Poetry can seem intimidating. It does to me, and even though I’ve dipped my toe in poetic waters there’s still things I don’t understand. There are some poems I love and just as many that I don’t but I think it’s important to at least try it because once you find a poet you love it’s a whole different experience. Here are four different poetry collections I’ve enjoyed and what I’ve learned from them as a budding poet:
Horoscopes for the Dead by Billy Collins
I was initially drawn to the title of Collins’ collection. The implication that the dead could have a future predicted by astrology was intriguing. The first poem Graves details a man mourning his parents and his attempt to connect with them at their graveside. He tells them trivial things the same way you might if visiting someone’s bedside. Death does run through the collection but so does life and the passage of time. I was particularly drawn to Memento Mori. Collins captures the feeling of insignificance and our inconsequential nature when considered against all of time in the line:
‘what a mayfly I am,
What a soap bubble floating over the children’s party.’
It’s a feeling we all experience but often have trouble putting into words, and here Collins conveys that sense in two lines using unusual but rich imagery. Creating that connection with a reader through shared experience of human nature is something I hope to achieve in my own work. In Roses Collins uses the decay of flowers to speak about death and mortality. The withering petals show time’s effects which seem much crueller when shown through the fleeting vitality of roses.
The Bees by Carol Ann Duffy
Reading poems from The Bees expanded my ideas regarding poetry’s possibilities and made me think about the potential of playfulness. The poem Oxfam consists entirely of stock descriptions and prices. This simple poem brings the reader’s attention to the history of objects and the values we place on them. The use of rhyme, internal rhyme and enjambment in The Falling Soldier mimics the disjointed sound of warfare. It reminded me of Thom Gunn’s poem Still Life in which he uses similar techniques to imitate the gasping breaths of a dying friend. Rhyme and rhythm can add an extra layer of meaning to a poem, but rhyme can also be used to emphasise important words and stress their meaning as they are the words we are more likely to remember.
In Last Post time is turned on its head. Reading it is similar to watching a tape being rewound. We are confronted with the devastation of war, thousands of young anonymous men killed and then pulled back in time to a point before the chaos where the soldiers are real individuals. Reversing the natural timeline (from life-death to death-life) challenges the reader’s expectations and I think is far more shocking and poignant.
Her Birth by Rebecca Goss
Her Birth is a collection of poems that transcribes Goss’ grief after losing her infant daughter due to a rare heart condition. The motif of the heart is repeated throughout the collection, keeping it at the centre of the works but also suggesting an attempt to make sense of and come to terms with what has happened. It is the smaller moments that speak volumes. Toast conveys the agonising worry of two parents struggling to maintain an essence of normality when their world has turned upside down. Post expresses Goss’ grief as sympathy cards come through the letterbox.
In St. Mary’s her anguish is laid bare:
‘Her funeral has
started. I cannot stop it.’
Physical by Andrew McMillan
McMillan’s collection explores ideas of masculinity, the body and vulnerability. The poems have a tactile quality as if you could reach out and touch skin, inhale the stench of sweat. They are sensual and moving. After reading Glyn Maxwell’s ideas regarding white as punctuation, I was more appreciative of how indentation and space are used to imply commas and full-stops, but considering the poems convey the body and bodily actions, I thought perhaps the spaces were representative of breaths. McMillan’s collection made me see the importance of developing a clear and consistent personal style.