…bewildered were the dead
going about their days and nights in the dark
putting their feet down carefully and finding themselves floating…
– Alice Oswald, ‘Body’
…A light song of light swells up in the dark
times, in wolf time and knife time,
in knuckle and blood times; it hums
a small tune in the daytime, but saves
its full voice for the midnight…
– Kei Miller, ‘Twelve Notes for A Light Song of Light’
…she brought oysters to my wedding
alive oh alive
laid out on a bridal bed of lemon and ice
slid her pearl-
handled knife between their tight lips
drew the stench of the sea…
– Liz Berry, ‘Fishwife’
Six years ago I had almost no understanding of how and where poetry got published, or who was (still) writing it. All the poetry I read at school was by dead people, the most recent being, I think, Sylvia Plath. And I had a couple of school anthologies that had been my mother’s. Somehow though, I had absorbed enough of it to write the occasional poem, and to want to discover more.
I took myself to Foyles one day and found their poetry section. It’s huge. I chose a book by Carol Ann Duffy, the Laureate at that time, because I’d heard of her, and one by T.S. Eliot, because I’d heard of him. Luckily, they were both good picks for me. The next couple of books I bought were Faber publications like the Eliot, because I was rather taken with the way the covers matched. I had no idea that signified a specific publisher, or that I couldn’t just buy every poet I liked in a neat coordinating rainbow.
Fast forward, and I have a couple of billy shelves of poetry in various forms. I can laugh at my early naiveté, but I also feel a bit sad that, as a voracious and adventurous reader all my life, I was missing out on a massive chunk that I would have loved, simply because I didn’t know where to start looking. Foyles may be a treasure trove, but poetry selections in many stores are still woeful. I checked the city centre Dymocks last time I was in Melbourne, and although the shelf space was ok, the selection was about 85% dead at my rough count. I still read the occasional dead poet, of course, but imagine if the fiction section in a bookstore held only Victorian classics and To Kill a Mockingbird?
So where is all the new poetry, if it’s not shelved in the stores? And if it is, how do you find what you like? Below are a few places you might start.
First, a note on style: Poetry, like novels, comes in many different kinds. A Hallmark greeting is a poem, and so is a limerick, so is most of Dr Seuss. But just as I love detective fiction but hardly ever read romance, I like some kinds of poetry more than others, and those are the kinds I know about. What I’m writing about here is broadly the poetry equivalent of literary fiction. If you like the kinds of prose books I read and include in my ‘Best of’ posts, then I think there’s a good chance you’ll like some of the poetry here too.
And finally, don’t worry about doing it ‘properly’. Poetry can be obscure, but that doesn’t mean you have to be a detective. Read once, read again if something tugged at you, but if there’s no appeal, move on. Teasing out the layers is one of the things I love about poetry, but a good poem should reach you on the surface level as well.
If you do find something you like, let me know 🙂
Anthologies are where most people first encounter poetry, and they fit generally into two categories. The first is collections of poems that are well-known and loved – children’s treasuries, ‘favourite love poems,’ ‘poems for springtime’ etc. The second is anthologies of new poems, often published by small independent presses. The Emma Press publishes many for both children and adults, often in stock in the bigger stores. I have a poem in a running-themed collection coming out this October. One more that’s worth a mention is the annual Forward Book of Poetry which selects poems from the long- and short-listed collections for that year’s prize. It’s always fantastic and a great cross-section of the best current writing.
Released anywhere from monthly to twice a year, and ranging widely in format and content. They almost exclusively publish new work, and also usually include reviews and sometimes essays. They are less commonly found in stores, but are usually cheap to subscribe to and available in single copies directly from the publishers as well. Some to check out are Modern Poetry in Translation, Ink Sweat and Tears (online), The Rialto, and The Compass (online). Print journals almost always have a few poems from the current issue on their website.
Pamphlets and Collections
If poetry were music, and an anthology is ‘Greatest Hits 2019’, then a pamphlet is a single and a collection is an album. There are no rules anyone can agree on, but broadly, a pamphlet is around 20-30 pages, and a full collection is around 60-80. They are almost always by a single author, although occasionally poets will collaborate. It’s as hard to recommend poetry books to someone as novels, but some I’ve loved in recent years have been:
Kith, by Jo Bell – about boats, sex and friendship
The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, by Kei Miller – about searching for the sense of a place.
All My Mad Mothers, by Jacqeline Saphra, about motherhood and daughterhood
Black Country, by Liz Berry, childhood, fairytale, and coming of age in the West Midlands
Memorial, by Alice Oswald – a beautiful retelling of the Iliad
Citizen, by Claudia Rankine – a documentary-style look at racism and injustice
Witch, by Rebecca Tamas – wonderfully witchy
This is quite a lot to go on with, I know, but start with a link or two, and next time you’re in a bookstore check the anthologies section. When you find a poet in an anthology or journal that you like, track them down (almost everyone has a website) and see if they have a collection out. Guardian Books and the FT also mention poetry occasionally, and there’s lots on Instagram. And if you live near me and want to poke through my bookshelves you’re very welcome!