I’ve heard it time and time again: “I just don’t get poetry.” As someone who will be getting their master’s degree in poetry next fall, this breaks my heart. I feel like this genre has been wrongfully construed as an art solely for the academic elite, when the opposite is true. Poetry is a vital tool for the marginalized to speak truth to power, and has been since its inception. Poems are also all around us, whether we name it so or not. Rap music? Poetry. Spoken word? Poetry. Those kind of cheesy Instagram photos that try to be inspiring and have a picture of the ocean in the background? Poetry.
Hey, I didn’t say it was all good.
So, I figured I’d round up a list of poetry books for beginners, people who say they can’t get into it, or don’t understand it, or even hate it. On behalf of all poets, I’d just like to formally apologize that your high school English teacher made you read William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” and now you hate anything that rhymes. That piece is just so not the right choice to inspire a lifelong love of the poetic form. But if you’re willing to give it another shot, I got you covered.
Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
What’s a better way to ease a reader into poetry than with a novel in verse? This bestseller takes place in just a single minute of 15-year-old Will’s life. After he gets onto an elevator, the book begins, chronicling the strange things that occur on the way down. His brother was just murdered, and Will knows the rules: an eye for an eye. With the gun in his waistband, he rides down to enact revenge, but something strange happens along the way, causing him to reflect and rethink what it means to live. As novels in verse are perfect poetry books for beginners, check out this much more expansive list here.
Crush by Richard Siken
There’s a reason artsy screenshots and illustrations of Richard Siken’s poetry are all over Tumblr—his stuff is gorgeous. More importantly for this post, it’s gorgeous while using words you’ve actually heard of. He turns everyday language into flowers in every line. Take this excerpt from his poem “Little Beast”:
History repeats itself. Somebody says this.
History throws its shadow over the beginning, over the desktop,
over the sock drawer with its socks, its hidden letters.
History is a little man in a brown suit
trying to define a room he is outside of.
I know history. There are many names in history
but none of them are ours.
Shame Is an Ocean I Swim Across by Mary Lambert
You may know Mary Lambert from her music—her song with Macklemore, “Same Love,” went double platinum in 2013. As a teen frustrated at the lack of progress happening for queer people, that song slapped. She brings that same rhythm and soul to her poetry, and her second collection is fantastic. Delving into themes of sexual assault, mental illness, body acceptance, and more, Lambert’s sophomore effort is clear and moving. See a verse from the first poem in the book below, “How I Learned to Love”:
When I met you,
I planted my heart into the heavy
earth. I was scared,
But you smiled back.
Thank God I was not born a bird.
Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver by Mary Oliver
Mary Oliver just recently passed away in 2019, and her poetry blossomed over the internet as the world mourned. Her poetry is a wonderful gateway between the aesthetics and accessibility of spoken word and “internet” poetry (think Rupi Kaur) and the denser works of other contemporaries. Oliver composed this collection herself, which features various works from across her career. Take a gander at this stanza from “The World I Live In”:
I have refused to live
locked in the orderly house of
reasons and proofs.
The world I live in and believe in
Is wider than that. And anyway,
what’s wrong with Maybe?
Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith
Y’all. Y’ALL. This poetry collection changed my life. I really feel like it should be required reading. These poems, volatile and bursting with power, show us what poetry can look like. Smith uses AAVE, lyrical language, and the music of urgency to crawl deep inside your brain. Don’t believe the hype? Then read a bit of their poem “summer, somewhere” below (and feel free to read the whole thing here):
somewhere, a sun. below, boys brown
as rye play the dozens & ball, jump
in the air & stay there. boys become new
moons, gum-dark on all sides, beg bruise
-blue water to fly, at least tide, at least
spit back a father or two. I won’t get started.
Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth by Warsan Shire
Who is a better endorsement than Beyoncé? The Queen Bee herself featured Shire’s poetry in her visual album Lemonade in 2016. Delving into topics like sensuality, reclaiming historical truths, Islam, and more, Warsan Shire’s Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth is both readable and endlessly deep. For instance, check out this snippet from her piece “Backwards”:
The poem can start with him walking backwards into a room.
He takes off his jacket and sits down for the rest of his life;
that’s how we bring Dad back.
I can make the blood run back up my nose, ants rushing into a hole.
We grow into smaller bodies, my breasts disappear,
your cheeks soften, teeth sink back into gums.
I can make us loved, just say the word.
There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker
Speaking of Beyoncé, Morgan Parker can do it all. Poetry, prose, essays? You name it. She shows off her obvious skill in this collection which explores contemporary Black womanhood coupled with gorgeous lines and imagery. These pieces are easy to read while not lacking depth, so while you’re looking for poetry books for beginners, put this on the top of your list. For example, check out some lines from “The President Has Never Said the Word Black”:
To the extent that one begins
to wonder if he is broken.
It is not so difficult to open
teeth and brass taxes.
The president is all like
five on the bleep hand side.
The president be like
we lost a young boy today.
Soft Science by Franny Choi
Mixing science, technology, and eloquent turns of phrase, Franny Choi examines what makes us human (and what doesn’t). Using out-of-the-box wordplay and form, it’ll have you thinking about alienness and poetry and everything besides. Why not just read for yourself? This is an excerpt from “Turing Test”:
// this is a test to determine if you have consciousness
// do you understand what i am saying
in a bright room / on a bright screen / i watched every mouth / duck duck roll / i learned to speak / from puppets & smoke / orange worms twisted / into the army’s alphabet / i caught the letters / as they fell from my mother’s mouth / whirlpool / sword / wolf / i circled countable nouns / in my father’s science papers / sodium bicarbonate / NBCn1 / amino acid / we stayed up / practiced saying / girl / girl / girl / girl / til our mouths grew soft / yes / i can speak / your language / i broke in / that horse / myself //