How many times have you said – or heard someone say – “poetry isn’t for me”? Yet sales of poetry books have actually boomed in the past 12 months, driven by a new generation of mostly young women writers sharing their work on Instagram – and readers hungry for words to make sense of their world.
The late Leonard Cohen would approve. “Poetry is just the evidence of life,” the songwriter once said – in other words, nothing to be scared of. T.S. Eliot, whose ‘Four Quartets’ are among the most beautiful lines of English committed to paper, said: “Genuine poetry can communicate before it’s understood.”
Personally, I find US poet Emily Dickinson put it the punchiest: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”
This National Poetry Day, there’s no better way to get into the stuff than by exploring an individual poet’s collection, which you can usually pick up for around a tenner. Check out publishers such as Salt, Bloodaxe, Carcanet and Faber, or independent presses like the gorgeously designed editions of Birmingham’s Emma Press.
You could browse the poetry section of your nearest bookshop or visit and borrow for free from the National Poetry Library in London, the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh, or the poetry shelf you’ll find in every library in the land.
Alternatively, dive into one of these great anthologies and remember, as David Carradine said: “If you can’t be a poet, be the poem.”
A Poem For Every Day Of The Year, Amazon, £10.07
Chances are you might have seen this beautiful doorstop of a book in the shops around Christmas. Edited by Allie Esiri, it’s a great starter collection – read a poem a day and you’ll soon work out what does and doesn’t speak to you. There’s even a companion collection, A Poem For Every Night Of The Year, because there’s nothing quite like reading poems in the wee small hours.
Staying Alive: Real Poems For Unreal Times, Amazon, £8.45
This one comes with the approval of Meryl Streep no less – and Meryl knows! Collated by Neil Astley, a bit of a rockstar of the scene, these 500 life-affirming poems are organised by theme, making it easier to match them to your mood. It’s been described as “a book for people who know they love poetry, and for people who think they don’t”. That’ll be all of us then. And, even better, it’s part of a trilogy. Follow it up with Being Alive and Being Human. Blockbusting.
Ten: Poets Of The New Generation, Amazon, £3.76
Ever heard of Warsan Shire? If you’ve watched Beyonce’s Lemonade, you’ll have heard from her. She’s one of 10 young and gifted British voices gathered in this brilliant collection, the result of a national mentoring scheme that supported exceptional black and Asian poets in 2007. A decade on, support the next generation by buying this book and sharing it with everyone you know.
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