Feel Better Now

Roger Housden has created a mini-empire by combining poetry with self-help advice.

by Emily White

The powers-that-be at Harmony Books have tapped into a broad cultural desire with their best-selling guru/poetry anthologist Roger Housden. With his Ten Poems to Change Your Life, Housden has appealed to an audience hungry for transformative poems, poems that will rescue their readers, or make them see more clearly.

Harmony published Ten Poems to Change Your Life in the summer of 2001, and brisk sales in its first few months proved that Harmony and Housden were on to something. The book was a collection of poems Housden deemed life-changing and necessary “in a time when institutional religion fails to speak to our spiritual needs.... [A time when] a great poem can open a door in us we may never have known was there.” His selection included “Last Gods,” by Galway Kinnell, and “Last Night as I Was Sleeping,” by Antonio Machado. Each poem was followed by an essay that reads almost like a sermon. For example, in the essay following “Last Gods,” a poem in which a couple has sex outside, Housden writes: “Pornography is a caricature of the erotic.... One reason we seem to be such a pleasure-hungry society is that we are habitually looking for it in all the wrong places.”

Housden’s is an authoritative, scolding, and ultimately encouraging language that audiences clearly were hungry for. In response, he followed with three titles in 2003: Ten Poems to Open Your Heart, Risking Everything: 110 Poems of Love and Revelation, and Ten Poems to Set You Free. Ten Poems to Last a Lifetime came out in 2004. To date, the series has sold over 250,000 copies. Another anthology, Sheer Joy, is scheduled for early 2007.

Any poet chosen by Housden sees a surge in sales. Arguably, he’s the reason behind the Mary Oliver-as-a-standing-room-only phenomenon. Housden pulls the poem off the page, where it sits shrouded in mystery, and gives it a context, explaining it in terms of redemption and well being. He is like a coach, promising: if you read this poem, you could be on life’s winning team.

Originally Published: January 21, 2006


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Emily White is a writer of both fiction and nonfiction. She has published two books: Fast Girls, Teenage Tribes and the Myth of the Slut (2002), and You Will Make Money In Your Sleep: The Story Of Dana Giacchetto, Financier to the Stars (2007). Her short stories have appeared in the Iowa Review, the Greensboro Review, the Sonora Review and Black Clock. Her articles—about topics like teenagers, imposters, Frances Farmer, military . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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