By Emma Zaratian • April 08, 2019
April is National Poetry Month, which means it's the ideal time to treat yourself to a new book of verses. But how to choose a collection you'll like? While it's common knowledge that Sylvia Plath could pen a novel just as well as a poem, we often overlook the fact that plenty novelists have also dabbled in the arts of meter and metaphor. Maybe your favorite author has waxed poetic and you just don't know it yet. Here are a few popular writers who've skillfully pivoted between prose and poetry.
Sure, Canada's most prolific feminist writer can throw down a harrowing tale of authoritarianism if she wants to (see Exhibit A: The Handmaid's Tale), but she's also got a pretty ample supply of provocative poems in her social-commentary stockpile. In her most recent collection, The Door, Margaret Atwood's go-to themes of environmental issues, gender politics, and humanity's conflicts with nature emerge again and again, but common struggles with mortality and contemporary life also linger throughout the lines.
Given his penchant for fantasy, it's not a giant leap through a, um, wardrobe for C.S. Lewis to jump from the woods of Narnia to a rhythmical Ren Fair (of sorts). So it should come as no surprise that the British scholar scribed a series of narrative poems on medieval and Renaissance themes, all slyly nodding to political and theological issues of his time in vivid, imaginative metaphor. Collected in Narrative Poems are the four epic pieces: Dymer, Launcelot, The Nameless Isle, and The Queen of Drum. If distressed damsels and castles and elves are your thing, then look no further.
It seems only right that an author whose novels brim with symbolism can lock down a poem like nobody's business. Not to mention, Alice Walker's stories saunter and sway with the rhythm of a poem. Her first volume of verses, Once, was published in 1968, but that was nine poetry books ago—a substantial oeuvre for any poet, and almost as bountiful as her better-known body of fiction and intellectual essays. For those looking for an of-the-moment read, Walker returned again last year with her most recent collection, Taking the Arrow Out of the Heart—a series of powerful tributes to her heroes and timeless (but also timely) lamentations of war, poverty, and social injustice.
Despite the fact that Raymond Carver wrote poetry before literature, the famed chronicler of blue-collar life in the Pacific Northwest is often credited with reigniting interest in the contemporary American short story. His exact, minimalist-style prose depicts seemingly banal yet tantalizing vignettes of ordinary folk—and his poetry is no different. In fact, Carver regularly pillaged poems out of the same material as his stories, reportedly with zero shame. In All of Us, Carver uses a clear, conversational tone to deftly detail the physical world around him, along with his own memories—even the ones shaped by the destructive effects of alcoholism. That's not to say all the subject matter is sad (it's not!), but it is beautiful in a way only down-to-earth, honest storytelling can be.
Maybe you know Jacqueline Woodson for her children's and adolescent books, or perhaps you read her New York Times bestseller, Another Brooklyn. But this National Ambassador for Young People's Literature (an honor bestowed by the Library of Congress, no less) will not be pigeon-holed. Her collection of poems, Brown Girl Dreaming, slowly unravels the story of her childhood in South Carolina and then Brooklyn as a young African American during the Civil Rights movement. Each poem is energized with a potent pairing of vivid imagery and candid emotion—and is written in a personal style accessible for adults and adolescents alike. Perfect for lending to your kids, your mom, and your book-club BFF.
Similar to Raymond Carver, Reynolds Price kept his subject matter close to his roots. In Price's case, his body of work is rife with vivid scenes of rural and small-town life in the American South. And the man was prolific—with more than 38 published books under his belt in a span of 30 years. His first novel, A Long and Happy Life, received the William Faulkner Prize in 1963—a testament to Price's zesty Southern dialogue and lyrical-style prose. It's that same sensibility, elevated but accessible, that he brought 20 years later to his first book of poems. Collected Poems encapsulates all of Price's published poetry—four volumes of verses in which he chisels into his dreams, his devout belief in Christianity, his open homosexuality, and his admiration for great creatives.
Since National Poetry Month is a whole month long, we'll be featuring more of our favorite poetry books in the next few weeks. Follow and Like us on Facebook and Twitter for more rhythm-and-rhyme reads—and let us know who we've missed!