Looking for a new poetry book to read? I’ve got you! We’re going to explore some of my favorite poetry collections, which range from the traditional all the way to the downright experimental. And though they differ in terms of tone and subject matter, they’ve all got what a former creative writing professor of mine would call “the good stuff.”
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So count off your iambs and get ready to learn about some of the best poetry books of all time.
Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong
Night Sky with Exit Wounds is the first poetry collection from Ocean Vuong and, oh wow, is it a gem of a book. Vuong’s lyrical style is well-suited to the heavy subjects he pursues, particularly when he reflects on the loss of his father and his experiences as a wartime refugee. There’s a certain mythic quality to his writing, especially in poems like “Telemachus,” which marries the ancient with the contemporary: “Like any good son, I pull my father out / of the water, drag him by his hair / through white sand, his knuckles carving a trail / the waves rush in to erase.” Consider me fully and utterly gobsmacked.
Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara
If you like a breezy, conversational style, Lunch Poems might be the poetry book for you. Personal, funny, and irreverent, the collection perfectly epitomizes the casual voice of Frank O’Hara, a prominent figure of the New School scene in late-’50s New York. As the name suggests, most of the poems were written during his lunch break at work, bringing a realistic edge to the writing. It’s a tender read from start to end and will transport you to a very specific time period in which experimentation reigned supreme.
100 Selected Poems by e.e. cummings
It’s a shame that more people don’t take e.e. cummings seriously. Yes, his poetry is sometimes cringely experimental and earnest. Sure, he luxuriates in cliche on occasion. But when he hits, he hits. His poems unfurl like blown glass, taking on shapes that are equal parts stunning, confusing, and unexpected. Unconcerned with “rules,” cummings strove to capture emotion in its rawest form, an idea embodied in the opening lines of one of his most famous poems: “since feeling is first / who pays any attention / to the syntax of things / will never wholly kiss you.” A consummate genius of the (non) form.
The Complete Poems by Elizabeth Bishop
In my opinion, any round-up of fantastic poetry books must include Elizabeth Bishop. Highly skilled (and highly influential), Bishop was one of the defining voices of the 20th century, crafting verse with precision, humor, and heartbreaking clarity. She mostly worked within traditional forms, but to surprising effects, infusing classic styles with modern sensibilities. While her last collection, Geography III, will always hold a special place in my heart, you might as well start with The Complete Poems.
If They Come for Us by Fatimah Asghar
In her debut collection, writer Fatimah Asghar delivers a propulsive punch of rhythm, energy, and nuance as she speaks to her identity as a queer Pakistani Muslim woman in the United States. Her voice is playful and tender, dancing across styles and forms with ease. Though she experiments with structure, she’s most at home in a spoken-word cadence that spins throughout the collection. A must-read for folks in search of challenging poems that’ll stick with you long after you’ve turned the page.
Lighthead by Terrance Hayes
If you’re a fan of narrative poetry, I highly recommend checking out Lighthead from Terrance Hayes. It’s the poet’s fourth collection and moves like a freight train as it tackles a wide range of subjects, from the passing of time to love, loss, and pop culture. What I especially like about it is how deftly it moves between different tones and registers, making you cry on one page and chuckle on the next. A standout from Hayes and a fantastic example of the performative energy pulsing in contemporary poetry.
The Selected Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Edna St. Vincent Millay
“I will be the gladdest thing / Under the sun! / I will touch a hundred flowers / And not pick one” begins “Afternoon on a Hill,” one of my all-time favorite poems. It was written by Edna St. Vincent Millay, a turn of the century poet who was nothing short of a badass trailblazer. Not only did she practically establish the modernist American voice (which would, in turn, influence generations of writers), but she did it all as a queer-identified woman before that was even remotely a thing. Plus, she’s a gorgeous writer who always brought an element of wonder to her many and varied subjects.
Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds
I love Sharon Olds. Period. Full-stop. The End. She’s a sublime storyteller, but what I think I like most about her is how honestly and surprisingly she approaches her poems. A verse about sex, for example, is never just about sex. It’s about the thing before sex, the thing after, the thing between. She’s supremely gifted at excavating the truth out of any given situation, a talent exemplified masterfully in Stag’s Leap, which sees her exploring her divorce. A sucker punch read that’s beautiful and deeply cathartic.
In the mood for more books? Take a gander at our recommendations for the best LGBTQ+ books of all time!
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