Celebrate National Poetry Month with our Top Ten Readings

“To read a poem is to hear it with our eyes; to hear it is to see it with our ears.”
-Octavio Paz

Over the years To the Best of Our Knowledge has interviewed some amazing poets. Hearing their words in our headphones has been for us a great joy. So, tout de suite, here’s some of their magic and love and angst and rhythm.

So listen—or read if you must—to our top ten poetry readings.

 


 

10. “Anchor” by Rae Armantrout

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Rae Armantrout believes that there is one thing that all poetry should be: read out loud. This poem is, as she put it, “my way of saying good-bye.”

 

“Widely expected,
if you will,
cataclysm.”

Things I’d say,
am saying,

to persons no longer
present.

Yards away trim junipers
make their customary
bows.

“Oh, no thank you”
to any of it.

If you watch me
from increasing distance,

I am writing this
always

from Versed

 


 

9. “Yellow” by Ken Nordine

Ken Nordine is the epitome of jazz poetry. He has an amazing voice. His nickname is, in fact, “The Voice.” Best known for his Word Jazz series, this poem is one he did for a paint company. The paint company is long forgotten but the poem lives on.

 

In the beginning, oh, long before that.
When light was deciding who should be in and who should be out of the spectrum.
Yellow was in trouble.
Even then it seems that green, you know how green can be, didn’t want yellow in.
Some silly primal envy I suppose, but for whatever cause, the effect was bad on yellow.
And caused yellow to weep yellow tears for several eternals, before there were years.
Until blue heard what was up between green and yellow and took green aside for a serious talk,
in which blue pointed out that if yellow and blue were to get together,
not that they would but if they did (a gentle threat),
they could make their own green.
“Ooh” said green with some understanding.
Naturally by a sudden change of hue green saw the light and yellow got in.
It worked out fine,
yellow got lemons and green got limes.

from Colors

 


 

8. “Reader” by Billy Collins

Billy Collins is the former Poet Laureate of the United States, and has been called “the most popular poet in America.”, whose work is loved by John Updike and Edward Hirsch (#2 on our list). He is known for his quirky and tender poems that make everyday life significant.

 

Looker, gazer, skimmer, skipper,
thumb-licking page turner, peruser,
you getting your print-fix for the day,
pencil-chewer, note taker, marginalianist
with your checks and X’s
first-timer or revisiter,
browser, speedster, English major,
flight-ready girl, melancholy boy,
invisible companion, thief, blind date, perfect stranger –

that is me rushing to the window
to see if it’s you passing under the shade trees
with a baby carriage or a dog on a leash,
me picking up the phone
to imagine your unimaginable number,
me standing by a map of the world
wondering where you are –
alone on a bench in a train station
or falling asleep, the book sliding to the floor.

from Aimless Love

 


 

7. “The Blueprint” by Les Murray

It seems like every year, Australian poet Les Murray is one of the favorites to win the Nobel Prize — something he may or may not even want. But if he did, it would be well-deserved, and open the world to this great but still relatively obscure poet.

 

Whatever the great religions offer
it is afterlife their people want:
Heaven, Paradise, higher reincarnations,
together or apart—
for these they will love God, or butter Karma.

Afterlife. Wherever it already exists
people will crawl into ships’ framework
or suffocate in truck containers to reach it,
they will conjure it down
on their beaches and their pooled clay streets,
inject it, marry into it.

The secular withholds any obeisance
that is aimed upwards.
It must go declaratively down,
but “an accident of consciousness
between two eternities of oblivion”—
all of us have done one
of those eternities already, on our ear.

After the second, we require an afterlife
greater and stranger than science gives us now,
life like, then unlike
what mortal life has been.

from The Biplane Houses

 


 

6. “And I Said to my Soul be Loud” by Christian Wiman

Christian Wiman, former editor of Poetry Magazine, says being diagnosed with cancer - and falling in love - spurred him to write. When he spoke to us, he talked about writing in the “whirlwind” of a “throbbing life.”

 

Madden me back to an afternoon
I carry in me
not like a wound
but like a will against a wound

Give me again enough man
to be the child
choosing my own annihilations

To make of this severed limb
a wand to conjure
a weapon to shatter
dark matter of the dirt daubers’ nests
galaxies of glass

Whacking glints
bash-dancing on the cellar’s fire
I am the sound the sun would make
if the sun could make a sound

and the gasp of rot
stabbed from the compost’s lumpen living death
is me

O my life my war in a jar
I shake you and shake you
and may the best ant win

For I am come a whirlwind of wasted things
and I will ride this tantrum back to God

until my fixed self, my fluorescent self
my grief–nibbling, unbewildered, wall–to–wall self
withers in me like a salted slug

from Every Riven Thing

 


 

5. “I was so Puzzled by the Attacks” by Alice Walker

Though famous for her novel “The Color Purple” Alice Walker considers herself a poet. This concise wallop of a poem was her response to the terrorist attacks on 9/11. She read it to us on the eve of Americas’ invasion of Iraq.

 

It was as if
They believed
We were
In a race
To succeed
& Someone
Other
Than
Death
Was at
The
Finish
Line.

from Absolute Trust in the Goodness of the Earth

 


 

4. “For Saundra” by Nikki Giovanni

Nikki Giovanni’s poetry has become synonymous with the struggle of African-Americans, and especially the struggle of Black women. But she’s also interested in making broader connections that no one else has seen. She says, “My dream was not to publish or to even be a writer: my dream was to discover something no one else had thought of. I guess that’s why I’m a poet. We put things together in ways no one else does.”

 

i wanted to write
a poem
that rhymes
but revolution doesn’t lend
itself to be-bopping

then my neighbor
who thinks i hate
asked – do you ever write
tree poems – i like trees
so i thought
i’ll write a beautiful green tree poem
peeked from my window
to check the image
noticed that the school yard was covered
with asphalt
no green – no trees grow
in manhattan

then, well, i thought the sky
i’ll do a big blue sky poem
but all the clouds have winged
low since no-Dick was elected

so i thought again
and it occurred to me
maybe i shouldn’t write
at all
but clean my gun
and check my kerosene supply

perhaps these are not poetic
times
at all

from The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni

 


 

3. “Living with Her” by Yi-Young Lee

Li-Young Lee was born in Indonesia to Chinese political exiles, and his work draws on classical Chinese traditions. Though lyrical, his poems are noted for their use of silence. This poem comes from the book Behind my Eyes, and is a love poem to his wife.

 

She opens her eyes and I see.
She counts the birds and I hear
the names of the months and days.
A girl, one of her names
is Change. And my childhood
lasted all of an evening.
Called light, she breathes, my living share
of every moment emerging.
Called life, she is a pomegranate
pecked clean by birds to entirely
become a part of their flying.
Do you love me? she asks.
I love you,
she answers, and the world keeps beginning.

from Behind My Eyes

 


 

2. Excerpt from Gabriel, by Edward Hirsch

Edward Hirsch is one of the most respected contemporary poets today. But when his son died he says he needed it like he had never ever needed anything before. “Gabriel” is a 78-page elegy to his son. This is an excerpt near the end.

 

Close the prayer book I will not pretend
That God brings peace upon us
And upon all Israel

I don’t want to hear anyone
Scolding me from her wheelchair
Because I am crying to hard

I’m not worried about a heart attack
Nothingness
You’ve already broken my heart

I will not forgive you
Sun of emptiness
Sky of blank clouds

I will not forgive you
Indifferent God
Until you give me back my son

from Gabriel: A Poem

 


 

1. “Night in Blue” by Brian Turner

Brian Turner served as an infantry team leader with the third striker brigade combat unit in Iraq. On the surface the poem appears to be written on the flight back home But it was actually written right after an intense battle in Mosul. As he says, “I didn’t have one round left to defend myself.”

 

At seven thousand feet and looking back, running lights
blacked out under the wings and America waiting,
a year of my life disappears at midnight,
the sky a deep viridian, the houselights below
small as match heads burned down to embers.

Has this year made me a better lover?
Will I understand something of hardship,
of loss, will a lover sense this
in my kiss or touch? What do I know
of redemption or sacrifice, what will I have
to say of the dead—that it was worth it,
that any of it made sense?
I have no words to speak of war.
I never dug the graves in Talafar.
I never held the mother crying in Ramadi.
I never lifted my friend’s body
when they carried him home.

I have only the shadows under the leaves
to take with me, the quiet of the desert,
the low fog of Balad, orange groves
with ice forming on the rinds of fruit.
I have a woman crying in my ear
late at night when the stars go dim
moonlight and sand as a resonance
of the dust of bones, and nothing more.

from Here, Bullet