It was only in the last two years that I started reading poetry because I enjoyed it rather than because I had to study it for school. It’s likely that the boring and mildly pretentious way it’s taught in school is one of the reasons it took me so long to realise how enjoyable poetry actually can be. Since then, I’ve found poetry to be a beautiful expression of the self and often a powerful way to communicate ideas. As a result, this list of poetry recommendations comes from the perspective of someone who does not necessarily know much about the form but simply enjoys reading it, taking in the way the language is crafted and trying to understand the message for what it is.
And personally, I love the way language is crafted in poetry – it’s so different from any other genre. In particular, I love that traditional grammar and writing rules are treated far more like suggestions than restrictions so that how language is formed becomes as important to conveying emotion and meaning as the words themselves.
But more than that, poetry reveals the innermost vulnerabilities of the author and, if understood, the reader. Poets are often inspired by their personal experiences, using the flexibility of the form to put complex emotions into words. This enables readers to then gain an understanding of those emotions, allowing reflection on their own vulnerabilities. This is, in my opinion, one of the most powerful aspects of poetry; it breaks humanity down to its core and leaves us to decide what to do with the result.
So here is a list of my favourite poems, poets and poetry collections, which have made me think about my personality, my purpose and my place in the world.
In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo.
T.S. Eliot is, in my opinion, one of the greatest crafters of language in history. The vividness of the imagery he creates and the innate rhythm of his poetry makes it incredibly enjoyable to read. It’s the kind of language that makes me want to analyse it and look for a deeper meaning (if you haven’t seen Tom Hiddleston reading The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, go watch that and you’ll understand what I mean). However, as much as I enjoy the way Eliot plays with language, it’s hard to get past the tired messages in his poetry. Even back in the 1910s and 20s, his poems talk about how new technology causes apathy and increasing atheism degrades the souls of the youth – ideas that many of us are tired of hearing in contemporary society. So why would we want to read someone saying the same thing a hundred years ago? (The answer: because, once again, his language is really pretty.)
Rating: 4 stars
The secret is / no one gets what they want / Without losing who they are
September Love by Lang Leav is a collection of poems and short prose reflecting Leav’s experiences with relationships, writing, loss and healing. These concepts combine to create poetry that is intensely personal but also very human. Leav explores emotions that we can all relate to but find difficult to put into words, and she conveys them in a clear and simple way that makes me think, ‘Someone else feels this way too?!’ Whilst her phrasing can sometimes be cliche, most of it is incredibly genuine and heartfelt. The collection is also very accessible, with short, minimalist, clear writing. It is ultimately an empowering and hopeful collection of poetry that I could read again and again.
Rating: 4.5 stars
Just like moons and like suns, / With the certainty of tides, / Just like hopes springing high, / Still I'll rise.
Maya Angelou’s poem, Still I Rise, is one of the strongest and most powerful pieces of writing I have ever read and demonstrates the potential poetry has to articulate and fight for ideals, in this case protesting discrimination based on race. The poem is about strength, determination and fighting to rise up in the face of direct discrimination. The imagery Angelou evokes is vivid and powerful, and her frequent questions force the reader to consider their own privilege and how they personally respond to discrimination. Her poetry conveys these ideas with distinct clarity so that her message is unmistakable rather than letting unnecessarily metaphorical language muddy the meaning. As a result, reading this was confronting, empowering and thought-provoking whilst still remaining enjoyable.
Rating: 5 stars
I tell you / someone will remember us / in the future.
Sappho’s poetry is some of the oldest remaining poetry in the world, retained only in fragments and incomplete phrases. Yet this is enough for the intention and the spirit of the works to remain. Sappho’s poetry is about love, desire, death and time, and the fragments that remain describe intense and innately human emotions that have endured despite two and a half thousand years between us and her. Her poetry is strong and she fully embraces her emotions, but the language is also delicate and beautiful. The short, fragmented nature of what we have left combined with the clarity enabled by translations means that this is a great place to start for people just beginning to read poetry.
For a more detailed review, please check out Ruby Sutherland’s review of Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments by Sappho (Translated by Aaron Poochigian).
Rating: 5 stars
All days are nights to see till I see thee, / And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.
Shakespeare’s collection of 154 sonnets is one of the most well known collections of poetry in literature. The sonnets are primarily about romantic love, though there is some exploration of spirituality and nature. The powerful use of language within the sonnets, including endless metaphors, symbolism and comparisons, demonstrates the depth of Shakespeare’s emotions in a way that can be felt and understood 500 years later. As I was reading, there were a number of times where I had to pause and let a particular phrase sink in. But, after a while, the sonnets can get very repetitive. There is little variation in the language or themes, and even though what it does have is powerful, it is not enough to make all 154 sonnets uniquely interesting. It can also be inaccessible due to the old language, which can make it difficult to understand the meaning as with any of Shakespeare’s texts, but the short length of the poems does make this easier. I would still recommend reading the collection as it is a beautiful and intense exploration of love, but it is much easier to read one or two sonnets at a time over a few weeks or months instead of back-to-back like a novel or other poetry collections.
Rating: 3.5 stars
I cry tears into the ocean / To keep you afloat
Flowers of Poesy is a collection of poetry, short prose and artwork that explores themes of loss, grief, love, spirituality and self-discovery. The short form of the poems makes it accessible and easy to read whilst still communicating a depth of emotion, which reveals Hatem’s vulnerabilities and leaves us thinking about our own connections to the world around us. Whilst much of the poetry is on the darker side and it can be difficult to read for that reason, Hatem’s use of titles, metaphors, symbolism and images convey the importance of understanding and accepting the darkness along with her more hopeful poems. As a result, this collection is an intensely personal exploration of the self that simultaneously allows readers to understand themselves and their place in the world, and this duality is reflected consistently throughout the collection.
Rating: 4.5 stars
How else do we return to ourselves but to fold / The page so it points to the good part.
Ocean Vuong’s newest poetry collection is a beautifully heartbreaking exploration of grief, death, love and life. Vuong’s use of language is strong and creates sharp imagery, using a stream-of-consciousness style for most of the book to convey important messages from his life. I particularly loved the rhythm of the poems, where every line flowed into the others, making all the sentences fragmented but connected and forcing me to consider the meaning behind the words. Yet this could quickly become tiring as the meaning of some sections was very unclear. Though I personally enjoy unpacking the words to look for their meaning, it can make the message less accessible, and it was, at points, frustrating to try to decode what Vuong meant. Overall, though, this was one of the most enjoyable collections of poetry I have ever read.
Rating: 4.5 stars