I was never much of a poetry person. For most of my life, I only interacted with poetry in English classes, where I remember learning about the “right” and “wrong” way to form poems, the difference in rhyming structures for different types of sonnets, and maybe, above all else, remembering how I got one of my worst grades on any assignment in high school when I had to memorize a poem and recite it in front of the class.I don’t remember ever reading poetry less than fifty or seventy-five years old, and when it came to creating our own examples for a grade, I never knew what to write about. Poetry largely felt academic, uninspiring, or just simply boring to me. As such, when National Poetry Month came around each April, I wasn’t particularly interested. 

This started to change when I watched the 2010 documentary Louder than a Bomb. This documentary follows high school students participating in a slam poetry competition in the Chicago area, and features spoken poems on a wide variety of modern-day topics, ranging from stage fright to gun violence. I’ve seen performance videos from later years of the same competition and other events such as the World Poetry Slam Competition, and some have truly been astounding, sticking with me for years. Slam poetry, because it is performed by the author, allows the listener to pick up on the emotion, pacing, and tone behind the work that adds layers of meaning. This is not too different from how many readers enjoy listening to audiobooks that are read by the author, picking up on the stress of certain words or pauses of the author’s voice that can add meaning. Slam poetry was a long way from the stuffy old English poetry I had been exposed to thus far.  

Without specifically trying to, I found Ellen Hopkins around the same time. A friend suggested I read her first book, Crank, and in no time I had read every book she’d published. In case you aren’t familiar, Ellen Hopkins primarily writes young adult fiction novels that explore themes of abuse, addiction, and other difficult topics, written entirely in verse or prose poetry, depending on the book. Many pages are structured so that the line breaks and white space create different shapes, often thematically tied to the words themselves. For example, a poem about a tornado is written with each line progressively shorter and in a slightly different spot on the page, creating the shape of a twister. This way of playing with the poem’s wording, structure, and pacing to create an impression that is greater than the sum of its parts was groundbreaking for me, and while it wasn’t what I traditionally thought of as poetry, it led me to a treasure trove of novels written in verse that I still enjoy to this day.  

In addition to being totally different styles of poetry than what I was learning in school, the forms I had discovered had vastly different topics. In the performances and books that stuck with me the most, poets shared about their mental health struggles, their fight for human rights, and about the struggles facing their communities in the present day. These more nontraditional forms of poetry also tend to attract poets of marginalized backgrounds, who can use poetry to convey their trauma and struggles, but also their joy and humanity.  

Forms of poetry I stumbled upon outside of the classroom made me realize there are many different ways to write a poem, just like there are many ways to write a novel, and that there is potential for me to find joy and connection in poetry. This connection fueled my desire to discover other poets and styles that I enjoyed and acted as a sort of gateway to appreciating more traditional forms I had no interest in before. It also made me realize poetry wasn’t just old European men who created perfectly paced masterpieces, but people from all walks of life who had stories to tell. From blackout poetry to slam poetry, novels in verse to Shakespearean sonnets, not every poem is for every reader, but every reader has the potential to find poetry they connect with or find themselves represented in. 

If you’d like to discover different types of poetry you might connect with this National Poetry Month, consider online resources like Poem-a-Day, or check out one of these titles from this list