I ventured into poetry like most people do: Dr. Seuss. Brought up under the impression that all poetry needed to rhyme, and sounded much like a nursery rhyme as a result, I was quickly confused when first met with the idea of “free verse” in school – you mean I can write anything? And it doesn’t even have to rhyme? And it’s still poetry?
Needless to say, I hated it. Why have poetry if there aren’t really any rules for what makes poetry poetry?
And then something changed. I’m not quite sure what, or how, but one day I had an epiphany. I was blessed with a professor who inadvertently taught me how to read poetry (because, believe it or not, it differs from reading prose), and a few good poems that inspired and stayed with me. I’m still no expert on rhyme schemes, or what truly constitutes a poem, but there is a beauty in a poem that I can appreciate, and the following are some of the poems that changed my mind entirely:
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot // Perhaps one of the most well-known poems of all time, it is so recognized and loved for a reason. Eliot owns the language in this poem, which, coupled with the rhythm and modernist sensibility, sounds chillingly musical when read aloud. Every time I read this, I find something new about which to ponder.
“The Day the Saucers Came” by Neil Gaiman // Are you surprised to see Neil Gaiman on this list? You shouldn’t be; you know I can work him in anywhere! Like any of his works, you need to hear this one read aloud (the link goes to a clip of Neil himself reading the poem, and I had the fortune of hearing him read it aloud in Pittsburgh a few years ago too!). The only contemporary poem on my list, it is great fun. I love the lightheartedness of this poem, and yet the “twist” ending is simultaneously light and poignant at the same time.
“The Mower’s Song” by Andrew Marvell // All of the poems in Marvell’s Mower series tell a haunting story, and I recommend you read them all for the full narrative of the Mower and his love for the unreachable Julianna. However, if I had to pick just one from the set of four, The Mower’s Song stands out with its chilling repetition. Each poem employs techniques that make each unique and beautiful in their own regard, but read as a whole gives the ending the most impact.
“The Tyger” by William Blake // I love William Blake almost as much as I love Neil Gaiman, and that’s saying something. “The Tyger” is one of his most well-known poems, and while it is quite something on its own, you get the most out of it by reading it with its partner poem “The Lamb” (two of his collections: Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience mirror each other and are quite interesting studies themselves). His accompanying illuminated prints are also stunning, and a Batman: The Animated Series episode even paid homage to the poem.
“As I Walked Out One Evening” by W.H. Auden // Another well-known and easily quotable poem not so much on love, but more importantly, on the passing of time. Bittersweet and haunting, Auden manages to highlight the haunting beauty of the unknown, and make you think on the ephemeral nature of time and life.
And as a bonus, have a clip of Tom Hiddleston reading a snippet from “The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock”. You’re welcome.