The Best Poetry Books To Read If You're New To The Genre
Writing good poetry (whatever that means) can be intimidating. But reading good poetry, well that's just fuel for the soul. I've been an avid reader and writer of this literary style for as long as I can remember, and have spent the better part of the last year re-acquainting myself with the creative outlet I'd cast aside due to career and life pursuits. But after immersing myself into a reading practice, I've discovered a number of poets — both new and old — I'd love to share with you, dear reader.
Ahead, take a look at my virtual bookshelf featuring some of the best poetry books I've newly discovered and long adored. When you don't have the energy or time to pick up a new novel or non-fiction read, I invite you to flip through one of these collections by greats like Mary Oliver, Maya Angelou, and Pablo Neruda for a jolt of creativity, delight, and heartfelt emotion you're unlikely to come by mindlessly scrolling Instagram or TikTok. Keep reading to awaken the inner poet you didn't know you had in you.
Call Us What We Carry: Poems by Amanda Gorman ($15)
Thanks to a stirring poetry reading at President Joe Biden's inauguration earlier this year and again at the 2021 Super Bowl (an unexpected bright spot of the otherwise sporty event, I might add), Amanda Gorman has established herself as an essential voice of our generation. Hot on the heels of her instant best-seller The Hill We Climb, Gorman's forthcoming poetry collection is set to be released on December 7, but you can pre-order it now.
This curated tome of Mary Oliver poems charts her brilliant career and includes over 200 delicious poems you can return to again and again. Enjoy soul-crushingly good observations such as: "We shake with joy, we shake with grief. What a time they have, these two housed as they are in the same body."
Bright Dead Things: Poems by Ada Limón ($15)
The Mexican-American writer confronts themes like home and belonging as she uproots and reroots (from Brooklyn to Kentucky and elsewhere) in this mighty work of autobiographical introspection. Though the collection debuted in 2015, poems like "The Conditional" seem to forecast many of the emotions felt in our pandemic year(s) — further marking Limón a necessary contemporary poet.
Twenty Love Poems and A Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda ($13)
Despite the fact that my copy of this book came from an old boyfriend (and still bears a then-touching but now-awkward inscription), the collection itself stretches far beyond my personal nostalgia to serve up some of the best romantic musings of our time. This volume shares love poems in both the Chilean author's native tongue of Spanish as well as their English translations (a treat for bilingual readers).
Maya Angelou: Poems ($8)
When I need a poetic burst of inspiration, I tend to reach for this palm-sized read, which features 100+ writings from the heart of the much-celebrated, Pulitzer Prize-nominated author Maya Angelou. She sugarcoats nothing and shoots straight, oscillating between raw moments of pain and joy.
Time Is A Mother by Ocean Vuong, ($24)
You're likely familiar with Ocean Vuong from his breathtaking work of self-discovery: On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous. It's written as a letter to his mother wherein he explores his complicated family history rooted in Vietnam and the questions that arise from his upbringing in America. His poetic prose has me eager to devour his next poetry collection, Time Is A Mother, which is available for pre-order now and drops April 2022.
The Edge of the Continent by Jacqueline Suskin ($19)
This trilogy of poetry honors California and Suskin's many connections to its land with volumes dedicated to the forest, the city, and the desert (as pictured). I first came across Jacqueline Suskin's bewitching work during the pandemic, when she hosted a creative writing workshop on Commune, an experience that kickstarted my own poetry writing again. Follow her on Instagram for typewritten musings and further writerly inspiration.
Crush by Richard Siken ($16)
Siken's debut poetry collection explodes with a confessional tone that circles themes such as desire, obsession, and violence. He breaks traditional poetry rules like stanza formatting in favor of a free-form cinematic world that pulls the reader in rather forcefully.
The Weary Blues by Langston Hughes ($20)
It's always a fitting time to return to the beloved work of Langston Hughes, a leader of the Harlem Renaissance who intimately expresses the experiences of Black America in his lyrical poetry. Though his first poetry collection debuted in 1926 (when Hughes was in his mid-twenties), his body of work still has deep resonance almost a century later. In fact, in the wake of the Movement for Black Lives, a Langston Hughes poem resurfaced and went viral on social media that I'll leave here:
I am so tired of waiting.
For the world to become good
And beautiful and kind?
Let us take a knife
And cut the world in two—
And see what worms are eating
At the rind.
If you were ever a fan of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton is a natural progression in the line of great confessional poets (who unfortunately both share the same untimely cause of death: suicide). Sexton's words will break your heart open with haunting, depressive motifs about life as the other woman, religious preoccupation, and the female identify. I can still recite one of her poems I learned in a college poetry course ("For My Lover, Returning To His Wife") with a crushing final line of comparison which reads, "As for me, I am watercolor. I wash off." Brutal!
Bluets by Maggie Nelson ($14)
I'd been recommended this book about a dozen times from poets and non-poets alike and finally picked up a copy at a bookstore that had it nestled under a curated section called "Pretty Prose," a cursory but accurate description. Nelson brings a delightfully fresh and clever angle to the genre in this book of near-poems comprised of micro odes to the color blue.
Selected Poems by E.E. Cummings ($14)
An essential add to any reader's starter pack, the wild, dancing, experimental turns of phrase from E.E. Cummings turned me on to the possibility of poetry upon first discovery when I was a pre-teen. His poems are energetic, vivacious, and articulate the oft inarticulable feelings of love. I mean, what poetry lover hasn't scribbled his lines across the pages of their journal? Also, did E.E. Cummings influence the Tumblr-era grammar choice to abandon uppercase rules? We'll never know.
Poems 1962 to 2012 by Louise Glück ($13)
Louise Glück is a prolific living legend, Nobel Prize winner, and thoroughly celebrated poet who belongs in every catalog of written art. You can't go wrong with this 600+ page anthology if you wish to study the poetic genius that is Glück's ever-tender voice.
Insomnia: Poems by Linda Pastan ($13)
Linda Pastan is someone I'll admit I discovered thanks to Instagram. Her writing reminds me why I love poetry so much — the way it's possible, magical even, to make an emotional impact with such little real estate. She tightens her stanzas down to what's essential and nothing more, and yet still makes you feel something.
Do you have a favorite poet or poem you'd like to share? DM us @BritandCo with your best poetry book recommendations and let us know.
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Director of Content at Brit + Co. Tar Heel in Los Angeles.