Q: I read a lot of fiction and nonfiction, but there is a big gap in my poetry reading. What are good collections to start with?
Emma, 29, librarian, Bangor
Observer writer and poetry critic Kate Kellaway says:
It is possible that the best approach to this is to go in for a tasting session – to get, before you even think of starting to home in on particular collections, one or two anthologies so you can see which voices have what I was about to describe as a Pied Piper effect on you – before reminding myself that you do not necessarily want poetry to lead you over the edge. The best poetry should, after all, keep you strolling along the cliff and looking out to sea.
I used to recite AE Housman’s “I to my perils/ Of cheat and charmer” as a teenager, a satisfyingly gloomy poem (which I still love but now think borders on the absurd). It ends: “I was ready/ When trouble came.” I was not ready for trouble at all, but loved its undeceived posturing and that last line helped.
Next month, a new anthology with fortifying intentions will be published, called Set Me on Fire: A Poem for Every Feeling. It is offered as an antidote to those who recoil from poetry. To my relief, it is only loosely organised by feelings and brims with familiar and unfamiliar voices: a lucky dip of the best sort. Here you will find Philip Larkin, WH Auden, Dylan Thomas but also Nisha Ramayya, Bhanu Kapil, Kimiko Hahn.
You might also try The Poetry Pharmacy, edited by William Sieghart, which makes a virtue of showing how poetry can salve and solve (its sequel, The Poetry Pharmacy Returns, is published at the end of September, just before National Poetry Day). But if, as you say, you are after recent collections, you could compare Julia Copus’s Girlhood with Andrew McMillan’s Playtime, about boyhood and growing up gay. But begin with the anthologies, because it is only you who can discover what it is you are looking for in poetry.
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