Poetry is all around us. It’s in books, movies and on the back of cereal boxes. It’s in the sound of people’s names and in Rap songs. It’s on bumper stickers and buttons. It’s in the graffiti you drive past every morning on your way to work.
The absolute abundance of poetry is a good thing, but it can make it difficult to know where to start. If you have ever felt overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the poetic tradition, fear no more. Here is a list of ten poetry books that will help you start:
The Best Poetry Books for Beginners
Table of Contents
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…”
Allen Ginsberg was a core member of the infamous Beat Generation. His most famous poem, Howl, perfectly encapsulates the madness and delight of the counterculture.
If Ginsberg’s exhilarating portrayal of rebellion does not draw you, consider that this poetry book was almost banned. With its references to both heterosexual and homosexual sex, as well as copious drug use, Howl survived a obscenity trial in 1957.
We can be glad that it did, for what would we do without this stunning line of poetry: “with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls.”
Richard Siken is an American poet, painter and filmmaker. He has successfully defined “gay panic” to a whole new generation of LGBT+ people. His poetry is painfully romantic and almost begs to be quoted.
Published in 2004, Crush won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition. It is written in the style of a confession, encompassing both the violence and the joy that pure honesty can bring. It is an excellent introduction to contemporary poetry as it speaks of current issues of sexuality, masculinity and individuality.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
Born in the Southern United States in 1928, Maya Angelou was not only a poet but a civil rights activist. She won many awards and was given more than 50 honorary doctorates. Her career spanned five decades, and she published at least fourteen books.
It is easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of her work and be unsure where exactly to start. We recommend starting right here with the completed collected poems of Maya Angelou. It includes her famous poem, On the Pulse of Morning, which she recited at the first presidential auguration of Bill Clinton in 1993.
It is often said that there exists poetry before Wordsworth and poetry after Wordsworth. As a central figure in Romanticism, Wordsworth reforged poetry. No longer was poetry forced to be about gods and monsters, but could now be about clouds and daffodils- representing ordinary people and their extraordinary emotions.
When beginning one’s poetic journey, it can be difficult to go back to the classics. Often language and conventions have changed, making it difficult to absorb the classics as easily as contemporary poets.
Wordsworth is the perfect introduction to classic poetry. His poetry is light and optimistic. In his lifetime, he was considered a teacher of poetry to others in the Romantic movement, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Percy Shelley. He can be your teacher of poetry too.
“When my April showers me with kisses
I could make her my missus or my mistress”
Speaking of the classics, you may or may not have heard of Geoffrey Chaucer. He was a medieval writer. We can trace archetypes like ‘the noble knight’ or ‘damsel in distress’ back to him. However, he wrote so long ago that his use of Middle English is barely recognisable to English speakers today, which is why he is not recommended to beginners.
Instead, we recommend Patience Agbabi’s modern retelling of Chaucer’s most famous work, The Canterbury Tales. Telling Tales uses colloquial slang to deliver old, remembered stories to a brand new world.
“I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;
I lift my lids and all is born again.
(I think I made you up inside my head)”
Slyvia Plath is one of the most recognisable poets from the last century. Even those with no interest in poetry have likely heard her name. They might know her solely as the tragic poetess who committed suicide but Slyvia Plath is so much more than her tragic end.
Written in the last few months of her life and published posthumously, Winter Trees showcases Sylvia Plath at her most vibrant and stunning. It shows the lengths to which poetry will go in an attempt to save the human soul.
Even though it ultimately failed to save Sylvia Plath, there is comfort in the attempt and the poetry continues to try to save you too.
Born in what is now Zimbabwe, Dambudzo Marechera became known for his abrasive, erratic writing as well as his abrasive, erratic behaviour that led to his expulsion from Oxford University. He is considered one of the front liners for African literature, despite his career being cut short by his death in 1987.
Cemetery of the Mind, published posthumously, shows Marechera’s blinding intellect and sharp wit. He uses unconventional language to tear apart the issues of racism, colonialism and poverty.
His writing is not for the faint-hearted. It has been described like overhearing a scream. However, if you want to be introduced to poetry like being plunged in ice-cold water, then this is surely the poetry book for you.
“i can’t tell if my mother is
terrified or in love with
my father it all
looks the same”
Rupi Kaur is an Indian-born poet currently living in Canada. She rose to fame on Twitter and Instagram by combining her bite-sized poetry with simple but poignant art. Rupi Kaur was dubbed Writer of the Decade for her wide reach of her poetry.
Milk and Honey was her first collection of poetry. It is worth exploring her work simply to understand the changing contemporary landscape of poetry when combined with social media.
“Milk and Honey” explores themes of femininity and family. It embodies the immigrant experience and speaks honestly about sexual trauma. This book is elegant, heart-wrenching and well worth reading.
Ocean Vuong came to the United States as a refugee from Vietnam when he was two years old. His mother gave him the name ocean to symbolise the great mass of water which connects the United States to Vietnam. If you are looking for a poet to help you on your own poetic journey, choosing someone whose actual name is a small poem is not a bad place to start.
His debut, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, has won several awards. He experiments with both metaphor and typography. His melancholic tone does not suppress the thread of hope that flows through the poems like water.
Ocean Vuong is openly gay and is a recipient for the Macarthur Genius grant with a master’s degree in Poetry from New York University. His novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, combines poetry with prose. As such, it is a good place to start if you are unsure about the leap from prose to poetry.
There is a reason why Charles Bukowski’s poetry has been called “Dirty Realism”. Bukowski’s raw honesty revealed the harsh truth about the living conditions of the working class in his home city of Los Angeles. He writes about alcoholism, his relationship with women, and the absurdity of life.
Bukowski is also known for his dry sense of humour and for being completely comfortable squatting in gray morality. After the publication of a collection of newspaper columns entitled “Notes of a Dirty Old Man”, the FBI began to keep a file on him.
He wrote prolifically in his lifetime and much of it was published posthumously after his death in 1994. This book is the perfect introduction to Bukowski’s work. He also wrote several semi-autobiographical novels such Ham on Rye and Women.
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About The Author
Kylin Lotter is a writer, poet, and artist. She is a postgraduate student at the University of Witswatersrand, studying English Literature and specialising in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Her work has been featured in the bi-annual Poetry Potion journal. Her poem “Wolf Girl” will be featured in the upcoming anthology entitled “Yesterdays and Imagined Realities: An Anthology of South African Poetry.” Her work explores themes of gender expression, mental health and what it means to be human.