry but don’t seek it out very often. I can see how it would slow your brain down before bed. More contemplative.

  6. Victoria says:

    Anne, you are spot on with interesting topics lately! I always enjoy your blog, but I’ve REALLY been interested in your most recent posts. ??????

    I got introduced to the beauty of poetry last year and this fall I’ve been attempting to make it part of my life by reading a variety of it. Emily Dickinson is a favorite, so I started there. I went to the library and browsed what they had to see what collections they had and what names looked familiar. So far I’ve read through two volumes of Billy Collins’ work and bits and pieces of an Anthology featuring various American poets. I’m currently working my way through Mary Oliver’s “Thirst” and thinking that I need to learn more about her as a person.

    • Anne says:

      I felt the same way about Brett Foster and his poem at Image Journal. (And thanks for the contemporary recommendations. I’ve read some of Tania’s stuff but not Wells’s.)

  7. liz n. says:

    I subscribe to The Poetry Foundation’s poem-a-day email. So many poets I’d never have heard of but for those daily newsletters!

    Coleridge has been my favorite poet since 7th or 8th grade.

    I try not to read right before bedtime. Doesn’t always work out that way, but if I read right before turning in, I lie awake with that book in my head, and end up getting back out of bed to go read some more. It’s better that I FINISH a book before I hit the hay than to leave off somewhere, unfinished.

  8. Jeannie says:

    Thanks so much for sharing these poets and titles. I’ve only read a couple of Berry’s poems and have never heard of Whyte, so I will be sure to check them out. I also love the poetry of Ted Koozer (former poet laureate of the U.S.): it’s beautiful and accessible. And if you are a poet yourself (as I am trying to be), he has an excellent book about WRITING poetry, called The Poetry Home Repair Manual.

  9. M.E. Bond says:

    I need to read more poetry! I own quite a few anthologies, but I don’t open them very often. I like your ritual of reading poetry before bed. Here are some some poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay that I greatly enjoy: “Afternoon on a Hill,” “Dirge Without Music,” “God’s World,” and “Recuerdo.”

  10. Lisa says:

    I’ve never considered poetry for relaxation, but why not. The words are so beautiful and require such deep thinking sometimes that it might stimulate my brain instead. 😉

  11. Danae says:

    I feel like high school English class taught me to appreciate and analyze poetry but not to cultivate an enjoyment of it. I confess that I’ve purposefully avoided poetry since then. I appreciate the list of your favorites and hope they will prove to be a gentle reintroduction to this form of literature.

  12. Julie Y says:

    I am usually a radio-talk-show junkie while driving but when the current news topics become too repetitive or depressing, I turn on a poetry CD instead. My favorite is the audiobook, “The Poet’s Corner” by John Lithgow. He intersperses the poetry with short biographies of the poets, making the poems seem more accessible to those of us new to poetry. http://www.amazon.com/Poets-Corner-One—Only-Poetry/dp/B000Z8ID92/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1447269935&sr=1-1&keywords=the+poets+corner. This book is also available in hardback form, for bedside reading.

  13. Megan says:

    Thank you for this post! I agree that reading poetry helps me slow down and savor the words. It’s similar to how I feel when I reread a novel as I am no longer reading just to find out what happens next.
    My husband and I love Berry’s Manifesto! Now I need to read the rest of his. I also like Mary Oliver and Billy Collins. (Snow Day, by Billy Collins, ends up in our Advent Calendar each year!)

  14. Leigh Kramer says:

    You can’t go wrong with David Whyte or Mary Oliver. Rilke’s Book of Hours is another favorite. I also like what I’ve read of Denise Levertov and Nikki Giovanni, plus old greats like Frost and Dickinson.

  15. Cait says:

    You must read Natasha Trethewey. Her attention to structure, tightly compressed verse, and storylines are truly breathtaking. She was the 19th Poet Laureate, so she is an important person to know! All her collections are good, but I loved Bellocq’s Ophelia. She based the collection off of a series of photographs taken of prostitutes in the early 1900s. I was never a huge fan of poetry until I read her stuff. Highly recommend!

  16. What a great idea. I can totally see reading poetry as a relaxing bedtime ritual. I’m a little old school, so I enjoy Christina Rossetti, Robert Browning, and T.S. Eliot. For more modern poets, I like Ted Koozer and Kevin Hart (the poet not the actor!).

  17. julie says:

    This guy was my professor, but he never let us read his stuff…I been LOVING Mr. Rogers’ Book! Also–fun fact–Mr. Rogers’ professor was the current poet laureate, Charles Wright, who is a wonderful poet.
    If you want to go full circle, Here are two of my published classmates, both very talented (and published!):
    Reveille by George David Clark
    Keeping Me Still by Renee Emerson

    My favorite compilations are Good Poems, and Good Poems for Hard Times by Garrison Keillor. As far as emails go, I’ve been enjoying Linebreak–there’s someone good to READ you the poem of the week, and poetry is quite often meant to be read aloud!

  18. kim s. says:

    I used to dislike most poetry, and found reading it a waste of my time. However, once I hit 40, I began to appreciate the beauty & skillfulness of choosing few words to convey grand images & ideas. With 4 children running me ragged, the simplicity of reading poetry has become soothing to my soul. Caroline Kennedy has two collections of poetry that I really love, some oldies but goodies, but others that have introduced me to new poets:
    The Best-Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis
    She Walks in Beauty

  19. Ashley says:

    I’m ‘re-reading the Anne books for the millionth time. Yesterday I finished Anne of Ingleside. There is poetry woven throughout all the books, but in that one it talks vividly about Anne reading it to her children often. It made me wish I read it and knew it more. I’m not much for poetry. But I’d like to be.
    One of my first thoughts was, I wish MMD would post something about this. And I woke up to this post. I mean really!
    Thank you.

  20. Maryalene says:

    Poetry is one of those things I really want to like but just can’t seem to get into. I think maybe I don’t have the patience for it because it does require some thought and reflection. I’ll have to give these books a try and see if they change my mind. 🙂

  21. melissa says:

    Thanks for sharing! I read a post from you about your schedule a while back, it sounded like a hopeful plan that may help me. I am a stay at home mom, and have an INFP personality type too. The extra time to walk/jog and write/journal before he wakes up may help. I feel like I am the orchid type as opposed to the dandelion, and I am trying to still find helpful tips to flourish and not wilt!!!! I loved fun idea to light a candle in the morning too. Anyways, I couldn’t remember what time you woke up to do that, and I couldn’t find the blog post then the next day you posted this one. Perfect timing.

    thanks for all you share!

  22. Ashley says:

    I usually like poetry written for children more than for adults. “Today at the bluebird cafe” and “Once Upon a Northern Night” are really excellent. 🙂

  23. Shannan says:

    I like to read before bed but don’t do it often because what I am reading is so interesting I never go to sleep or I’m reading something heavy and then can’t sleep. But poetry is an idea! Thanks Anne!

  24. Great post! As a children’s poet, I spend most of my time these days reading and writing poetry for younger people, but I always find it inspiring to go back to my roots in adult poetry. I love your list, and would add … well, a whole lot of diverse people, from Walter Dean Myers to Edna St. Vincent Millay to Sylvia Plath! 🙂

  25. Poems are wonderfull! In Norway the poesiringen (the poetrycirkle) sends a poem every night, many persons contribute to the e-mail list and it is always inspiring to read and comtemplate the poems before going to sleep. My favorite English writing poet is Robert Frost and the excellent Margaret Atwood I have her collection “Eating fire” by my bedside. Thanks for the interesting post!

  26. Heather Leap says:

    Thank you for this. I tend to shy away from poetry because I am always in such a rush to read other things! I love the idea of tucking into poetry before bed to wind down. Currently I’m reading Pat Schneider’s “How the Light Gets In: Writing as Spiritual Practice,” which is sprinkled with poetry, and I find it is lovely to settle into in the evenings.

  27. Nicholette says:

    If I’m feeling grumpy I do tend to enjoy Charles Bukowski 🙂 and One Art by Elizabeth Bishop is my all-time favorite poem. And of course you gotta love your Bobby Frost! But those are all classics of course haha.

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