You read my last post about why writers should read poetry, and now you’re thinking, “Gosh, I should do that and read some poetry. But I don’t know where to start or what books to buy or anything!”
Well, as with anything, there are several ways to go about the job of reading more poetry. There are a lot of collections out there that are meant as introductions to poetry. Some of these are the school-textbook kind of thing where you’ll learn about rhyme and meter and the difference between a haiku and a sonnet and all that, and those are excellent starting points, if you’re looking to learn mechanics.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with learning mechanics! If that’s your approach, great. It wasn’t my approach, but it’s valid and anyway, later on when you’ve discovered that you really do love poetry and you’re not nearly as intimidated by it anymore
But maybe you want to start right out with poetry. Maybe you want to dive right in! Good for you! That’s exactly the approach I advise. Poetry is there to be read, first and foremost. There’s plenty of time later for rhyme, meter, allusion, theme, secondary meanings, and all the other stuff. Jump right in, says I!
So, where would be a good place to start?
One possibility is a collection of “light” poetry or of old ballads and narrative poems. It might be easiest to start your journey into verse if the forms are familiar enough that you can recognize a joke or a story in the verse.
Take a poem like The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes, which starts thusly:
“The Highwayman”, Alfred Noyes
The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding—
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.
He’d a French cocked-hat on his forehead, a bunch of lace at his chin,
A coat of the claret velvet, and breeches of brown doe-skin.
They fitted with never a wrinkle. His boots were up to the thigh.
And he rode with a jewelled twinkle,
His pistol butts a-twinkle,
His rapier hilt a-twinkle, under the jewelled sky.
Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed in the dark inn-yard.
He tapped with his whip on the shutters, but all was locked and barred.
He whistled a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.
Now that will certainly catch your attention, won’t it? You want to know the rest of the story, and you barely realize it’s in poetic form, even as the internal rhymes of the stanzas work their magic and even as the rhythm of the words propel you forward. (You can read the remainder of The Highwayman here.)
You should also read poetry aloud, if you can; or, failing that, at least speak the words silently, so you can get a sense of how the words “feel”. Much of poetry’s effect is gained through auditory effect, how the poet arranges sounds and the rhythms inherent in the placing of the words. As you gain experience, you’ll find it less necessary to do this–but by this time, it might be sufficiently ingrained in your poetry-reading experience that you keep doing it. I certainly do.
So where do you find all that poetry? In poetry books, of course! But where do you find poetry books? In bookstores, of course!
To start with, you might want to look for wide collections. The Oxford Book of English Verse is a stalwart, as are other collections of American poetry. I’ll assume that the library of the discerning reader and budding writer already has at least one Complete Shakespeare, which is a great source of lots of poetry. (In fact, if you can read Shakespeare with even a modicum of comprehension, you’re well on the way to being able to read a lot of poetry.) There are also many good themed collections that gather poems around specific subjects: War poetry, music poetry, and of course, love poetry. Picking up a few of these is always a good idea.
Used bookstores and library book sales are wonderful ways to bolster one’s poetry collection. When the books are cheap, you can buy with a lot more abandon, which means you can get a lot more experimental with your poetry collection. You’ll find old compilations that reflect earlier tastes, or collections of poets who are mainly forgotten these days. Even editions of The Oxford Book from decades ago are worth picking up cheaply, because they will contain many poems the current edition does not. Don’t sweat the duplication too much.
Next time I will recommend some of my favorite poetry books! Until then, see you around the Galaxy!