One of my dear friends, Monique Mongeon, AKA Mo is crazy about poetry. Unlike me, (who had glazed over eyes during my 3rd year ‘Poetry of Atlantic Canada’ class) she lives for the stuff. When word got out that I had an advanced reading copy of Anne Carson’s upcoming Red Doc>, she was bouncing up and down to get her hands on a copy. So what better person to convince you (and me) that poetry can be a great reading experience. Over to you Mo!
So you think you don’t like poetry…
It’s okay! We’ve all been there. We read a swath of poems, as assigned, in 11th grade English and didn’t love it. I feel you, I really do. Poetry doesn’t have to be something you read only when assigned or in a greeting card.
No judgement. I understand. As Reeder’s poetry-lovin’ pal, I’m going to help you through some common complaints about poetry and (hopefully) help you find the book that changes your mind about books of poetry. I started off thinking poetry was something I’d never enjoy, but some of the books below changed my mind. Will they change yours, too?
1) But Mo, I don’t like books without stories!
Narrative is nice, I hear you. You just want to dig in and get really invested in a book and the characters. Guess what? I do too! And you’re about to meet your new best friend.
The verse novel.
A verse novel is exactly what it sounds like – all the story of a novel, but told through poems. Sounds great, right? A verse novel was the first book that changed my mind about poetry, and to this day, it’s still my favourite book of all time. That’s right. ALL TIME.
Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red (Vintage Books, 1998) is a heartfelt coming-of-age story based on the myth of Geryon and Hercules (Herakles, in the book). I’m going to quote the jacket copy, because they’ve done it better justice than I can – the book is “…a profoundly moving portrait of an artist coming to terms with the fantastic accident of who he is.” Geryon is a character that’ll steal your heart, and Carson’s verse is deceptively simple and gets more and more interesting on repeat reads. If you’re at all familiar with the myth, this might be the perfect “gateway book” for you!
Other books of poetry with a strong sense of narrative you might respond to include:
Another Anne Carson book, Antigonick (M&S, 2012) translates Sophocles’ Antigone with the signature playfulness and simplicity of language we expect from Carson.
Richard Outram’s Mogul Recollected (Porcupine’s Quill, 1993) tells the story of an elephant named Mogul who travels across the ocean on a ship that catches fire.
George Elliott Clarke’s Whylah Falls (Polestar, 2000) traces the stories of different pairs of lovers living in southwester Nova Scotia in the 1930s, with a heavy jazz influence.
2) Well that’s nice, but I only like true stories.
So you’re a nonfiction fan? Guess what? Poetry covers that too.
In Hooked (Brick Books, 2009), Carolyn Smart adopts the voices of seven famous (or infamous) real women and brings them and their passions, obsessions and emotions to life.
Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (Vintage Canada, 2008, originally published in 1970) gets deep into the iconic figure of Billy the Kid, and mixes sections of prose with sections of poetry to tell the stories of both the titular outlaw and the lawmen pursuing him.
Into more of a seafaring tale? Impact: The Titanic Poems (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2012) by Billeh Nickerson (@BillehN), explores many aspects of the ship and the tragedy. Zachary Matteson’s review in PRISM lauds Nickerson’s “dedication to the human condition, as distilled in tight, articulate lines, is a fitting complement to the heights he seems so effortlessly to reach from those rich depths.” (Stay tuned. You’ll see more of Nickerson on my list.)
Is this all getting a little too heavy for you?
3) But this all seems so SERIOUS. I want to read something fun!
What, you think poetry can’t be fun? You’re wrong. Poets, more than any other writers (in my opinion) get to have the MOST fun with language. Looking for a book of poetry you can have fun with?
My homegirl Anne Carson knows what’s up when it comes to fun and playfulness. Don’t believe me? Check out Short Talks (Brick Books, 1992) which has some of the most fun imagery I’ve read in a poetry book ever:
Soon I hope to live in a totally rubber house.
Think how quickly I will be able
to get from room to room! One good
bounce and you’re there.
(“Short Talk On Hopes”, p14)
Doesn’t that sound fun? (I think so!) Not the kind of fun you’re looking for? It’s okay. There’s way more fun to be had.
More the type who loves to laugh at funny anecdotes over coffee with your friends? Billeh Nickerson’s McPoems (Arsenal Pulp, 2009) are based on his many years as a fast-food manager and if you ever worked in fast food or food service you’ll relate to the wacky, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes head-shaking, customers and coworkers immortalized in his poems.
David McGimpsey’s (@DaveMcGimpsey) L’il Bastard (Coach House Books, 2011) is what I wish all magazines and tabloids could be. A few parts pop culture commentary, a few parts confessional, McGimpsey’s poetic voice is original, snippy, and it cracks me up just to read the titles of the poems in this book. (A sampling, you ask? “David McGimpsey likes – then unlikes – this”, “Falling Asleep to Beyonce”, “Song About the Rod Stewart Impersonator/Blackjack Dealer I Lost One Hundred Dollars To, Left on Alex Parker’s Answering Machine at the Imperial Palace Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada.” See? You need to give this book a try.)
4) I mean fun like “game/puzzle” fun, not “ha-ha” fun.
Remember when I said I think poets have more fun with words than any other writers?
Enter Gertrude Stein and Harryette Mullen, who are, by my estimation, the grand baronesses of playing with words.
Stein’s Tender Buttons (published in 1914, available on Bartleby.com/Project Gutenberg), at first glance, seems impenetrable. It’s okay. I’ll admit it. It’s an intimidating piece of work. Take this selection, from “TAILS”:
Cold pails, cold with joy no joy.
A tiny seat that means meadows and a lapse of cuddles with cheese and nearly bats, all this went messed. The post placed a loud loose sprain. A rest is no better. It is better yet. All the time.
Yeah, I know. What the what? But this is part of the fun of poetry. Take this little mind journey with me. What is “a lapse of cuddles with cheese”? What’s going on with that post? Where did the bats (nearly) come from?
Science tells us that human brains LOVE to find patterns and stories in everything we see, and that’s where the fun of reading a work like Tender Buttons lies – by seeing the phrases as pieces of a puzzle, and trying our best to fit them together. Even if you can’t figure it out, there’s something wondrous and inspiring about the images that come out of these seemingly disjointed verses that might inspire something in your imagination!
Overwhelmed by Stein? Harryette Mullen’s S*PeRM**K*T (in Recyclopedia, Graywolf Press, 2006) plays with language in similar ways, but might be a bit more accessible for those thrown off by Stein’s wild imagery.
5) I’d kind of rather listen to it, actually.
Some poetry is really meant to be heard, and not so much to be read off the page. Luckily there are tons of resources online now for those who’d rather listen to their poetry than read it.
If you follow the Griffin Poetry Prize (@griffinpoetry) on twitter, they post tons of links to poetry recordings nearly every day, and have a huge repository of recordings on their website, www.griffinpoetryprize.com.
You can follow a few teams through the Youth National Poetry Slam series on HBO’s acclaimed TV series Brave New Voices – there are some incredible young people writing and performing some amazing and powerful slam poetry. Here in Canada, the Poetry in Voice competition is bringing poetry reading to highschools across the country.
Shane Koyczan (@koyczan), who you may know from his performance in the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver Olympics two years ago, has recorded his poetry with the band The Short Story Long (with a guest appearance by Dan Mangan). Their albums “A Pretty Decent Cape in My Closet” and “Remembrance Year” are both available online. Koyczan’s poems are alternately uplifting, heartbreaking, funny, and sensual, so there’s a little something for everyone.
Hopefully you’ve found a book you’re curious about! Looking for a more specific recommendation, want to chat poetry, or have a recommendation for me? I’d love to hear about it! Come find me on twitter (@MoAtMost) and we’ll talk!
(and thanks again to Lindsey for letting me squat on her corner of the internet for the day. Good times!)