I’ll admit that poetry wasn’t the first thing I gravitated toward when I first started writing. Even after I took three years of poetry classes I still write far more prose than poetry, despite being told I have a “poet’s eye”. I think it’s true for many writers that they have nothing against writing or reading poetry, they just naturally lean toward prose (which is perfectly fine).
But for those of you wanting to extend yourselves to a new medium like poetry but don’t know where to start, read on.
Get in the mood
Poetry is an intense art form packed with imagery and metaphor, quite often requiring you to either read between the lines or just go with it. It can be difficult to turn off your ‘prose-brain’ in order to enjoy the subtle nuances found in poetry, so it helps to get into a creative mood.
Find a quiet spot and read something you love. It can be prose, a script, a speech, a single line. Anything that stirs emotion in you and gives you that excited ‘wow’ feeling about words is perfect. The point of this is to get you feeling the power of words at sentence-level, feeling the impact of each image (which is easy to do with a piece of writing that you’re already in love with).
If you’re still stuck when it comes to finding beautiful writing, check out this list of the top 100 first lines in novels. Find the beauty within these classics to ignite your passion for words.
Find a style
There are so many different genres and styles of poetry that it’s kind of ridiculous. There’s the classical Keats (‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ – that is all / ye know on earth, and all ye need know); the confessional Sylvia Plath (A sort of walking miracle, my skin / Bright as a Nazi lampshade); the traditional haiku to the modern art of Slam Poetry (and the list goes on).
You could break poetry up roughly into categories of ‘old’ and ‘new’. ‘Old’ can consist of the classic poets such as Shelley, Shakespeare, Coleridge, or even Poe. Think of older language with flourishes and metre, work that was made to be read aloud in long sweeping sentences and emphatic hand gestures.
‘New’ poetry is modern, and more easily read. The language can be more easily understood and picked apart, the themes are more relatable, and we can feel empowered even by reading them quietly to ourselves. Examples could be Sexton, Eliot, Hughes, Ginsberg, Wright.
Of course it’s difficult to lump all poets into these two piles, and there will always be outliers who stand alone uncategorised. Only ask yourself what kind of language you like to read. If you enjoy reading classic literature, give the older style a try. If you can’t stand flowery adjectives and want to feel something punchy, go contemporary. If you’re a flexible reader who lends themselves to all styles and genres of literature, pick any poet and go for it (you’ve got nothing to lose, right?).
If you've never been exposed to poetry, the best way to enjoy it is to hear it aloud. There's something organic and powerful about hearing somebody read, and when the words they are speaking come from some otherworldly creative space it tugs at your insides like nothing else.
Take the time to browse writing groups or centres in your local area and find out where the poetry readings are. If you're in the Wollongong area get yourself down to the Enough Said Poetry Slam every month; sit back and immerse yourself in the beauty and pain of words and get to know the faces of some fresh upcoming Australian talent.
Head to your annual writer's festival and hear the established poets tell tales and treat your ears with well-known and new poems from their published works.
And if you can't make it out of the house for whatever reason, browse the web. A quick YouTube search provides a playlist of classic poets reading their work amidst the countless contemporary poets uploading their brilliance to the web on a daily basis.
The hard part is finding a poetry book to steal your heart. Your best option is to do a little research into famous poets that you may have already heard of. There are lots of websites detailing lists of ‘the best poems of all time’ or ‘poems everyone should read’, which is as good a place to start as any.
If you’re looking for something more specific try this website, allowing you to find poets by filtering through schools, movements, styles, gender, and periods in time.
The best way to find something you like is to just start reading anything. The good thing about reading is that there’s no risk involved, so if you start reading and aren’t grabbed by it you can start again somewhere else.
Read aloud, read with feeling, read a lot, savour each word. And when you find something that really takes you, keep hold of it. Return to the lines you love, write them down, find inspiration in them.
It’s easy to give up on an art form that you’ve never tried before. But being a writer means loving words, not just in short stories or films but in their simplest (and oftentimes, most obscure) forms.
Poetry can be weird, and you’re not going to understand it all the time. That’s okay. Reading isn’t always about buying whatever narrative the author is selling you; sometimes you just need to go with it and accept that although you don’t understand the sentiment being expressed, the words themselves are phenomenal and the feelings running through you are priceless.