You may think of poetry as something pretentious that’s separate from your life. It’s the sphere of tortured artists and 18th century fops who went around with their hands pressed to their foreheads, dramatically reciting a collection of seemingly random words and phrases. At least, that’s how I considered poetry before I actually started to read it.
There’s lots of bad poetry out there, and perhaps that’s what most of us encounter in our day to day lives. But even if you don’t think of yourself as a lover of poetry, that it’s not your cup of tea, you could be surprised at how strongly you connect to a good poem. Although I’m a writer, sort of, I’m not a poet and don’t possess the passion necessary to be knowledgeable or pretentious about it. I won’t recommend a slew of little known poems that only an ardent poet would know.
My favourite poems are the popular ones; my excuse being that they’re popular for a reason so why shouldn’t they be my favourites? Poetry can be a great outlet for your emotions or your troubles; whether they resonate with a struggle with mental illness, losing a loved one or simply connect to nature in a way that speaks to you. Poetry about the everyday struggles of life can strike a chord with everyone as you don’t need to have suffered to enjoy reading poems that ruminate on the past, the meaning of life, or love. Then there are the poems you simply enjoy reading. Perhaps because a rhyming couplet pleases you, because it sounds good to read aloud, because it inspires a smile or haze of tears. You don’t need to be a great critic of literature to appreciate poetry, either.
Invictus by William Ernest Henley is a favourite of mine, often associated with Nelson Mandela because it was apparently a favourite of his too. Reading it, you’ll see why. The poem describes fortitude and strength in suffering, withstanding abuse with your soul and determination intact, something that I imagine would have connected with Mandela during his years of imprisonment. William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 is another favourite, because unlike most sonnets about love it’s beautiful in its pragmatism. At first glance it can seem insulting to the poem’s subject: “My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun…”, as it goes on to describe her in less than flattering terms. But it describes her in realistic terms, and despite all of these flaws she is loved by the narrator of the poem all the same: “And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare / As any she belied with false compare”.
I will recommend a few poems that you might not have heard of. I like a sad poem, and John Clare’s I am! speaks to those of us who’ve felt incredibly lonely or lost in our lives; even a depressing poem can make you feel like you’re not alone. The Arrow and the Song is a short, simply rhymed and beautiful poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whose name alone makes him worthy of remembrance. Finally, ‘Stepping Backward’ by Adrienne Rich is a meaningful poem about the connections between us, the relationships we forge and how we perceive ourselves and our flaws.