Kick-Start Your Poetry Journey
Poetry is one of my favourite literary mediums, but that wasn’t always the case. In school, as I wrote papers on the intricacies of Poe and Shakespeare, I always found myself frustrated and bored by the genre. While classic poetry is indeed valid in its beauty, sometimes it’s hard to fully appreciate it without having broken the glass ceiling, or experiencing the supernova of feeling that comes with reading a poem and understanding it, and thus being understood in return.
Here are five simple and accessible poets (and poems) that helped me fall in love with poetry, in hopes that they can do the same for you:
Mary Oliver (1935-2019)
When I was 16, my school English teacher introduced me to her favourite poet, Mary Oliver. That summer I took a writer’s retreat trip with her and a few of my classmates, rafting on a river boat in Idaho and camping on different patches of land along the way. In the evenings we journalled, and my teacher read us poetry by the fire, under the stars and surrounded by trees. A legendary observer of nature, Mary Oliver’s poetry is best read with an innate appreciation for the natural world and its inhabitants – and my experience on the Salmon River in Idaho was the breeding ground for my love of her poetry. Despite the infinite ways in which nature can be beloved and appreciated through poetic language, Oliver insists that “Poetry, to be understood, must be clear.. it mustn’t be fancy.”
One of my favourite poems of hers is “Don’t Hesitate”:
If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,
don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty
of lives and whole towns destroyed or about
to be. We are not wise, and not very often
kind. And much can never be redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this
is its way of fighting back, that sometimes
something happens better than all the riches
or power in the world. It could be anything,
but very likely you notice it in the instant
when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the case.
Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid
of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.
Oliver’s poetry, at its root, is an appreciation of being present on this earth at this time, despite all of the difficulties that come with that presence. She uses simple and accessible language to ensure that everyone, no matter their level of poetic experience or literary skill, can view the world in the same way she does. A good collection to start with would be Felicity.
Ada Limón (1976-)
Recently named the 24th Poet Laureate of the United States, Ada Limón is an incredibly gifted poet of perseverance. With sharp metaphors and evocative imagery, her poetry is one of accessible intelligence and relatability. She is one of my favourites, tackling themes of womanhood, parenthood, spirituality, humanity, and nature. Like Mary Oliver, Limón places an emphasis on nature, using examples of endurance and tenacity in nature to create moving, encouraging poems. In 2020, in the thick of COVID-19, I found solace in the following poem, called “Instructions on Not Giving Up”, from her collection Bright Dead Things:
More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out
of the crabapple tree, more than the neighbor’s
almost obscene display of cherry limbs shoving
their cotton candy-colored blossoms to the slate
sky of Spring rains, it’s the greening of the trees
that really gets to me. When all the shock of white
and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave
the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath,
the leaves come. Patient, plodding, a green skin
growing over whatever winter did to us, a return
to the strange idea of continuous living despite
the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,
I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf
unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.
Wendy Cope (1945-)
Wendy Cope is best known for her lighthearted and witty lyricism and parodies, which were, according to her, a way of “coming to terms with what was fashionable in poetry” and often targeting men to make subtle statements on sexual politics in the poetry scene. However, though she is a master of wordplay, her simplicity translates into her poems about love and tenderness, using her keen eye for the mundane aspects of everyday English life to discuss the confusions and desires in intimate relationships, both romantic and platonic. It is these poems that I adore the most. She does not highlight joy as supernova moments of revelation, but rather subdued observations that can be appreciated as they come.
Cope has written my favourite poem of all time, titled “The Orange”:
At lunchtime I bought a huge orange –
The size of it made us all laugh.
I peeled it and shared it with Robert and Dave –
They got quarters and I had half.
And that orange, it made me so happy,
As ordinary things often do
Just lately. The shopping. A walk in the park.
This is peace and contentment. It’s new.
The rest of the day was quite easy.
I did all the jobs on my list
And enjoyed them and had some time over.
I love you. I’m glad I exist.
I revisited this poem at the start of the pandemic, among routines of mundanity and an almost personal uselessness. It comforted me deeply in its ability to appreciate something as simple as eating an orange at your desk at work. Cope’s poetry is often like this - made unpretentious by humourous and seemingly silly observations. Included in Serious Concerns, I would recommend this collection to start with if you’re looking for an unserious, comic collection with hints of tenderness.
Ross Gay (1974-)
Ross Gay is an American poet specialising in themes of kindness, delight, and gratitude through whimsical, conversational poetry. The human-to-human theme in his work dissipates the hierarchical border that often pushes away readers from other poets, and Gay makes his poetry accessible by maintaining an unpretentious, down-to-earth tone. They are not often very short, but they are drawn out by a stream-of-consciousness style, taking the reader inside the poet’s head and, rather than focusing on specific phrases and words, can make the whole of the poem easier to understand as one (or multiple) thoughts. Ross Gay, like other poets in this list, maintains a priority of observance in his work, taking pleasure at the smallest things, like a flower blooming through a sidewalk crack, or the sound of his neighbour singing. At the end of all this lies a deep and fulfilling gratitude for the world and its inhabitants. This is his poem “Thank You”:
If you find yourself half naked
and barefoot in the frosty grass, hearing,
again, the earth’s great, sonorous moan that
you are the air of the now and gone, that says
all you love will turn to dust,
and will meet you there, do not
raise your fist. Do not raise
your small voice against it. And do not
take cover. Instead, curl your toes
into the grass, watch the cloud
ascending from your lips. Walk
through the garden’s dormant splendor.
Say only, thank you.
Linda Gregg (1942-2019)
The poet Tracy K. Smith wrote of Linda Gregg’s poetry: “What strikes me as remarkable about [her] poems is her ability to use the seen world as a gateway to the richness of the inner life.” I think this is a perfect way to describe it. Gregg’s poetry often juxtaposes beauty and loss, and encapsulates their constant negotiation in human life. She places the human experience within the context of nature, using it to illustrate both personal matters of the heart as well as wider societal issues. Born in New York (where she would return later in life) and raised in California, she writes of being “made of the landscape”, which would continue to influence her work throughout her life. She valued simplicity, writing that “Certainly one can make good poems without feeling much or discovering anything new”. With humble language and heartfelt, human themes, Linda Gregg is, to me, an underdog of contemporary poetry. This is her poem, “We Manage Most When We Manage Small” from All of it Singing:
What things are steadfast? Not the birds.
Not the bride and groom who hurry
in their brevity to reach one another.
The stars do not blow away as we do.
The heavenly things ignite and freeze.
But not as my hair falls before you.
Fragile and momentary, we continue.
Fearing madness in all things huge
and their requiring. Managing as thin light
on water. Managing only greetings
and farewells. We love a little, as the mice
huddle, as the goat leans against my hand.
As the lovers quickening, riding time.
Making safety in the moment. This touching
home goes far. This fishing in the air.
There are so many incredible poets and poems out there; I recommend Ada Límon’s podcast The Slowdown, with daily 6-minute episodes reading a poem out loud, as well as Irish poet Pádraig Ó Tuama’s poetry podcast Poetry Unbound with On Being Studios. Other good resources are poets.org (they have a daily newsletter called poem-a-day) and poetryfoundation.org.