It’s hard to put your finger on exactly why many Americans love to read novels but don’t dare dip into poetry. Maybe it’s because the public imagination associates verse with Hallmark doggerel or stultifying encounters with high school English teachers. Whatever the case, poetry is often regarded as schmaltzy, fusty or impenetrable. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Still, even if you’re willing to make the leap, you may not know where to start. After all, people have been writing poems for thousands of years (poetry is much older than prose). If I may, I’d like to recommend three collections to help you get from narrative prose into the musical, image-rich world of poetry. To my mind, these three books are like gateway drugs: They might just get you hooked.
Philip Larkin: Poems Selected by Martin Amis is a slim primer geared toward readers who don’t yet know Larkin’s work. Best known for such novels as Money and London Fields, Amis selects the English postwar poet’s “must read” poems, such as “Aubade.” An aubade is typically a song about lovers who have been up all night and must part at dawn. In Larkin’s case, the speaker can’t sleep because of his outsize fear of death:
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there
In his preface, Amis calls Larkin a “novelist’s poet.” Larkin was actually a close friend of his father, Kingsley Amis—yet another fiction writer. Likely this pair of prose masters loved Larkin’s wit, biting irony and conversational style, which make his explorations of subjects as lofty as religion, love and family highly readable.
Mark Doty’s My Alexandria examines urban life and the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and ’90s through interlocking narratives and several long poems you can truly sink into. Often heartbreaking, these poems are lyrical but never over intellectualized. In the collection’s opening poem, “Demolition,” Doty writes “We love disasters that have nothing to do / with us.” As described by former poet laureate Philip Levine, “Mark Doty is a maker of big, risky, fearless poems in which ordinary human experience becomes music.” My Alexandria also showcases Doty’s storytelling skills, which he later flexed in a pair of highly acclaimed memoirs, Heaven’s Coast and Dog Years.
In Bellocq’s Ophelia, Natasha Trethewey, the current poet laureate, imagines the life of a mixed-race prostitute named Ophelia, living in New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century. The book was inspired by the photographs of E.J. Bellocq, a man who took a series of portraits of prostitutes living in NOLA’s once-famous red-light district, Storyville. Packed with great images and turns of phrase, Bellocq’s Ophelia utilizes a mix of styles—some poems depict Ophelia from the camera’s point of view, while others are in her own voice. In “Letter Home,” Ophelia writes:
…no one needs a girl. How flat
the word sounds, and heavy. My purse thins.
I spend foolishly to make an appearance of quiet
industry, to mask the desperation that tightens
Like many great poetry collections, Bellocq’s Ophelia takes on the power and beauty of a novel in less than a quarter of the space.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia