6 Poems to Read Out Loud
I’m wrapping up my poetry unit this week and I’ve been reflecting on the moments from the past few weeks where my students brought the poems to life by reading them out loud. At first, it felt odd and distant to listen to the readings over Zoom, but after a while, it began to feel normal because you don’t have to project your voice across a room when you have your computer’s microphone.
I love so many things about poetry, including the layers of complex language that comes in the form of metaphors, similes, symbols, tension, repetition, and parallel structure. But mostly, I love it for the sounds. When words share sounds, they also share meanings. Sounds surprise us when two words or ideas suddenly link in unexpected ways.
Some poems, like Wallace Stevens poems, are better on the page. They require four or five readings and some heavy annotations. Others read more like narratives or ballads, and mimic the sounds of real-life storytelling. Then there’s the poem that does it all, that blows your mind, that gives you goosebumps when everything comes together. The sounds, the ideas, the structure, the authenticity, the emotional intensity.
Over the years, I’ve grown to love reading certain poems out loud, so here’s a list of my favorites:
1. “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie” by Bob Dylan
I know what you’re thinking, Bob Dylan is not a poet, he’s a songwriter. But alas, he wrote one of the greatest poems of all time after his idol, Woody Guthrie, died. It’s insane! You must read it, then read it to your students year after year after year. It will never feel old.
2. “Tintern Abbey” by William Wordsworth
In “Preface to Lyrical Ballads” Wordsworth famously called poetry “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” and employs “language really used by men, and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination.” This poem does just that - it is explosive.
3. “birth, mark” by Aja Monet
At the Dodge Poetry Festival a few years ago, I brought my students to hear Robert Pinsky, and he read with Aja Monet. When I heard her read, I got goosebumps. After the first poem, I turned to my students and we just laughed, like, what?! That was amazing. She recited her poems by heart – it was an incredible performance, but truly authentic. I felt like I was at a concert.
4. “At the Fishhouses” by Elizabeth Bishop
No one combines intense language and casual digressions quite like Elizabeth Bishop. She takes a microscope to reality and then allows you to randomly float away with her consciousness to take it all in.
5. “All Their Stanzas Look Alike” by Thomas Sayers Ellis
I’ve heard Ellis recite at poetry readings (he was also my professor at Case Western Reserve University when I tried my hand at engineering) and after hearing the first few lines, I thought, this guy knows how to read. And by that, I mean he knows how rhythm connects to words and emotion. When he read this poem, he asked the audience to read the refrain, and it was so much fun.
6. “Jersey Rain” by Robert Pinsky
This is the last poem in a book of poems by the same name. It might be the Jersey in me talking, but I think anyone will love this poem about how a place can shape us. It has one of the most dramatic and beautiful endings that I’ve ever read.
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