National Poetry Month 2017: Four Figurative Poets Worth Checking Out

Smith, O’Hara, Cope + Gibson.

poets to read during national poetry month

Books are fun, but they can also be quite daunting to take on. Whenever we’re in need of a quick read, poetry always finds a way to do the trick. So in honor of National Poetry Month, Paris Close and Leah Rodriguez share the prized poets and poetry collections they were grateful to have read in their lifetime.

We hope you enjoy these artists and their works now as much as we did when we first read them ourselves.

1. The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, Frank O’Hara

collected poems frank ohara
Knopf / Getty Images

I read from this collection every day, and every day something about it sticks with me long past the time I’ve put it down. O’Hara is my absolute favorite. Each poem runs the gamut of human joy, from “the warm New York 4 o’clock light” in “Having a Coke with You” to the myriad ways O’Hara explores the city in his verses from Lunch Poems.

A lifelong lover of art, O’Hara often anchors his verse in the pieces that inspire him and the excitement that comes along with sharing them with others. There’s something about O’Hara’s involvement with the New York School of poets that encapsulates the close-knit ties that artists of that time had within the confines of the city—so much light and inspiration.

This, of course, did not come without its share of darkness; a seedy underbelly that inched its way into these artists’ work. O’Hara’s poem “Mayakovsky” and the collection Meditations in an Emergency are famously used in Season 2 of Mad Men to highlight Don Draper’s increasing discomfort with the identity that he’s hiding and the persona he’s trying to maintain.

The poem’s final stanza, recited by Draper, is one the most beautiful and heartbreaking pieces of poetry ever written:

Now I am quietly waiting for
the catastrophe of my personality
to seem beautiful again,
and interesting, and modern.

The country is grey and
brown and white in trees,
snows and skies of laughter
always diminishing, less funny
not just darker, not just grey.

It may be the coldest day of
the year, what does he think of
that? I mean, what do I? And if I do,
perhaps I am myself again.

— excerpt from Frank O’Hara’s Mayakovsy

— Suggested by Leah Rodriguez

2. Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis, Wendy Cope

wendy cope making cocoa for kingsley amis poetry collection
Faber Faber / Two Roads Books (Pictured: Wendy Cope, Poet)

“Making Cocoa For Kingsley Amis.” What a title, I thought. Wonder where she got it from? When I found the answer, I was hooked on Cope’s poems in an instant:

Making Cocoa For Kingsley Amis

It was a dream I had last week
And some kind of record seemed vital.
I knew it wouldn’t be much of a poem
But I love the title.

— from Wendy Cope’s Making Cocoa For Kingsley Amis

How simple. How funny. How stunning.

Every poem in Cope’s debut collection is witty and filled with literary insight. She is famous for condensing famous pieces of literature into perfect parodies, taking on heavyweights like T.S. Eliot, William Wordsworth, and Emily Dickinson. Not only do the poems showcase her cutting sense of humor, but also her comprehensive understanding (and deep love of) literature.

And along with her parodies are fantastic snapshots of modern love that rival any ode or sonnet of the past. She cuts simple moments from everyday life—those, “Oh, it’s you” moments to capture the nuanced levels of love we carry around with us every day.

You must read her.

— Suggested by Leah

3. Jellyfish, Andrea Gibson

andrea gibson jellyfish poem
Clipart / Maria Del Naja Photography (Pictured: Andrea Gibson, Poet)

Andrea “Andrew” Gibson is a world-renowned and award-winning American poet hailing all the way from Calais, Maine. My first introduction to Gibson was during a poetry workshop which I enrolled in during my undergrad. Students were asked to select and explicate a poem from an archive known as Moving Poems, a place where poetry and film collide and is still active today.

Although the bulk of Gibson’s works circulate themes concerning political, social and LGBTQ+ issues, I feel as though Gibson’s canon has the ability to resonate with those who fall outside those circles. Not only that, she distances herself from contemporary artists by fleeting the page by engaging music compositions into a lot of her work; since 2003, Gibson has forged six records that double as poetry.

One of my favorites of hers has to be “Jellyfish,” a poem that brims with so much honest introspection and tinted in self-awareness and self-consciousness. Reading Gibson’s poem on the page has its charm, yes, but pales in comparison to her performing it (which she does best, btw). You can tell she’s pleading with her lover, unrequited or not; each word drips with compassion.

Jellyfish

But our ugly has an alibi
And our gorgeous has a sand collection
Or two harmonicas we keep blowing off
For that flute we carve from our wrists
Put your lips here
Tell me there is music in my blood
Then tell me there is more in my light
Hang me chandelier from the last night
I believed this life had to hurt so much

— excerpt from Andrea Gibson’s Jellyfish

— Suggested by Paris Close

4. Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith

tracy k smith life on mars poetry collection
Graywolf Press / Rachel Eliza Griffiths

In the same creative vein as that of Jesmyn Ward, Professor of Creative Writing at Princeton University and American poet Tracy K. Smith radiates so much stark and effortless talent it may even agitate you. (That was meant as a compliment, by the way.)

The same year I was introduced to Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath and an array of other luminaries, I came across the winners of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize; this was how I would learn who Smith was. Call me behind on the times, but back then it was still considered a wonder to me that authors of color, especially black women writers, were recognized in such esteem. Back then, in a class predominated by white students and with required readings proffered by white poets, it never quite felt like there was much room in this world for black writers like myself.

As soon as I learned of her claiming the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry the same year, my obsession with her writing reached a fever pitch. Ravenously, I devoured the pages in Smith’s Life on Mars in record time. “The Weather in Space,” my choice favorite, surrounds this notion of ownership and power that raises the question “What forces greater than ourselves do we belong?”

The Weather in Space

Is God being or pure force? The wind

Or what commands it? When our lives slow

And we can hold all that we love, it sprawls

In our laps like a gangly doll. When the storm

Kicks up and nothing is ours, we go chasing

After all we’re certain to lose, so alive—

Faces radiant with panic.

— from Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars

— Suggested by Paris

These are some of our favorite poets and collections we’ve read recently
Care to share? Leave some of your most admired poets and poetry collections for us in the comments below!


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