Late to the Poetry Party?
I've been a fan of poetry since before I could read. This is mainly because my dad is – how do I put this? – a little eccentric. He's always loved silly poems by writers like Edward Lear and Hilaire Belloc, so when my brother and I were little, he'd read us 'bedtime poems' instead of bedtime stories. For most folk, poetry is something you first meet when you start school, and often it becomes this seemingly dense, difficult thing that you need to decode in order to pass your English exam. I was lucky: I met poetry earlier than that and got a chance to just enjoy it for a while before it become something I had to analyse.
If you're one of the many, many people who says things like, 'I can't stand poetry', or 'I just can't get my head round poetry', I'd like to invite you to the poetry party. I'm a firm believer that there's a 'gateway poem' out there for everyone... you just haven't found yours yet. Good poetry can be mind-blowing – it has the capacity to do and say so much in a small space (that also makes it perfect reading for your commute or lunch break, by the way). And poetry is so great at distilling into just a few words life's big, thrilling, terrifying moments: why else would so many people read out poems at christenings, weddings, and funerals?
I know, I know. You're probably still feeling a little sceptical. But come in for a minute, I promise it's a fun party. Let me tell you about some of my favourite poetry collections, and you can see if your 'gateway poem' is inside one of them...
Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, by T.S. Eliot
Most people have heard of the musical Cats. But not all that many people know that the musical is based on a collection of funny and whimsical poetry about cats of all stripes (sorry) written by the father of Modernist poetry, T.S. Eliot. In this book, Eliot advises us on various important aspects of cat ownership (naming your cat, for example, is a more delicate matter than you'd think), and introduces us to a number of infamous cat celebrities. As a kid, this was the book I asked my dad to read from most often, and I particularly loved meeting Macavity The Mystery Cat, and Jennyanydots the Gumbie Cat, who teaches mice how to sew and play music. Old Possum's is still one of my all-time favourite books. Bonus: the book is almost always illustrated with brilliant cat pictures. My (now very battered) copy has lovely pen and ink illustrations by Edward Gorey.
Ruin & Beauty: New and Selected Poems, by Patricia Young
Patricia Young is probably Canada's greatest living female poet after Margaret Atwood... yet very few people outside Canada are aware of her work. That's a real shame, because she's one of the best poets I know when it comes to writing exciting poems about things you might have assumed would be too mundane and everyday to be made into literature. This book contains the greatest hits from seven of her poetry collections, so it's a great place to start. It includes poems about everything from climate change to earwigs to driving in sports cars, and the poems are set in all sorts of places, from 1950s Clydeside to small town Canada to post-apocalyptic worlds. They start with lines like, 'Before breakfast I threw my wedding / clothes out the bathroom / window.' They end with lines like, 'Things became watery and then / more watery still.'
Selected Poems, by Kerry Hardie
Sometimes people say to me, 'I'm OK with poetry as long as it's short.' My response is usually to hand them this book, because Kerry Hardie is a great master of short-but-gorgeous poems. Hardie writes a lot about nature, but we're not talking about the sublime towering vistas of Wordsworth and Coleridge. Her poems have a lot of rain in them. They're about the bog-standard natural world we all recognise from 'the window of the train': 'the blanched skies / the bleaching stubble... the bungalows on rutted patches starting awake.' Hardie also writes a lot about being ill, or feeling ill at ease, but in a way that makes illness beautiful, like a new way of seeing. In one poem, Hardie describes going on a walk where she felt too ill to carry on, so sat down in a puddle by the roadside and looked at things: 'the sudden grass on the skyline, / the fencepost, with the earth run from under it, / swinging like a hanged man.' This is why I love poetry... it can make literally anything beautiful.
Tender Spot: Selected Poems, by Naomi Shihab Nye
Books of Selected Poems are such good places to start reading poetry, because they give you a bit of everything. This book, by American-Palestinian poet Naomi Shihab Nye, has just been published, but it's already one of my all-time favourites. Shihab Nye is interested in the big questions of life – not just asking them, but answering them – so this book reads like a manual on How To Be Alive. There's a poem that tells you how to make yourself invisible at a party. There's a poem that tells you how to be famous. The poem 'Kindness' tells you, 'before you know what kindness really is, / you must lose things.' But my favourite is 'Gate A-4', where the poet describes having one of those experiences that renews your faith in humanity a little bit (you know the ones). She meets an old lady in an airport who doesn't speak English, and thinks she has missed her flight. She needs to get on the flight to have emergency surgery the next day. When she realises that she has not missed her flight, she makes friends with everyone at the airport gate, giving them homemade cookies from her bag. Language is a barrier, but everyone rallies to take care of the old lady, and the last line of the poem is, 'This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.' I defy anyone to read that poem and not cry.
Ready for some more suggestions?
Why not try... 10 Contemporary Scottish Poets
Image: Magnetic Poetry by Jenny Lee Silver