Three ways to get into poetry

I’m a fairly well read person. No, this post isn’t about what it means to be well read. Just take my word for it. I’ve read across many formats and genres, and many traditions and eras. I do have a weak spot though: poetry.

I remember learning exactly two poems in school. One was A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning by John Donne and the other was To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell, and both are about dead white dudes who were feeling horny. Jeez, is it any wonder I wasn’t taken with it?

I’ve read three poetry collections so far this year, and I loved each of them. I’m not good at saying why, exactly, but I can tell you how I found my way in.

  1. Hear it spoken. I heard Ishion Hutchinson on the Shakespeare and Company Readings podcast earlier this year. Hearing poetry spoken aloud is the easiest way for me to get into it. I knew Hutchinson from his essay in the Treasure Island issue of The Happy Reader, and I loved his reading on the podcast. I borrowed the collection House of Lords and Commons from the library, and found it hard to break into – except for those poems I’d heard read aloud. Something about the pauses, the emphasis, and in this case, the accent, helped bring it all to life.
  2. Read a really detailed review. I decided to read this review of Jordan Abel’s collection Injun because it was on one of my favourite book blogs, and, I was intrigued by the title (of the collection, and of the review, “Lanterns Buried”.)  In his review, Joseph Schreiber describes Abel’s methods in such a way that I had to read the poems. A casual reader wouldn’t find out the “how” of these poems till the end, but I’m glad I knew from the start. It gave me something to look for, something to hang on to. And it didn’t “spoil” me at all (can a poem be spoiled?) – I was still surprised by how the form came together and how it felt to read.
  3. Get to know the poet on Twitter. I picked up Marita Dachsel’s debut collection all things said & done at the library because something about the author’s name made me pause. Why does it seem so familiar, yet a little off? Right, because I’ve followed Marita on Twitter for years, but her name displays as “Marita loves cardigans” and her profile pic is the Log Lady from Twin Peaks, so that’s how I think of her. Anyway, I loved the collection, and probably would have done so even if she didn’t make sure to @ me whenever Franzen says something on the internet, which I do so appreciate (see below for a more generally relateable tweet.) The poems are sweet and sad and sometimes quite sexy! Plus, when you follow the poet on Twitter, you can DM them when one of the poems make you cry. I’m not telling which, go read them yourself and see which one strikes you.

So, I may not be well read when it comes to poetry, and I may not know how to review it properly, but damn it, I’m trying. Do you have any tips for a poetry novice?

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8 comments

  1. roughghosts

    Thanks for linking to my review, Laura. I have to tell you that the title “Lanterns buried” is the inscription, chosen at random by flicking through his book, that Jordan wrote up the side of the title page when he signed my book. Very fitting as a review title!

  2. Holly

    My entire Renaissance Poetry class last year was about old white guys feeling horny. What a time. I completely agree with you about hearing poetry read aloud and learning more about the poem itself in reviews. A little contextual knowledge can go a long way sometimes. Great post! 🙂

  3. John Richardson

    When I was in high school the poetry unit in English class was usually saved for the student teacher because the regular teacher was scared of it. I was fortunate in one grade that the student teacher had retained or recovered the natural passion for poetry we all are born to, and that passion reminded me of my own. And, in university the truth was explicitly explained to me: poetry is more natural for humans than prose. Every culture treasures poetic expression long before prose becomes a part of “literature”. Every child (perhaps until the most recent generation or two) hears poetry from the cradle, and every teenager learns and enjoys the vast body of contemporary poetry called “popular music” without effort.

    Sadly, there is an attitude instilled early that poetry is only Poetry, and Poetry is difficult. Poetry is only difficult if you make it difficult, if poetry has been spoiled for you by others who have had it spoiled for theselves. The Terror of Poetry is an intergenerational thing that can only be repaired by the loud and steady protestations of those who have retained or recovered the natural, inborn, wonderful love of the most true form of human expression.

  4. Naomi

    I’m not great about reading poetry, either. But I have read some lately – mostly by local authors like George Elliott Clarke, Rita Joe, and Budge Wilson. I don’t really know what’s good and what’s not, but I do know what I like and what I don’t like. That must count for something, right?

  5. Kristilyn

    I remember listening to an audiobook of Margaret Atwood reading her poetry from The Door and my husband came in and was like, “Wow. That’s the most boring narrator.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him it was the author. lol. I need to read more poetry. I read 5 poetry collections this year and loved them, but i just never know where to start! I’ll have to see if the library has these titles.

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