Happy Birthday, Thom Gunn: The Beloved Writer’s Reading List of 10 Essential Books to Enchant Teenagers with Poetry
“Poetry is of many sorts and is all around us… a rhymed political slogan is poetry of a kind, for example, and the lyrics of a song by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, or Bob Dylan may be poetry of a very high order.”
By Maria Popova
“Poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire,” wrote Adrienne Rich in her beautiful meditation on what poetry does. Few of her peers and contemporaries have embodied this poetic potentiality more vigorously than the prolific English-born poet and LGBT icon Thom Gunn (August 29, 1929–April 25, 2004) — one of those artists who never reached a mainstream mass but who elicited, and continue to elicit, a fervent, almost cultish adoration from their circle of loyal admirers. Oliver Sacks worshipped him, titled his own memoir after a line from one of Gunn’s poems, and learned about the nature of creativity from him.
On a recent visit to the unmined archives of the Academy of American Poets — which gave us such gold as that supreme defense of the artist’s right to challenge the status quo and the acutely timely story of the creative community’s courageous solidarity against racial violence in 1968 — I came upon a wonderful Gunn treasure.
In the fall of 1969, Elizabeth Kray — the Academy’s first executive director and one of the most spirited champions of poetry our civilization has ever had — reached out to Gunn, asking him what books he would insist his students read if he were a high school English teacher.
Three years earlier, Kray had piloted the Poets-in-the-Schools program, under which prominent poets visited New York City public schools in a quest to enchant young minds with poetry. She hoped the effort would engender “a permanent hook-up between the literary community and the persons involved in teaching the young: the teachers and the parents.” The program was an immediate success, and Kray now endeavored to use the book recommendations of the era’s greatest poets as the backbone of a reading list for a city-wide, and eventually nation-wide, reading program.
Forty-year-old Gunn complied gladly, if with delay. His largehearted response came handwritten, like most of his correspondence, and offered the ten most essential books to inspire a young mind for a lifetime of reading, alongside a beautiful meditation on the many-guised life of poetry beyond its traditional literary form.
Dear Betty Kray,
I am sorry to have been so long in answering your letter, in which you ask me for a list of books. I have not listed fiction, as my own reading of contemporary fiction is too random for me to be much help. And my list of poetry is a short one, as I think it will be more useful this way. It would be tempting to list all the twentieth century poets I myself like, but it strikes me that a poet like Wallace Stevens would be difficult to teach well to teenagers, so I have stuck with books about which I am certain.
I think the first aim of someone teaching poetry in a high school should be to continuously demonstrate that poetry is of many sorts and is all around us; that a rhymed political slogan is poetry of a kind, for example, and the lyrics of a song by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, or Bob Dylan may be poetry of a very high order; that inevitably most people have commerce with poetry in some part of their lives. The book that fist demonstrated this to me was
- The Poet’s Tongue (public library), edited by W.H. Auden and John Garrett.
It is thirty years old, and I believe it is not published over here [in America], but it is in print in England, and is a book I think any high school teacher should get hold of. It is an anthology of all kinds of poetry, from all times, and successfully demonstrates the range and possibilities of poetry.
The teacher should also get copies of:
- The Bob Dylan Song Book (public library), and
- The Beatles Song Book (public library) (to be published this month). “Sir Patrick Spens” is a poem not immediately available to most teenagers. But many of them already know and like the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” which is a ballad right in the same tradition.
I think the following could be successfully taught:
- Wilfred Owen: Collected Poems (public library)
- D.H. Lawrence: Selected Poems (public library) (ed. Rexroth), (Compass Books)
- Ezra Pound: Selected Poems (public library) (New Directions)
The Pound would be less easy to teach than the other two, but there are plenty of poems in it (“The Ballad of the Goodly Fere,” the Cathay poems) that could be much enjoyed by teenage students.
Of really contemporary poets, I would include the following:
- Gary Snyder: The Back Country (public library) (New Directions) and any of his other books the teacher could get hold of.
- Allen Ginsberg: Howl and Other Poems (public library) (City Lights) and Planet News (public library)
These are two poets who can most successfully speak to teenagers (and to a good many others of us). True, there are references to sex and drugs, and I don’t know what school policies may be about these. I think poems about sex and drugs are particularly good for teenagers to read, and if these two poets have to be bowdlerized out of the suggested program then I doubt if the program can be much good.
- Sylvia Plath: Ariel (public library)
- Ted Hughes: Lupercal (public library) or Selected Poems (public library)
I would hesitate to suggest Robert Bly or James Wright. They are fine poets but I think people under eighteen would have a good deal of difficulty with them.
As I say, sorry to have been so long. Don’t bother to answer this. I am sure you have plenty on your hands.
Complement with Hemingway’s list of sixteen essential books every aspiring writer should read, Gabriel García Márquez on the twenty-four books that shaped him as a writer, and other notable reading lists by Oliver Sacks, Patti Smith, Carl Sagan, David Byrne, Joan Didion, Leo Tolstoy, Susan Sontag, Werner Herzog, Alan Turing, Brian Eno, David Bowie, Stewart Brand, Sam Harris, and Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Join me in supporting the Academy of American Poets with a donation to ensure the survival of their remarkable archive and their ongoing advocacy of poetry in public schools and public life.