Book clinic: which collections will get me reading more poetry?

Writer and critic Kate Kellaway on anthologies to help you find your taste, and the best new poets

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.

Submit your question for book clinic below or email


Kate Kellaway

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Book clinic: what can I read to stay sharp on maternity leave?
Author Viv Groskop helps select the best political, poetical and fictional reads to keep you in touch with the world

Viv Groskop

11, May, 2019 @5:00 PM

Article image
Book clinic: what books might ease my despair about the world’s state?
From Mary Oliver’s verse to a touching tale by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, reading can be a salve for the soul

Alex Preston

20, Oct, 2018 @5:00 PM

Article image
Book clinic: how do I get my teenage son interested in reading?
From a modern classic by Nick Hornby to a rock memoir, our expert suggests books for reluctant bibliophiles

Alex Preston

18, Feb, 2018 @12:00 PM

Article image
Book clinic: which literature would inspire a men’s prison reading group?
From William Ernest Henley to Avi Steinberg, our expert selects the best books and poetry for men behind bars

Kate Kellaway

30, Jun, 2018 @5:00 PM

Article image
Book clinic: excellent shorter novels
Great literature isn’t all weighty tomes, as this selection from novelist Ayòbámi Adébáyò proves

Ayòbámi Adébáyò

18, Jan, 2020 @6:00 PM

Article image
Book clinic: what constitutes ‘well read’?
No two people’s lists are the same, but the Anglo-American greats and the ancient Greeks and Romans are all required reading

Robert McCrum

12, May, 2018 @4:59 PM

Article image
Book clinic: novels to unwind with
From Anna Karenina to a bank manager’s adventures with his eccentric aunt, our expert selects the best escapist reads

Rachel Joyce

19, May, 2018 @5:00 PM

Article image
Book clinic: how can I expand my reading of Indian literature?
Novelist Tishani Doshi recommends further reading for Rushdie fans

Tishani Doshi

01, Jun, 2019 @5:00 PM

Article image
Book clinic: stories to captivate reluctant boys
Twelve is the make-or-break age for reading

Jasbinder Bilan

01, Feb, 2020 @6:00 PM

Article image
Book clinic: recommended literary page-turners
This week, our expert suggests a selection of books to rekindle the joy of reading in even the most battle-hardened litterateur

Nicci Gerrard

04, Feb, 2018 @12:00 PM