Top Nine Reasons to Read Poetry

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

Please join me in welcoming Tania Runyan to the blog. Tania is a poet, and since my poetry reading list EXPLODED after FFW, I’m thrilled she’s sharing her top 9 reasons to read poetry. (And yes, that’s an actual picture of my poetry books after the conference, and that’s not even counting the books Will’s packed away and the ones Amazon hasn’t delivered yet.)

Where have all the poetry readers gone?

Book clubs and bestseller lists abound with novels and memoirs, but poetry, the forgotten stepbrother, seems to hang out in shady coffee shops with a bunch of beret-wearing, needy narcissists. In fact, when someone discovers I’m a poet, her face often locks into that stilted smile that implies, “Oh, how quaint!” (head pat) or “I don’t understand” or “Please, for the love of all that is good and holy, don’t say another word.”

Poetry is confusing, irrelevant, and boring, right? Unless Robin Williams is standing on a desk proclaiming the power of verse, it’s sort of like, well … wait, what were we talking about?

top 9 reasons to read poetry (if you're not a berét-wearing hipster)

I’m here to encourage you, nay, plead with you, to give poetry a chance. Not because poetry needs you, but because you need poetry. Please behold my Top Nine Reasons to Read Poetry. (Hey, we poets always have to be different):

  1. It slows you down in a noisy world.

  2. It awakens you to your senses.

  3. It can be digested in small, delicious doses.

  4. It transports you into new emotional states in a matter of a few lines.

  5. It makes you more human and compassionate.

  6. It sensitizes you to the wonder and music of words themselves.

  7. It brings you into the company of writers with excellent taste in whiskey and scarves.

  8. It makes needy, narcissistic poets very happy. Which makes the world a safer place.

  9. It isn’t as hard as you think.

If you don’t buy number nine yet, take heart. I’ve got just the book for you.

How to Read a Poem

I wrote How to Read a Poem, inspired by Billy Collins’s poem “Introduction to Poetry,” after realizing I’d started to grow apathetic about poetry myself. Sure, I could write it, write about it, and study it, but was I really living it anymore?

Check out Collins:

Introduction to Poetry

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to really experience a poem like this — to hold it to the light, listen to its buzz, wander and search its room, ski across its waters? But what if you have no experience with poetry? Or what if your experiences have been negative?

Collins encourages us to engage with a poem personally, not corner or confine it. Yes, you may have been taught to torture poems as a student, but there is hope you can transcend those traumatic experiences and fall in love with poetry—for the first time or again. How to Read a Poem explores each stanza of “Introduction to Poetry” as a strategy for entering the world of a poem on your own terms with your own imaginative powers and experiences.

For National Poetry Month, T.S. Poetry Press is working to get a copy of How to Read a Poem on at least one K-12 teacher’s desk in every state. I’ve been delighted to provide several copies to local teachers in Illinois and send a few out to my native California as well. Do you know a teacher who could use an inspirational boost? Do you know some students who could use a dose of magic known as poetry?

*****     *****     *****

I hope you’re convinced you need to read some poetry right now, and to make it a little easier on you, Tania is providing a copy of How to Read a Poem to one reader. You can keep it for yourself or give it to your favorite English teacher. To enter, just leave a comment below.

UPDATE: The giveaway has ended and the winner has been notified by email. But do head here to check out How to Read a Poem!

Tania Runyan is the author of the poetry collections Second Sky, A Thousand Vessels, Simple Weight, and Delicious Air, which was awarded Book of the Year by the Conference on Christianity and Literature in 2007. Her book How to Read a Poem was released in 2014. Her poems have appeared in many publications, including Poetry, Image, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, The Christian Century, Atlanta Review, Indiana Review, Willow Springs, Nimrod,and the anthology A Fine Frenzy: Poets Respond to Shakespeare. Tania was awarded an NEA Literature Fellowship in 2011. She tutors high school students, writes for the Good Letters blog, and edits for ReliefJournal.

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    • L.L. Barkat says:

      Melodee, if you won (or bought) this book, we’d love to hear your stories about it. Come and tell. It’s a book we are hoping will change or deepen the way poetry is taught all across America 🙂

  1. EricaM says:

    Ooh, new book for me to read!

    I’ve started reading more poetry lately, and what struck me was that now that I’m not under pressure to answer questions in class about “what such and such an element symbolizes”, I’m enjoying it much more.

  2. Nolo says:

    Poetry is always on my list of things to get to. I would love a book encouraging me to get there! I will say, however, that I do read poetry to my daughters. Short and lyrical can be a good combo, especially at mealtimes.

  3. Anne says:

    Way back when Keats was the subject of my senior thesis…. Don’t ask how many poetry anthologies I have picked up since then. 🙂 I would love to read this!

  4. Amy says:

    That Billy Collins poem is great. He’s one of my favorite poets, as is e. e. cummings. I have books of both their poetry on my bookcase, but I hadn’t read poetry for years until I bought “What It Is Is Beautiful” for myself for my birthday. Reading it, and this post, has inspired me to dust of some of my poetry books and read a bit. Thanks!

  5. Jen says:

    I have always loved poetry, I think because I was lucky enough to have a wonderful professor who taught me to “walk into a poems room” and not “tie it to a chair” -what great imagery there! I think I’ll dust off some of my old poetry books today!

  6. I was a huge emo high school poetry (mostly Emily Dickinson) reader and I’ve barely read a poem since. That list is amazing and definitely inspires me to pick up a book of poems again!

  7. Ronna says:

    I absolutely LOVE poetry. However, I’ve never been very good at picking it up to read during my free time. Luckily, I’m an English Education major, so reading poetry was always something that I needed to do for a grade. Now that I’m a soon-to-be teacher, I want to be able to bring that love of poetry into the classroom without beating it to death. Hope I win the book!

  8. Reading Robert Frost is what got me hooked on poetry. He is very understandable. He is my favorite. I also like John Keats. I have to branch out into more poets. I love reading poetry when I feel drained. It refreshes my soul.

    • Anne says:

      At FFW, Frost was called THE poet of the 20th century–the one whose work will prove to endure. I found that very interesting (and dug out my old collection for my to-read stack).

  9. Tim says:

    Tania, reason #1 is all the reason I need. Poetry always makes me slow down like no other genre can. It’s the hot tub of literature, but a hot tub furnished with a tray of cream sherry and Toblerone chocolate.

  10. Kristy says:

    I’ve been wanting to read poetry and truly enjoy it. My kids memorize a lot of poems for school and they’re such fun ones!

  11. Jean says:

    Love this Billy Collins poem – got to hear him read it aloud in person! I start my homeschooling Comp & Lit class off by reading a poem to them. And today 4/24/14 is Poem in Your Pocket Day (check out so carry a poem in your pocket and read it aloud to all you meet! Thanks Anne and Tania.

  12. Ruth Anne says:

    These reasons make me want to try again to read poetry. I’m in a pretty good cycle of starting, getting discouraged, and stopping for a long time.
    ~Ruth Anne

  13. Sounds like a wonderful book! I’m a homeschooling mom, who loves poetry, but can’t seem to ignite the same feeling in my kids. I’m interested to check out this book!

    I’m enjoying your blog. I stumbled on it when my daughter and I read and watched P&P together, and were looking up a few things about the movie. 🙂

      • The 2005 version, with Keira Knightley. That’s the one that seemed most interesting to my daughter. The funny thing is, she pooh-poohed the idea of any older version while my parents, who love the version with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier, pooh-poohed the idea of a remake. It cracked me up how none of them could see any merit in any version other than their favorite!

          • lol…. I’m thinking I can make it a homeschool “project” for my daughter to watch every version this summer, then compare and contrast! I’ve heard good things about the 1995 version!

          • Karlynes says:

            It really is beautiful and probably the most faithful to the book, so summer time popcorn/movie afternoons are a good idea!

  14. Amy says:

    What a timely post – last night I was at the library to pick up books on hold & volunteers were handing out a book of 100 poems in celebration of national book night. I haven’t read much poetry since school days were over years ago. I think it’s time to pick up that book and enjoy!

  15. Emily says:

    I’ve always wanted to love poetry, but have not always found the joy in it. Would love to get some encouragement through this book!

  16. Anne says:

    My six year old son loves poetry right now. One of my challenges as a homeschool mom will be how to nurture that, keep the flame alive, I think. Thanks for sharing!

  17. Leigh Kramer says:

    I got super in to poetry my freshman year of high school and have been reading it ever since, albeit some years more faithfully than others. Last year I started intentionally working through books of poems, trying to read at least one poem a day and further familiarizing myself with poets I love or want to love.

  18. Jennifer H says:

    A couple times a year, I sneak a book of poems into our bedtime reading. I would read this first and then give it to a teacher. If I don’t win, can I borrow your copy? 😉

  19. Emily C. says:

    Wow, that book looks like a great starting place for falling in love with poetry. It’s been easy to enjoy poetry aimed at younger readers but we could use this now. Thanks!

  20. Amanda says:

    That sounds great. My problem is slowing down enough, but I guess I should consider that a benefit rather than a barrier.

  21. Karyl says:

    My daughter’s third grade class — third grade! — just started a poetry unit. I would love to pass this book along to her teacher. The kids definitely need to learn to enjoy poetry and not beat it to death. Thanks for the giveaway!

  22. Alena says:

    Wow, this is great! I remember reading this poem by Collins in high school, and it is a great reminder. Thanks for this post, I loved it!

  23. Meg says:

    I had never heard of Billy Collins until this past Sunday–my pastor mentioned him in his sermon. And then again on Tuesday night, the pastor raved about Collins to me. He said I should check out his newest volume of poems next time I’m in the library–provided, of course, that he has returned it!

    • Anne says:

      I love that Billy Collins is being quoted from the pulpit. (I remember how happy I was the first time my old pastor quoted Mary Oliver in one of his sermons. 🙂 )

  24. Em Miller says:

    It made me so happy to see Wendell Berry in that stack after we talked about him so much at FFW.

    “Where do you see Wendell Berry?”
    “In my brain.”

    I’ve always said I’m not really a poetry person because, as a journalist, I’m such a practical writer. But lately I’ve been running into so many books of poetry written by other journalists. And FFW pushed me over the edge — I went to two sessions about poetry, and all three books I came home with were poems. So I’m definitely interested writing now in learning to read and write poetry.

    • Anne says:

      Poetry books written by other journalists? I had no idea. (Which ones?)

      I was shocked at all the poetry sessions at FFW–and all the ones I ended up in! That’s not what I expected, but I got so much out of them (including the giant reading list!)

  25. Karlynes says:

    I’ve always loved poetry, no doubt because it’s words. Words that stand on end, move right side up, and read right to left. I insist that the way to read poetry is to read it.

  26. Sam Beard says:

    I was one of those high school kids who was absolutely tortured with poetry and symbolism. Why the author chose to put a space here or a space there. Now that I am an English teacher, my goal is to get my students to love to read all sorts of literature genres including poetry. One good way I’ve found is to read Ellen Hopkins’ best selling yet controversial novel, Crank. Books like that make poetry much more accessible to students who are jaded with poetry because they think it’s too archaic.

    I am completely interested in reading this book- although I’ve never heard of it. Thank you so much for this stellar giveaway.

    • Anne says:

      Sam, two things: it’s good to see that even though you were tortured (!) with poetry and symbolism, you’re an English teacher today. I expect that your awful experiences back when you were a student make you a great teacher to your own students.

      And I just added Crank to my reading list. I’m unfamiliar with it but am always happy to get a strong rec from a fellow book-lover (and an English teacher, no less!) Thanks for stopping by.

  27. ariana says:

    Thank you for this introduction and book suggestion. I have tried on several occasions to introduce poetry to my kids, but each time the reading falls flat for me and therefor I don’t think their interest has been sparked. I appreciate the reminder that I can just sit with a poem gently, rather than hammer it – more freedom (less pressure) to enjoy.

  28. lisa says:

    I have never been good at reading poetry but I would love to get started. I think that is a great goal for me as I turn 50!

  29. Amy says:

    Looks wonderful! I loved teaching high school English once upon a time, and now I teach my three daughters. Reading poetry together is a favorite.

  30. Marty Larson says:

    When I taught poetry to my students, I tried very hard to not torture them as I had been in school. We read a lot of Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky so they could have fun, then we read some others for the pure enjoyment of it. I look forward to reading this.

  31. Lora says:

    I’ve been inhaling poetry lately as a kind of therapy. I would love to learn a bit more about how to love it even more.

  32. Cassandra says:

    I love reading and I love poetry! Haven’t read any since college but would love to get back to reading it! I think this book will help me get back on track to reading it

  33. Tania Runyan says:

    Thank you so much for your comments and enthusiasm, friends! I look forward to hearing about your poetry success stories!

  34. Greta James says:

    I like that you mentioned reading poetry can be digested in small doses. I don’t have a lot of time to read but I do enjoy reading poetry. It would be a fun idea to find a few works from modern poets to help me expand my horizons.

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