April is National Poetry Month! With the birds singing and the sun shining, it’s a great time to start reading poetry - even if you’re scared of it, even if you can’t imagine yourself reading it, and especially if you’ve never read much of it before. But where to begin? I know approaching the poetry stacks can be a bit intimidating so I’m here to help!
When you’re reading poetry, especially if you’re new to poetry, it’s important to remember to loosen up and simply enjoy the words on the page. If you don’t “get” a poem when you first read it, that’s ok! The nice thing about poems is that they’re short, so if you’re stuck on one, you can read it over again in relatively little time. Read through the poem once more. Notice what you notice, notice how the poem makes you feel, notice the sounds and the shape of the poem. I sometimes think reading poetry is a lot like looking at a Magic Eye poster - if you’re straining, it just looks like a bunch of nothing. But if you relax and take in the whole picture, something really beautiful emerges.
It’s also important to remember that the world of poetry is just as diverse as the world of fiction. If you didn’t like a book of fiction, you wouldn’t write off reading entirely, right? Keep reading poetry until you find something that really resonates with you. There’s something out there for everyone.
This book is a great start for those who are afraid of (or even hate!) poetry because, for one thing, it’s not a book of poems. Ben Lerner does a great job of demystifying the genre of poetry. What it boils down to is this: lots of people are turned off by poetry because it plays right into their deepest insecurities. Am I not smart enough? Have I lost my childhood sense of imagination, play, and wonder? Why doesn’t this make any sense? Getting past these hang-ups is work, but it is oh-so-satisfying once you feel a poem “click.”
I recommend this book to lots of folks who are new to poetry because it reads almost like prose. In fact, it’s billed as a “Novel in Verse.” Anne Carson’s poetry is plain spoken, straight forward, and simply beautiful. This book, I think, stretches out the definition of what a poem can be - yes, poems can have plot, characters, and dialogue! It’s hard not to fall for the figures in this lyric novel as they navigate the complexities of love and life.
Chen Chen is a great poet. This book is full of fierce, tender poems written from Asian American, immigrant, and queer perspectives. Chen Chen investigates family, identity, and life in a voice that feels as inviting and familiar as a friend’s.
Morgan Parker is a genius. I love this book because it’s so subtly smart. Parker’s poems often work in form (as in, they follow rules and shapes that have been handed down through literary history), but her form is so seamless, it’s almost undetectable. “It’s Getting Hot In Here So Take Off All Your Clothes,” other than being an awesome nod to Nelly, is a sestina (a poetic form I consider to be extremely difficult to write) and it reads as effortless, funny, and smooth. The way Parker works in pop culture references makes this book approachable and easy to read for poetry newbies.
Here’s a book of poems that will make you feel the feels. Espinoza’s poems are touching and interrogative, investigating the relationship between her body and self as a trans woman. Honest, unflinching, and truly masterful, these poems are at once tragic and hopeful, stormy and bright. This collection is one you won’t forget.
This book is a little more experimental than the other books I’ve included on this list, but it is so, so awesome. Long Soldier adopts the language of official United States government policies, apologies, and treaties regarding Native Americans and totally turns that language on its head. By re-ordering the surface of this language, Long Soldier points out the inherent disorder in the government’s dealings with native peoples. Alongside work that mines government documents for language, this book also includes more intimate, personal poems about Long Soldier’s experience as a woman, a mother, and a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe.
-Katie Foster is a Readers' Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.