So, you typically read fiction, but you’ve wanted to branch out into poetry lately. Or, you loved poetry in college (especially Byron *swoon*), but you’ve struggled to find that lightning feeling again. Or, you’ve simply been hearing more about poetry because it’s having a comeback (it’s definitely having a comeback) and want to see what you’re missing.
Fantastic. For World Poetry Day, I’ve collected 25 of my favorite gateway poets. Poets who dally on both sides of prose and poetry, or those who dig into the lyricality of language that appeals to our musical side.
Finding these gateway poets is important. Because prose is great, but as the incomparable Roxane Gay recently wrote for the Poetry Foundation:
“What I do know is that when I read poetry, good poetry, I forget to breathe and my body is suffused with something unnamable — a combination of awe and astonishment and the purest of pleasures. Reading poetry is such a thrill that I often feel like I am getting away with something.”
Ready to get away with something?
1. Kim Addonizio
Your entry point: Tell Me
Why: Addonizio writes self-identified poems of loneliness and late nights, liquor and loss. Her poems are rough, but also so strong. And because of lines like this, from “What Do Women Want?”:
“When I find it, I’ll pull that garment
from its hanger like I’m choosing a body
to carry me into this world, through
the birth-cries and the love-cries too,
and I’ll wear it like bones, like skin,
it’ll be the goddamned
dress they bury me in.”
2. Maya Angelou
Your entry point: And Still I Rise
Why: Because it’s Maya Angelou? Because why haven’t you? No, but also because she was that good, and also because of poems like this:
3. Margaret Atwood
Your entry point: Power Politics
Why: Because you love Margaret Atwood. And she writes poetry! And Power Politics opens with this poem you already love:
“You fit into me
like a hook into an eye
a fish hook
an open eye”
4. Wendell Berry
Your entry point: Jayber Crow
Why: As both a poet and a novelist, Berry writes poems that linger in between the two. As a active environmentalist and farmer, he also creates poems that speak urgently to our land and the need to protect it. With lines like:
“You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out – perhaps a little at a time.’
And how long is that going to take?’
I don’t know. As long as you live, perhaps.’
That could be a long time.’
I will tell you a further mystery,’ he said. ‘It may take longer.”
5. Billy Collins
Your entry point: The Trouble With Poetry, And Other Poems
Why: Collins is likely the gateway poet, as he combines humor and self-deprecation into poems that poke fun at love and poetry conventions and those awful never-ending creative writing classes.
“the trouble with poetry is
that it encourages the writing of more poetry,
more guppies crowding the fish tank,
more baby rabbits
hopping out of their mothers into the dewy grass.
And how will it ever end?”
6. Lucille Clifton
Your entry point: Good Woman
Why: Because Clifton’s poetry is inspiring and strong and so wonderful. Because of poems like “homage to my hips.”
7. Carol Ann Duffy
Your entry point: The World’s Wife
Why: Duffy uses her poems to talk about feminism, family, our lives. And so much of it joyfully readable and tongue-in-cheek.
“I’m not the first or the last
to stand on a hillock,
watching the man she married
prove to the world
he’s a total, utter, absolute, Grade A pillock.
– Mrs Icarus”
8. Robert Frost
Your entry point: “Putting In The Seed”
Why: Yes, it’s Robert Frost. But, there’s something deeply satisfying about his poetry even now. Plus, he makes a great gateway poet for those who last read poetry in school. (And getting to some sexier work that’s outside of school-approved curriculum, like “Putting in the Seed” is a joy in itself.)
9. Seamus Heaney
Your entry point: Beowulf
Why: Heaney was a highly-regarded poet from Northern Ireland, who also worked heavily in translations. If you’re a lover of mythology or oral poetry, Heaney is a great poet to bridge those two places, especially in his Beowulf translation.
10. Rupi Kaur
Your entry point: @rupikaur_
Why: Kaur’s Instagram shows how poetry can evolve to join the drawn world and become integrated seamlessly into our daily lives. Many of the poems she shares here also made it into her collection Milk and Honey.
11. Sarah Kay
Your entry point: No Matter The Wreckage
Why: Because Kay is one of the most breath-taking poets alive right now, seriously. Because of lines like: “But getting the wind knocked out of you is the only way to remind your lungs how much they like the taste of air.” Because of poems like:
12. Donika Kelly
Your entry point: Bestiary
Why: Kelly combines a fierce mythology and fantasy in her collection of poems, which use the grotesque to uncover more about our everyday lives. You’ll also discover throwbacks to earlier Romantic poets. Stand-out lines include:
we made in the birthing. What hiss and rumble
at the splitting, at the horns and beard,
at the glottal bleat. What bridges our back.
What strong neck, what bright eye. What menagerie
are we. What we’ve made of ourselves.”
13. Li-Young Lee
Your entry point: Rose
Why: Lee writes beautiful, evocative poetry that’s easily picked up by non-poetry readers. Check out these lines from his gorgeous poem “From Blossoms”:
“From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.”
14. Pablo Neruda
Your entry point: The Essential Neruda
Why: Forever and ever, Neruda is for the romantics. Sure, his poetry has been shared at a million weddings and some of it feels cliche at this point, but he did tap into something profound when it comes to love and connection. Take this from “Love Sonnet XI“:
“I crave your mouth, your voice, your hair.
Silent and starving, I prowl through the streets.
Bread does not nourish me, dawn disrupts me, all day
I hunt for the liquid measure of your steps.”
15. Aimee Nezhukumatathil
Your entry point: Lucky Fish
Why: Nezhukumatathil write poetry that is instantly relatable and tongue-in-cheek, but is also lush, with leaping wordplay. She deals directly with hope, love, motherhood, and the possibilities of language in this collection. With lines like this from “Are All the Break-Ups in Your Poems Real?”
“If by real you mean as real as a shark tooth stuck
in your heel, the wetness of a finished lollipop stick,
the surprise of a thumbtack in your purse—
then Yes, every last page is true, every nuance,
bit, and bite. Wait. I have made them up—all of them—
and when I say I am married, it means I married
all of them, a whole neighborhood of past loves.”
16. Mary Oliver
Your entry point: Dream Work
Why: I can’t say enough about how much I love Oliver (and a lot of Rioters agree). Oliver’s poems read like prose, her prose reads like poetry. She’s also the perfect gateway poet for nature lovers.
17. Simon J. Ortiz
Your entry point: Out There Somewhere
Why: Influenced by the Beats and his own Native American heritage, Ortiz writes stunningly about our modern alienation from others, our ancestors, and the environment. His poetry is built on connection, and is a perfect fit for nature lovers, with lines like:
“We are wordless:
I am in you.
Without knowing why
culture needs our knowledge,
we are one self in the canyon.”
18. Claudia Rankine
Your entry point: Citizen
Why: Citizen spans poetry and prose, taking on institutionalized racism in 21st century America through lyrical essays, images, and poetry. With lines like:
“Yes, and the body has memory. The physical carriage hauls more than its weight. The body is the threshold across which each objectionable call passes into consciousness—all the unintimidated, unblinking, and unflappable resilience does not erase the moments lived through, even as we are eternally stupid or everlastingly optimistic, so ready to be inside, among, a part of the games.”
19. Clint Smith
Your entry point: Counting Descent
Why: Smith tackles current issues, along with his love of reading and books, in his poems. And beyond poetry, Smith is also a two-time TED speaker with “How to raise a black son in America” and “The danger of silence.”
20. Warsan shire
Your entry point: teaching my mother how to give birth
Why: Shire’s poetry appeals directly to our senses, with imagery like ‘the mouth bloody with grapes’, the ‘girl the height of a small wail’ And, her work was quoted in Lemonade. And, for poems like this:
21. Maggie Smith
Your entry point: Disasterology
Why: You’ve probably already read her “Good Bones” poem that went viral last year, and with lines like “Life is short, though I keep this from my children” and “I am trying to sell them the world,” it’s no wonder. Now get to more of her smart, stunning poems in her longer collection.
22. Tracy K. Smith
Your entry point: Life On Mars
Why: If you love science fiction and space travel, you’ll love this meditation on the cosmos and the death of the poet’s father, who was an engineer on the Hubble Space Telescope. With lines like:
“After dark, stars glisten like ice, and the distance they span
Hides something elemental. Not God, exactly. More like
Some thin-hipped glittering Bowie-being—a Starman
Or cosmic ace hovering, swaying, aching to make us see.”
23. Nayyirah Waheed
Your entry point: @nayyirah.waheed
Why: Like Kaur, Waheed brings poetry to a more modern, connected world with her Instagram account. Follow here there, and then check out her stunning collection salt.
24. Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib
Your entry point: The Crown Ain’t Worth Much
Why: Willis-Abdurraqib writes (and performs) poetry about loss, love, and grief. In it, he combines his own personal history with popular culture. And, for poems like:
25. Jacqueline Woodson
Your entry point: Brown Girl Dreaming
Why: Woodson combines prose and poetry, especially in this book that shows what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s. With lines like:
“Even the silence
has a story to tell you.
Just listen. Listen.”
Want to dip more than just your toe in the water? Check out our other gateway poetry posts:
- Poetry Books For People Who Are Afraid Of Poetry
- 10 Sexy Poems To Keep You Warm In The Deep, Dark Night
- 11 Podcasts For Poetry Lovers
- Poetry-Genre Pairings: Where To Start If You Love…
Shout out your favorite gateway poets in the comments!