How To Start Reading Poetry If You Have No Idea Where To Begin
So, you’ve heard that poetry is making a comeback (I mean, isn’t it always?) and you’re thinking it might be time for you to hop aboard that well-versed bandwagon. After all, everyone’s reading life could use a little shake-up now and again, and you’ve decided poetry is just the thing to do it.
But if the last time you actually sat down and read any poetry was back when EVERY. SINGLE. PERSON. in the 12th grade used “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” as their senior yearbook quote, the poetry gears whirring in your brain might be more than a little squeaky. “Isn’t everyone a poet, now?” you might be wondering. Or, “there’s got to be more to this than that Norton Anthology I used to cart around in college.” Basically, you’re not sure how to begin reading poetry. Or whether or not you even like poetry in the first place.
One of the things I love about contemporary poetry is that it’s more accessible than ever. Poets tell just as much of a story as your favorite novelists do — just in a different way. While the syntax and style might be intimidating, reading poetry shouldn’t be.
Here are a few tips for reading poetry, if you have no idea where to begin.
1. Ask for recommendations.
This one is pretty straightforward. Have a friend who's always got their nose in a book? (If you’re that friend, you might be outta luck in this case.) Up for dropping by the desk of your local librarian? Even checking out the staff recommendations at your favorite bookstore might yield some totally readable results. Goodreads (aka: Facebook for bookworms) is also a great place to nose around other people’s bookshelves, at least digitally. Or you can check out Bustle's favorite collections from 2018.
2. Read what everyone else is reading. (Aka: head to the ‘gram.)
Love ‘em or judge ‘em, there is no denying that Instagram poets have totally rocked the world of verse — and I, for one, am pretty excited about that. While scrolling through bite-sized poems isn’t quite the same as cozying up with a print collection, it’s a great way to get started. Plus, Instagram poets have become known for their accessibility — both in terms of finding their work (have phone, will read poetry) and in terms of finding their work relatable. This really might be the best place to start, IMO.
3. Start with an author you already love.
You might be surprised to find out that your favorite author has dabbled in more than just fiction (or nonfiction, or memoir). Plenty of authors write across genres, and chances are if you love their novel, you’ll love their poetry too. There’s no greater introduction to poetry than through the voice of a writer you’re already obsessed with.
4. Try a novel-in-verse.
Is it poetry, is it prose? What it is, for sure, is a great gateway into discovering a whole new genre to love. Novels-in-verse are a cross between poetry and prose — the language of poetry, organized in the structure of a novel. A novel-in-verse, in fact, is how I first fell in love with poetry myself. There’s just something about seeing a poem grow into a fully-formed plot that makes the entire genre feel more accessible. For something newer, try The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo.
5. Go for the print version.
OK, so we’ve tackled Goodreads, we’ve checked out the ‘gram, now it’s time to dive in with both feet: yup, I’m talking about an actual book of poetry. With pages and everything. Because while I love the way social media allows me to pepper my day with snippets of poetry, I’m not actually ever going to sit down with a mug of coffee and a croissant and scroll through a poet’s entire account like I would, say, read through an entire poetry collection in one afternoon. Once you’ve got a feel for the genre, and are excited for more, the actual weight of a book in your hands (and the ability to make notes and reflections in the margins) will make all the difference.
6. Still not clicking? Try LISTENING to poetry, instead.
And I’m not just talking about audiobooks, here. (Although, those can be a great way to enjoy a collection.) You might have heard of a totally badass poet named Tracy K. Smith (and, uh, if you haven’t, where have you been lately?). U.S. Poet Laureate and author of mind-blowing collections like Duende and Life on Mars has just expanded her poetic mission to include the podcast The Slowdown. And yeah, the idea is to get you to slow down and think about poetry. The episodes are only five minutes each, and feature a variety of poets you’ll come to know and love, if you don’t already. Think: Joy Harjo, Eve L. Ewing, Chen Chen, Ada Limón, Tarfia Faizullah, and so many more.
7. Check out a poetry reading.
Speaking of listening to poetry, why not check out a poetry reading? Sometimes just observing an author interact with their own writing will make everything start to fall into place. And, if nothing else, since there’ll be plenty of poetry fans there, you could ask the person sitting next to you for some reading recommendations.
8. If all else fails: consider taking a class.
Definitely a little pricier than just picking up a few poetry collections at your local library or bookstore, but totally worth it — if you’re committed to really understanding the genre, that is. From online classes to the offerings at a nearby community college or university, taking a course in poetry will allow you to bounce ideas and questions off of an instructor and your fellow classmates, so you’re not wading into that sea of verse alone.