April is National Poetry Month here in the US, which obviously means I have to do a post about it. Problem is, I don’t really read much poetry. I’m a big fan of Emily Dickinson and I like me some Walt Whitman (he’s my birthday buddy, so I’ve always had a fondness for him, and I just think Dickinson is cool), but I haven’t read either of them since grad school and poetry isn’t exactly something I pick up on a regular basis. It’s just not a format I gravitate to at all really. I have nothing against poetry – if you like it, that’s awesome. I just tend to prefer prose. However, when it comes to genres/tropes/formats/etc. I don’t enjoy in books, there is always an exception. Don’t worry, we’re not talking about Shakespeare today.
Instead, I thought I’d discuss some books that I thoroughly enjoyed that are poetry (or contain poetry). I put together a list of seven books, only one of which can accurately be described as a collection of poems. These are the books that blend or defy genres in a way that just works for my not-so-poetry-oriented brain. So, if you’re not super keen on picking up a book full of poems (like me), you might find something here that you’ll like.
The Witch Doesn’t Burn in This One by Amanda Lovelace
This is the only poetry collection on this list, but I had to include it. I really enjoyed this whole series (the first book is The Princess Saves Herself in This One and the last is The Mermaid’s Voice Returns in This One), but The Witch Doesn’t Burn in This One is my favorite. What can I say? Feminist books that share truths about what it’s actually like to be a woman are my jam. And this series does that better than almost anything else I’ve ever read.
I think this series is designed to follow the progression of finding yourself as a feminist – you start out a quiet princess who is forced to take shit from other people, which makes you angry and therefore the witch they want to burn, and finally you find your voice and are a beautiful mermaid who can speak without being afraid. I probably identified with this one the most because I’m in the witch stage of my journey. Either way, this is some really powerful poetry and kind of sort of made me want to explore more. I haven’t yet, but I’m not against it.
Split Tooth by Tanya Tagaq
I’m going to be up front and say not all of you will like this book. It’s really weird, and I honestly won’t hold it against you if you hate it. But we all know I love weird books, so of course I loved this one. It’s a magical realism story that blends both poetry and prose and reads like a memoir. And it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read. Whenever I look back and think about this book, I don’t even remember that it contains poetry because it just blended so seamlessly into the format of the story and the story itself.
While I can’t say the prospect of picking up poetry to read excites me, I can absolutely appreciate the beauty of it. And I think it added so much to this book and helped create that kind of ethereal feeling I got while reading this. While I can’t say the book contains a ton of poetry, I think it’s a great starting point if you want to dip your toes into poetry and also really like really weird and vaguely magical stories. Very specific recommendation I know, but that description has to fit at least one other person (and if it does, we should be maybe be friends).
Beowulf translated by Maria Dahvana Headley
No, I will not shut up about Beowulf, thank you. And yes, I am very much aware that this makes me look like a a crazy literature nerd and I’m fine with that. If you love fantasy stories at all, just know Beowulf was the OG fantasy hero story that set the stage for all the rest. You know how Stephen Colbert is the biggest Tolkien stan? Yeah, Tolkien was the same way about Beowulf. He even published his own translation, if you are so inclined to read it (it’s more fun than the Seamus Heaney one those of us assigned Beowulf in school had to read). And it was my favorite translation of Beowulf until I read Maria Dahvana Headley’s.
While this is a very contemporary translation and might feel out of date in a decade or so, I don’t care. Because it’s brilliant and so, so fun. This translation is the perfect example of how insanely weird and good medieval literature can be if the translations we get weren’t so stodgy. Personally, I’d rather the wording be less exact if the feeling of the piece is captured more accurately, and Headley does that amazingly. If you like fantasy, Beowulf kind of feels like a must read. And if you read it in high school and didn’t like it, maybe give this one a try anyway. Trust me on this. Because I will keep talking about it as long as this blog exists.
The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Emily Wilson
You know I had to include one more epic poem. Because I’m me, and I like medieval literature and mythology. Obviously, this spot had to go to The Odyssey because it’s kind of the quintessential epic poem. It also follows the same hero arc as Beowulf, but of course follows the legendary Odysseus as he tries to get back home to his wife, Penelope. Spoiler: he gets delayed. A lot.
This is a classic for a reason. Somehow I managed to not read it until just a couple years ago even though most of my friends had it as assigned reading in high school. But I am glad I waited because I got to read Emily Wilson’s new translation, which is fantastic. I’m kind of hoping that she also does The Illiad soon so I can read that version. She is the first woman to translate The Odyssey (just like Maria Dahvana Headley is the first woman to have translated Beowulf – I clearly have a thing for women in the classics), and she does such a great job. I had actually tried to read The Odyssey before, years ago, but found this version so much more readable. Also, highly recommend the audiobook because The Odyssey was literally meant to be heard (and not read).
The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
I was a little bit surprised by the fact the last three books on this list ended up being young adult books (technically one is middle grade), but apparently YA poetry works for me. And even though these might not be my favorite books or something I would have picked up as a young adult myself, it always makes me happy to see that young people today have such a wide variety of diverse and creative literature available to them.
This one I honestly do have mixed feelings about. Because the story was a tiny bit triggering for me – it’s about a girl struggling to adjust to her sexuality and changes with her body and how she is treated because of that, but also with her family’s religion and her own beliefs. She translates those thoughts into poetry and joins a slam poetry club. So, obviously, the fact that this book is told in verse is very much related to the story itself. And while the majority of this story wasn’t something I personally connected to, I can still appreciate how impactful and important it is for young people who are finding themselves.
For Every One by Jason Reynolds
Now this one was actually a poem that was performed at the Kennedy Center for the unveiling of a Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial. So it’s just one poem, but it’s a good one (and still a hundred pages long). It’s basically about dreams, and is a call to the young dreamers of the world to not give up, even when it’s hard. It’s really hopeful and beautiful and inspiring. I don’t really have much else to say about this one other than that it was a great little read, would make a great gift for young readers, and is a pretty great example of how poetry isn’t always boring (just in case whatever two-hundred-year-old poetry you were forced to read in school left that impression).
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jaqueline Woodson
Finally, we have this one. Which is a multi-award-winning middle grade memoir told in verse. And it’s so, so good. (I would recommend this for older middle-grade readers, because there are some difficult discussions pertaining to race and mentions of violence, but that does depend on what each kid can handle, so just a little warning – I still think it’s a great book for kids to have available to them, but be prepared to talk about it with them). It’s all about Woodson’s experience growing up Black in both South Carolina and New York in the 60s and 70s, among the remnants of Jim Crow and the developing Civil Rights Movement.
This is another one of those books that I am so glad exists because it’s a great way to introduce that part of history to young readers. Woodson herself was in that age range during the years this book is set, so I think it would be really eye-opening for kids now to really see what kids their age were going through at that time. Whenever I think about this one, I honestly forget that it’s poetry. The story is told so well and is so readable that it doesn’t feel like what I imagine reading poetry feels like (if that makes any sense). I’d recommend this for adults as well – I read this just last year, and really enjoyed it.
I hope you enjoyed this post! I’d love to hear from all of you: Do you enjoy reading poetry? If you don’t, are you interested in trying some of these books? And do you have any recommendations you think I would enjoy? Let me know in the comments!
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