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The best poetry books: You owe it to yourself to read these

Haven't read poetry since high school? These are the best poetry books to get your mind back in the mood

Man reading a book.
Tuấn Vỹ/Unsplash

If you’re like most people these days, if asked what the best poetry books are out there right now, or were asked for a recommendation, you’d have absolutely no clue what to say. But you used to. Think about it. “What do we read to our children every night?” asksed Derek Sheffield, Poetry Editor of (and author of the collection of poetry Not for Luck ). Right. Nursery rhymes. Which is just another name for poetry for kids.

And maybe you don’t think of poetry as important in our era, given the news cycle blur, social platforms aplenty, our personal daily grinds, and the explosion of media of all types. But how do humans mark our major moments? “We still turn to poetry at the moments of greatest personal and cultural significance,” said Sheffield. We rely on the carefully crafted word to make sense of life.

Now, to be fair, he’s a guy who has spent a lifetime with the art form, while most of us tend not to read much poetry after those nursery rhyme years. If you haven’t picked up a book of poetry since 10th grade English, now is a good time to give it another go. Here are the best poetry books that will have you feeling intellectual, sophisticated, and thinking about more than things like what you’re going to have for dinner.

The Penguin Book of Romantic Poetry.
Penguin Classics

The Penguin Book of Romantic Poetry

Alright, yes, a lot of Romantic poetry is dated, over-the-top, and a bit ridiculous, but it’s also wonderful. The flourishes and melodrama that might miss the mark today were all an important part of the development of the art into its modern form. Without “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” there may have been no “Howl.” So, if you want to appreciate poetry, you have to respect the roots.

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman.
American Renaissance Books

Leaves of Grass – Walt Whitman

Modern American poetry arguably began with Walt Whitman, and his fluid, often manic but still joyful words spring off the pages with as much excitement for the modern reader as they did more than 150 years ago. Far from a relic of a bygone era, Whitman and his words are vital today, not in a timeless sense, but in a timely sense.

If there is one great takeaway from this great collection, it’s that we are all in it together, and aren’t we ever thus? “Listener up there! Here you… what have you to confide in me? | Look in my face while I snuff the sidle of evening, | Talk honestly, for no one else hears you, and I stay only a minute longer.”

The Waste Land and Other Poems by T.S. Eliot.

The Waste Land and Other Poems – T.S. Eliot

Yes, “The Waste Land” is Eliot’s best-known poem and rightly so. It is epic, it references a myriad of works from the past while commenting on its present, it’s competent throughout and at turns excellent, and so much more. But it’s not the best poem in this collection.

That’s arguably “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which reads fresh even 111 years on. But read the collection through as a whole and what will strike you is that it does not feel dated. Sub in a smartphone for the “Boston Evening Transcript,” for example, and you’ll see yourself (and all of us) right there in the poem.

100 Selected Poems by e.e. cummings

100 Selected Poems – e.e. cummings

To fully embrace and enjoy e.e. cummings, you need to get over the punctuation, syntax, word placement, and grammar, or rather the lack thereof. Yes, he played with form. Yes, he broke rules and made-up new ones of his own. But it wasn’t to be cute or campy or to confuse in order to feign profundity.

Edward Estlin Cummings, author of nearly 3,000 poems (as well as books and plays) just really hated being bogged down by the order of things. His freeform approach to syntax and grammar was not the point, rather a removal of barriers to the point, which was what the words said and how they made the reader feel.

The Essential Neruda by Pablo Neruda.
City Lights Publishers

The Essential Neruda – Pablo Neruda

Though this 2004 volume was published on the hundredth anniversary of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s birth, the writing doesn’t feel old at all. Rather the work of the Nobel Prize winner is filled with heartache that knows no age in terms of history and of a human beings’ years.

His poems are often filled with a sadness in which we find a companion to aid in our own grieving: “On nights like this I held her in my arms. | I kissed her so many times beneath the infinite sky….. My soul is not at peace with having lost her.”

The Collected Poems by Sylvia Plath.
Harper Perennial Modern Classics

The Collected Poems – Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath’s poetry is something of a bridge spanning the realm of classic and modern. Her diction reads almost 19th Century, while her meaning was often ahead of its time. This Pulitzer Prize-winning collection is a gift to the ages from an ageless poet whose short life was a misery, but which enriches ours, and will surely still do so for future generations.

The Complete Poetry by Maya Angelou.
Random House

The Complete Poetry – Maya Angelou

When you think of Maya Angelou, you likely think of her as a novelist. Or rather multi-award winning, voice of a generation novelist. Her poetry was often spare of in terms of word count, yet drip with rich meaning.

Read the 66-word poem “In a Time” and you will see exactly what that means. And you will see within that poem (and many more) a depth several times deeper, despite it being all of 12 lines of verse.

The Essential Ginsberg by Allen Ginsberg.

The Essential Ginsberg – Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg was a thoroughly modern artist that used his status as a recognized public figure to advance causes ranging from the sexual revolution to human rights to religious freedom (or freedom from religion) and beyond.

But to think of him first as an activist and second as a poet is to get it backward: first and foremost, the outspoken man was an amazing writer of poetry, in an era where poetry drew more clout.

The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry.
Penguin Books

The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry

Sometimes you want to listen to an album straight through, especially if it’s “The Wall” or “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” Other times, you want a playlist. This “playlist” of excellent American poetry from the 1900s has Frost, Stein, Merwin, and more. If you want a great sense of the great writing from that storied century, add this book to the mix.

Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein.

Where the Sidewalk Ends – Shel Silverstein

For the record, this is a book of poems for kids. If you have kids, you should have this book in your home. You should actually have all of Silverstein’s books in your home. Yes, some of the poems are a bit weird, a bit gruesome, a bit cringy, a bit over-the-top. But just as you enjoy Eliot and cummings and Whitman, your kids will enjoy Silverstein, just as you will.

3 Sections by Vijay Seshdari.

3 Sections – Vijay Seshdari

In this 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, Indian-American poet Vijay Seshdari used various approaches to language itself, at times using rhyming couplets, at times writing almost in prose.

So, too, does the content vary, at times focused on the immigrant story, at times quintessentially American. His poetry feels entirely current today, as fresh as if just sharing it with us today. Quite likely, in the form of a latter-day Eliot, that will remain true for decades to come.

Synthetic Jungle: Poems by Michael Chang.
Northwestern University Press

Synthetic Jungle: Poems – Michael Chang

If you want poetry that makes you cringe while laughing more than it makes you feel philosophical, then Synthetic Jungle: Poems by American poet Michael Chang is a must-read. Not all poetry has to make you think deep life thoughts with a weepy eye.

Chang still discusses issues so relevant today ranging from immigration and race to LGBTQ themes, but in a hilarious and quick-witted way. Read the poems out loud to truly appreciate the humor and tone Chang has created.

Poetry isn’t only for kids’ nursery rhymes or high school English class, or even that college elective you took just to graduate. Poets have created a world that will pull something out of your soul as much as your favorite song or movie. And, if you really don’t like reading, poems are the perfect way to exercise your brain without having to read War and Peace.

Editors' Recommendations

Dannielle Beardsley
Dannielle has written for various websites, online magazines, and blogs. She loves everything celebrity and her favorite…
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