In recognition of National Poetry Month (celebrated in April in the USA, UK and Canada), here are a dozen of the best poetry resources the web has to offer.
But first, who reads poetry these days?
Back in 2005 the USA based National Opinion Research Center (NORC) conducted a survey, on behalf of The Poetry Foundation. It found that over a third of men and almost two-thirds of women who read for pleasure are poetry users. The rather awkward term "poetry users" is how the survey describes those who either listen to or read poetry, or both.
These numbers sounds pretty impressive, but keep in mind that the survey was just of those who already read for pleasure - and we readers are, sadly, already a subset of the general population. When you look at the population of the USA as a whole, according to a 2002 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, just three out of twenty adults read or listen to poetry.
Before the poets among us retire to write depressing haiku about the state of poetry, perhaps you'll take heart in the fact that 99% of "non poetry users" in the NORC survey said that they come across poetry in their daily lives - on public transport, at ceremonies, in newspapers and so forth - and about two-thirds had read/listened to these poems and liked them. In short, when poetry sneaks up on people, they enjoy it!
Personally, I love the serendipity of coming across poetry, but rarely do I seek it out, and if I do it's mostly to revisit old favorites. As for reviews of poetry, frankly, most of the time they leave me cold as my attitude to the form is succinctly summed up by that well known Joan Didion quote: "Grammar is a piano I play by ear. All I know about it is its power." It's as if poetry reviewers belong to a private club that I'm not privy to; keeping me at arm's length talking about technical terms I don't understand and, frankly, don't particularly want to.
With all this said, I had serious doubts about writing a blog about poetry websites when there are so many better qualified than I to do so; but then it occurred to me that perhaps I did have a perspective to offer precisely because I am not a poetry insider. So here, with the invaluable input of some of BookBrowse's reviewers who are poetry aficionados, are a dozen poetry websites that have something to offer even the least poetic among us.
General Poetry Sites
Poetryfoundation.org. The Poetry Foundation has a huge selection of poems supported by substantial biographical info. I particularly enjoyed browsing poems by geographical region. It's the sort of site that you could dip in for a couple of minutes or a couple of days.
Poemhunter.com. Whether you're looking for themed quotes, the lyrics to an almost forgotten song, to revisit a favorite poem or discover new poets, this vast resource of over 800,000 poems and 80,000 poets will deliver the goods. You can sign up to receive the poem of the day by email and, once you create your free account, catalog your favorite poems for future reference.
Poets.org is affiliated with the Academy of American Poets. At first glance, it seems a little less welcoming than the two sites mentioned already, but when I started digging in its resources are great, not least the very cool regional map of the USA, including bios of key poets, poetry events, poetry-friendly bookstores, and poetry history. The Academy of American Poets inaugurated National Poetry Month so, unsurprisingly, they're also a great resource for that as well.
Poetrysociety.org is the website of The Poetry Society of America - the oldest poetry organization in the USA founded in 1910. It's a membership organization so not a lot for a casual visitor such as me, but if I was somebody who just lived and breathed poetry, and particularly if I was a high schooler who felt that no one else in the world cared for poetry the way I do, I think I would find many free articles and interviews to inspire me.
Poetry180. The Library of Congress's Poetry 180 site encourages schools to share a poem with their students every day. I found Poetry 180 a soothing place to visit precisely because it is limited to just 180 short poems, thoughtfully chosen by former Poet Laureate Billy Collins.
Poetseers.org. Poetseers is created and maintained by followers of the spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy (1931-2007). Here you'll find poetry by religion/belief. There's a particularly intriguing section titled poet seers where you'll find a select gathering of poets that "inspire and illuminate humanity to look beyond the mundane and to gain a glimpse of the Beyond." Here you'll find Shakespeare, Milton and William Blake rubbing shoulders with Dante, Confucius and Buddha. Those who notice a lack of female representation in the seers category (just the one) will find female poets elsewhere, such as Hildegard of Bingen and Julian of Norwich in the Christian section.
Unlike small children, many would say that poetry should be heard, not seen. Here are three sites that provide a wealth of audio readings:
Poetryarchive.org. The Poetry Archive's stated purpose is to help make poetry accessible, relevant and enjoyable to a wide audience. I just loved my visit which took me much longer than I expected once I found the historic recordings section. It's a real kick to hear poets such as W.H. Auden, John Betjeman, T.S. Elliott, Robert Graves, Rudyard Kipling and Siegfried Sassoon reading their own works, even if some of the recordings are sadly a bit short and crackly. What I particularly enjoyed is hearing the matter of fact way many of these famous poets read their own work, without putting on what I think of as a special "poetry voice" - that meaningful, overly emphasized tone that many (including myself I hasten to add) tend to put on when reading poetry. There's much more to explore including a special section of poems for children, poems by theme, and poems by world region (with the United Kingdom broken down into a dozen different sections).
Fishousepoems.org is an audio archive of contemporary poets. Being woefully ignorant of modern poetry I found Fishouse a little intimidating - not because its resources are particularly extensive but because there were so few names I recognized. For me, some sort of introductory assortment of poems would have helped, even if the selection was generated randomly. There was one featured poem but it wasn't one I enjoyed so, having listened to it, I was back at square one as to where to go next.
Librivox.org is a volunteer-run program that takes public domain texts of all kinds including books, plays and poems, and records them to audio files that are entirely free for the public to download in English and many other languages. It's a bit of a dig through the search options to find poetry but once you do you'll find a veritable feast of poets listed alphabetically and, of course, if you have a particular poet or poem in mind you can search by name. Edward Thomas lived in the same small English village that I grew up in, albeit 60 years earlier, so I looked him up and found 3 poems, with multiple recordings of each. With such a wealth of unrecorded poems, it seems a pity to have multiple recordings of the same three, but I suppose that's the nature of a volunteer organization where people are free to record what they want.
Poetry in Translation
Mptmagazine.com. For me, the highlight of Modern Poetry in Translation is the "Translate" section. I think that the role of translators tends to be ignored by us readers. Or perhaps more accurately, when its done well we tend to overlook it because the best translators so seamlessly channel the writer's words from his or her native language that we don't have to spare a thought for the transmogrification that has taken place. MPT illustrates the translator's art by offering up multiple different, and entirely legitimate, translations of the same poem, allowing us to see that there is so much more to it than simply converting individual words from one language to another.
Poem.org & Poetry.com
At first glance poem.org seems a little all over the place, but once I started digging in it's strangely addictive, and appears to be a great resource to post poems and get feedback, or just to lurk and learn. There's forums for beginning and advanced poets - the only condition being that you critique at least one poem in the forum you want to post to, before you post your own work.
In comparison, poetry.com is huge with a lot of participation. When I visited, 8 poems had been submitted in the past 20 minutes, all had at least one comment and some already had four or more. But the quality of the feedback seems to be in reverse proportion to the quantity. Poems posted at Poem.org attract just a handful of comments at the most, but the feedback is thoughtful and insightful; whereas Poetry.com leans towards the enthusiastic but superficial - for example, one poem had 35 comments but the longest critique was 12 words.
So, while Poetry.com is undoubtedly the more active of the two sites and the easiest to navigate for a first time visitor; if you're looking for substantial feedback from which to learn, Poem.org appears to be the stronger option.
I hope you enjoyed this tour through poetry websites. If there are others you'd like to add, or you have comments on any of those listed, please do post below. I look forward to reading your thoughts.
Thanks to Bob Sauerbrey, Christian Tubau, Heather Phillips, Jennifer Dawson, Karen Rigby, Elizabeth Funk and Elena Spagnolie for their enthusiastic recommendations of of the sites featured above, and the many other undoubtedly excellent sites that we were unable to include due to space considerations.
- Davina Morgan-Witts, BookBrowse editor
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