Welcome to Part 1 of Tom’s Top 10 Poetry Must-Reads. Intrepid English Teacher Tom introduces five must-read poems, Stay tuned for part 2 coming soon! You can also download the audio version of Tom’s Top 10 Poetry Must-Reads on the Intrepid English Podcast.
Endure (verb) remain in existence; last.
Fluid (adjective) not settled or stable; likely or able to change.
Toot your own horn (idiom) talk boastfully about oneself or one’s achievements.
Blow your own trumpet (idiom) to talk about oneself or one’s achievements especially in a way that shows that one is proud or too proud.
Summing up (noun) a restatement of the main points of an argument, case, etc.
Hyperbole (noun) exaggerated statements or claims not meant to be taken literally.
Visceral (adjective) relating to deep inward feelings.
Melody (noun) a sequence of single notes that is musically satisfying; a tune.
Dizzying (adjective) causing someone to feel amazed.
Limited (adjective) restricted in size, amount, or extent; few, small, or short.
Compilation (noun) the action or process of producing something, especially a list or book, by assembling information collected from other sources.
I know it’s an outrageously big-headed thing to do – to quote yourself – but I was asked by the Poetry Question to write about the power of poetry for their continuous essay series on the subject, and, I wrote, back in 2019, a piece I still very much agree with. I said,
‘The power of poetry is its timeliness. Poetry endures. It survives the wars, the natural disasters, the harshness of aging. It survives foolish kings and queens, prime ministers and presidents, tsars and popes. It survives dictatorships, genocide, corruption. It survives injustice. It survives cancer. Poetry is everywhere, no matter how much you avoid it. Poetry adapts. Poetry attacks. Poetry breathes. Poetry is fluid. Poetry waits…Poetry travels. Poetry is patient. The power of poetry resides with its inability to be defined.’The Power of Poetry, Thomas Stewart, (The Poetry Question, 2019)
I quote this not, as they say, to toot my own horn or blow my own trumpet but because it is a good way of summing up my love of poetry and my excitement, therefore, in sharing some of my favourite collections with you. Most of books mentioned below are ones I’ve read in the past five years. I’ve recommended poetry books before, in our very own Novel Writing Course and I can’t not mention our Novels that Changed Our Lives series, in which teachers and students of Intrepid English spoke about the books that shaped them in some way.
Book recommendations are among my favourite things to give. I, myself, am a poet and am constantly consuming different voices and deconstructing the construction of language. So, here is the first part of my ten poetry must-reads.
Arias, Sharon Olds
Where has Sharon Olds been all my life? Or rather, where I have been as Olds has been writing, book after book? Too date, Olds has published over ten books of poetry and has won numerous awards, including the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.
Arias (2019, Jonathan Cape) is one of those books where the language is so clear you can’t help but nod along in agreement or, in other cases, the poem is something you have felt but never been able to express. Olds has a handle on her language, a fierce control that is both stunning and bewitching.
The New Testament, Jericho Brown
Over lockdown, I found Jericho Brown. And it made my lockdown all the better for it. And, forgive the hyperbole, but it has made my life all the better for it. The New Testament (2018, Picador Poetry) is a conversation about race, sexuality and America. A blistering, devastating book that I couldn’t not finish in one sitting. It’s that good. The book holds you. Demands you stay because, where else would you go?
Brown also won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, among many other awards and has widely published. His voice is unlike other poets writing today for here is a blend of intimacy and brutality, the personal and the country. Claudia Rankine said it best when she wrote: ‘To read Jericho Brown’s poems is to encounter devastating genius.’
Eternity, Tracy K. Smith
I spent my weekend listening to Tracy K. Smith read her poems. It made for such joyful, inquisitive weekend. Smith has the ability to say the most profound things with a neat melody of language that is always relating to nature in some way. Smith said that she starts each poem with a question or a thought and explores that with the senses on offer – those most powerful to her are sight and smell. Visceral, is the word I would use to describe Smith’s work. Eternity (Penguin, 2019) is a good introduction to the world of Tracy K. Smith and I would highly – highly – recommend it.
Vertigo & Ghost, Fiona Benson
The story of Leda and the Swan is one writers have returned to and reworked time and time again. Benson’s Vertigo & Ghost (Jonathan Cape, 2019) is a welcome addition to these reworkings. In the first section of the book, Benson brings this story into the twenty-first century, showing us that Leda is not a thing of the past, but, indeed, part of our present. What makes Zeus different from, say, Brock Turner, Harvey Weinstein or Ted Bundy? Not much.
I Must Be Living Twice: New and Selected Poems 1975-2014, Eileen Myles
When I think about the poet that inspires me or, makes me feel like a poet, it is Eileen Myles. Their work has been widely praised, published and reviewed. They were even the inspiration for a character in Jilly Soloway’s Transparent, where their poetry sprang off the screen and into dizzying dance sequences. It is sheer joy. Myles gives us all the gift of poetry, reminds us that it is not something elite or limited, it is based on hard work but this starts with expression, thought, intrigue. I Must Be Living Twice (Profile Books Ltd, 2018) is a compilation of Myles’ work, spanning over three decades. In this volume, you will witness how a poet advances in their career, growing stronger with each poem. Here’s ‘peanut butter‘, which is a great place to start.
Well, this is just part one of my top-ten poetry recommendations, and I hope you’ve found something you’re interested in. Stayed turned for part 2 where I will discuss books by poets Donika Kelly, Danez Smith and more.
This blog was written by Intrepid English teacher, Tom.
You can find out more about Tom by visiting his Intrepid English Teacher Profile Page.
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