Poetry is an art form that predates written text. It fuses meaning, sound, and rhythm to create magical worlds that offer insights into ourselves – and into the unknown. Since it’s taken to the page, poets have even been able to play with how it looks, using word placement to add yet another layer of meaning. The form almost defies definition, but we know we tend to look to it when we need a little inspiration, to light that spark that only the best poetry knows how to ignite.
If you’re feeling the urge to jump into the world of poetry books, you’ve come to the right place. We’ve compiled a list of collections that should satisfy the breadth and width of most poetic imaginations, from the traditional to the avant-garde. It includes what some consider the best poetry books of all time, alongside lesser-known but equally breathtaking compilations.
Crush by Richard Siken
Richard Siken’s Crush, selected as the 2004 winner of the Yale Younger Poets prize, is a powerful collection of poems driven by obsession and love. Siken writes with ferocity, and his reader hurtles unstoppably with him. His poetry is confessional, gay, savage, and charged with violent eroticism. In the world of American poetry, Siken’s voice is striking.
In her introduction to the book, competition judge Louise Glück hails the “cumulative, driving, apocalyptic power, [and] purgatorial recklessness” of Siken’s poems. She notes, “Books of this kind dream big. . . . They restore to poetry that sense of crucial moment and crucial utterance which may indeed be the great genius of the form.”
Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur
‘milk and honey is a collection of poetry and prose about survival. About the experience of violence, abuse, love, loss, and femininity. It is split into four chapters, and each chapter serves a different purpose. Deals with a different pain. Heals a different heartache. ‘milk and honey’ take readers through a journey of the most bitter moments in life and finds sweetness in them because there is sweetness everywhere if you are just willing to look.
The End of the Alphabet by Claudia Rankine
Claudia Rankine’s book-length poem about rising racial tensions in America, Citizen: An American Lyric, won numerous prizes, including the The National Book Critic’s Circle Award. Her new collection of poems—intrepid, obsessive, and erotic—tell the story of a woman’s attempt to reconcile herself to her own despair.
Drawing on voices from Jane Eyre to Lady MacBeth, Rankine welds the cerebral and the spiritual, the sensual and the grotesque. Whether writing about intimacy or alienation, what remains long after is her singular voice—its beguiling cadence and vivid physicality. There is an unprotected quality to this writing, as if each word has been pushed out along the precipice, daring us to go with it. Rankine’s power lies in the intoxicating pull of that dare.
From one of contemporary poetry’s most powerful and provocative authors, The End of the Alphabet is a work where “wits at once keen and tenacious match themselves against grief’s genius” (Boston Review).
Live or Die by Anne Sexto
With her emotionally raw and deeply resonant third collection, Live or Die, Anne Sexton confirmed her place among the most celebrated poets of the twentieth century. Sexton described the volume, which depicts a fictionalized version of her struggle with mental illness, as “a fever chart for a bad case of melancholy.” From the halls of a psychiatric hospital—“the scene of the disordered scenes” in “Flee on Your Donkey”—to a child’s playroom—“a graveyard full of dolls” in “Those Times . . .”—these gripping poems offer profound insight on the agony of depression and the staggering acts of courage and faith required to emerge from its depths.
Along with other confessional poets like Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell, Sexton was known for grappling with intimate subjects traditionally considered taboo for poetry such as motherhood, menstruation, and drug dependence. Live or Die features these topics in candid and unflinching detail, as Sexton represents the full experience of being alive—and a woman—as few poets have before. Through bold images and startlingly precise language, Sexton explores the broad spectrum of human emotion ranging from desperate despair to unfettered hope.
Blood Dazzler by Patricia Smith
Centered around the immeasurable tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, this collection of poems assumes the voices of those immersed in the fateful natural disaster. Smith takes on the form of apathetic politicians, the lost and dying, the angry and surviving, and the inimitable hurricane itself. Smith’s poem about the thirty-four elderly patients in a nursing home who drowned after being left to the ravages of the tropical storm will move any reader to tears. She stuns and devastates, with powerful and scathing lines like, “The cowboy grins through the terrible din, and in the Ninth, a choking woman wails, ‘Looks like this country done left us for dead.’”
Our Numbered Days by Neil Hillborn
In 2013, Neil Hilborn’s performance of his poem “OCD” went viral. To date, it has been watched over 10 million times. Our Numbered Days is Neil’s debut full-length poetry collection, containing 45 of Neil’s poems including “OCD”, “Joey”, “Future Tense”, “Liminality”, “Moving Day”, and many, many never-before-seen poems.
To Bedlam and Part Way Back by Anne Sexton
This book of Sexton poems has the cumulative impact of a good novel. It has the richness variety and compactness of true poetry. It is a book to read and remembered. Sexton is an accomplished lyricist. She can combine the straightforwardness of playing on his speech with the saddle with the control, tight formal structure, and brilliantly effective imagery. But she makes her singular claim on our attention by the fact that she has important things to tell us and tells them dramatically.
Ariel by Sylvia Plath
When Sylvia Plath died, she not only left behind a prolific life but also her unpublished literary masterpiece, Ariel. Her husband, Ted Hughes, brought the collection to life in 1966, and its publication garnered worldwide acclaim. This collection showcases the beloved poet’s brilliant, provoking, and always moving poems, including “Ariel” and once again shows why readers have fallen in love with her work throughout the generations.
The Maidens by Alex Michaelides
Edward Fosca is a murderer. Of this Mariana is certain. But Fosca is untouchable. A handsome and charismatic Greek tragedy professor at Cambridge University, Fosca is adored by staff and students alike – particularly by the members of a secret society of female students known as The Maidens.
Mariana Andros is a brilliant but troubled group therapist who becomes fixated on The Maidens when one member, a friend of Mariana’s niece Zoe, is found murdered in Cambridge.
Mariana, who was once herself a student at the university, quickly suspects that behind the idyllic beauty of the spires and turrets, and beneath the ancient traditions, lies something sinister. And she becomes convinced that, despite his alibi, Edward Fosca is guilty of the murder. But why would the professor target one of his students? And why does he keep returning to the rites of Persephone, the maiden, and her journey to the underworld?
When another body is found, Mariana’s obsession with proving Fosca’s guilt spirals out of control, threatening to destroy her credibility as well as her closest relationships. But Mariana is determined to stop this killer, even if it costs her everything – including her life.
Citizen by Claudia Rankine
While many question whether Claudia Rankine’s 2014 poetry book can actually be classified as poetry, a reading of Citizen will prove that it does not matter. Part poem, part critical essay, it’s an honest portrayal of the racism that exists in day-to-day encounters in society. We recommend reading it alongside Americanah, an international fiction book by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s.