I have a dear friend who, among her many other enviable talents, is a poet (Hi Ariane!). When I first met Ariane she was scribbling out a poem, carrying a satchel that undoubtedly contained one or more books of poems, and was wearing a knit hat that I can only describe as “poetic.” Basically she was much, much cooler than I will ever be (and still is.)
I myself have never been much for poetry. I don’t read poetry, or write poetry, and I certainly don’t feel like I’m intelligent enough to comprehend all that poetry is trying to offer me. But the more I got to know Ariane, the more my poetry guru she became. She seemed to always be reading poetry, talking about poetry, giving poems to others — kind of like how a psychic will tell you your fortune, Ariane could tell you your poem. She was basically a poetry dealer, encouraging all us non-poets to discover our gateway drugs. We even sort of prayed to poetry once, which has resulted in a recurring tendency of mine to unwittingly substitute the face of the poet Jimmy Santiago Baca in my mind for that of whichever religious deity I happen to call upon in times of grave distress; like when I find I’m unable to extract myself from Camel Pose in yoga class, or when my scarf becomes inextricably zipped into my jacket.
To make a long story short, one day Ariane introduced me to a poet that was just too delectable to resist (Warsan Shire) and I’ve been a more-than-recreational poetry user ever since. You can be too — just check out these 10 must-read poetry collections for people who think they don’t like poetry. You’ll fall in love in no time.
Healing Earthquakes by Jimmy Santiago Baca
This is the first poetry collection I always recommend to readers who think they don't like poetry. Structured as a novel written in prose poems, the literary fusion that is Healing Earthquakes is a great first venture into the poetic form. This book tells the story of one couple's lifelong romance, with author Jimmy Santiago Baca's signature style: intense, bold, sometimes cringe-worthy, gorgeous language.
Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth by Warsan Shire
Warsan Shire's first full-length poetry collection is due out next year, but until then you'll have to satisfy your poetic longings with Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth — a poetry pamphlet (basically the novella of poetry) published in 2011. As a Kenyan-born Somali poet who has traveled all over the world, Shire's raw, beautiful, and unflinching poetry tell stories of trauma, political activism, female strength, and journeys both international and into the self. She is definitely a poet you don't want to miss.
Refusing Heaven by Jack Gilbert
The notoriously hermetic poet who sometimes allowed decades to pass between one collection of poems and the next, Jack Gilbert is a writer who composed collections that will speak to you at every stage in your life. Written late in his career, Refusing Heaven is possibly my favorite Gilbert collection, published after the death of Gilbert's wife and towards the end of his own life, the collection is written as a passionate act of rebellion against death, and as a celebration of the lifelong struggles of an artist.
Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins
Billy Collins writes poetry that is accessible to readers unaccustomed to the poetic form, without allowing his work to lose the sense of complex mystery that is essential to great writing. Sailing Alone Around the Room is a collection of Collins' best work, supplemented with never-before-seen poems. Although Collins's writing doesn't necessarily focus on any one specific theme, each poem takes readers on a journey — with Collins you never end where you began, and it's always a surprise.
Diving Into the Wreck by Adrienne Rich
Written during the Vietnam War, the feminist movement, and the civil rights movement, Diving Into the Wreck tells the story of one feminist political poet — the brilliant Adrienne Rich — as she navigates the tumultuous waters of 1970s America. For Rich, poetry, activism, and social justice are intimately linked. This collection will not only help you fall in love with poetry, it'll make you want to change the world as well.
The Last Night of the Earth Poems by Charles Bukowski
Charles Bukowski's work is brash, unflinching, disillusioned, and filled with all the sorts of things people think but never dare to say aloud. Often inspired by his experience with urban American poverty, particularly that which exists in his childhood city of Los Angeles, The Last Night of the Earth Poems deals with themes of illness and war, art and creativity, alcohol, relationships, and so much more.
The Wild Iris by Louise Glück
Poet Louise Glück's collection The Wild Iris is a quiet storm of poetic mastery that you'll be able to return to again and again, and will be changed by with every reading. In it, Glück explores her relationships with spirituality and mysticism, nature, the human race, and the ephemeral. The Wild Iris won a much-deserved Pulitzer Prize in 1993.
Iovis by Anne Waldman
A bit complicated, a bit rambling, Iovis is one long memoir-as-poem, and at first might seem as difficult and inaccessible as all that other poetry you've been avoiding all these years... but give it a chance. Anne Waldman is something of a poetic warrior, advocating for her right to what she terms a "liberated tongue." And liberated she is in this series of striking personal anecdotes that chronicle experiences as diverse as praying with her son to witnessing a terrorist attack, all told through poetry.
Howl by Allen Ginsberg
Sure, it might be a little cliche to include Howl on this list — but I can't help but love it, so sue me. If hearing the audio recording of Allen Ginsberg reading the lines: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn..." doesn't give you that tingly, poetic glow, I don't know what will.
The Gold Cell by Sharon Olds
Another badass feminist of poetry, Sharon Olds writes about family and relationships, sex and the female body, and all sorts of other personal intimacies with spare, uninhibited language that will totally leave you reaching for another of her collections. The Gold Cell starts with the childhood abuse Olds experienced, and takes readers through to her marriage and raising children of her own. Her words are so accessible you almost won't notice the immeasurable amount of literary talent it took to compose them.