It’s time to drop the notion that poetry is too hard to read and understand. I still look back fondly on AP Literature in part because of how much I loved the poetry unit, especially the Sylvia Plath poem I was assigned. Before Plath, I didn’t understand poetry and why it was so cherished by readers. I found myself overanalyzing every line and every rhyme. Now, I have a stack of poetry collections on my desk filled to the brim with sticky notes of my reactions and feelings toward the text. For individuals who want to get into poetry, I have several tips and book recommendations for you.
Forget what your high school English teacher said
My biggest piece of advice when starting a poetry collection is to forget everything you learned about poetry in high school. You should never go into a poetry collection expecting to analyze it so intensely that you could write an essay. The goal of reading poetry is to find personal connections and solace in the poems rather than exhaust every line to master the poem.
How you feel is what matters most
You don’t need to worry about fully understanding the poem you are reading, but instead focus on how the poem made you feel. There is so much more to a poem than a metaphor or allusion. As you think about the poem and the impression it left on you, remember that there is no wrong answer. You won’t have to share your feelings in a Socratic seminar, so don’t feel as though your personal impressions of the poem aren’t valid.
Find poetry you actually like
If you don’t think that William Shakespeare will float your boat, then don’t pick up a copy of his sonnets from your local bookstore. If you have seen poems on Tumblr that piqued your interest, rent a copy of “Milk and Honey” by Rupi Kaur from the library. School curriculums often focus on classical poets such as Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson, but if that isn’t what you enjoy, then leave those copies on the shelf. For me, I tend to enjoy the confessional poetry movement, where poets reflect on psychological experiences, like Plath and Anne Sexton.
Keep reading poetry
As you keep reading poetry, you’ll pick up on literary devices that impact how you perceive the poem. The first poem you read might not make sense, but as you keep reading poetry, you’ll find that muscle memory will help you pull out literary devices, such as metaphors or similes, that add to the poem.
If, after my tips, you don’t know where to start, here are some options I find perfect for any beginner poetry readers.
“I am The Rage: A Black Poetry Collection” by Martina McGowan
In approximately 110 pages, McGowan packs each poem with emotions that left me speechless with her vivid illustrations of what it means to be a Black woman in America. This poetry collection is not for the faint of heart; however, it should be on everyone’s “to read” list. McGowan pushes readers to face the ugly truths of racial discrimination in America.
“Call Us What We Carry” by Amanda Gorman
Gorman’s work is known across America as she was the presidential inaugural poet for President Joe Biden. Her poem “The Hill We Climb” bursts with flowing language and historical context, ending with the hope of a new dawn for Americans to create a more inclusive society. Gorman covers topics like the COVID-19 pandemic, racism and gun violence throughout her poems. She provides a hopeful outlook in her poetry while asking for unity among Americans.
“Playlist for the Apocalypse: Poems” by Rita Dove
Former U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Rita Dove published a collection of poems that sears the heart with each line. Her poems focus on the weight of American history and its effects on American citizens. Dove blends her personal life and multiple sclerosis diagnosis with the political climate of America. Dove’s knowledge left me wanting to pick her brain and ask her for advice.
“The Collected Poems” by Sylvia Plath
I wouldn’t be myself if I didn’t recommend Sylvia Plath. Her poems are a raw glimpse into her tormented mind and reveal her personal struggles. What I love about Plath’s poems is that you can clearly see her inner turmoil and how it evolves throughout her life, all the way to her last poem, “Edge,” which she wrote before she ended her own life. Plath’s work kept me hooked with each verse, and I think she would be a great starting point for those interested in poetry.
I want individuals to know that poetry is not meant to be tedious or inaccessible. Poetry is a creative outlet that combines literary elements with what the poet wants to say. I challenge myself when I read poetry to understand what the poet wants me to take away as well as to establish my own connection to the poem, and I hope you will too.