I don’t think I really started loving Poetry as a whole until I was studying English Lit at university. Of course there were a few poems I liked, but only because some teachers had taught me how to read and understand that particular poem; however, when you’d leave me alone with a poem I’d get frustrated in understanding what it said and what the big fuss about poetry was about.
I finally became a true, loyal, obsessive poetry fanatic, but it was a bumpy road. I realized I had dived right into difficult poems (The Waste Land, I’m looking at you), instead of approaching it via poems that’d use more accessible language whose themes would be interesting to me. That is not to say I turned to lame or bad-quality poems, they were just more beginner-friendly, and taught me a lot about reading poetry in general.
Here are a few of the pieces that will help you get a pretty good grasp on what to look for in poems, and how to appreciate their cunningness and beauty.
1. “Eurydice”, by Carol Ann Duffy
“…Girls, forget what you’ve read.
It happened like this -
I did everything in my power
to make him look back.
What did I have to do, I said,
to make him see we were through?
I was dead. Deceased.
I was Resting in Peace. Passé. Late.
Past my sell-by date…”
- I’d go as far as to recommend the whole collection of Duffy’s poems called The World’s Wife. These poems give a voice to those characters that tend to be silenced by history, literature or society. Getting a fresh perspective on well-known stories is bound to catch your interest.
- This poem is a modern retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus not doing the one job he had by looking back on his way out of the Hades to bring Eurydice back to the world of the living. Because it is a famous story, you are more likely to understand the basic references and you won’t feel lost as to what is happening plotwise.
- Duffy uses words we can all understand, and yet you don’t miss out on the beautiful imagery her verses evoke.
- Though there are some beautiful reflections on language and other topics, it’s an actually very funny poem. The sarcasm and way she shades Orpheus will definitely keep you hooked until the very end.
2. “Fragment #56”, Anne Carson’s translation of Sappho’s poems
“…not one girl I think
who looks on the light of the sun
- Brief story: Anne Carson translated the poems of the Greek poet Sappho, but most of them were incomplete and lost due to the pass of time. Carson signaled with black spaces and brackets those parts, so as you read you can see the what’s gone missing…
- Because it is so fragmented, it doesn’t always make sense, BUT IT’S NOT SUPPOSED TO. And while part of it may be sad, it is actually really great for us because we’re not forced to look for meaning, and we get to enjoy the beautiful images that this fragmentation brings.
- As a tip, don’t focus on what’s missing but on what you can do with what we have left. See what those words say when they’re assembled that way.
- You can also have fun reading these fragments by imagining what words are missing, play out different possibilites. Think of it as a collaborative poem between Sappho, Carson, and you.
3. “Sonnet #130”, by William Shakespeare
“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head…”
- If you hate poetry because it’s corny, this is for you. The poetic voice admits their crush isn’t as elegant or beautiful as the ladies they describe in other poems, but for him that just proves his love is even more powerful (thanks, I guess?).
- See what he does here: sonnets are a format used to express romantic feelings and they’re usually very dramatic. Although the poetic voice does say that he really loves the not-so-gorgeous lady in question, the humor behind it makes it stand out from other poems.
- I mean, having some knowledge of a Shx sonnet up your sleeve is always good for whatever nerdy emergency you may have, and this is a good one to keep in the back of your head.
4. “The Raven”, by Edgar Allan Poe
But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing farther then he uttered — not a feather then he fluttered —
Till I scarcely more than muttered “Other friends have flown before —
On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.”
Then the bird said “Nevermore.”
- You gotta read it out loud! Poe does a great job at choosing the right words to add a beautiful musicality to it. Notice how the “r” and “o” sounds make it sound more dramatic.
- It narrates how, after the death of his wife, a man is visited one night by a talking raven. Even if it is a crazy story, the fact that it has a plot makes it easier for readers to follow without getting too lost in the poem.
- There are thousands of references to this poem in popular culture: The Crow, The Simpsons, Beetlejuice, The Muppets, Thirty Seconds to Mars, Queen, and sooo many more allude to it in their work. It’ll be fun to get the joke and just kind of see how your love for it expands as you see it show up in other artforms.
5. “One Art”, by Elizabeth Bishop
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
- This poem manages to be both beautiful and simple, straightforward in its message. So if you’re not into super embelished language, you’re bound to connect more with this one.
- It may be brief, but it is filled with details that convey the sadness and hopelessness of the poetic voice.
- Another great poem to read out loud. You’ll find yourself haunted by the refrain days after you read it (and you’ll be happy about it).
Would you be interested in a mini guide to read poetry? Let me know in the comments!
*I had a short version of this on my new Instagram account, in case you’d like to take a look at it in a different format :)