Reasons to Love Poetry This Poetry Month
Graduate Center poets and authors name their favorite poems and say what draws them to poetry.
Whether you already love poetry or, as Professor Melissa Castillo Planas says, “haven’t found your poetry,” we think you’ll find new reasons to enjoy verse in these selections from our scholars.
For Poetry Month, we invited Graduate Center students, faculty, and alumni who have written books of poems or books about poets to share their favorite poems and why they are drawn to poetry. Their responses and their latest books are included here.
If you’re also a published poet or a poetry scholar, let us know, and happy reading.
Melissa Castillo Planas, Professor of English at the Graduate Center and Lehman College. Her most recent book of poems is Chingona Rules. Her newest book is A Mexican State of Mind: New York City and the New Borderlands of Culture.
Like many of my students, for the longest time I despised poetry. That now I am an award-wining poet of two poetry collections is a trajectory I find quite amusing. I always say to my students, it’s not that you don’t like poetry, it’s that you haven’t found your poetry. For me, that poem was “Oaxaca, 1974” from Emplumada by Chicana poet Lorna Dee Cervantes. It spoke profoundly to my experience as a Mexican American feeling unaccepted by either culture with Spanglish wordplay that resonated with my linguistic realities. That’s what the best poems do — articulate something from deep inside, in a new way.
Jason Schneiderman (Ph.D. ’13, English), Professor of English at BMCC. His most recent book of poems is Hold Me Tight; his next collection, Self Portrait of Icarus as a Country on Fire, will be published in 2024.
I was initially drawn to poetry because it felt like a space where thinking and feeling were not separate. In poetry, the unsaid can make itself known in the whitespace of the page. Poetry is the genre in which I can find the truest, clearest, best version of myself.
A favorite poem of mine is William Meredith’s “The Illiterate,” which I was recently able to feature as a guest host on the American Public Media podcast The Slowdown. It’s a technically virtuosic sonnet using homophones instead of rhymes, and it’s a love poem that guides the reader away from love, but also back to it.
Joan Richardson, Graduate Center Distinguished Professor of English, Comparative Literature, Liberal Studies, and American Studies. Her recent books include How To Live, What To Do: Thirteen Ways of Looking at Wallace Stevens and Pragmatism and American Experience: An Introduction.
I am drawn to poetry that simultaneously perplexes and enchants me. The koan-like tension/suspension between the titles and texts of so many of Wallace Stevens’ poems gives a sense of what I mean. This first encounter signals what will be an adventure like no other into stanzas — rooms of ideas — where what it is to be a being in language reveals itself again and again, in glimpses, as the mystery it is. “Mrs. Alfred Uruguay,” “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” “A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts,” “Of the Manner of Addressing Clouds” are a few such titles. They are invitations into the imagination of someone tuned to the cosmic weather by which we are all affected, whether we know it or not. Stevens’ poetry teaches us how to attend to it and our place in what he described in an early poem as “all that dust.” I have no one favorite Stevens poem, and there are other poets of our more recent moment I read and reread, like Jorie Graham and Nathaniel Mackey, whose work also tunes us into such frequencies.
I believe that the acts of reading, writing, and sharing poetry can help bridge gaps in empathy between people, encourage creativity in others, and provide us with the invaluable opportunity to listen and be heard in vulnerable and radical ways. Poetry readings can offer glimmers of encouragement, humor, and presence — there’s something very calming on a nervous-system level about sitting in a crowd and listening to poems. I think poetry is an essential form of communication that encourages curiosity and stepping outside of oneself. Currently, a favorite poem is Diane Seuss’ sonnet, “[All things now remind me]”. I love its clarity, energy, imagery, and attentiveness. She writes, “I pray they will / not go unseen.” The poems I love most tend to be concerned with noticing and recording the unspoken and unseen, and they urge us to be present and attuned to the details of our lives. Doing so can feel very difficult, but poets like Seuss give me courage.
Chris Campanioni (Ph.D. ’22, English), author, most recently, of A and B and Also Nothing. His essays, poetry, and fiction have been published in Best American Essays (2022), BOMB, Catapult, Social Text, and Los Angeles Review of Books.
Poetry is a mode of curiosity, a mode of holding complexity, a possible entry point for teaching us how to write with depth through compression but also careful straddle, to empower displacement in service of a “feeling into” that we can trace in empathy’s etymology. Poetry invites us to pay attention to the sensory parts of language, the sonic pleasures accrued from breaking or broken forms, which I feel sometimes is my inheritance as the first in my family to speak English as a primary language. It’s difficult (impossible?) to choose just one favorite poem but because I wrote the last sentence, now I’m thinking of Philip Larkin, not “This Be The Verse” but rather “High Windows”: how haunting that final line, the miracle of “nothing,” “nowhere,” and “endless.”
There is nothing quite like poetry. It causes my entire being to resonate as if I am a musical instrument, especially when there is a deep intellectual perceptiveness, a piercing emotional intelligence, or even a surprising linguistic or sonic juxtaposition, happening in a poem. Poetry has the potential to affect and change people, to break us open in a sense, on both a cognitive intellectual level and an emotional level.
Frank O'Hara's "To the Harbormaster" has many qualities playing with the relationship between intimacy and distance that I admire, a push-pull dynamic that seems especially germane to us at this cultural moment where meeting or gathering in person seems to be less of a trend due to the consequences of COVID. In fact, I admire this poem so much that I made an allusion to its final line, "the waves which have kept me from reaching you," in the final line of the title poem from my own book Since I Moved In. It appears transmogrified there as "the interface that has kept me from reaching you."
Jared Daniel Fagen, Comparative Literature Ph.D. candidate. He is the author, most recently, of The Animal of Existence. His prose poems, essays, and conversations have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Fence, Lana Turner, and Asymptote.
What draws me to poetry is, essentially, the ways in which poetry draws me out of myself, sits myself beside me, to see and be seen askance. It’s a mirror but of indirection — reflecting and refracting language, image, perception — by and through which one might walk, at last, barefoot across the carpeted back of a monarch moth, or discern a glare of light invading a bride’s smile, transposing it like a drifting glacier into a grimace that betrays the sheen of her charmeuse gown. From this angle, Jacques Dupin’s prose poem “Begin Like Tearing” (translated by Stephen Romer) has become utterly important to me. Here, poetry is the event of rupture, “the cruel engagement of the spirit and the body” and “gift of self [that is] an imperceptible displacement” — an unsettling that sees the trees not as a forest but “blocks of potential firewood,” the image “given to us” but only “to be breached, in one sense destroyed,” so that ash may become fertilizer for future firs to be cleaved, and the poem hence renewed.
My love of poetry began with nursery rhymes as a child. My uncles would read them to me from a worn, red, Childcraft volume until I knew them by heart — and encourage me to recite them for my family. I liked the click of the rhymes, the rhythms, different from everyday talk. “Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?” I still take pleasure in the music, metaphors, and insights of poetry, and remember enhancements of poetry with Professor Gerhard Joseph, and Professor Mary Ann Caws illuminating Virginia Woolf’s poetic style at the GC. My lifelong reading of favorite poets inspires me to attempt rhythms, images, and feeling in flight in my own modest poems. One of my favorite poems is Eavan Boland’s “The Pomegranate”: It brings scenes from myths into understanding relationships today. It begins,
“The only legend I have ever loved is
the story of a daughter lost in hell.
And found and rescued there.
Love and blackmail are the gist of it.
Ceres and Persephone the names.”
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