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Genre Guide: Poetry

What is poetry? Is it possible to define a literary form that is so varied in its expression? The most compelling definition that I have encountered comes from the American poet William Carlos Williams, who asserted with characteristic matter-of-factness that "a poem is a small (or large) machine made of words.” It is not surprising that Williams, a proponent of the imagist poetry movement, would value concision and function, but he does go on to qualify his statement with some conviction: “As in all machines its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character. In a poem this movement is distinguished in each case by the character of the speech from which it arises." The books featured in this genre guide are comprised of many such machines, small and large, wild and constrained, metred and vernacular.

Postmodern American PoetryFragments of SapphoA Worldly Country

Top 5 Classic Authors

William Shakespeare Emily Dickinson T.S. Eliot Adrienne Rich Langston Hughes

Top 5 Up-and-Coming Authors

Sandra Beasley Eduardo C. Corral Ben Lerner Tracy K. Smith Michael Dickman

Top 5 Classic Books

Diving into the Wreck, 1971-1972 by Adrienne Rich

"The fact of being separate enters your livelihood like a piece of furniture—a chest of seventeenth-century wood from somewhere in the North."

Songs of Innocence and Experience by William Blake

Songs of Innocence

"In what distant deeps or skies, burnt the fire of thine eyes? On what wings dare he aspire? What the hand, dare seize the fire?"


Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

"And there is no object so soft but it makes a hub for the wheeled universe, and any man or woman shall stand cool and supercilious before a million universes."

The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot

The Waste Land

"Come in under the shadow of this red rock, and I will show you something different from either your shadow at morning striding behind you or your shadow at evening rising to meet you; I will show you fear in a handful of dust."


Ariel by Sylvia Plath


"I’m no more your mother than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow effacement at the wind’s hand."

My Favorite 5

The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara

Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara

"Now I am quietly waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again, and interesting, and modern."

Transformations by Anne Sexton


"The speaker in this case is a middle-aged witch, me—tangled on my two great arms, my face in a book and my mouth wide, ready to tell you a story or two."

The Poems of Dylan Thomas

The Poems of Dylan Thomas

"Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs about the lilting house and happy as the grass was green, the night above the dingle starry, time let me hail and climb golden in the heydays of his eyes..."

The Complete Poems of Hart Crane

Complete Poems of Hart Crane

"There is the world dimensional for those untwisted by the love of things irreconcilable..."

Flowers of Evil by Charles Baudelaire

Flowers of Evil

"My youth was nothing but a lowering storm occasionally lanced by sudden suns; torrential rains have done their work so well that no fruit ripens in my garden now."