9 Books To Pick Up If You're A First Time Poetry Reader
If you're anything like me, poetry intimidates you a bit. Sure, I enjoyed reading classic poets like e.e. cummings, Langston Hughes and Pablo Neruda in high school, but poetry has never been something I reach for in my spare time. In fact, after writing a particularly intense research paper on Jack Kerouac's poetry as a junior in high school, I never read much of it again. There are probably a few reasons for that.
One, because I love a good long page count, poetry books at 50 to 70 pages long feel too fast, too easily digestible, and I know I will rush right through them. Two, even though I can read a whole poetry book in a half hour, that doesn't mean I can understand it. Poetry is known for its hidden symbolism and there are many poems with non-traditional structures to completely confuse you. And because I have very little experience reading it, I never know whether they're actually good or not, and I have no idea how to rate them, which seems like a huge part of the reading experience in the age of Goodreads.
But in recent years I have become intrigued by the world of poetry collections and prose poetry (which for those uninitiated is poetry written in prose instead of using verse.) Watching booktuber/author Jen Campbell talk about her favorite poetry collections, as well as seeing books like milk and honey by Rupi Kaur get tons of mainstream attention, I thought it was time to start seeking out collections that could fit seamlessly into my reading life. If that sounds like something you need, or you are just looking for a few modern poetry and prose poetry books to dive into, check out the nine picks below!
1. 'Milk and Honey' by Rupi Kaur
"what's the greatest lesson that a women should learn?
that since day one. she's already had everything
she needs within herself. it's the world that
convinced her she did not."
If you are looking for a collection about both the dark and the beautiful sides of being a woman, milk and honey is the collection for you. The poetry and prose here are about survival, the experience of violence, abuse, love, loss, and femininity. It is split into four chapters, and each chapter serves a different purpose, deals with a different pain, and heals a different heartache. milk and honey takes readers through a journey of the most bitter moments in life and finds sweetness in them.
2. 'The Princess Saves Herself In This One' by Amanda Lovelace
“repeat after me:
- except maybe yourself.”
The perfect poetry opener for any fairytale lover and feminist, The Princess Saves Herself In This One is divided into four different parts: "The Princess," "The Damsel," "The Queen," and "You." The Princess, The Damsel and The Queen piece together the life of the author in three stages, while "You" serves as a note to the reader and all of humankind. This collection explores life & all of its love, loss, grief, healing, empowerment and inspirations.
3. 'Even This Page Is White' by Vivek Shraya
"is it my skin that betrays
this skeleton? i pray
for answers for my dreams
hunched back dim light
blue ink blank paper knelt over
wept over now i grasp why thirty-four
years of praying through writing
awoke no god
so i protest this page"
If you are interested in reading about race and race relations, you need to pick up Shraya's debut collection. This poetry is a bold and timely collection interrogation of skin: its origins, functions, and limitations. Here we have poems that range in style from starkly concrete to limber, and that break down the barriers of understanding what it means to be racialized. Shraya paints the face of everyday racism with beautiful words, rendering it visible, tangible, and undeniable.
4. 'Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth' by Warsan Shire
"I have my mother's
mouth and my father's
eyes; on my face
they are still together."
You've probably seen tons of Warsan Shire's poems all over Tumblr, and for good reason. They are equally as thought-provoking and haunting as they are quotable and digestible; and if you're into reading about finding oneself in divided cultures and learning more about family, life and love, this one is definitely for you. In Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth, Shire gives simple yet breathtaking eloquence to topics including secrets, family, depression, strength and sensuality. Here she reflects on overlapping cultures, rejection and displacement, but all with a disturbing brilliance and undeniable beauty.
5. 'Citizen: An American Lyric' by Claudia Rankine
“Nobody notices, only you've known,
you're not sick, not crazy,
not angry, not sad--
It's just this, you're injured.”
A book perfect for those who are interested in learning more about ongoing race issues in the U.S. Claudia Rankine's book recounts mounting racial aggressions in twenty-first-century daily life and in the media. Some of these encounters are slights and some are intentional offensives...in the classroom, at the supermarket, at home, on the tennis court with Serena Williams and the soccer field with Zinedine Zidane, online, on TV... everywhere and all the time. Rankine argues that the accumulative stresses come to bear on a person's ability to speak, perform, and stay alive. In essay, image, and poetry, Citizen is a powerful testament to the individual and the collective effects of racism in our contemporary "post-race" society.
6. 'The Crossover' by Kwame Alexander
“Basketball Rule #10
A loss is inevitable,
like snow in winter.
Perhaps the easiest way to get into poetry is by reading prose poetry books. These tend to have a more overarching, continuous story that can be easier to grasp. Kwame Alexander's celebrated The Crossover, is one such book. 12-year old Josh Bell and his twin brother Jordan are awesome on the court. But Josh has more than basketball in his blood, he's also got mad beats that tell his family's story in verse. Josh and Jordan must come to grips with growing up on and off the court to realize breaking the rules comes at a terrible price, as their story's heart-stopping climax proves a game-changer for the entire family.
7. 'Brown Girl Dreaming' by Jacqueline Woodson
“Even the silence
has a story to tell you.
Just listen. Listen.”
Perfect for fans of memoir, this book tells the story of Jacqueline Woodson's childhood through prose poems. Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. Here she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world.
8. 'Sold' by Patricia McCormick
“Trying to remember, I have learned, is like trying to clutch a handful of fog. Trying to forget, like trying to hold back the monsoon.”
For those who enjoy non-fiction, especially those about injustice, Sold is a great, though heart-wrenching pick. Lakshmi is a 13-year-old girl who lives with her family in a small hut on a mountain in Nepal. Though she is desperately poor, her life is full of simple pleasures, like playing hopscotch with her best friend from school, and having her mother brush her hair by the light of an oil lamp. But when the harsh Himalayan monsoons wash away all that remains of the family’s crops, Lakshmi’s stepfather says she must leave home and take a job to support her family. Glad to be able to help, Lakshmi journeys to India and arrives at “Happiness House” full of hope. But she soon learns the unthinkable truth: she has been sold into prostitution. Lakshmi’s life becomes a nightmare from which she cannot escape. Still, she lives by her mother’s words—"Simply to endure is to triumph"—and gradually, she forms friendships with the other girls that enable her to survive in this terrifying new world. Then the day comes when she must make a decision—will she risk everything for a chance to reclaim her life?
9. 'The Day Before' by Lisa Schroeder
for the breeze to
for the sun to
for the friendship
to fill up
And for those who love a good old fashioned YA contemporary love story, you cannot go wrong with The Day Before. Amber’s life is spinning out of control. All she wants is to turn up the volume on her iPod until all of the demands of family and friends fade away. So she sneaks off to the beach to spend a day by herself. Then Amber meets Cade. Their attraction is instant, and Amber can tell he’s also looking for an escape. Together they decide to share a perfect day: no pasts, no fears, no regrets. The more time that Amber spends with Cade, the more she’s drawn to him. And the more she’s troubled by his darkness. Because Cade’s not just living in the now—he’s living each moment like it’s his last.