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Poetry's Not Dead, And Here Are Books To Help Appreciate It


Our poetry reviewer Tess Taylor observes that every few years, it seems, poetry is declared dead. And in response, books are published about how to bring poetry back to life or how to better appreciate it. Well, Tess read this year's crop so that you don't have to.

TESS TAYLOR, BYLINE: As it turns out, the best books about loving poetry this year helped me read alongside witty, accessible guides, a bit like getting to tour my favorite art museum with a generous, whip-smart curator. I ended up loving "A Little Book On Form" by Robert Hass and "Why Poetry" by Matthew Zapruder as much as anything else I read this year.

The Hass book explores the different forms a poem can take, but it's also about how the shapes of phrases and sentences interact with their meanings, about our histories of using and needing these shapes and about how the dance between shape and meaning can make us as readers feel more alive. Hass' prose is terrific, and it's fun to read whether you want to write poetry more seriously or you just love language and you want to be closer to its motor.

Hass offers a number of really surprising ways of reading. For instance, I loved how he categorized the form of the haiku as a particularly interesting one-sentence poem, like a unit of bright observation. Here's one. (Reading) Not knowing it's in a kitchen, the fish cooling in a tub. I also loved how Hass compared ancient Almanac poems like Virgil's "Georgics" to contemporary poems that now teach us how to read and report on the world around us. Hass zigzags through literary history, and he made me hungry to read more deeply and widely both in the past and in the present.

My other favorite book was Zapruder's partly because it was irreverent, skeptical and also generous. I loved the moment when Zapruder compares Keats' famous figure of silence and slow time to a cool couple, someone my wife and I would feel quite OK about going on vacation with. Zapruder wants us to feel like we can hang out with poems just like we hang out with our lovers or our friends. He also wants us to think about what spending time with poetic language might offer each of us. He argues that poetry helps us discover the slipperiness of both language and our imaginations and that poetry's daydreamyness (ph) and indirections can create space in which to feel more human.

Zapruder's canny chapters brought great poems together, and his readings also brought me back to my own daydreamy self. It turned out that thinking about why and how I love poetry in the presence of another passionate reader left me feeling renewed. Both the page and the world seemed to burn a little more brightly. I felt a bit more writerly and a bit more human, too.


SIEGEL: That's Tess Taylor talking about "Why Poetry" and "A Little Book On Form." Her most recent book is "Work & Days."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.