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STUDENT RESOURCE: The Modern Teen’s Guide to Reading Poetry

Updated: Dec 31, 2020

Art by Isabelle Lu, Web Manager and Staff Artist

Jumping head first into the world of poetry can be a daunting task, but also a rewarding one. For many teenagers, the poetry that they are exposed to seems archaic and off putting, so they are less likely to consider reading poetry on their own. While there is a place for Shakespeare, Poe, and Whitman, the bygone poems we read in school often feel alienating, and leaving out poets whose work would captivate a teenager. Getting into poetry that goes beyond iambic pentameter and descriptions of landscapes can be a hard feat — so I’ve done the work for you. 

There are many ways to access poetry, which means it’s often more inclusive and less commercialized than other art forms. One of the easiest ways to expose yourself to poetry is by going to a poetry slam. Not only will you be seeing local talent, but poets occasionally tour, and might make a stop at a slam near you! Seeing guest poets offers you a change of scenery, but also the opportunity to support those poets by buying one of their chapbooks.

Chapbooks are similar to zines — they are small self-published collections of poetry made by a poet (usually by hand), usually for the purpose of selling on tour. With Covid, most poets are also selling their chapbooks online on their websites, Etsy, or other internet storefronts. These little booklets don’t go through publishing houses either, so 100% of the profit goes to the poet. So when you hand them your $5 bill, it’s going directly to them- they will probably use it to buy a coffee from the nearest barista. 

If you’re not wanting to invest money yet, YouTube is another good source for poetry. Believe it or not, there are poetry slams across the country, and across the world that are filmed and published for your viewing pleasure. If you don’t know where to start, try going to the YouTube channel Button Poetry. There, they have hundreds of videos of poets- most of whom probably have a chapbook for sale- with a wide range of topics and styles. By heading over to Button Poetry, you can browse a variety of current poets at no cost!

For those who are ready for a little more commitment, I have put together the booklist below. In selecting the collections and books I’ve listed, I tried to pick works that had a profound effect on me, but were still easily digestible. When getting into poetry, the writing itself can seem so otherworldly that it makes you put down your book. But with the authors that I suggest, their work- while not necessarily simple- is palatable and written in a way that anyone can understand. While you may have to work to catch some of the overarching metaphors, each of these books is written recently enough that everyone can understand. 

With that in mind, I offer you 6 of my favorite poetry books (thus far).

Published in 2018, Wonderland is a true modern poetry collection- it touches on race, class, and even masculinity. In some ways, it is jarring because of how raw it is. But the intense emotion of the book makes it that much more entertaining and meaningful to read. In it’s simplest form, it is an exploration of Matthew Dickman’s childhood, a reflection on his Portland upbringing that should resonate with a wide teen audience. 

I recommend the book because it’s straightforward. Dickman knew what he was writing about, and he communicates it clearly. It is not confusing, but is still complex. Unlike many authors of the past, Dickman and other modern poets write lyrically, but in a way that does not seem esoteric- catered towards people who are actually alive right now, and not for those who died of consumption many moons ago. 

His poetry doesn’t drone on either. I love long epic poems, but I know they aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. Dickman’s poetry is quick, witty, and to the point. That’s what poetry should be when you’re starting out. Once you figure out what you like and dislike, you can begin to explore.

My decision to read Soft Science was actually a chance encounter. I was pulling some poetry books for a patron at work (I work at a library) and saw the book on the shelf. Intrigued by the title and the familiarity of the author’s name- turns out, I had already read some of her work- I checked it out.

This collection of poems is one of the most beautiful works I’ve read. That is always the first word that comes to mind- beauty. Franny Choi writes with so much tacit emotion and literary poise; it astounds me. In poetry, you are allowed to break the rules, to do whatever you please. But if I ever had to say ‘this is what poetry should be,’ I would offer this book. 

Her work is just masterful, and that’s what makes it such an easy read. While it is heartbreaking, it can still fool you into cherishing every moment because of it’s brilliant craftsmanship. It is not abrasive or loud, and doesn’t try to scare you. It is a soft book, which is why I recommend it. Yes, it is innovative, but not in a way that is off putting. 

This was the first chapbook I ever bought, but it has always been my favorite. I’ve lent it to friends, carried it through the halls tucked into my binder, and taken it to work- needless to say, my little paper friend is well loved. I’ve picked up quite a few chapbooks since getting Feral Empathy at one of the first poetry slams I went to in Boise, but none of them have stuck with me like this one did.

Chapbooks come in many different shapes and sizes, and not all chapbooks are created equal. Some chapbooks have a glossy bound cover, and some were printed in college libraries. This one isn’t impeccable quality- it’s held together with staples, which isn’t a problem. But when I read the poems in the book, I was astounded by Devin Devine’s style and voice. They are so unique, and their narration within their poems is what makes them stand out.

Every poet on this list is innovative, different from typical poetry and probably most of the works you’ve read. Devin is provocative in what they write, and their words are intensely charged. What they have to say is impactful, engaging, and memorable. You’ll remember what they read. And that’s why I recommend them, because they are memorable, something new and refreshing. 

I picked up this poetry collection because it happened to be on the shelf at my library, and a friend of mine had recently been reading Anne Sexton. My first chance encounter with confessional poetry proved to be monumental. 

Most poets considered to be confessional poets are a stark contrast from the aforementioned Matthew Dickman. They write paragraph upon paragraph of metaphor. Before you call me out for contradicting myself, I find it important to expose yourself to different styles of poetry. Reading meatier 5 page poems that you might come across from Anne Sexton and the like shows you how poets can take the basics of storytelling and language, and use those skills to create something new and masterful. 

I chose Anne Sexton in particular because of her emotion, something that a teen audience would empathize with. That is the nature of confessional poets- it’s all about the emotion. And I’m not complaining about that.

Categories can be divisive and ultimately elitist when it comes to consuming media, but it doesn’t stop me from having favorite eras of poetry. One of my favorites is the Beat Generation, which is where Mr. Ginsberg comes in. 

I think that this book is the simplest introduction to Beat poetry, the path of least resistance. But beyond being a satisfying read for a wide variety of people, the themes discussed in the book resonate particularly with teenagers. The eponymous ‘Howl’ draws you in from the beginning. Ginsberg begins: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.” When I read that line, I was hooked.

The first time I read Allen Ginsberg I was 13, curious and hungry. It satiated the craving I had, something gut wrenching and different from the lackluster ballads I’d read for class. Ginsberg is different, it’s like nothing you’ve read before. And it feels like you’re reading your own thoughts- your own ruminations on fear, failure, and pain. What Ginsberg expresses feels familiar, and there’s a comfort in reading something that you know. 

Reading something new, something that scares you, can seem like an insurmountable task. But in the end, it will be worth it. Even just sampling poetry- watching one slam poem, purchasing a poetry anthology- introduces you to a world of rich language and transformative artists. Poetry is meant to be impactful, to punch you when you read it. And that’s why you read it, so that you can savor the taste of the text after you’re done. 


Izzy Burgess is a pink-haired librarian currently residing in Boise, ID. She is a queer feminist activist. At the Incandescent Review, she serves as the Critical Writing Manager. She is easily distracted by shiny objects. 

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