These Farmhouse Bookshelves

Mar 9, 2013

We don’t read poetry any longer, do we?

Oh, a bit here and there, and some of us more than others, but we’re much more likely to end our days with reality television than The Oxford Book of English Verse, aren’t we?

I often wonder why this is. Is it because we are so accustomed to the easy and comfortable we avoid using our spare time for anything that requires real effort? And I won’t fool you. Poetry requires effort. It asks that we meet it at least halfway.

We must quiet our minds (and our stereo speakers). We must slow down (no one ever speed-read a poem). We must re-read (a good poem can’t ever be checked as “read” on our reading lists and tracking apps; poetry happens in the re-reading).

All I really know is that I’ve hesitated to recommend poetry books in this space. I want to make you happy, and I’ve decided happiness means novels, memoirs, cookbooks, and picture books.

and more books


I read this article and realized that poetry is worth more than life to some people. They will risk everything for what it gives.

The least I can do is share a few recommendations with you.

Also, I can make this promise – tonight, when my children are (finally) asleep, I will not turn on my television. I will not pick up my big, fat novel. Instead, I will re-read, and I will remember. I will remember that my life is something different, something better, because I have read Yeats and Auden, Bishop and Heaney.

And these. I have read these:

I have read George Herbert.

One of the great English metaphysical poets (poets known for their elaborate imagery), Herbert was a priest in the Church of England and a friend of John Donne. His religious poetry is beautiful, desperate, and honest. But this is not confession (or not merely); it is art. It is art that dramatizes and explores the encounter between the flawed, sinful self and a God who is Love.

Herbert’s poems are intricately crafted. They reward the time we spend with them.

A verse may finde him, who a sermon flies, / And turn delight into a sacrifice.  – George Herbert

I have read Eavan Boland.

I can’t recommend poetry without recommending the work of this contemporary Irish poet. Boland writes about home, about motherhood, about what it means to create beautiful art out of the raw materials of violence, loss, and the various troubles of history. Her work is accessible, but it is not superficial. It rewards our first reading, but it gives more with subsequent readings.

I suggest picking up a single volume of her work (rather than a collection or the few poems you might find in an anthology). Reading poetry is like music in this regard – poets write poems the way musicians create albums. It is one thing to know a hit single in isolation; it is entirely another to know what has been created when the artist gathers their work into a whole.

I often return to her volume In a Time of Violence. You might start there.

Write us out of the poem. Make us human / in cadences of change and mortal pain / and words we can grow old and die in. – Eavan Boland

I have read everything ever published by T. S. Eliot. But, always and especially, I have read Four Quartets.

Eliot was the first poet who ever made me love poetry. I was a teenager, and I was mesmerized by the rhythms of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Now I don’t often go back to Prufrock and his coffee spoons (though the first lines of that poem are impossible for me to forget), but I return, more and more often, in fact, to Four Quartets.

There are times when an imperfect little art (like a quirky little poem) will suffice. It is like us: small yet precious, strange but lovely. There are other times when we need an art that hints at something much bigger and more perfect. Four Quartets is like that for me. It is  big enough to move in, big enough to dream in, big enough to inspire your own creativity. It is Art-with-a-capital-A, and some days that is what my own little life needs most of all.

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling // We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time. – T. S. Eliot

Do you read poetry? Why? Why not? I’d love to know.




  1. Kris

    Such a needed reminder to slow down, and savor the words and imagery of poetry. I used to read it much more often–though I’m ashamed to admit I don’t read it near as much these days. The other week I found a complete collection of Robert Frost’s poetry on the “discarded shelf” at the library (can you imagine tossing that out?!). One person’s loss became my treasure, as I was more than happy to add Frost to my shelf. I shall move him from shelf to bedside table today. Thank you for reminding me the sweet value of verse.

    • Christie Purifoy

      Kris, I’m a big believer in buying books at thrift stores which means that many, many of my books have the name of a library and “discard” written somewhere inside. Every time I see that I think, “Really??” Yes, one person’s loss can be our treasure, at least where books are concerned. 🙂
      And a complete collection of Frost? Treasure, indeed.

  2. Brenna D (@chicagomama)

    Each Saturday morning as I sip my coffee, I imagine I am sitting down on that couch of yours, sipping my coffee there, reading books, enjoying a quiet morning. Thanks for making my chaotic, city, running around mornings always feel sunny and warm.

    • Christie Purifoy

      Oh, you’re welcome Brenna. I remember those crazy, city Saturdays. So glad I can share a bit of our country calm.

  3. Laura Brown

    This makes me happy.

    Do I read poetry? Yes, but in seasons. There are seasons when I seem to thirst for it and soak it up like a withered plant. And there are seasons when I know it’s over there on the shelves, and I’m glad, but I don’t look at it. Sometimes these seasons last years.

    I read it because there’s so much in so few words. It’s some of the most memorable reading ever, I think. And, yes, because it requires work, but doesn’t demand it. Poems are sneaky that way, don’t you think? So small and unassuming and inviting. Then they hook you with a metaphor or an image or a single word.

    I’ve found poems nice to send as a sort of DIY greeting card or aspirin alternative. “Here, you’re looking peaked — this might help.”

  4. Thirkellgirl

    Oh, sheesh, I’ve always read poetry, and I read it now. In fact, I’m reciting poetry at our church talent show in a couple weeks. It’s something my father did, and I always read poetry to my daughters when they were growing up. I’ve got a whole shelf of poetry books, anthologies and single poets.

  5. kelli

    Poetry -thank you! I was waiting for this post:)
    You gave me a copy of In a Time of Violence years ago and I loved it. Maybe I’ll pull it off the shelf again. I love poetry but never really know where to start. It’s been on my mind since Tristan is learning about poetry right now (which means I am learning about poetry.) His grammar-stage ability to memorize long passages never ceases to astound me.

  6. Esther E. Hawkins

    I haven’t read any poetry for a long time but I loved studying it in school. It really does go to another level of depth than any other genre. Perhaps because there is some wiggle room for interpretation, even if the poet had a specific intention. You have inspired me to pull out some poetry to read to my kids. I think that will be my Spring break ‘project’ 🙂

  7. Bettye Cook

    Christie, I have begun reading your blog thru your mom. I am touched and refreshed and challenged by your writing–about our dear Jesus, life, and Reading. I so echo what you have said here about poetry, and how exquisite it is for me to find a fellow-lover of Eliot and Yeats!

    • Christie Purifoy

      Bettye, it’s wonderful to have you here! Thank you for your kind words. I’m always especially glad to meet other poetry lovers.



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