Poetry has a reputation for pretentiousness which puts a lot of people off reading it. I’m lucky that poetry has always been a part of my life.
When I was little it was Banjo Paterson (thanks Mum!); in my teen years it was Something for Kate and Pink Floyd and trying to find words for my own angst (but coming up with cliches); and at University it was trying to find my own ‘voice’ in verse.
Again, I’m lucky. A lot of people don’t have a long history with poetry. A lot of people’s first impressions of poetry are being forced to study it in school, and hating every second. That’s okay. I have those feelings too.
But the whole point of poetry (I think) is to stir up those feelings. Feel angry. Feel confused. Feel as though you want to throw the book across the room. Feel upset (even if you don’t know why). Feel like you want to roll your eyes. Feel empowered. Feel like you want to read aloud or run and find someone to share this line with. That’s the point.
And it’s totally okay to not understand it at all. But those feelings… that’s poetry.
Book Recommendations For Poetry Beginners
Immigrant Chronicle by Peter Skrzynecki
Immigrant Chronicle was on our HSC curriculum and is a great place to start. The poems are simple in structure but have powerful imagery and meaningful messages about culture, fitting in, identity, history and family.
The Monkey’s Mask by Dorothy Porter
A verse novel, The Monkey’s Mask is a thriller with a lesbian detective investigating the murder of a young female poet, set in Australia. Porter’s short, pithy poems leave a sting.
Milk and Honey & The Sun and Her Flowers by Rupi Kaur
Rupi Kaur is labelled as an ‘Instagram poet’, as if that should strip away some of her credibility. I disagree. Her poems, while simple in structure and style, hit hard on themes of trauma, sexuality and feminism. Important topics, no matter the medium.
Ariel by Sylvia Plath
Ariel is a Plath classic! Recurring themes in Plath’s poetry include her mental health, relationships with men (her father, her husband) and the natural world (flowers, animals). Sometimes rhyming, sometimes simple, sometimes a punch in the gut.
Comfort Food by Ellen van Neervan
Don’t be fooled, Comfort Food is not just about eating. It’s actually about Aboriginal experience and being queer and identity and culture and relationships and love. Simple structure lets van Neervan’s imagery shine. I underlined almost the entire book.
Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith
You’ll want to have a pen handy when reading this one. Don’t Call Us Dead is an exploration of identity, being black, American, queer and HIV positive. Smith really understands craft when it comes to impactful words and thematic form.
Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg
A giant of the ‘beat’ generation, Ginsberg is a must-read for those tipping toes in poetry. You can read Howl for free here. Don’t be intimidated. Don’t try to ‘understand’ every line. Just go with it.
Hold Your Own by Kate Tempest
Tempest is a performance poet (search for her on YouTube!) and you can really see that in her written work. The lines are rhythmic and you want to read them aloud. Hold Your Own explores the sexuality and gender (and Britain and class and relationships) through the myth of Tiresias.