Poetry was something I was a little afraid of when I was younger. I don’t think this emotion is particularly uncommon, especially in people who haven’t studied English Literature at University, or are from working class communities. What was that alignment about? What were the rules about rhyming? Is it only old white dead people who write poetry?
Despite this adulthood fear, I wasn’t afraid as a child. Rhymes? Sure, I was down with those. I can still quote much of Roald Dahl’s poems for children.
The small girl smiles. One eyelid flickers.
She whips a pistol from her knickers.
She aims it at the creature’s head
And bang bang bang, she shoots him dead.
But somewhere between basically memorising these poems out of love as a child to being in my mid-20s, poetry and I got a little disconnected.
In A-Level English, I had a really battered copy of Seamus Heaney’s poetry about the peat bog bodies and while I loved it, I did feel surprised that you could actually write poetry about things, even preserved bodies. This was also back when I didn’t know that working in books was a job normal people could do, and figured it was a role bestowed from on high like a knighthood or celebrity status.
Moving forward a few years and once I’d fallen back in love with reading, I started questioning everything I thought about poetry. Part of this was inspired by reading every single book from Maya Angelou’s biography series and learning from her that, actually, you really can just read poetry. Heck, I met two of my best friends in the poetry section of Foyle’s (granted, we had opted to meet there before an event, because it would be quiet).
So my friends, this post is dedicated to you, those who are also nervous about poetry, and I’ll start you off with a few collections that I have thoroughly enjoyed. Though, as I do, I must strongly recommend you read Ella Risbridger’s new series on poetry, in which she contextualises beautiful words and will introduce you to a number of poets that you might not have tried yet.
There are a few good places to begin, or at least, they were where I began.
One of the most popular first stops on the poetry adventure right now is rupi kaur’s instagram and her first collection milk and honey. There’s something accessible, borderline non-threatening, about kaur’s poetry, which I feel is why she’s been so popular with teenagers in recent years. Make no mistake, I don’t mean the content is bland or pallid; kaur breaks and remakes you in the course of reading, spanning the start and subsequent escape of abusive relationships into healing, and forming new connections with people. Her words are powerful, ferocious and erotic. I cried a lot, expect to do the same. kaur has also released another collection this week, the sun and her flowers, which I have yet to read.
Unless you have been living under a rock, I’m sure you will have come across Beyonce’s album Lemonade, and you may have heard some of the spoken word poetry within it. Those words come from Warsan Shire, a Somali poet based in London, whose first collection Teaching My Mother to Give Birth opens with a quote from Audre Lorde – “Mother, loosen my tongue or adorn me with a lighter burden”. This collection is beautiful, powerful and only £4. Given poetry collections can be a little on the pricier side of similarly sized books, I do consider this a bargain. You can also listen to some of her poetry on her Bandcamp here.
Another popular book at the moment is Amanda Lovelace‘s first poetry collection The Princess Saves Herself in This One, shortlisted for the Costa Prize for poetry this year. Like rupi kaur, Lovelace’s short poems are brimming with rage, fury, love, passion. Grief and abuse at the hands of close family are topics tackled with personal experience in Lovelace’s collection. It left me breathless.
I consider these three collections not necessarily the same but certainly related, a theme of grief and passion, rioting against patriarchy. If you like their work and want to tackle some larger collections, may I recommend these by Maya Angelou and Audre Lorde.
I can also strongly recommend the new series of Penguin Modern Poets, which has introduced me to 15 poets I might not have known beforehand. The first collection, If I’m Scared We Can’t Win, contains work from the wonderful Emily Berry, Sophie Collins and Anne Carson, whose event at the London Review Bookshop I went to earlier this week, where she performed a 40 minute long poem about being the sky; I never thought I’d see myself as someone who not only went to that sort of event but loved it. This is a good way to feel your way into the world of poetry, to understand whose voices you like and whose collections you might want to explore further. It can be quite a gamble to spend money on a collection of poems by one poet you then realise you hate, whereas here they feature three different poets per book.
Carnegie Medal winning collection One by Sarah Crossan was one of my favourite books in 2016. I read it all on in one go, a story of twins told in sequential free verse poems that tell the story of their battle against poverty and stigma of being different. It is so astoundingly beautiful and devastating, and I wholeheartedly recommend it. It deserves all the awards it has been getting. Thank you kindly to Bloomsbury Kids who sent me this copy while I was a bookseller.
Did you know children’s author Kiran Millwood Hargrave is a poet? Well, now you do. I recently came across her collection Last March, which was produced in collaboration with the Scott Polar Research Institute to mark the centenary of Captain Scott’s final expedition to the South Pole. This stunning collection transports you to the final mission, amongst the chill and desperation and determination to succeed. You can read an excerpt here.
There we have it – some avenues for you to start down, exploring the written word in its various guises and formats. What poetry collections have you read recently? Which ones are you going to start with? Let me know in the comments!