By Hannah White
National Poetry Month is here! To celebrate this beautiful and distinct literary form I’ve put together a list of some of my favorite poetry books and anthologies along with a few that I have on my read list for this month. I’ve included some classics as well as some more contemporary works, for readers of all sensibilities, along with some of my favorite excerpts from each.
I have an obsession with Rossetti’s beautiful, fruitful diction. Her poetry is captivating, accessible, and such a treat for the senses. Rossetti includes themes of love and death, spirituality, and loss–all in her precise language that makes her so beloved. One of my favorite excerpts comes from her poem, “A Birthday”:
My heart is like an apple-tree
Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit;
My heart is like a rainbow shell
That paddles in a halcyon sea;
My heart is gladder than all these
Because my love is come to me
This edition includes all of the known poems written by the great Keats, lightly modernized and accompanied by extensive notes and extracts from his letters. Keats writes so profoundly of feelings of melancholy and great joys alike. In his “Fancy”, he writes of the joys and power of the imagination:
Of the Fancy’s silken leash;
Quickly break her prison-string
And such joys as these she’ll bring.—
Let the winged Fancy roam,
Pleasure never is at home.
In the introduction, Plath’s husband Ted Hughes writes:
“To my knowledge, she never scrapped any of her poetic efforts. With one or two exceptions, she brought every piece she worked on to some final form acceptable to her, rejecting at most the odd verse, or a false head or a false tail. Her attitude to her verse was artisan-like: if she couldn’t get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy. The end product for her was not so much a successful poem, as something that had temporarily exhausted her ingenuity. So this book contains not merely what verse she saved, but—after 1956—all she wrote.”
This comprehensive edition gives us all of Plath, her misery and her joys. Plath leaves behind a legacy, and sheds a light on mental illness. Of her poems, “Lady Lazarus” is one of the most powerful:
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.
The Hill We Climb: An Inaugural Poem for the Country by Amanda Gorman
Following in the footsteps of renowned poets like Maya Angelou, Gorman became the youngest poet to deliver an inaugural poetry reading on January 20th, 2021, at President Biden’s inauguration. Though this is a short book, it includes a foreword by Oprah, and it is powerfully written and representative of the times we are living in today. The title poem begins:
When day comes we ask ourselves,
where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry,
a sea we must wade.
We’ve braved the belly of the beast,
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace,
and the norms and notions
of what just is
isn’t always just-ice.
Floating, Brilliant, Gone by Franny Choi
In this collection of poems, Choi “explores life as a brief impossibility, “infinite / until it isn’t.” Punctuated with haunting illustrations by Jess X. Chen, Choi’s poems read like lucid dreams that jolt awake at the most unexpected moments.” Choi, a Korean American poet, powerfully critiques consumerism, racism, and sexism in one of the poems from this collection:
chopped up & cradled in Styrofoam
for [him] – candid cannibal.
My Wicked Wicked Ways: Poems by Sandra Cisneros
These brutally honest poems that explore the human condition show Cisneros, author of the beloved The House on Mango Street, in an entirely new light. From the introductory poem:
My first felony—I took up with poetry.
For this penalty, the rice burned.
Mother warned I’d never wife.
Wife? A woman like me.
whose choice was rolling pin or factory.
An absurd vice, this wicked wanton
Andalusian Hours: Poems from the Porch of Flannery O’Connor by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell
This collection of 101 sonnets by poet and scholar Angela Alaimo O’Donnell channels O’Connor’s voice, imagining the last 14 years of her life in Georgia on her family’s farm. Each poem begins with excerpts from O’Connor’s letters, stories, or essays, and then expands on the thoughts she presented in them. This beautiful artistic celebration of O’Connor’s work and life is a beautiful testament to the ability great literature has to inspire. In one poem O’Donnell writes:
Quick step on the stick of the wooded path,
I step back as if to undo sound,
as if the soul I stalk could hear past
the raucous song of herself unfound.