Caroline Richards ’22
Poetry has somewhat of a bad reputation (though incorrectly!) for being boring and overly complicated. I get it.
If you’re like me, you first read poetry when you were a measly seventh grader and it was a sonnet by Shakespeare that used words like “lo” and “thou” and yes, it was beautiful, but in the end, it made little sense and you definitely weren’t anywhere near interested in reading anything like that outside of school.
Maybe you read poetry again in high school but this time it was Milton or Chaucer and again, beautiful, but hard to read and connect with. You believe your teacher when she says Paradise Lost and The Canterbury Tales are masterpieces, but you aren’t really sure why.
Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing but artistic admiration for Shakespeare and Milton and Chaucer. They fundamentally shaped the English written-word.
But they’re also a bunch of old white guys who lived decades before me and whose experiences I couldn’t really relate to. And what I’ve learned about poetry is that you either connect with a poem or you don’t, especially when you’re a young reader. So, when you start off your poetic education with incredibly complex, esoteric poets, it’s like your teacher has thrown you in with the sharks and is telling you to fend them off with squirt guns.
My point is, don’t be dissuaded by poetry because of your aversion to the really difficult poems. I am a huge proponent of finding one poem, or one poet, or even one line of poetry that you love and find meaning in, then working outwards from there.
You don’t have to know why you like it, it just has to be something that you get (and this is different for everyone but you’ll know it when you see it).
That being said, here is a list of some of my favorite (and recently written) poetry books that transformed the way I read and enjoy poetry. I encourage you to test the waters. I promise it’s worth it.
Love and Other Poems by Alex Dimitrov
This is a wonderful 2020 release that completely lives up to the hype. The book features Dimitrov’s poem “Love,” a sprawling list full of life’s wonderful twists and turns, among other quietly powerful poems that will suspend you shamelessly above the New York City skyline. You will look up after reading this book and realize hours have gone by while you’ve been immersed in the language and sharpness of Dimitrov’s imagery. Guaranteed to make you think.
Our Andromeda by Brenda Shaughnessy
This book changed me. I read this my freshman year of college and based my entire poetic personality around it for the entire semester. It is abundantly clear how much delight Shaugnessy takes in writing her poems and playing with the ways we use day-to-day language. I still want to be her, and so will you. By the end of the book, you will have realized fifty new things about yourself. Also, this was my introduction to swear words in poetry. Game changer.
When My Brother Was An Aztec by Natalie Diaz
Oh my word: this book. It will pick you up and throw you across the room. I have never read a book of poetry quite as stark and heart-wrenching. I mean, not to be grossly vivid, but Diaz’s language will stab you in the chest with its razor-sharp edges and fearless tenacity and you will never fully recover. Her descriptions of her Native American experience and struggles with family and identity are both beautiful and terrifying in their ability to bring them to life in your imagination. I read the title poem at least once a week.
What We Are Given by Ollie O’Neill
You know when you meet someone and you get to talking and at the end of the conversation you feel like you’ve known them your entire life? That is what this book is to me. O’Neill just gets it and knows how to say just the right thing to make you feel a certain way. The verve to her language and the steadiness with which she paces her poems are unmatched. Reading this book feels like having a conversation with yourself about the meaning of life and the vastness of the universe.