Reading poetry for beginners
January 30, 2015 7:11 AM   Subscribe

I like reading poems when I come across them, but I never really seek them out - sometimes I Google a famous line to see where it's come from and end up reading the whole thing, but that's about it. I've also got no experience of the process of reading poems, what to get, how and when to read them etc, so I'd like to know about that too. The question in a nutshell is what should I, a complete newcomer do to start reading poetry.

My knowledge of poetry is really patchy. I vaguely remember some stuff we had to read at school, and I'm familiar with the ten or fifteen poems or so that have permeated pop culture. A couple of months ago I came across Ginsburg's 'Howl', and really liked it, which is what prompted this question.

I've got a few specific sub-questions, and if I'm missing anything please point it out. Also, I'm aware that this kind of thing is different for everyone, and there isn't a 'right' way, but any pointers at getting started would be greatly appreciated. In no particular order, things I'm unsure about:

What are some good poems / collections to start with?
Do you read multiple poems in a single sitting, or one at once?
Do you read collections of poems that are related by theme, or author, or anything?
Do you re-read them over and over?
And perhaps what I'm least sure about, is what situation are you in when you read poems? I know how to make a space in my day if I want to read a book (sofa on a weekend afternoon, cafe, train journey, before bed etc), but I can't really imagine myself just sitting down and reading a poem.

Thanks in advance.
posted by Ned G to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
Stephen Fry wrote a nice little book called "The Ode Less Travelled" about appreciating poetry and learning to write your own. Very light, but funny (if he's to your taste) and accessible.
posted by 5imon at 7:14 AM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

Robert Pinsky (former US poet laureate) wrote a great book on poetry appreciation called The Sounds of Poetry. Great for beginners and life-long lovers of poetry.
posted by slogger at 7:46 AM on January 30, 2015

Check Edward Hirsch's book, How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry. I've loved poetry since I was a teenager (i.e., for a loooonnng time) and I loved that book and learned a ton from it even though I read it when I was in my 30s or 40s.

As for where to start: if you don't mind reading translations, check out the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz. (I do believe he translated or helped translate his own work, so the translations are pretty sound.) Like a lot of the Polish poets, his work isn't difficult to crack, but reveals multiple layers the more closely you read it. I go back and read his poem Orpheus and Eurydice (scroll down for the full poem) every couple of months and frankly don't know what I would have done without it during a couple of dark periods.

You might want to pick up Philip Larkin, although whether you like him will depend on your worldview; his work tends to get pretty dark. You've probably read or heard his most famous poem This Be the Verse (the one that starts "They fuck you up, your mum and dad"), but that's certainly far from the best poem he ever wrote. (To answer one of your questions: I've read every poem he's ever written, many more times than once, although he actually wasn't very prolific.)

A lot people who don't care all that much for poetry in general tend to love Robert Frost (although tbh, he's not my cup of tea), but he's sort of like Milosz in that his poems are deceptively simple so perhaps a good place to start.

There are also a zillion good anthologies with poems grouped by themes, e.g., friendship, love, death -- pretty much what you'd expect, I guess. They tend to run the gamut of styles, languages, and period, so those might be good to pick up if you want exposure to a good cross-section of work; pick a theme you like and run with that. You won't like everything in it, of course, but because those anthologies tend to cast a wide net they might give you a better idea of what you'd like to home in on later.

Thanks for asking this question; I love talking about poetry!
posted by holborne at 7:49 AM on January 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

As far as finding poems and fitting them into my life, I follow a bunch of poetry blogs (mostly contemporary poetry) on tumblr, because I'm there anyway. So I'll probably end up reading one or two a day, and over time it helps me figure out what kind of poetry i like and which poets to seek out. I like this blog and this blog and this blog, but really just pick one on a social media or media delivery site you actually use.
posted by you're a kitty! at 7:49 AM on January 30, 2015

Also, I'm sure many around here will dog it, but the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry (volume 1 and 2) can be very helpful for figuring out what you like. Upside is that it has tons of material to get a taste for. Downside is, like any "greatest hits" album, you only get the well-known stuff, and might miss more obscure gems. Also, many marginalized/outsider/non-establishment poets don't get very much space.
posted by slogger at 7:51 AM on January 30, 2015 [3 favorites]

Came here to say Norton Anthologies. Even the non-poetry ones (e.g., English literature before 1900) have poems in them that are awesome. I found my favorite poem (Tintern Abbey) that way.
posted by Melismata at 7:54 AM on January 30, 2015

If you want a book, I would look at something like the Norton Anthology of poetry which will have lots of classic stuff of many different genres. Alternatively, look up the syllabus for an intro to poetry class at basically any college and see what they're reading. Reading popular stuff is helpful because it is often popular for a reason and, if you want to read commentary on it, that's readily available.

I would usually read one poem at a time and then really work on it to get as much as I can out of having read it. You have to work to unpack a poem, it's not as simple as just reading them, but it's often worth it. After you've read and digested a few poems, especially by the same author, then maybe try reading them together and comparing them.

Some poems I would suggest for getting started are below (I tend to prefer modern poetry so there's no Shakespeare or anything on there). Being honest, these are just some well-known poems I happen to like, but I think they also have a great payoff in terms of ratio of emotion to words. This is roughly the order in which I'd recommend trying to read them if you're getting started, but it's off the top of my head so feel free to ignore it:

Do not go gentle into that good night
The Second Coming
Annabel Lee
Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock
The Wasteland
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
This Is Just To Say
So Much Depends Note: This is very short which can make it harder to analyze

Something I find REALLY helps me when reading poetry is marking up the text (ideally print out a copy double-spaced so you have plenty of room to write). This also helps answer your question about the situation in which you would read a poem; I feel sort of weird just sitting down thinking "it's poem reading time!", but if you make it an active experience then you can do it any of the same times you'd read a book (sofa and train both sound great for this). Read the text several times and write down whatever you notice, be it about content, your feelings, structure, whatever -- imagine you're making notes to prove to a professor (or crush) that you get it if that's helpful. This is something I used to grumble about doing when I was younger but making notes on specific aspects of the poem -- word choice, meter, repetition, structure, whatever -- really does help me appreciate it and, as a bonus, you can go back to it later and see if your opinions have changed.

If you don't know where to start, go with basic structural stuff: mark the rhyme scheme, underline visual imagery, circle words or sections that repeat, star any colors (many poems make intensive use of color), for longer poems find sections that seem to relate to each other. Starting with something that basic can get you thinking about the poem and help you move on to deeper levels. Look at tone; how do the words and structure make you feel? Hopeful? Wistful? Distrustful? What about the poem makes you feel this way? Are there any parts of the poem that stand out as "different" in some way? Places where the rhyme scheme or meter change? How does that affect the poem? Here you can move from starring or highlighting to writing quick notes or even full sentences or paragraphs about what you think the poem is saying and whether you like it or think it's wrong or how you would feel about having this poem said to you or how it relates to something in your own life.

If you really feel like it, maybe look up something like the SparkNotes/CliffNotes analysis and see if you agree with them. Sometimes I don't! I think they get a lot of things wrong! It can be really interesting and valuable to compare your impressions of a poem to the "accepted" meaning.

I know this might all seem ridiculous and like a class if it's something you're doing just for pleasure, but it really does help, and I enjoy poetry a lot more when I put some work into it. As Henry James said, if a work is interesting "The reader does quite half the labor". Good luck and enjoy your poetry reading!
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 8:04 AM on January 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

You can sign up here on the site for the Academy of American Poets to get a poem a day. There's some nice stuff in my experience.
posted by gudrun at 8:17 AM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

The books suggested above are really great suggestions. I would also say that there is no harm in going to your local library or bookstore and just pulling volumes off the shelf at random and see what you find. It is like treasure hunting. The worst that can happen is you waste a couple of hours in an afternoon, but I have found absolute gems of poems that I would have never read otherwise. Another added bonus is that you'll get a wide sampling of styles and epochs of poetry, which may help you develop your "palette" as well. Enjoy your poetry!
posted by incolorinred at 8:37 AM on January 30, 2015

If (seeing you liked Howl) you think you might like other 20th century poetry, then these anthologies might have other work you'd like: The New American Poetry (1945-60), American Poetry Since 1950, the massive and wide-ranging but wonderful Poems for the Millennium, and Hayden Carruth's idiosyncratic but delightful anthology The Voice that Is Great Within Us. (All these other than the Poems for the Millennium are focused on American poetry; people upthread mentioned the Norton Anthology of Poetry and Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry as go-tos for poetry in general, and I'm sure others can recommend more specific anthologies of regional or national poetry.)

As a former creative writing teacher, and reader of poetry myself for three decades, I've found a good strategy for many folks is to go through anthologies like these checked out of the library, and then explore further any poems or poets -- or schools or periods of poetry -- that particularly appealed to you.
posted by aught at 8:58 AM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Poetry Foundation's free app is a nice way to discover poets you want to explore further. Being able to read a few poems while on the train or waiting in line is also a great way of starting to fit reading poetry into your life.
posted by carrienation at 10:04 AM on January 30, 2015

Another vote for the Stephen Fry book mentioned above. Its very engaging and it introduces you both to the mechanics of poetry and to a range of poems.
posted by crocomancer at 10:13 AM on January 30, 2015

Surprised no one's yet recommended Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes's anthologies The Rattle Bag and The School Bag (though on the latter, see Blake Morrison's comments in 'Beyond the pleasure principle').
posted by davemack at 12:26 PM on January 30, 2015

What are some good poems / collections to start with?

The Norton Anthology is a fine way to browse and decide which poets you like. The New York Times also reviews new poetry. You can always just leaf through the poetry corner in your local bookstore, too, until you find something you like.

Do you read multiple poems in a single sitting, or one at once?

Usually multiple, just because I get carried away. But gudrun mentioned's poem of the day (link to today's beautiful poem about winter, and self), which is nice to read at the end of the day.

Do you read collections of poems that are related by theme, or author, or anything?

Most collections are poems from a single author, but sometimes I'll go through poems I've archived and tagged in Zotero, and then I can read a bunch of poems about winter, for example.

Do you re-read them over and over?

Yes, some will stick with you, and you find yourself wanting to read it again, to fall into it again.

And perhaps what I'm least sure about, is what situation are you in when you read poems?

The "poem a day" from the Poetry Foundation is good for this. I end up reading it after dinner, when I check feedly. Mostly I just read them whenever I might read a book. But sometimes I read them because I am feeling a particular way, or thinking about a particular thing. Then, I remember a poem that says something about that feeling or thing, and find the poem, and wander a little further down that way, and maybe hope the poem can help me understand.
posted by MrBobinski at 7:28 PM on January 30, 2015

I very much enjoyed working my way through the Poem A Day book series, which has three volumes and begins with this one. They do a good job of selecting a variety of poems - the first volume leans a bit more traditional, though certainly not exclusively so, and the later volumes skew slightly more contemporary and even include some representation from non-Western cultures. Many of the poems they pick are well-known, but they also mix in some more obscure selections. They also put a little bio about the poet at the bottom of the page, which gives some nice context. The poem for the day usually fits on a single page, and I made it my routine to read each day's as soon as I woke up, before I even got out of bed. I have forgotten the majority of them, but some have permanently lodged into my consciousness, and I carry them with me to help guide my life.

Also, Garrison Keillor is not everybody's cup of tea - but I myself have never really gotten into A Prairie Home Companion, and yet I still enjoy catching The Writer's Almanac on NPR when I can. It's another way to try out a new poem every day, if you have a space for listening where reading might not quite fit.

Sometimes when I run across a poem I really like, I'll chase down a collection by that author. But I do find myself sort of enjoying it less if I feel like I'm cranking through a whole book of poetry just to get it done (which is a contrast to one of the major ways I enjoy fiction or even really engaging nonfiction, where I get absorbed into a book and feel pulled along to the finish). I personally tend to prefer taking my poetry in small bites, reading one or just a few and chewing on that a while. So often I change up poets in the midst of that process. But like I said, if I find someone who really speaks to me, I'll buy a book of theirs and keep it on my shelf, to take in bits at my leisure and come back and consult when I find myself in need.
posted by sigmagalator at 10:53 PM on January 30, 2015

Nthing Stephen Fry's The Ode Less Traveled; I wish I'd had this as a textbook when I was an undergrad majoring in poetry.
posted by culfinglin at 10:37 AM on February 2, 2015

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