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Starting a Book Group

As you gather a group to read poetry, here are eight questions to answer that will allow for both structure and flexibility.

  1. How often will you meet?
  2. Where will you meet?
  3. How long will the meetings last?
  4. Will refreshments be served?
  5. What will be your format?
  6. How will each meeting be conducted? Will there be a moderator, or discussion leader?
  7. What are the guidelines for giving your opinions and listening to others?
  8. Are there any requirements for membership?
Formats for Poetry Book Clubs

Every book group chooses a format to follow, and existing groups have invented a variety of approaches to choose from. Each group has its own set of interests and a collective personality that will determine its format. Or a group may invent a different format each time they meet, until they settle upon a preference. Or variety may become the format itself.

Possible Topics for a Meeting:

  • A Book of Poetry
  • A Close Reading of a Poem
  • A Poet
  • A Cherished Poem
  • Poems on a Particular Subject
  • Poetry Schools & Movements
  • Listening to Poetry
  • Poetry in Motion Pictures

  • A Book of Poetry

    The most familiar format to existing reading groups, a specific book of poetry is chosen for each meeting.

    • Some groups select a new title each time for the subsequent meeting.

    • Some groups pick a year's list of books in advance.

    • Groups may select titles by consensus, discussing possibilities until a selection is chosen.

    • Groups may vote on which books to choose, with different members nominating different books.

    • For each meeting, groups may ask a different member to pick: a book that means something to that member; or a book the member has been wanting to read.

    Guidance is available on on what books to read. Suggestions for what to read have been collected either from poets or from existing reading groups that had especially good conversations about a specific book:

    • A list of groundbreaking books of poetry has been selected with advice from the Chancellors of the Academy of American Poets. Each title on this list includes a short description of the book.

    • A list of reading suggestions from contemporary poets. asked a number of poets to list a few poetry books that they would recommend to others. The selections include new favorites, influential volumes, books returned to over and over, must-reads, and books frequently recommended to students or new poetry readers.

    • Each spring, gathers a list of new poetry books. Groups with members who have already read a long list of poetry books will find this list particularly useful.

    • Books suggested by book groups. (Please send us titles of books your group was enthusiastic about.)

    A Close Reading of a Poem

    Pick a single poem to read and discuss at each meeting.

    • The poem could be a longer work or sequence, such as "Song of Myself" or "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass.

    • Select a relatively short poem for each meeting, allowing the group to ponder every line, sentence, image.

    • Have at least two people read the poem aloud. Note any differences in tone that the different readers bring to the poem.

    Guidance in selecting poems to discuss:

    • Browse the poems (over 1,700 of them) on

    • The next time you hear a poem read on the radio, track it down and bring it to the next meeting.

    A Poet

    Everyone has a favorite poet. Or maybe there's a poet you've always heard of, but never read.

    • Choose a poet and a selection of poems (from one book, or from several books).

    • One member can open the meeting with some biographical information about the poet.

    • If the poet is coming to your area for a reading, read his/her work and plan to attend the reading together as a group.

    Guidance in selecting a poet to discuss:

    A Cherished Poem

    Everyone has a poem that resonates with him or her, perhaps from the first reading and on through multiple readings.

    • Have members bring a poem they cherish to share with the others.

    • Allow each member to read the poem and describe why it means so much to him or her.

    • At the end of the meeting, members will have a new batch of poems to read which allows the group to get to know itself a little better.

    Poems on a Particular Subject

    Pick a subject and have everyone bring a different poem about that subject to share with the group.

    Guidance in selecting poems:

    • The Academy has provided a list of poems for all occasions such as weddings, funerals, family, work, nature, and many more.

    • Another method would be to pick an anthology for everyone to consult for poems. The Academy has compiled a list of thirty anthologies that cover a broad range of subjects and historical periods.

    Poetry Schools & Movements

    Who were the Beats? When was the Harlem Renaissance? What is Surrealism? Find out more about various groups of poets by choosing to read a particular set of related poets.

    • Pick a group of poets from the Academy's list of Poetry Schools & Movements.

    • Read two poems by each poet in the school and one piece of prose about the movement.

    • This format might benefit from one or two members offering a presentation about the school, with the rest of the group reading and discussing specific poems.

    Listening to Poetry

    There is something extraordinary about hearing a poet read his or her own work. A poetry reading can be a valuable experience to understanding a poet's work.

    • Consult the calendars of local reading series, and identify a poet who is coming to read in your area, whether at a bookstore, library, or community center. maintains a National Calendar of Events.

    • Go as a group to the reading and listen closely to the poet.

    • Record your impressions to share with the rest of the group.

    • If you're not able to read his or her work beforehand, try to purchase the book at the reading (and get it autographed!), or get it from the library for your next meeting.

    • Go for coffee after the reading with the rest of the group and discuss what you heard. This could be a spontaneous, off-the-schedule meeting of your poetry group, or a planned event to hear someone whom your group has read.

    If there are no poetry readings in your area, you can still experience the voice of the poet through the many audio archives that are available.

    • The provides numerous audio clips of poets reading their work, which you can hear for free from your computer.

    In addition, there are many poetry audiobooks and CDs available, including:

    Poetry in Motion Pictures

    Make it a movie night with a video that incorporates poetry or portrays the life of a poet. Put some popcorn on, dim the lights, and watch the film. Allow for some discussion time afterwards.

    • Consult the Academy's list of Poetry in the Movies for suggestions.

    • Watch The Poet's View, four short documentaries produced by the Academy of American Poets that delve into the lives of four leading poets.

    If your group has a format that isn't suggested here, please email us to let us know how you operate:

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