Books

Never Read Poetry? Here’s Where to Begin

The son of a librarian, Chris M. Arnone’s love of books was as inevitable as gravity. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Missouri – Kansas City. His novel, The Hermes Protocol, was published by Castle Bridge Media in 2023 and the next book in that series is due out in winter 2024. His work can also be found in Adelaide Literary Magazine and FEED Lit Mag. You can find him writing more books, poetry, and acting in Kansas City. You can also follow him on social media (Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, Twitter, website).

Poetry gets a bad rap. When a lot of people who have never tried to read poetry think about poetry, what comes to mind is an archaic, inaccessible art form. Forms? Meter? Stanzas? To the uninitiated, it can feel like in order to read poetry, one has to check off a bunch of prerequisites and get their English degree first.

Not so, friends. Not so.

Sure, there is definitely poetry out there that is challenging. One of my MFA cohort classmates was a poet and visual artist. While their poetry was brilliant, it asked a lot of the readers. It was like if James Joyce had written poetry instead of Ulysses. But I’m here to tell you that a lot of poetry doesn’t work that way. There are plenty of verses out there for the entirely uninitiated.

To begin, you can find some helpful guides to reading poetry right here on Book Riot. In fact, I’ve written a number of guides like how to read punctuation and line breaks. I’ve also written guides on sonnets, pastoral poetry, Japanese forms, and prose poetry. Should I write a textbook on poetry? No, because there are a lot of great primers already and the best is by Mary Oliver.

cover of A Poetry Handbook

A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver is a master of poetry, and her verses are quite accessible as well. I’ve always found her ability to really pull me into her imagery unparalleled. This book isn’t just about writing poetry. It’s about understanding it as well. If you’re going to start somewhere, start here.

The Classics

Don’t worry. I’m not going to overwhelm you with poetry from long-dead poets rhyming about long-dead subjects that require formal education to unravel. I am going to lay down a foundation for you of great classic poetry that’s both accessible and will give you ammunition at fancy literary dinner parties.

First, start with William Shakespeare’s sonnets. Yes, you can find books. They’re all in the Complete Works, for example. They’re also all in the public domain at this point, so you can not only find them for free online but find loads of scholarship on them.

Then continue with the following:

cover of 150 Most Famous Poems

150 Most Famous Poems edited Poetry House

The name says it all. These are arguably the 150 most famous poems ever written in English. Most of them are classics and the nice thing is, inaccessible poems rarely become famous. You’ll find poems from Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allen Poe, and Walt Whitman, among others.

cover of The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry

The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Susan Harris

Let’s expand a bit beyond Western countries dominated by English. There are a lot of amazing poems from non-Western countries that are written in or translated into English. Kaminsky and Harris do a splendid job of editing this dynamite collection to expand your poetical horizons.

cover of Caroling Dusk

Caroling Dusk edited by Countee Cullen

The Harlem Renaissance was an incredible time in the early 20th century. Black poets, artists, and writers were creating fantastic works focused on Black culture of the period. This collection by Countee Cullen is one of the finest and is very accessible.

Modern Poetry

Let’s spend some time in the present, shall we? We’re now firmly in the period of Instagram poetry, for better or worse. Superstars like Rupi Kaur, Amanda Lovelace, and Amanda Gorman have put poetry back into the conversation. There are a lot more great poets out there, though too.

cover of Poetry for Beginners

Poetry for Beginners by Margaret Chapman and Kathleen Welton

I mean, the name of the book is what I’m going for here, right? This book is aimed squarely at you, poetic beginner. The poems are very accessible, showcase a variety of forms, and there are even explanations to help you along the way. There’s really no better place to find poetry for beginners.

cover of The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry edited by J. D. McClatchy

Just like that book of famous poems is going to help you learn about poetry and get you talking at parties, this big book of modern poetry will help you continue those conversations. From Sylvia Plath to Allen Ginsberg to Sharon Olds, this is a great primer on less-classic but still foundational poetry.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson cover

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

This book isn’t just a great collection of poems but a memoir in verse. It’s also aimed at young readers, so the poetry is highly accessible. This is a great example of how poetry collections aren’t all disjointed riffs on a theme but can come together into a singular narrative as well.

American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes cover

American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes

How better to close your education on sonnets than with Terrance Hayes’s modern classic? While the sonnet began as a love poem in Italy and then in England, Hayes takes back the form. He wields it as a tool against the oppressor, turning their own lyrical weapon against them. You’ve learned the basics of the sonnet with Shakespeare; now see how those “rules” can be broken.

cover of salt. by Nayyirah Waheed

salt. by Nayyirah Waheed

Sometimes described as the most famous poet on Instagram, little is known about Waheed outside of her poems. She’s also one of the Instagram poets who is a genuine force of poetics. Leaping from your screen to the page is this great collection of very accessible poems that speak to our modern times.


Can’t get enough as you begin your poetical journey? Check out this beginner’s guide to different types of poetry or this great list of more poetry books for beginners. Happy reading!

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