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Reading poetry - where do I start?

I was discussing hobbies with someone recently and when poetry inevitably came up in conversation, they said "I know what it is, but I wouldn't know where to start to get into it!" It got me thinking - not that they asked for recommendations, but if I were to recommend a starting point for someone who had no experience with poetry, what would it be?

My own experience was probably quite typical. When I was a child, we had some beautifully illustrated children's poetry books containing all of the classics. The below is one I still have and love today - Hilda Boswell's Treasury of Poetry. Just look at those fabulous illustrations!

A 3-panel collage showing: Cherry holding Hilda Boswell's Treasury of Poetry, an excerpt from 'The Garden Year' with an illustration of a pheasant and a child picking nuts, an excerpt from 'Wynken, Blynken and Nod', showing an illustration of three children in a boat (which is a clog) and the moon.
Hilda Boswell's Treasury of Poetry

I've spoken in the past about the story behind my poem 'Housman & Me' (featured in The Poetry of Shropshire, Offa's Press) - my mother wrote up the first stanza of the A.E. Housman poem 'Loveliest of trees' in beautiful calligraphy, and framed it for my bedroom wall. So, I didn't exactly have a childhood drenched in poetry, but I did fall asleep every night underneath a poem.

At school, we studied poetry too, and I can still remember some of the poems at GCSE level which had an impact on me (I won't tell you how many years ago it was!). These include:

There were plenty of things which happened between then and me actually starting to write poetry seriously (covered in my first blog post!), but what was it about these experiences which left the seed of a love of poetry, all those years ago?

I think the key factor was that these poems all give a powerful message, in an accessible way. By that, I mean the language is relatively simple, and the true meaning of the poem isn't buried under complex metaphor. Let's be honest - some contemporary poetry isn't what we might call 'straightforward' - for a complete beginner, at least. I think learning how to read poetry is a skill in itself, and sometimes we as poets write for people who know how to do this (often, other poets).

This is not a disparaging observation, by the way, but a natural result of two things: firstly, learning about craft and a celebration of the innovative ways words can be manipulated to evoke an emotional response, and secondly, the fact that many people's familiarity with poetry started and ended with what they were taught at school, which would have reflected the trends and fashions of the day (or a few years before the day, more likely) - do you know people who think all poetry should rhyme, for example?

With this is mind, what would I recommend for someone starting to read poetry? Here's my list of starting points.

Anthologies, classics, 'best' books

Books which claim to bring together 'most-loved', 'classic', 'favourite' or 'best' poems of a certain place, situation, theme, time period, or author type are fabulous. Because they typically include a wide range of 'recognised' poets, you can see what has been historically considered 'good' poetry (an ever-changing beast, of course, and the caveat of these types of books is that they are not necessarily reflective of poetry as it is today). It's also a great way of finding poets you like without having to purchase individual collections - a risky business if you're not sure whether that poet will be to your taste.

Here are a couple of my favourites:

Early 20th Century Poetry

As I mentioned above, some of the 'classic' poets - especially from the 18th and 19th centuries - while well regarded, don't necessarily reflect poetry today. In fact, some of their phrasing is obviously archaic, and this can be a blocker to the accessibility of a poem - the 'O!'s, and 'thus'es, and ''ere's, for example, aren't usually how we speak today. That's not at all to say that this means they're 'bad' or 'inaccessible' poems, and many people rightfully love these poems, just that there are other options if you find this style off-putting.

The other benefit of early 20th Century poetry is that it bridges the gap between that 'old-fashioned' style and modern fashions - it tends towards plainer language, and often employs techniques people are familiar with - familiar forms, rhyme schemes, and themes. This isn't the case for all early 20th Century poets, but here are some poets you may enjoy who were writing at the time:

Poetry Foundation app

Similar to the rationale behind recommending anthologies, this app is a great way to browse poetry from all sorts of writers and on all sorts of themes. Using a randomiser, or choosing your own filters, you'll be shown poems from the Poetry Foundation website, and the best part is, it's free!

The opposite caveat here to the one I noted under the anthologies - you might be confronted with a poem (maybe a modern one!) which you can't figure out for love nor money. Don't worry - you haven't been locked out of poetry forever because you couldn't join the dots on one particular poem (we all suffer from this). Just keep scrolling the randomiser until you find something you like!

Familiarity/poets like you

If you're feeling particularly out of your depth, or you're thinking that none of these poets will be writing about anything you're remotely interested in, then search out poets who are similar to you. I promise that there's a poet out there for everyone! They may take some uncovering, but a simple Google search will uncover books, magazines, and communities of black poets, British-Indian poets, women poets, LGBTQ poets, disabled poets, gaming poets, working class poets, poets in protest, poets in protest again, plus many, many more.

Here's a starter for ten, of poets I know, writing in an accessible style.

  • Emma Purshouse - Wolverhampton Poet Laureate 2019 - 2021, who champions working class, Black Country writing and more!

  • Kuli Kohli - poet, mum, and Council worker, living with Cerebral Palsy (and she's just released a new book - how fortuitous!)

Close by Emma Purshouse & A Wonder Woman by Kuli Kohli
Close by Emma Purshouse & A Wonder Woman by Kuli Kohli

I would say that's a considerable list for anyone who's unfamiliar with poetry to start exploring and figuring out what they like. Seasoned poets and readers of poetry, what would you recommend for beginners?

Nothing in this blog post is a sponsored or affiliate link. These are just resources, books, and writers I'm aware of (in my relatively limited spectrum of knowledge), and I'd be interested to see whether anybody found them helpful. Let me know if you've followed up any of these recommendations up and enjoyed them!


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