Poetry Essentials: 60 books that will make you fall in love with poetry all over again!

Some poems crave the outdoors – preferring to be read in the company of sunshine and picnic baskets. Others demand a cozy environment – bundled up in blankets as snow falls outside. Some poems keep us company through hard times, others give us respite when we feel overcrowded. Here at My Poetic Side, we believe that poetry is an essential part of life. And whether you’ve been reading poetry your entire life or are just discovering verse, there’s something for everyone.

We’ve collected our favorite books of poetry here, sortable by a variety of filters to help you find the perfect fit. From Homer’s Iliad to Solmaz Sharif’s Look, our recommendations run the gamut. Whether you’re intrigued by memory, beguiled by love, fascinated by war, or searching for meaning in nature, you’re sure to find that perfect piece of poetry.

So, dive on in! And don’t forget to share your favorite new discovery with us.

Annie Allen by Gwendolyn Brooks (1949)

While Annie Allen is currently out of print, it’s worth searching for at your local library or scouring every used bookstore in your city. It’s that good. Gwendolyn Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize for this book of poetry, making her the first African American to win the prize in any category. Annie Allen explores racism and related themes of life, death, and love in early 1900s America. The collection follows our protagonist Annie through “Childhood and Girlhood” and “Womanhood,” creating a biography out of these captivating and heart-wrenching pieces of verse. Start planning that used bookstore excursion. Because you don’t want to miss out on this Gwendolyn Brooks masterpiece.

Tags: classic, race, award winner.

Odes by Sharon Olds (2016)

Sharon Olds was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for this 2016 collection of odes to everything from her hymen and the female reproductive system to the Sheffield Mountain. This gorgeously honest book embraces this classical form to take on the ever-changing landscape of sex, gender, and love. Olds inserts her own personal narrative in this exploration of sexual politics, leaning on her roles as lover, mother, daughter, friend, and poet. Dive into this intimate portrait for an incredible marriage of the age-old ode and the day-old headline.

Tags: contemporary, love, feminist, award winner.

Shakespeare’s Sonnets by William Shakespeare (1609)

Fans of William Shakespeare know that there’s no better resource than The Arden Shakespeare editions of the bard’s texts. In this edition, edited by Katherine Duncan Jones, a facsimile of the 1609 Quarto sits side by side with a conservatively edited version of each of Shakespeare’s sonnets. It’s an incredible reading experience for Renaissance aficionados and Shakespeare novices alike. We’re swooning just thinking about those Quarto facsimiles.

Tags: classic, sonnet, love.

Mountain Interval by Robert Frost (1916)

Mountain Interval opens with Robert Frost’s famous “The Road Not Taken,” an incredible and often misread humorous poem that we’re all incredibly familiar with. The poem, written as a joke piece of correspondence to friend and UK critic Edward Thomas, a man who frequently bemoaned not making the other choice when two options were offered to him. Edward Thomas didn’t see the joke and, assuming the poem’s narrator was a version of Robert Frost, read it with the earnestness that many do today. Mountain Interval provides a much-needed reset for readers, opening the book with this familiar poem and filling the book out with some of Robert Frost’s lesser known works, including “The Exposed Nest,” “Out, Out,” and “The Vanishing Red,” among others. It’s an essential primer to Robert Frost’s illustrious career, freeing the “The Road Not Taken” from the greatest hits confines of a literature anthology and presented it as the poet originally intended.

Tags: classic, nature, humor.

Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey (2006)

In Native Guard, Natasha Trethewey honors her parents through elegy – finding poetry in illegal love in a pre-Loving v. Virginia landscape. At the time of Natasha Trethewey’s birth, her African American mother and white father weren’t afforded the legal protections of marriage, complicating an already fraught childhood growing up in the racially intolerant South. In this magnificently crafted collection, the former Poet Laureate weaves together these poems about her childhood with verse about the titular Louisiana Native Guards, the first black regimen to serve in the Civil War. It’s a beautifully wrought collection that serves memory and history, honoring family and those who came long before.

Tags: contemporary, award winner, race.

The Complete Poems by John Keats (1977)

John Keats once said, “I would sooner fail than not be among the greatest.” Nearly two hundred years after his death, this statement continues to serve as prophecy. John Keats’ legacy endures in his poetry; he is the quintessential Romantic poet – one of the greatest. His life was cut tragically short at 25 years old when he died of tuberculosis. But in that short time, he produced an astonishing 416 pages of odes, sonnets, and epics, all of which are collected here in this Modern Library edition of his work. The Complete Poems is an astounding tribute to John Keats’ life and his influence on the landscape of poetry, both in the 1800s and today.

Tags: classic, epic.

Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals by Patricia Lockwood (2014)

Sometimes moving, sometimes hilarious, Patricia Lockwood’s Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals expertly marries magical realism and naked fear. Her verse feels like a map of her mind, personifying the inanimate with one page and toppling the patriarchy with another. Her brave and blatantly honest poem “Rape Joke,” which serves as the centerpiece of the collection, is best read on repeat until the words become a part of your body – as natural as breathing.

Tags: contemporary, debut, magical realism.

Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith (2011)

Tracy K. Smith’s poems are so honest and evocative that we won’t be surprised if you find yourself nodding emphatically – or even shouting “Yes!” – as you turn each page. The book’s title is more than a nod to the late great David Bowie; it’s the gateway to an ethereally beautiful elegy for her own father, a scientist who worked on the Hubble telescope. This love letter to the stars and her father’s legacy is best read on a clear night – between constellations.

Tags: Pulitzer Prize, science, astronomy, contemporary, award winner.

Mother Love by Rita Dove (1995)

Rita Dove expertly marries mythology with tourism in this exquisite collection of poems. In a modern adaptation of the Persephone and Demeter myth, Rita Dove explores the boulevards of Paris, the pyramids of Mexico, and a patio in Arizona to give this familiar story an agonizingly modern lens. The sense of place is beautifully precise, giving modern audiences an incredible series of touchstones as they navigate this Greek myth. It’s a masterful adaptation and one that should be read widely.

Tags: contemporary, mythology.

The Virginia Woolf Poems by Jackson Mac Low (1985)

Jackson Mac Low pulls source text from Virginia Woolf’s novels to create the The Virginia Woolf Poems. This experimental method of pulling phrases and lines from The Waves and Night and Day is part poetic experiment, part urging Woolf to write poetry from the grave. The rhythm is frenetic and calculated, relying on character names to pull together this delightfully erratic collection. The Virginia Woolf Poems is the perfect book for readers looking for poetry that breaks the rules in the best way.

Tags: experimental.

Paradise Lost by John Milton (1667)

In this expertly crafted epic, John Milton tells the story of the fall of man – a dramatic tale that spans Heaven, Hell, and Earth. At the poem’s center stand Adam and Eve, created in God’s image with all too human desires. In John Milton’s epic, Adam and Eve’s determined love is their ultimate downfall. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. As Paradise Lost progresses, we succumb to a violent war in Hell – a crusade centered on an oddly appealing Satan. John Milton’s verse is graphic, even grotesque, proving that poetry need not be palatable to be truly great.

Tags: classic, epic, religion.

Hold Your Own by Kate Tempest (2014)

Hold Your Own emerges from the embers of the Tiresias myth with the same erratic precision that pulses through Kate Tempest’s music. Readers familiar with her multidisciplinary oeuvre will hear her unmistakable South London voice jump off the page as a modern adaptation of this ancient Greek myth, complete with alarm clocks and a Wu-Tang Clan soundtrack. Tiresias’ story intersects with her own until it’s impossible to detangle the two. It’s truly incredible.

Tags: contemporary, mythology.

The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes by Langston Hughes (1994)

It’s difficult to select a single book of poetry by the voice of the Harlem Renaissance, so we’re going to go ahead and urge you to pick up Langston Hughes’ collected works. Hughes’ verse beats to the rhythm of jazz, making this collection feel like a magnum opus. We recommend starting with Montage of a Dream Deferred, which Hughes himself described as “punctuated by the riffs, runs, breaks, and disc-tortions of the music of a community in transition.”

Tags: classic, Harlem Renaissance.

Spring and All by William Carlos Williams (1923)

This transcendent collection of free verse and prose is the ultimate showcase of William Carlos Williams’ craft. Spring and All contains some of his best-known poems, including the pseudo-untitled “Section XXII”, which many of us know under the title “The Red Wheelbarrow”. The poem is well worth a reread, especially if your last encounter with these wheelbarrow memories was in an elementary school anthology. Surrounded by the whole of Spring and All, “The Red Wheelbarrow” is magical.

Tags: classic, genre-bending.

Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda (1924)

Published when Pablo Neruda was only 19 years old, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair put this now-beloved Chilean poet on the map. In the newest publication of this collection, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet W.S. Merwin serves as translator to the prolific Neruda, pairing the poet’s original Spanish text with Merwin’s gorgeous translations. Neruda’s juxtaposition of first love against unchecked desolation and grief makes Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair an incredible read.

Tags: classic, love, grief, translation.

Collected Sonnets by Edna St. Vincent Millay (1941)

In a collection containing more than 180 poems, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Collected Sonnets draws on Millay’s simultaneously morbid and witty signature tone. Her sonnets cut right to the heart, inviting readers to share in her craft. Reading her sonnets, it’s clear why Millay was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1923, only the third woman in history to be honored. Her poetry soars off the page, talking of love in an intricate and simply gorgeous way. Today, Millay is lauded as a queer icon – her legacy living on in her plays and the poems captured here.

Tags: classic, woman, LGBTQ, love.

100 Selected Poems by E.E. Cummings (1926)

While 100 Selected Poems doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface on E.E. Cummings’ oeuvre, this book serves as a witty and profound appetizer to his greater body of work. This collection contains everything that has informed E.E. Cummings’ signature style throughout his over 35-year career. It’s an exhibition of technical prowess, ingenious lyricism, and a mischievous use of craft, paired with opulent imagery and a devotion to and departure from traditional poetic forms. It’s an incredible read that will run around in your mind for days.

Tags: classic.

Not Much Fun by Dorothy Parker (1996)

Known mostly for her witty prose, Dorothy Parker isn’t likely to be a figure most associate with incredible poetry. But Not Much Fun: The Lost Poems of Dorothy Parker challenges that assumption. These percussive poems pulse with Dorothy Parker’s signature eccentric energy, putting us forever in the debt of Stuart Y. Silverstein, who compiled and wrote the terrific introduction to these 122 discarded gems. They’re poems that didn’t fit into Parker’s previous three collections: Enough Rope, Sunset Gun, and Death and Taxes. She famously said, “I hate writing, I love having written” and we can’t help but wonder if she loves having written these poems too. Because we certainly love that she did.

Tags: classic, woman, posthumous.

Revolutionary Petunias by Alice Walker (1973)

Alice Walker prefaces Revolutionary Petunias by sharing that her poems are about revolutionaries and lovers in equal parts – emphasizing the loss of compassion, the loss of trust, and the ability to grow in love that both parties share. The early poems of this collection really pack a punch. “The Old Men Used to Sing” is so incredible that it begs a second and third immediate read. Walker uses a skillful minimalism to share the story of old men sitting comfortably in the atmosphere of a funeral. Her exquisitely spare use of text leaves a glorious amount of color up to the imagination – a style that allows Revolutionary Petunias to soar to the very last page.

Tags: death, love.

The Collected Poems by W.B. Yeats (1956)

As a member of the Protestant Anglo-Irish class, William Butler Yeats was considered a minority in the United Kingdom. At the time, most Protestant Anglo-Irish people considered themselves to be Englishmen who’d been born in Ireland by happenstance, but W.B. Yeats was incredibly proud of his Irish heritage, incorporating it into his writing alongside themes of spirituality, mysticism, and others. The Collected Poems contain a spectacular canon of work – ranging from adaptations of Irish myths to whimsical love songs to verse containing all the anger and hate of war. This collection, edited by Richard J. Finneran, even contains some of W.B. Yeats’ original notes on his poetry. It’s a must-read for poetry fanatics and novices alike.

Tags: classic, love, war.

The Wild Iris by Louise Gluck (1992)

Playing with time and immortality as interlocking themes, Louise Gluck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Wild Iris captivates readers in its unapologetic celebration of the torture of being alive. Throughout the collection, Louise Gluck allows nature to take on an otherworldly quality – describing the way the earth suppresses, the way weeding is an act of searching for courage. The interplay of grief and life, nature and faith, gorgeously showcases how exquisite verse can be.

Tags: contemporary, award winner, nature.

Metamorphoses by Ovid (8 AD)

Ovid’s magnum opus spans over 700 pages and, in its original 8 A.D. publication, was comprised of fifteen books. Today, the books are published in one hefty volume, allowing readers to enjoy Ovid’s poetry in one huge gulp. Metamorphoses takes its inspiration from metamorphosis poetry and has gone on to inspire many prolific writers – including William Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer, and Dante Alighieri, among others. The poem chronologically explores the topic of transformation, beginning with the creation of the universe and closing with the death of Julius Caesar, allowing characters from Greek mythology to provide color for these historic events.

Tags: classic, mythology, epic.

Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou (1995)

This collection of four incredible poems celebrating women is a must-read for any Maya Angelou fan. Known mostly for her autobiographical prose, Maya Angelou is a prolific poet and master orator. Her thematic emphasis on African American beauty, strong women, and the tenacity of the human spirit makes Phenomenal Woman an essential piece in the gorgeous and heartbreaking tapestry of American poetry. “Phenomenal woman / That’s me.” And we have to wholeheartedly agree. It’s no wonder President Bill Clinton turned to Maya Angelou to write and recite the first inauguration poem – a tradition that held strong through President Barack Obama’s second term.

Tags: classic, race, award winner.

Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin (1833)

Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin toes the line between novel and poetry, making this satirical look at 1820s imperial Russia a cornerstone of Russian literature. This epic poem follows three men: the bored titular Eugene Onegin, a writer of elegies named Vladimir Lensky, and a fictional version of Alexander Pushkin himself. In addition to tracking the destinies of these three men, Pushkin highlights the fates of three pivotal women: the beautiful Tatyana Larina, her sister Olga, and Pushkin’s eloquent and unrelenting Muse. Pushkin was a prolific poet with over thirty distinct books, but Eugene Onegin was his personal favorite. And with its seamless balance between Romantic poetry and prose steeped in realism, we can see why.

Tags: classic, epic, translation, satire, genre-bending.

milk and honey by Rupi Kaur (2014)

It’s a book that’s been dominating Instagram feeds lately, so you might have been tempted to pass on this debut due to sheer oversaturation. But believe the hype, milk and honey will knock you out. At its essence, it’s a story of survival beautifully parceled out in every poem, every illustration, every piece of prose. It’s a story of pain and heartbreak. But it’s so much more than that. It’s an exploration of sweetness. It’s an uncovering of joy. A solitary sunny day after months of grey skies. It’s perfect.

Tags: contemporary, debut.

Prelude to Bruise by Saeed Jones (2014)

Prelude to Bruise contains some of the most gorgeous and heart wrenching poetry you’ll read all year. Saeed Jones writes arresting poetry, the kind of verse that will grab you by the lapels and refuse to let go. It’s the kind of writing that takes your breath away, daring you to dream of a better combination of words. It demands to be read out loud – on rooftops, in crowded parks, in bed whispered between sheets. But don’t just take our word for it. Breathe in this collection of lines, which closes the masterful “Kudzu”: “If I ever strangled sparrows, / it was only because I dreamed / of better songs.”

Tags: LGBTQ, debut, race, contemporary.

The Aeneid by Virgil (19 BC)

This Latin epic poem explores the legend of Aeneas. By borrowing a character from The Iliad and filling in the empty space between Aeneas’ disconnected wanderings. As a result, Virgil created Aeneas’ origin story, turning a key Iliad character into a legendary figure and Roman hero. The Aeneid is divided neatly into two sections: Aeneas’ journey to Italy and his part in the war in Italy. Critics have been unable to agree if this epic poem is a pessimistic view of the Augustan regime or a celebration of the Roman imperial dynasty. But one thing is certain: this poem is a masterpiece.

Tags: classic, epic, mythology.

The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe (1845)

This paranormally musical poem about one man’s arduous descent into madness is an essential part of the poetic cannon. Edgar Allan Poe’s first person lens gives an intimate look at our unnamed narrator’s grieving. Following the death of his beloved Lenore, the protagonist finds himself face to face with a talking raven – hauntingly repeating the refrain “Nevermore.” Poe’s heightened language beautifully illustrates the circumstances of his character’s sorrow, inviting the reader to put themselves on the other side of that chamber door.

Tags: classic, haunting, love, grief.

Songs of Innocence and of Experience by William Blake (1789)

In 1789, William Blake published Songs of Innocence and Experience, illustrated by his own engravings. Finding a copy of this collection that maintains the original illustrations is a rare find indeed, but William Blake’s transcendent poetry collection speaks for itself, exploring the innocence of heaven and the experience of hell in wonderful contrast. A poet before his time, William Blake’s acclaim came well after his death and continues to find an audience to this day. Songs of Innocence and of Experience is an incredible introduction to William Blake’s extensive canon of poetry.

Tags: classic.

Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson (1998)

Simultaneously a novel and a poem, Autobiography of Red is an astonishing adaptation of the ancient Greek myth of Geryon, told through a modern coming-of-age lens. When Geryon, a young man and a winged red monster with a volcanic soul, leaves his abusive family behind in search of true happiness and the comfort of a camera lens, he finds love and solace in a young man named Herakles. Autobiography of Red is a stunning love story, beautifully layered through Anne Carson’s masterful writing. It’s nothing short of incredible.

Tags: contemporary, LGBTQ, mythology, genre-bending.

A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver (2012)

Mary Oliver returns to the rich tapestry of Provincetown, Massachusetts in her 2012 book A Thousand Mornings. The marshlands and coastlines that have come to define her work are chronicled with care and appreciation, injecting the New England air into each poem. In “The Moth, The Mountains, The River,” Oliver lets her mind wander in a truly wonderful way – living in the moment as she wonders if rivers can remember, if stones have the capacity for impatience. Her attention to detail begs the reader to book a flight to Massachusetts immediately; and you almost believe that she’ll host you upon arrival.

Tags: contemporary, Massachusetts, landscape.

The Complete Poems by Emily Dickinson (1890)

The odd juxtaposition of Emily Dickinson’s deep reading of the Book of Revelation and the writing of 17th century Metaphysical English poets permeate and pulse through The Complete Poems. As a prolific writer of poetry and letters, it’s almost unbelievable that Emily Dickinson wasn’t recognized during her lifetime. The Complete Poems is the only unedited publication of Dickinson’s poetry, including her original en-dash punctuation and an astonishing 1,775 poems – all discovered after her death. It’s essential addition to any poetry lover’s library.

Tags: classic, posthumous.

Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara (1964)

While the title of this collection alone is enough to make us hungry, Frank O’Hara’s poetry isn’t about the food he ate, but the way he spent his one hour break. In Lunch Poems, the poet takes us on a journey through Manhattan at noon, ruminating on objects most strive to ignore – like the “hum-colored cabs”. He makes lunch breaks sound like the most gorgeous thing in the world – not merely a moment to eat between arduous workday tasks, but a time to reflect, to see, to breathe.

Tags: classic.

The Iliad by Homer (710 BC)

This ancient Greek epic poem is a masterpiece that has survived the test of time. This magnificent piece documents the Trojan War, focusing on a few select weeks during the war’s final year and using a non-linear style to explore past and future events, including the gathering of the very first warriors and the fall of Achilles. Clocking in at an impressive 15,693 lines, this poem utilized a Greek mythology lens to tell a story of combat and bloodshed. The Iliad has inspired many incredible artists, including William Shakespeare, who adapted the poems plot for his play Troilus and Cressida.

Tags: classic, mythology, epic.

Translating Mo’um by Cathy Park Hong (2002)

Translating Mo’um was published in 2002 while Cathy Park Hong was still an MFA student at the Iowa Writers Workshop, greeting readers with this stunning debut collection. Her verse is peppered with Korean, harnessing the rhythm of her parents’ native language with her own American English. Her style is gorgeous throughout, but the interplay of language is particularly wonderful in “Androgynous Pronoun.” The poem explores gender-neutral pronouns through memory, genetics, and pop culture. It’s almost a prediction of the gender-neutral pronouns we adopt so readily today. Dive into Hong’s entire catalogue of work, but start the way she did – with Translating Mo’um.

Tags: contemporary.

The Essential Rumi by Jalal ad-Din Rumi (1961)

As a 13th century Persian Sunni Muslim poet and Islamic scholar, Jalal ad-Din Rumi’s writing has withstood the test of time, speaking to readers of every faith, nationality, and generation imaginable. This profoundly beautiful book of poetry was recently expanded to include 80 previously unpublished poems, giving today’s readers a unique look at Rumi’s lyrical mysticism. His writing is as beautiful as it is wise, aided by Coleman Barks’ incredible translations.

Tags: classic, translation.

Inferno by Dante Alighieri (1472)

In Dante’s journey through the nine concentric circles of Hell, the ancient Roman poet Virgil leads Dante – just as Dante leads his reader on this unearthly allegory. The poem begins shortly before dawn on Good Friday in the year 1300 A.D. The 35-year-old Dante – performing double duty as both our poet and our protagonist – describes himself as “midway through the journey of our life”, referencing the Bible’s projected human lifespan of 70. But he’s introduced to the realities of death much sooner than he’d hoped, embarking on a 48-hour journey through the recognition and rejection of sin, emerging just before dawn on Easter Sunday.

Tags: classic, epic, religion, allegory.

Sinners Welcome by Mary Karr (2006)

Sinners Welcome is a book that gets better with each read. Mary Karr’s lyrical masterpiece challenges traditional views of religion and powerfully explores what it means to find God in unexpected places. In one particularly poignant poem titled “Revelations in the Key of K,” Mary Karr writes about how kindergarten woke her up to the world around her – teaching her what words mean, showing her how mean the world can be. The book goes on from there, serving as a poetic memoir, a Mary Karr specialty in verse. It’s a must read for readers everywhere, regardless of religion.

Tags: contemporary, religion.

Serious Concerns by Wendy Cope (1992)

Wendy Cope brings humor and charisma to her poetry, hilariously titling her pieces “Men and Their Boring Arguments” and “Tumps” – an acronym standing in for the phrase “typically useless male poets.” Her writing is unapologetically feminist and refreshingly unfiltered. In “Bloody Men,” the UK poet compares the usefulness and frequency of the men in her life to a public transit bus system. In a stanza that many single people can relate to, Wendy Cope lays out the following: “Bloody men are like bloody buses; / You wait for about a year, / And as soon as one approaches your stop, / Two or three others appear.” We know the feeling.

Tags: contemporary, humor.

The Wasteland and Other Poems by T. S. Eliot (1922)

Think of a line of poetry and “April is the cruellest month” is sure to appear top of mind. But dive further into T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland and you’ll find a retelling of the Holy Grail legend that only Eliot can conjure. His verse is transcendent and it’s clear from first read why this poem has survived the test of time. With ancient influences like Homer and Sophocles and more modern allusions to Aldous Huxley and Bram Stoker, The Wasteland and Other Poems reads like the most incredible library, thanking those who came before and those who are yet to create.

Tags: classic, religion, myth.

Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes (1998)

In Birthday Letters, Ted Hughes collects over twenty-five years of poetry addressed to his late wife Sylvia Plath. The letters begin a few years after her 1963 suicide and explore his tumultuous and deeply felt love for Plath. Some poems take the form of love letters, others are downright haunting recollections of a shared life. It’s an incredible duration project about the raw nature of love and loss and a beautiful collection of poetry.

Tags: love, grief.

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman (1855)

Walt Whitman spent most of his life writing and rewriting Leaves of Grass and it shows. This masterpiece explores nature and mankind’s impact in its creation. These interconnected poems praise mankind – particularly the human mind – and the wonders our species is capable of. The way Whitman crafts verse about the flora and fauna of America in the 1800s is truly incredible and begs to be read on vacation to a National Park or between seasons as blossoms are just beginning to emerge.

Tags: classic, nature.

Citizen by Claudia Rankine (2014)

Every single one of these poems – every one of these essays and breaks in form – enriches the overarching slice of black American life that is Citizen by Claudia Rankine. With each reprinting of this phenomenal book of poetry, Rankine dedicates the tome to ever growing list of black men who’ve been killed as the result of police brutality. She eases her readers in with pop culture and Serena Williams before confronting them with examinations of double standards racial inequality. It’s an expert one-two punch that’s perfectly crafted for today’s society.

Tags: MacArthur Award, black lives matter, race, contemporary, activism, award winner.

Rapture by Sjohnna McCray (2016)

Sjohnna McCray’s gorgeous debut is peppered with poems about his origin story – pieces prefaced with the setting “Seoul, Korea, 1971.” In these intimate vignettes about his father, an American soldier, and his mother, a Korean prostitute, McCray teeters between removed observer and imminent third character. His description of conception in a war-torn country feels simultaneously clinical and deeply personal. The surrounding poems feel like steps that lead to these soulful Seoul ballets – often even mimicking staircases in their beautifully fragmented layout.

Tags: contemporary, love, war, race, debut.

Praise by Robert Hass (1979)

This William Carlos Williams Award winning collection is gorgeously sparse, relying on the former Poet Laureate’s love of flora and fauna to move his choice words off the page and into the air. Praise explores the nature of grief, interrogating the acceptance of death and imploring whether a person’s spirit can continue to exist in this world after their life has ended. Robert Hass is a masterful storyteller, giving his words just enough room to soar.

Tags: contemporary, award winner, grief, nature.

Ariel: The Restored Edition by Sylvia Plath (1965)

The original volume of Ariel was published posthumously, causing Sylvia Plath to soar to fame tragically too late. In this restored edition of the text, Plath’s daughter Frieda Hughes lays out facsimiles of her mother’s original pages – untouched by the editing pen of Plath’s husband Ted Hughes. This new edition of Plath’s incredible poetry allows the reader to compare and contrast the two drafts, preserving the legacy of Sylvia Plath free of the man who drove her to suicide.

Tags: classic.

Directed by Desire by June Jordan (2005)

This massive volume of poetry collects every poem June Jordan ever wrote, including 70 previously unpublished poems that she wrote while dying of breast cancer. June Jordan’s deeply autobiographical poetry explores themes of African American identity, bisexuality, political oppression, and memory to lyrically process the world around her. Her poetry exudes a deep love of children – especially African American children navigating a racially divided country. Directed by Desire is perfect for June Jordan fanatics and newcomers alike, providing a definitive look at her poetic oeuvre.

Tags: woman, contemporary, race, LGBTQ.

Its Day Being Gone by Rose McLarney (2014)

Its Day Being Gone explores the rich landscape of Appalachia – amplifying the poetic voice of her home. Her poetry explores the shifting nature of memory, molding her stories to fit the folklore quality of her writing. As she sings praises to the people and the flora of this rarely-depicted region of the United States, it’s clear that McLarney is in love with everyone and everything she encounters here. In “Native Species” , she dissects every aspect of the water that the lamprey eel and sunfish inhabit. As she writes about still rapids and stones and algae, the reader is practically invited to kick off their shoes and wade with these creatures – a feeling that carries throughout the entire book.

Tags: contemporary, Appalachia, landscape, award winner, memory, nature.

The Plum-Stone Game by Kathleen Jesme (2009)

In The Plum-Stone Game, Kathleen Jesme relies on reconstruction of sense-memory to craft these compact poems. Jesme’s writing feels like interconnected movements in a score – or a series of sketches bound by a unifying notebook. They’re erratic and exquisite, flitting from one topic to another – sometimes even within the same poem. In an unnamed poem late in the collection, Jesme remarks upon food, love, air drying laundry, and the abuse of the word “relationship,” all within eight lines of verse. She closes the poem with a line that beautifully describes her writing style. “Some days complete themselves; / others wait blankly to finished.”

Tags: contemporary, love, memory.

Refusing Heaven by Jack Gilbert (2005)

Jack Gilbert’s poetry feels like it’s trying to out run you. Refusing Heaven is so rigorous – so full speed ahead – that it’s almost a call to action. Gilbert’s writing is so urgent that it feels like he hardly stops to take a breath. And as soon as the reader’s exhausted – as soon as they’re about to put the book down – he inhales, dropping in a gloriously relaxed recitative. And then he’s off again at this breakneck speed – a conductor for the frenetic orchestra that is Refusing Heaven.

Tags: contemporary.

Don Juan by Lord Byron (1819)

Lord Byron’s epic masterpiece follows the fictional libertine Don Juan from an illicit affair in Spain at 16 years old and then across Europe and Asia. His Don Juan is on a journey in every sense of the word. He gallivants from Spain to Italy (well, technically he was exiled there) to Greece (where he’s sold into slavery) to Russia (where he becomes a favorite of the Empress) to England and beyond. Despite the dramatic stakes of Don Juan, Lord Byron has infused this verse novel with a healthy dose of humor. And did we mention that this nearly 800-page tome is written entirely in ottava rima stanza form? This book is a must read for anyone looking to challenge their perception of poetry -- and anyone looking for a good laugh.

Tags: classic, epic, humor, satire, genre-bending.

Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg (1956)

As a darling of the Beat Generation and a prominent figure in the resulting counterculture movement, Allen Ginsberg’s writing is squarely on the pulse of 1950s and 1960s New York. Howl is an incredible introduction to both Beat writing and Ginsberg’s style, exploring insanity as a central theme and touching on illegal drugs and sex – both heterosexual and homosexual. The poem was originally published by the owners of City Lights Books in San Francisco in 1956, prompting an obscenity trial charging owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti and manager Shigeyoshi Murao with distributing obscene literature. Both were arrested and later found not guilty. All press is good press, right?

Tags: Beat Generation, classic, banned.

Bluets by Maggie Nelson (2009)

This deeply personal, gorgeously lyrical hybrid of essay and poetry is filled with grief, joy, and sex – making it a beautiful portrait of a lifetime while simultaneously evoking a feeling that Bluets escaped from Maggie Nelson’s brain fully formed after lunch one day. Her treatise on the word “blue” in all its forms makes for an incredible weekend read, prompting readers all the while to gaze at the blue that surrounds them – bright paint on a discarded piece of lumber, inexplicable sadness on a sunny day, the cover of this very book. This genre-bending book is required reading for anyone who has ever answered the question “Why is the sky blue?” The answer: it’s so much more beautiful than you could ever imagine.

Tags: LGBTQ, grief, genre-bending.

No Matter the Wreckage by Sarah Kay (2014)

Sarah Kay’s poetry is enough to make a reader feel like they’re soaring above her life. She finds love letters in the mundane – from bobby pins on a window sill to broken umbrellas after a storm. No Matter the Wreckage collects a decade of Kay’s writing and even her notes on each poem’s origin contain her signature rhythm. It’s nearly impossible not to fall in love with her writing, especially when faced with minute magnificence like this message from a toothbrush to a bicycle tire: “If loving you means getting dirty, bring on the grime.

Tags: contemporary, love, strength, memory, debut.

The Princess Saves Herself in This One by Amanda Lovelace (2016)

Amanda Lovelace’s debut book The Princess Saves Herself in This One is a poetry collection for the internet generations. It’s as contemporary and pop culture infused as a book of poetry can get, with a gorgeous dedication to Harry Potter setting the tone for this playful and heartbreaking book. Amanda Lovelace is midway through her college degree, making this book even more impressive – a capsule of the author’s teenage mind. Her writing soars off the page, cutting to the very core of loneliness and longing. “when i had / no friends / i reached inside / my beloved / books / & sculpted some / out of / 12 pt / times new roman / & it was almost good enough.” It’s a raw and uncensored, beautifully devoid of insecurity or embarrassment. The Princess Saves Herself in This One sets Amanda Lovelace up as a poet to watch in the coming years.

Tags: contemporary, debut.

Dart by Alice Oswald (2002)

In this book length poem about the Dart River in Devon, UK, Alice Oswald’s cast of characters serve as a modern-day chorus for this epic landscape. These characters, who dwell and work on the water, give incredible life to this location. Voices from the ferryman, the sewage worker, the forester, and the countless swimmers mix in with voices from the past – historic voices of the drowned and the dreaming. The rhythm of these characters creates a gorgeous score – a symphony of past, present, and future. This oral history of the river will have you planning a trip to Devon, with Dart as your guide.

Tags: contemporary, award winner, nature.

The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich (1978)

Adrienne Rich’s gorgeous The Dream of a Common Language marries power, love poems, and wanderlust in this sweeping three-part book. “Power,” the book’s first poem, exquisitely prepares her audience for what lies ahead – deflecting from her own poetic brilliance to focus on the genius of Marie Curie. Rich’s structure is musical, dictating tempo through internal breaks within each line. Her love poems tumble right into each other – as if her love cannot slow down long enough to warrant a page break. And all the while, there’s an air to her work, which will leave the reader feeling like they’ve just spent the day outdoors – even if they never left their couch.

Tags: activism, love.

Look by Solmaz Sharif (2016)

Look opens with a lover calling Solmaz Sharif “exquisite.” And she hovers in that moment for half a second before leaping into reflections on microaggressions in the form of racism, Iraq War speculation, the damaging effects of The Patriot Act, and the power of the Republican National Convention. And it’s clear in that moment that Sharif’s lover was right. She is exquisite. And it’s difficult to describe her poetry any other way. In Look, Sharif explores the Iraq War through a poet’s lens. She allows us to live with her, taking us over the threshold from war to her own home, where she teaches herself to be content with the sweetness of the nickname “honey.” And as readers, we are so incredibly fortunate to rest our eyes on Sharif’s debut, because it means there are many more years of poetry ahead of her.

Tags: debut, war, death, love, contemporary.

Antidote by Corey Van Landingham (2013)

This debut collection from Corey Van Landingham is nothing short of stunning. It’s absurdist in all the right ways, infused with fantastical elements at every turn and filled with declarations about love that are simultaneously laughable and gorgeously true. It’s a reinvention of the form – grounded in classic muses and making up the rules as it goes. Antidote is a wild ride, and we’re thrilled that Corey Van Landingham has brought us along.

Tags: contemporary, debut.

Lighthead by Terrance Hayes (2010)

It’s easy to see why this stunning book of poetry won the National Book Award for Poetry. Between the meditations on race and history through the lives of Fela Kuti and Harriet Tubman and a challenging new poetic form inspired by the fast-paced, image-driven Japanese presentation technique Pecha Kucha, this book is sure to have a long relationship with its readers. At first read, there’s a fear that these poems will fly away if the reader takes too long to blink or pauses for a sip of water. But upon revisiting this expertly crafted book, we allow ourselves to take a breath and imagine the company of these giants of history, made so small by the boundaries of racism. We can imagine the twenty images Terrance Hayes drew from for his Pecha Kucha-inspired works – and the frantic twenty seconds of restricted viewing. And we can imagine Terrance Hayes orchestrating the entire endeavor.

Tags: contemporary, award winner, race.

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