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Good Reads: Read a Song of Poetry


By Diane Parfitt

“If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” ~ Emily Dickinson OK, I know some of you are thinking, “I don’t like poetry, so I think I’ll skip this article.” I get it! The poetry you read in school probably didn’t mean anything to you. But if you think about all the popular music you have listened to over the years, what you were actually hearing is poetry set to music. Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2016 because his song lyrics are considered poetry. Tupac Shakur started out as a poet and said that rap was poetry to him. Emily Dickinson’s quote above certainly applies. John Lennon, Patti Smith and Leonard Cohen, plus numerous other musicians, have been recognized as poets. Besides music, there are also many popular sayings, book titles,
movies, and children’s stories (Dr. Seuss, anyone?) based on poems.

  1. “Leaves of Grass”
    by Walt Whitman (1819–1892) This collection of poems is by one of America’s greatest poets and one whose love for his country is reflected in his works. In the preface, Whitman writes, “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” One of his famous works, “I Sing the Body Electric” was incorporated into a well-known song in the 1980 musical “Fame.” Also, Ray Bradbury wrote a short story titled “I Sing the Body Electric”, which was inspired by Whitman’s original poem.
  2. “The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson” by Emily Dickinson (1830–1886)
    Emily Dickinson was a contemporary of Walt Whitman, but her themes were more personal, more about one’s inner being. This collection has the original text for all of her poems. “Faith,” one of her best known poems, is relevant to us now when science and faith seem to be in conflict: “Faith is a fine invention/For Gentlemen who
    see! /But Microscopes are prudent/ In an Emergency!”
  3. “And Still I Rise: A Book of Poems” by Maya Angelou (1928–2014)
    Emily Dickinson was arguably the premier female poet of the 19th century and many would say that Maya Angelou was the premier female poet of the 20th century. American poet, memoirist and civil rights activist, Angelou published numerous books of essays and poems, plays, movies and television shows. She has inspired many with her words. “You
    may write me down in history/With your bitter, twisted lies/You may trod me in the very dirt/But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”
  4. “Selected Poems” by Rita Dove (1952–)
    Rita Dove, America’s Poet Laureate from 1993 to 1995, can rightfully take her place alongside Maya Angelou as an activist poet of the first order. She said, “If we’re going to solve the problems of the world, we have to learn how to talk to one another. Poetry is … the bones and the skeleton of the language. It teaches you, if nothing else, how to choose your words.” Dove is currently professor of creative writing at the University of Virginia. “She knew what/she was and so/was capable/of anything/anyone could imagine.”
  5. “The Poetry of Robert Frost: The Collected Poems” by Robert Frost (1874–1963)
    Robert Frost is probably the most popular poet of the first half of the 20th century. Many of us read “The Road Not Taken” in school. Some will
    remember “The Gift Outright,” which Frost read at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. In “Mending Wall” we find this line, apropos to our time:
    “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know/ what I was walling in or walling out.”

6. “Poetry for Young People”: Langston Hughes (1901-1967) Edited by David Roessel, Arnold Rampersad and illustrated by Benny Andrews
Langston Hughes is best known as a leader of the Harlem Renaissance. Like Walt Whitman, he celebrated life in America, even though his America was totally different. He was a poet, social activist, novelist, playwright and columnist. His poem “Harlem” inspired the play “A Raisin in the Sun.” “What happens to a dream deferred?/Does it dry up/like a raisin in the sun?”

  1. “Complete Poems”
    by E. E. Cummings (1884-1962) Another popular poet of the early 20th century, cummings had his own distinct style and his avant-garde poems were attractive to the average reader as well as students of the poetic form. because he wrote in lower case only, perhaps, he should be considered the patron saint of 21st century texting! His poetry often deals with themes of love and nature and the relationship of an individual to the world, occasionally styling the blues in his poems. “All which isn’t singing is mere talking/and all talking’s talking to oneself.”
  2. “The Hill We Climb: An Inaugural Poem for the Country”
    by Amanda Gorman (1998-)
    Amanda Gorman is the first Youth Poet Laureate of the United States. This particular book is a gift edition of her inaugural poem for President Joe Biden. Who wasn’t mesmerized by this beautiful young woman reading her original poem? Who can fail to be inspired by her words that point to a brighter future? “I can hear change humming/In its loudest, proudest song./I don’t fear change coming,/And so I sing along.”
    Finally, for those with a short attention span, remember Ogden Nash, noted for his humorous and short poems. Who can forget “Reflections on Ice Breaking,” “Candy/
    Is dandy/But liquor/Is quicker?”
    Diane Parfitt is a former Pediatric Nurse and Assistant Professor of Nursing Education and currently owns a bookstore. She can be reached at citycentergallerybook@gmail.com