This morning a friend tweeted me asking for some famous poems I know. I wasn’t sure why at first, then I saw it’s National Poetry Day and perhaps that had something to do with it. Or maybe it’s all just a coincidence. Anyway, this friend grew up in New Zealand and said she felt like her Kiwi education may have been different from other people’s.
Since she seemed to be asking for recommendations of well-known poetry, I responded on Facebook instead because there isn’t a 140-character limit there. I also ignored the actual question and recommended poets and movements rather than specific poems, except in a couple of instances. Often what speaks to one person doesn’t speak to another, and arguably this is especially the case with poetry. Some people like flosculous language, some like post-modern syntax, some like poetry but only when it’s performed. It’s pretty much impossible to recommend a poem that everyone will love. So instead I gave a brief intro, and once I’d typed it all out I thought I’d stick it in a blog post as well, in case any of you are trying to work out where to start with poetry.
Starting with the classics: take a look at Catullus. He’s hilarious. Some of his poems demonstrate just how masterful he is with language, but a lot of them are vitriolic and sweary. He’s the person I recommend to people who think classical poetry is stuffy and boring.
Robert Frost is very accessible and a good place to start if you’re not used to reading poetry. My favourite is Stopping By The Woods On A Snowy Evening (I wrote a song based on it); other popular ones include Fire And Ice (which inspired George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire), and The Road Not Taken, which unfortunately has been so overused now that it’s lost some of its original meaning. I wish I could read it again for the first time without having heard of it!
Here’s the song based on Stopping By The Woods On A Snowy Evening:
1800s: Coleridge, who influenced pretty much everyone, and Emily Dickinson, whom everybody loves.
For popular early 20th-century poetry, check out Yeats, Keats, Wordsworth, and Dylan Thomas.
Beat poets and their inspirations are worth checking out; not everyone’s cup of tea, but those who like them absolutely love them. Howl by Allen Ginsberg is a good litmus test – if you like that, google ‘beat poets’ and you’ll end up lost in a happy fuzz of confused syntax. Also try Benjamin Zephaniah.
Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (who were married). Plath is the ultimate emo teenage poet. I love her. I personally prefer Hughes’ later stuff after Plath died. Crow is good, a bit disturbing, like the best art! I recently reviewed Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, a novel by Max Porter which was inspired by Crow.
Then for a style that breaks from tradition and arguably inspired post-modern poetry, try e e cummings or William Carlos Williams.
Rumi is very popular with hippies. He wrote some excellent stuff but you might have seen it on too many inspirational posters, which unfortunately can take some of the magic away.
Other favourite poems of mine include Invictus by William Ernest Henley, Sea-Fever by John Masefield (which inspired another song, but I don’t have an acceptable recording of that one), and Dulce Et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen. Also anything by Edgar Allan Poe.
In terms of poets who are alive now, I like Christopher Poindexter and Tyler Knott Gregson.
For books about / commentary on poetry, Robert Graves is my favourite.
If you’re looking for modern-day performed poetry in London, check out Apples and Snakes.
A lot of poetry (especially the older stuff) sounds better if you read it aloud, which can make you feel like a numpty at first but you’ll get used to it. I like to read poems aloud to myself in the bath, surrounded by candlelight.
And a plug for myself, because it’s my blog so fuck it. I’ve been publishing poetry for almost twenty years, which is a terrifying thing to write down and makes me feel very old. I published quite a lot as a teenager in various anthologies, but as an adult I took a step back from it. In recent years I’ve been reviving it a bit, although I haven’t published anything lately. That may change soon, depending on whether I can be arsed to get my act together. You can find some here.
My poems tend to be full of happy joy and hope for the world:
Tell me about some of your favourite poetry.