Welcome to Part 2 of Tom’s Top 10 Poetry Must-Reads. Intrepid English Teacher Tom introduces five must-read poetry collections. You can also download the audio version of Tom’s Top 10 Poetry Must-Reads on the Intrepid English Podcast. If you haven’t already, make sure to check out Part 1 right here.
Bestiary (noun) a book written in the Middle Ages containing descriptions of real and imaginary animals, intended to teach morals and to entertain.
Distillation (noun) the extraction of the essential meaning or most important aspects of something.
Envelop (verb) to enclose.
Wormhole (noun/physics) a hypothetical connection between widely separated regions of space–time.
Appreciation (noun) recognition and enjoyment of the good qualities of someone or something.
Astute (adjective) having or showing an ability to accurately assess situations or people and turn this to one’s advantage.
Reclaim (verb) to retrieve or recover.
What the Living Do, Marie Howe
My mentor, Claire Askew, recommended I read this book as research for my first poetry collection. She wanted me to see how someone writes about memories of their dead. In What the Living Do (Norton, 1999) Marie Howe explores the death of her brother in clear, painful detail. In a sense this book is a ghost. Full of haunting and grief. Howe’s memories of her brother add to this feeling – he is there, even though he is dead. Not since Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking have I read something on this subject that felt entirely real and, therefore, realised. Even though this book haunts, it also teaches. This is not just a collection of poems but a manual, a way of living.
Bestiary, Donika Kelly
Let’s start with a quote from Kelly’s ‘Love Poem: Chimera’.
‘I thought myself lion and serpent. Thought
myself body enough for two, for we.
Found comfort in never being alone.’
This is the kind of tenderness to expect from Donika Kelly’s debut, Bestiary (Graywolf Press, 2016) which was nominated for the National Book Award for Poetry. Animals (both real and imagined) naturally rule the land of Bestiary and it’s the reflections on these creatures that make the book so profound. But what also really strikes me about Kelly’s book is the way each word in each poem is so considered and important. The words come together and fit like bridges. If one piece were to be removed, the entire structure would crumble. There lies its beauty – in its distillation. Especially, when we are offered such questions as:
‘Do you ever look into a mirror,
which is also an ocean heavy with sun?’
– Love Poem: Mermaid
Tiger Girl, Pascale Petit
Tiger Girl (Bloodaxe Books, 2020) is Pascale Petit’s eighth book of poetry and was shortlisted for both the 2020 Forward Prize for Best Collection and the 2011 Wales Book of the Year. It goes without saying that I simply adored reading this book where lines such as: ‘a bee hummed like a bullet’ or ‘he alone must carry on the Golgotha of his brow’ envelop you in this world of confident, striking, brilliant poems. Punctured with nature and animals, the poems, much like Donika Kelly’s work, brim with certainty, and give questions to ponder, such as: ‘What happens when the maps mate – do they lay new lands?’
Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver
Every Mary Oliver poem fills me with joy. Devotions (Penguin, 2017) is a selection of Oliver’s fifty years of work. Like others on this list, Mary Oliver has won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, among many other awards. My favourite poems have to be the dog poems – where the obvious enjoyments are wormholes to a peaceful, simple world, full of an appreciation for nature and mother earth. I want to live in Oliver’s world. But, upon reading Devotions, I realised that Oliver’s world is my world, I just need to choose to see it the way she does.
Don’t Call Us Dead & Black Movie, Danez Smith
I’m cheating here because this is technically two recommendations but I can’t choose between any Danez Smith. So I’m going to recommend both Smith’s Black Movie (Button Poetry, 2015)and Don’t Call Us Dead (Penguin, 2017), both of which I read over lockdown. At the core of these collections is the personal – Smith discusses America, film, sexuality, HIV, whilst reckoning with racism both historic and present. Standout poems like ‘it won’t be a bullet’ or ‘every day is a funeral & a miracle’ / ‘Politics of elegy’ and ‘Short Film’ are required reading for us all. Well, I’m going to be honest and say it: all of Smith’s work is required reading. Black Movie was a collection that immediately resonated with me due to its focus on film. But with Smith’s astute gaze, the collection asks us questions, subverts tropes, reclaims narratives. It includes Smith’s masterpiece ‘Dear White America’ and the opening line will always stay with me: ‘I have left Earth in search of darker planets…’
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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