You’ve probably already got your mysteries and steamy beach reads stacked up and dog-eared somewhere, so this is a different sort of list.
Deft, light, and bite-sized, yet also swirly and plunging and packed with the potential for getting very lost indeed, the work of these poets can pluck you out of your life and plop you back again in a matter of moments. But don’t let the brevity of poetry fool you. A few lines can feel like journeys into another mind, space, and time.
Here are seven volumes to Calgon-take-you-away while your kids squeal in the sprinkler (before getting too grassy), contentedly lick popsicles on the porch (before complaining of sticky fingers), or make like little bulldozers on the beach (before realizing they have a shovelful of sand suspended in the crotch of their bathing suits).
by Billy Collins
This is classic Billy Collins: funny, ironic, and deceptively simple. It’s poetry that pokes fun at the human condition, while also reveling in it – which is basically what parents need to do if they hope to stay sane. Here’s an excerpt from the poem “Days”:
Through the calm eye of the window
everything is in its place
but so precariously
this day might be resting somehow
on the one before it,
all the days of the past stacked high
like the impossible tower of dishes
entertainers used to build on stage.
No wonder you find yourself
perched on the top of a tall ladder
hoping to add one more.
Just another Wednesday,
then holding your breath,
place this cup on yesterday’s saucer
without the slightest clink.
by Joshua Beckman
I love this poet so much. Dip in anywhere and you’re walking through a maze of close encounters of the hyper-observant kind. Tenderly accessible yet also dramatic, Beckman’s poems bring even the most forgettable moments into high relief. Here’s an excerpt from the poem “My Story”:
On a day like today (sunny but mild)
anyone could suggest to you a better way of living
without making you mad. What does your story have to do
with my life is something that a lot of people wonder.
Not everyone has dropped their child.
Not everyone has abandoned hope of forgiveness for a tiny speck
of a thing they were once guilty of.
And not everyone has focused all of their usable energy
on a task as basic as buying an ice cream cone.
by Mary Oliver
Hayden Carruth calls Oliver’s poems “wonderingly perceptive” and a “meditation on the impossibilities of what we call lives, and on the gratifications of change.” Yes, to all those juicy things. Also, Oliver is endlessly restorative. Here’s an excerpt from “Morning Poem”:
If it is your nature
to be happy
you will swim away along the soft trails
for hours, your imagination
And if your spirit
carries within it
that is heavier than lead –
if it’s all you can do
to keep on trudging –
there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted –
by David Budbill
Budbill feels like he might be my neighbor, writing about self-reliance, the seasons, aging, sex. His words are as immediate as it gets even though they’re inspired by ancient Chinese poets. Here’s an excerpt from “Then and Now”:
Imagine: never able to travel faster than
the river current. Day after day, all that
Time to read, play a flute, watch the mist
rising between mountains as you float by.
Strongly influenced by Zen Buddhism, the Japanese poet Basho is known for his haiku, which was infused with karumi, or lightness. The introduction of this collection describes this quality as “the artistic expression of non-attachment, the result of calm realization of profoundly felt truths.”
Don’t know about you, but my mom-self is ready for a healthy dose of karumi come late July. Three lines and 17 syllables long, you can practically read one between sneezes. Here are some of my favorites:
Under the cherry –
wall cool against
Come out, bat –
birds, earth itself
hauled off by flowers.
by Wislawa Szymborska
When I read Szymbnorska, I feel like I’m talking to my grandmother. Shrewd, adroit, and a little mischievous, her youth bleeds through her wisdom. This excerpt from “A Moment in Troy” makes me wish I had a daughter and, a moment later, feel very relieved not to.
Little girls –
to freckles that won’t go away,
not turning any heads
as they walk across the eyelids of the world,
looking just like Mom or Dad,
and sincerely horrified by it –
in the middle of dinner,
in the middle of a book,
while studying the mirror,
may suddenly be taken off to Troy.
by Anne Sexton
You remember Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Sexton retells them here with poetry, enhancing their weird, dark mystery. You might not want to read these versions to the kids, though: In the foreword, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. says that Sexton “domesticates my terror, examines it and describes it, teaches it some tricks which will amuse me, then lets it gallop wild in my forest once more.”
That’s all it took for me to buy the book. Here’s an excerpt from her rendition of “The Frog Prince”:
Like a genie coming out of a samovar,
a handsome prince arose in the
corner of her royal bedroom.
He had kind eyes and hands
and was a friend of sorrow.
Thus they were married.
After all he had compromised her.
He hired a night watchman
so that no one could enter the chamber
and he had the well
boarded over so that
never again would she lose her ball,
that moon, that Krishna hair,
that blind poppy, that innocent globe,
that madonna womb.
If you’re feeling stuck in a summer slump, get lost in a little poetry. It’s contemplative, intimate, eye-opening, therapeutic, and a powerful antidote to the hustle of schlepping your sunburned, bug-bitten munchkins all over creation. And please, share some of your favorite poets below!