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You Don’t Need a Book to Start Enjoying Poetry

What books would you recommend as a way to start reading poetry?

I’ve been asked this question a few times recently and been a bit stumped as to how best to respond.

It’s not that I don’t have books of poetry that I love: I do, and some of those books are my most treasured, valued possessions.

I think on reflection it’s more that:

I very rarely sit down and read a book of poetry.  I’m much  more likely to dip in and out, randomly, and see what I find

The books I have on my shelves have nearly all followed on from ‘finding’ a poet through some other means.  On a poster, in a newspaper, a postcard I found in a library.

I’ve bought the book afterwards to find more, or to pay some kind of respect to the poet I discovered (though, if I’m honest, haven’t always got the same ‘aha’ from their other work, or reading the poems one by one in book form)

Poem reading is a subjective experience.  What I like might not be what you like.

You probably inherited some idea of the poetry you were ‘supposed’ to read when you were at school.  This is quite likely the reason you are not currently reading poetry, and don’t have books of it on your shelves.

I do not want to reinforce the idea there are poems you are ‘supposed’ to read.  I would like to subvert it ;-)

The poems that have had the biggest impact on me, that did something to change the wiring of my brain or open up a channel of my heart, all arrived when I was not looking for them.

When I was reading a paper, or waiting for a train, or checking out a book, or going to an event unexpectedly because the tickets for the more famous author were sold out, or at a conference on an another topic entirely, or clicking a link on twitter.

Poems seem to have their own way of finding you.

Path Through the Fields, by Joanna Paterson

So what I’d suggest at this stage instead of spending money on books is to:

Keep your eyes and ears open for poems: when you’re out and about, flicking through a newspaper, in the library, on facebook, reading blogs, browsing online

Look out for sites that have daily or weekly poems on offer. This is a way of exploring different authors and styles, and is to my mind a more natural and intuitive way to read poems than sitting down and reading a book of them. The Writer’s Almanac has a daily poem (you can also listen to it if you prefer the spoken form.)

I’d also recommend the site of poet Maya Stein, and her 12 line Tuesday poems (sent by email each Tuesday)

Get into the habit of grabbing the poem when you find it. If you can’t physically grab it (bookmark the link, tear the poem from the paper, take the poem-postcard home with you), take a note of the author’s name, the title of the poem, the opening line.

Allow for the possibility that poems will look, sound and feel different to what you were expecting.  The poems you fall in love with might look rather different to what you were taught at school.

They might be very, very short.

there’s no pretence / out here / where the river / runs dark… / everything just is ~ Monkey Willow

There’s a whole school of micropoetry on Twitter.  Rummage around some hashtags like #micropoetry #tanka or #gogyohka

It might be long, half-spoken, half-sung, recorded on video, shared by thousands. Here’s How to Be Alone, a video by fiilmaker, Andrea Dorfman, and poet/singer/songwriter, Tanya Davis.

Keep an open mind and an open heart, and see what you find.

See which poems find you.

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  1. Sophie Ncholls says:

    Joanna, I loved this post!

    I completely agree that poems have often found me, rather than the other way around. When we open to them, poems are everywhere.

    I also thnk the internet is doing wonderful things for poetry. I like browsing through sites such as The Poetry Archive [] where you can read poems and hear them being read by the poets themselves.

    I also love sampling poems on my iPhone such as Salt’s Modern Poetry series here


    - wonderful collections of poems for just over £1.

  2. Emma Newman
    Twitter: emapocalyptic

    Absolutely! I wonder how many people were put off poetry for life by school. One of my favourite poems of all time (The Listeners by Walter de la Mare) was introduced as a memory exercise at primary school and has stayed with me ever since. Once a poem finds us, and speaks to us, it never lets go.

    I also, sadly, have many terrible memories of poetry lessons. Thankfully I also remember many moments of sheer joy when I suddenly saw several layers behind so few words. Wow, English teachers can do so much good, and so much damage. Scary!

  3. Alina Popescu
    Twitter: alina_popescu

    Joanna, you are so right about what we had to read in school and how it really ends up driving people away! I think poetry requires a certain mood and it just happening to find you is how it gets into your heart. Poems I found by randomly opening a book, poems I’ve heard in movies, quoted in novels or saw written on now old letters or random pieces of paper, poems I’ve herd children try to learn have had a bigger impact than the must-reads!

  4. Poetry: Three to read « Law and Conversation says:

    [...] Paterson over at Confident Writing posts “You Don’t Need a Book to Start Enjoying Poetry.”  She says she, probably like most of us who occasionally read poetry, rarely reads an [...]

  5. Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson

    @Sophie Ncholls: you’re right, they are everywhere once you start looking, or finding… or just letting them find you :-) Thanks for the extra links and resources too

    @Emma Newman: so true - I remember the pain of trying to dissect and analyse poetry and literature - also, vividly, a teacher who brought in a bunch of grapes, and made us close our eyes and burst them on our tongues (it was a Keats thing). Unforgettable.

    @Alina Popescu: that’s how it has been for me too Alina. They could surely teach just a little bit of how that magic works in schools though? :-)