Poetry isn’t quite an ugly word, but it is an uncomfortable one. Try suggesting it to a group of your friends and see the reaction you get – an immediate severing of eye contact in most cases, physical recoil in some.
It’s not like you’ve invited them to try something they simply wouldn’t enjoy, it’s like you’ve suggested something that will force them to betray some part of themselves, or relive painful memories of fist-chewing hours spent in sweaty school classrooms. For men in particular, poetry is a cultural taboo.
Hey – there are exceptions. I’ve been one of them since I was a teenager and took a punt that ‘appearing cultured’ would be my best chance of impressing girls (it was certainly never going to be sporting prowess or dashing good looks), went to my local second hand book shop and bought any volume of poetry I could that looked old and battered and cool.
Girls weren’t impressed, of course. But I developed a habit of reading poetry anyway. Years later, I read my favourite thing anyone has ever said about poetry, by T.S. Eliot: "geniune poetry can communicate before it is understood". And that’s the thing, it can. I read and enjoyed Chaucer and Shakespeare long before someone smarter than me explained what the words actually meant. Before that, it’s just a kind of music that anyone who enjoys good writing can understand, with meanings you absorb in fragments.
The greatest trick reading does is to relax and stimulate your mind at the same time. Poetry has that meditative quality even more powerfully than prose. On the page it looks like something you should be able to digest in seconds – like a billboard blurb or a Tweet – but when you try, your brain can’t do it. It forces you to slow down. It forces you to really pay attention. It makes you relish and respect words in a world when they are cheaper than ever.
The other barrier a lot of men have with poetry is the idea that it is all an open wound, a gushing tap of saccharine emotions about subjects – love, death, war – that actually demand few, considered words, if any at all. But that’s not poetry. That’s bad poetry.
Good poetry treats those topics with respect, or rejects them altogether. It stretches from life’s big questions to its glorious minutiae (if it’s really good, it’ll do both at once) with the brevity and craft of a master tailor stitching the perfect suit.
Something tells me you’re still not convinced. So, with a selection that makes no pretense of being ‘definitive’, that, I hope, shows no bias towards style, era or reputation, here are five poets I think might just win you over.
They all take a leap of faith and a certain amount of effort. But which of the best things in life don’t?
The ball is all our hopes & dreams wound tight,
kicked left, kicked right.
The goal: the vastness of the soul.
The field: the work & plight.
The uniform & flag:
the torch we bear through darkness of a kind.
The vastness of the field:
the path we cross from heart to mind.
The minute or the moment?
How you think is your opponent.
If you had the ball right now
would you aim or kick it wild?
It’s easy to think that all the best poets are dead. If anyone is going to take that idea and blast it out of your head forever, it’s Saul Williams, the American musician and actor whose best work emerged from the leading role he played in the New York café poetry scene of the mid-90s.
His poems – which really do have to heard read out loud rather than just read on the page – are exhilarating, stuffed with so many clever word plays and ideas, you want to pause after every other line just to mull it over for a bit. 'Untitled' is a poem he wrote about football (and published on Twitter) during the 2010 World Cup.
The many men, so beautiful!
And they all dead did lie:
And a thousand thousand slimy things
Lived on; and so did I.
OK, some of them are dead. Hard to think it now, but in the late 18th century, England’s prominent poets were also its drug-addled rock stars. (If only they hadn’t called themselves ‘the Romantics’). The chief rabble-rousers were Samuel Taylor Coleridge, an opium addict (think Pete Doherty); Lord Byron, a famous lothario and sex symbol (think Russell Brand); William Blake, a political rebel (think Zack De La Rocha); John Keats, who died too young (Cobain) and William Wordsworth who, well, really enjoyed long walks (James Blunt?).
Anyway they’re all worth reading (Blake’s Songs Of Innocence and Experience being the best place to start), but it is Coleridge and his vivid, drug-induced nightmares that should excite anyone with a taste for horror or the surreal. 'The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner' is the story of a sailor who shoots an albatross in a moment of unprovoked malice and is then punished by dice-rolling demi-gods, ghosts, skeletons and sea creatures. And it’s all written in a jaunty rhythm that makes you feel seasick.
The fucking pubs are fucking dull
The fucking clubs are fucking full
Of fucking girls and fucking guys
With fucking murder in their eyes
A fucking bloke is fucking stabbed
Waiting for a fucking cab
You fucking stay at fucking home
The fucking neighbors fucking moan
Keep the fucking racket down
This is fucking Chickentown
If there is one thing more terrifying to the non-poetry fan than having to read it, it is being asked to listen poetry being read out loud. One man who has been curing people of that particular phobia since the late 70s is ‘punk poet’ John Cooper Clarke, whose rangy, Rolling Stones-esque appearance and sense of humour both sells and sometimes obscures his gifts as a wordsmith.
'Evidently Chickentown' – his greatest hit, which was even used on the penultimate episode of the The Sopranos – is as fine an evocation of the frustrations of small town life you’ll find anywhere in British culture. It’s also incredibly fun to read out loud, though do that in your head if your boss is anywhere in earshot… Cooper Clarke helped pave the way for many spoke word poets you can see perform today, some just as entertaining as him. Polar Bear, Scroobius Pip, Musa Okwonga and Kate Tempest are among the best.
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
The "bard of Coventry" was famously grouchy (in print at least), writing poems that embody a sort of non-nonsense British pessimism that finds its echoes in the paintings of Lowry, the films of Mike Leigh or the football commentary of Alan Hansen, depending on your cultural sensibilities.
He was also bleakly funny and brutally truthful, as his famous poem about parenting – 'This Be The Verse' – neatly demonstrates. Like listening to certain music, reading Larkin is good for when you want to wallow and enjoy a private, bitter laugh at the world.
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he's dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.
Known as a ‘confessional poet’, but don’t let that put you off. Smith was one of literature’s great eccentrics, writing with a deceptively light touch. In her early career she tackled dark subjects, but her work is always, by poetry standards, ‘easy to read’: spry as springbok and a pleasure to unpick.
'Not Waving But Drowning' is regularly voted one of the nation’s favourite poems, but many people are only familiar with the title. The poem its self is a masterpiece that illustrates perfectly why good poems benefit from repeat readings. The first time through, it comes off like a scene of black comedy. A few further readings, and a fundamental sadness about the human condition smacks you in the face. Not bad for a few words on a page.
This article originally appeared in 2014.