Perhaps the most important reading I did while writing my first novel Wreck and Order was poetry. This is partly for the expected reason that the books of poetry above offer invigorating examples of precision and inventiveness of language. But perhaps even more importantly, these books inspire me to be a better storyteller. Good poets understand that pretty words must add up to something more than prettiness. It’s not enough to write well, to translate the external and internal world into unique combinations of sounds and letters. That’s only the starting point for a good tale, whether in the form of a novel, poem, or essay. What must come next is the punch to the gut, the shocking caress, the unlikely failure or redemption: ultimately, words become the vehicle not simply to describe life, but to comment on it and transform it into new forms. Poetry has much to teach the novelist about how to draw the reader as close as possible to those new forms, the narrator’s imagined world.
These books of poems were also essential to writing Wreck and Order in particular because the novel focuses so heavily on bodily realities, from government-sanctioned torture to oral sex. My favorite poets speak with an immediacy and presence that naturally engages the reader’s full sense of self, that acknowledges the physicality of both writing and reading. In order to communicate a particular moment in a way that makes the reader care about it, one must inhabit the experience not only with the mind, but also with the skin, the belly, the spine. These eleven poets have taught me that being fully embodied is not separate from mental pursuits, but is necessary to write and read well.
Hannah Tennant-Moore’s work has appeared in the New York Times, The New Republic, n+1, Tin House, Salon, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and has twice been included in Best Buddhist Writing. She lives in the Hudson Valley.