20 titles to guide you through National Poetry Month
April is National Poetry Month. And, as we celebrate an art form that gives shape and language to our experience of the world, it is worth noting that many readers are still struggling to find the door, the point of access to poetry.
With that in mind, accept these 20 titles – most of them quite recent – as an offer of peace and a starting point. Not everyone resonates with every reader. but there has to be something here for every mood and commitment.
Poems of devotion
Jericho Brown, “The New Testament” (2014) Following in the footsteps of James Baldwin and others, Brown’s spiritual and sexual desire, love and affection, until the lines are virtually imperceptible. Brown’s 2019 title, “Tradition,” won him a Pulitzer Prize, but do not overlook the power of this previous work. Brown will appear in a conversation with Tracy K. Smith on April 23 as the culmination of this year’s Unbound Book Festival.
Scott Cairns, “Slow Pilgrim” (2015) Perhaps the distinguished poet of divine affection of his generation, the former professor of the University of Missouri maintains wonderful company in this volume of collected works. Cairns claps his hands with the mystics and martyrs, the church fathers and mothers – and with the daily masochist, he stumbles and fills with grace.
Natalie Diaz, “War After Colonial Love” (2020) Not unlike Brown, there is a different, more sensual set than Diaz’s devotion – her partner’s hips, the bow of a jump, the place where domestic and wild creatures settle together – but ecstasy is no less respected or inspired.
Poems about this – and every – moment
Deborah Landau, “Soft Targets” (2019) The title of Landau’s miraculous text refers both to the condition of the people in a time of mass shootings – and to the condition of the people at any time and place. To love and to love, to enjoy anything, is vulnerable, Landau’s poems claim. Her works call us to live a kind of soft bravery and to recognize and negotiate with our own defenses.
Catherine Pierce, “Danger Days” (2020) The MU graduate, now a professor at Mississippi State, looks to the end of the world as she knows it. And while Pierce’s poems flash more than once, bathe as they are in authentic humanity, they also defy any number of upcoming revelations by finding and occupying all that is left to love for this crumbling world.
Poems about puddles of life
Anders Carlson-Wee, “The Low Passions” (2019) The dark secrets of the new Old West turn to the harsh light of Carlson-Wee writing. Drifters, dumpster divers, railroad riders and makeshift families complete his poems, making their existence seem scary and appealing. Carlson-Wee’s work will satisfy both readers’ curiosities and lead them to the best angels of their nature.
Franz Wright, “Walking in Martha’s Vineyard” (2003) Few poets are fought by angels and demons, such as the former Wright. This Pulitzer Prize winner is perhaps the most representative of his ability to exchange unpleasant conditions, with mental illness, addiction and self-doubt sitting on one side of the table facing God, the grace and love of other living creatures.
Poetry with bent pop culture
Hanif Abdurraqib, “The crown is not worth much” (2016) No contemporary poet weaves personal and pop culture strands like Abdurraqib. Here, he writes about Kanye West, punk rock, A Tribe Called Quest, Fall Out Boy, Chicago Bulls, Whitney Houston – and more – in ways that both honor and transcend the subject. The titles of Abdurraqib’s poems are the poems themselves: “The author explains good boy, mAAd city to his white friend, while driving to southeastern Ohio.” “Friends, we did not go through the hassle of getting these fake IDs for this Jukebox to have no Springsteen.” “None of the guys in my block will discuss the existence of God.”
Danny Caine, “El Dorado Freddy’s” (2020) Most of the poems in this collection take place in franchise restaurants (remember these?) As Caine – the owner of Lawrence, the Kansas part of The Raven Book Store and the crusader against the Amazon – looks at the menus and ways to worry. for fatherhood, nostalgia and consumer culture. Tara Wray’s photos match Caine’s words step by step, ringing bells of humor and passion.
The poetry of the place
Tyree Daye, “Cardinal” (2020) The “Cardinal” is – and between – several places. Starting, in part, with an inscription from the Green Paper, Daye maps out the places where Black Americans can safely settle, either in this life or in the next.
Jake Skeets, “Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers” (2019) The Skeets debut is an admirable collection of poems that tilts the axis that lies – and, spiritually, outside – within the confines of Navajo bookings that I feel familiar and completely foreign to me, a native of Arizona. Skeets works challenging outsiders to the perception of Diné’s people – and, inwardly, subverts the masculine and sexual structure of his community.
Hannah VanderHart, “What Pecan Light” (2021) The latest collection on this list – as of April 20 – finds the North Carolina poet meaningful of a cultural South that has turned a false story into an unchanging legacy. Even when VanderHart struggles with what it means to tell the truth, these poems beautifully fascinate readers in what can be appreciated for the moment and the moment after. (Revelation: VanderHart edited two independent book reviews of me last year.)
Christian Wiman, “Survival is a Style” (2020) Published last February, just about a month before the pandemic sent many of us into survival mode, Wiman’s title seems prophetic. The poems of the book see us too, sifting through the phenomena of religious migration, the salvation of fast food and others.
Adam Zagajewski, “Asymmetry” (2018) The precious Polish poet died on March 21 at the age of 75. Many pieces from the English translation of the 2014 collection shine and scale. No one resonates like “Mourning for a Lost Friend”, which is destructive in its accuracy, capturing the feeling of losing a partner – not in death, but in politics. “My friend is hiding from me / He is occupied by a deep political tide / My friend now knows the answer to every question / And he can locate the source of every answer,” the poet writes.
Poetry for reading with children
Langston Hughes, “The Dream Keeper and Other Poems” (1996) The first poem I memorized was simply called “Poem”. In six lines, Hughes gave language to my first grader, helping us understand how to articulate the loss of a loved one who has left. The poetry of life, death, love and hope is all here for children – articulated in simple but profoundly radical ways – and accompanied by rich, striking illustrations by Brian Pinkney.
Various, “Hip Hop Speaks to Children” (2008) Crafted by the bright Nikki Giovanni, this collection brings together rhythmic recitations that will speak to children. The words of all from Martin Luther King Jr. and Maya Angelou to Queen Latifah and A Tribe Called Quest mingle here, touching on topics that children understand and help them recognize the depth and breadth of hip-hop culture.
Eve Ewing, “Electric Arches” (2017) Officially inventive and endless soul, Ewing’s work here is a story that comes of age and comes to yours. With a lively, artistic accompaniment, the poet explores the spaces between species – and people – in unforgettable ways
Sarah Sloat, “Almighty Hotel” (2020) Sloat creates a masterpiece from “Misery”, using the techniques of poetry and visual poetry to recreate meaning from words in the pages of Stephen King’s famous novel. awesome poems – and invites us to consider where poetry may be hiding near us.
Poetry for a better day
Mary Oliver, “Devotions” (2017) You could read this front-to-back anthology career many times – and I have – and you never tire of Oliver’s words. The beloved retired poet draws from endless wells of curiosity, miracle, mercy and kindness as she explores wildlife inside and without us.
Maggie Smith, “Good Bones” (2017) The title poem has spread as widely as a poem these days, touching something deep inside the readers who know what it means to live in a world with “good bones”, a habitat where we want to make a home. Smith’s poem is sad, but it leaves the door cracked enough to hope to get inside.