Most of us don’t read “modern” poetry in school. We read the Romantic poets or are introduced to ancient forms such as the Haiku, but we don’t get the chance to read the poets whose work wins annual awards and garners praise from the critics. It’s a terrible shame. Someone thinks they don’t like poetry because they didn’t “get Keats,” and an opportunity for a lifetime’s enjoyment of an art form gets lost.
For those who are fans of poetry, many of the collections in this list are brand new. Some of them are still forthcoming, due out in the next couple of months. But mixed in are some of the more familiar poets of the 20th century, still not the poets of sophomore English, but their names known for various reasons.
In honor of the art form and to celebrate National Poetry Month, Signature is serving up two things for your poetry pleasure: a free download of our 29-page Writer’s Guide to Poetry, as well as a list of 28 poets whose work offers a marriage of ideas and the exploration of language to the 2017 reader.
When Itzhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat, and Shimon Peres were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1994, as part of his acceptance lecture, Rabin read from Amichai’s poem, “God Takes Pity on Kindergarten Children.” In addition to the effects of war on children, Amichai’s poetry also explored erotic love, jealousy, and the politics of living in Israel as a Jew. His poems are earthy, sensual, sometimes angry.
And now I’m like a Trojan horse
filled with terrible loves.
Every night they break out and run wild
And at dawn they come back
into my dark belly.
Fagan’s poems use a rich variety of cultural referents to tie themselves to human experiences. Some take off from film, others from travels to saints’ tombs in Italy — St. Catherine, St. Clare — as Fagan reflects on loss and recovery from loss.
Sycamores show up in a number of guises. In “Sycamore of Jericho,” she makes a tree witness to Christ’s journey.
So when the people pointed after them, snarling
about sin, I understood
their fear, which was feeling:
how it burns.
Johnson was awarded a Whiting Award in 2015 for poems that the Whiting committee described as “sinuous.” The texture of these poems play in the mind as you read them, full of exquisite detail of nature and of the bodies that move within nature. This collection is a sensual delight.
Without sheet music
we were prodiguous,
learning by ear and mouth
how to produce
each vocal score,
and when we were done
and we felt like making more,
we made it.
Ursula K. Le Guin
Le Guin is best known for her science fiction. Some may know her for the perfect allegory, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” a story about a community in which there is perfect happiness that is dependent on the misery of one individual. While Le Guin’s science fiction plumbs the darker side of human behavior, her poetry is lighter, filled with observations of nature, the foibles of cats, and daily interactions. And yet, her poetry, too, carries a sense of just how smart and tuned in Le Guin is.
So I learned
that there are two directions, out and back,
from the still center of the compass rose.
There are two places: home, away. I lack a map
that shows me anywhere but those.
Edna St. Vincent Millay
Millay’s poems have faded from collective memory, only to resurface when biographies come out that remind people how thoroughly her poetry dominated the Jazz Age. Her poem about burning the “candle at both ends” did not originate the phrase, but most of us recognize “First Fig”. Millay’s poems range from song poems for two voices to classic forms such as sonnets and villanelles. Whether you’re looking for a poem to send the lover who just spurned you or something playful, Millay’s range means that there’s something for just about anyone.
Down, down, down in the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.
The traditional pastoral poem gets a jolt in this collection. Turning an unfaltering gaze toward environmental disasters — Deepwater Horizon, Flint — Dunham puts into words what we do not have excuses for describing as ineffable. The deaths caused by Hurricane Katrina were multiplied by neglect. Rather than passing over these events in silence, the poems find ways in for human comprehension. A terrible beauty.
Some depths aren’t
meant to be plumbed.
I am no believer,
but still I pray—let
their souls shake off
this planet’s weight like
a dog fresh
from the bath,
Cathy Park Hong
Hong uses a triptych of genres to write about the concept of “boom towns,” whether on the American frontier back in the American West or in industrialized China or in a virtual future. She demonstrates her mastery of a variety of forms, including the ballad and the prose poem, in this ambitious view of modern life. While some poems contain violence, Hong rejects any notion of “redemption” coming from violence. With a range of topics, range of genres, Engine Empire is a 21st-century international mash-up.
But everywhere around us, immaculate
snow dusts the blue pine trees, industry
is now invisible behind a wall
of woven passwords
Pablo Neruda wrote some of the most lush, sensuous love poems of the 20th century. He was also the political conscience of the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende who was most likely murdered when Allende was killed during the 1973 CIA-backed coup that put Pinochet in power. Neruda was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1971 “for a poetry that with the action of an elemental force brings alive a continent’s destiny and dreams.” Whether you are looking for a sonnet to copy down into a love note or to read a poem to inspire political action, Neruda’s passion informs everything he wrote.
Then I accused the man
who had strangled hope,
I called out to America’s corners
And put his name in the cave
Cherry has written multiple books and is comfortable in a variety of genres (poetry, fiction, essays, and more). In her latest collection, Cherry, who served as the Poet Laureate for the Commonwealth of Virginia earlier in the decade, approaches the life of the man who helped to develop the atom bomb. “Oppie” was horrified by the stories coming out of Europe about the persecution of Jewish scientists, and he sought a way to defeat the Nazis that would minimize American deaths. In poems that cast a compassionate eye on the man who let the nuclear genie out of the bottle, Cherry transports us back to a time and place where Oppenheimer could “save” the United States in 1945 and ten years later, be shut out of public life by accusations of being “soft on communism.”
The artist and the scientist alike
must live in loneliness, the scientist
because a wider audience is not
attuned to symbols and the statements that
she proffers in regard to what she does.
Oliver’s poetry is among some of the best-known in American culture. Her poetry about nature speak to the many who find religion in the woods. While most of the poems are appreciations of the awe inspired by watching an animal or bird in motion, Oliver also uses the natural world to reflect on the human condition. Her poem, “Wild Geese,” offers succor to those who find the burden of the world too much. As Oliver has aged, her thoughts have turned more to her own mortality, and to marking the passing of those she has loved.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
It has become a rite of passage for young women to read Angelou’s first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, but in addition to the memoirs and essays, Angelou also gifted us with a lifetime’s worth of poetry. Her funeral was attended by two presidents, both of whom had asked Angelou to write poems for their inaugurations. Angelou’s poetry paid tribute to ancestors, and those who toiled in a country that rejected their talents because of race. But Angelou also wrote of the power of the child, the woman, the man, who could not be beaten down. Her words continue to offer hope to all who seek it.
Now if you listen closely
I’ll tell you what I know
Storm clouds are gathering
The wind is gonna blow
The race of man is suffering
And I can hear the moan,
Can make it out here alone
Smith infuses his poems with jazz riffs and the blues of the working man. In this collection, Smith probes the soreness of the suddenly missing, the bittersweet memories of lost love. The Other Lover was a finalist for the 2001 Pulitzer Prize. A series of poems explore fathers and sons, and careful readers will catch nods to Edna St. Vincent Millay and Emily Dickinson.
I pray for No More Reagans
in the voice of Simone Weil.
I’m Emma Goldman’s cousin
I tell them, I’m the gloves of Sugar Ray
Robinson when he fought Jake LaMotta
in 1951. Everyone remembers,
It would not be an exaggeration to say that this book, which was published in 2014, has made more of an impact in American culture than any other poetry volume that has come out in a long time. Rankine began writing her prose poems in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s murder in Sanford, Florida. The book has inspired a small cottage industry of essays and symposia to discuss it. Perhaps that’s part of the problem.
Rankine herself has commented on how many Americans were shocked by the “not guilty” verdict returned against Martin’s killer, but for many Black Americans, while the verdict hurt, it also felt like another event in a long history of injustice for people of color. Rankine writes poems of grief, rage, and brilliance on topics that not only include Trayvon Martin, but also Zinedine Zidane in the World Cup, the world’s best athlete — Serena Williams — and the experience of feeling like an alien in a land that belongs to you.
That man who is forced each day to snatch his manhood,
his identity, out of the fire of human cruelty that rages
to destroy it, knows … something about himself and
human life that no school on earth—and indeed, no
church—can teach. He achieves his own authority, and
that is unshakable.
Sun Yung Shin
Cyborg-centered poetry breaks a lot of barriers, but in Sun Yung Shin’s gifted hands, cyborgs become the mechanism by which to examine the self, humanity, and the individual’s place in an automated world. The poems are experimental, intricate, dazzling, a head trip for those who love to contemplate the future whether fans of “Mr. Robot” or The Handmaid’s Tale.
Antigone doesn’t actually exist. She is not the hero of the play named
after her. She is in flight, she drags a machinery of re-territorialization
with her like a kind of harrow, digging a long narrow grave behind
her. She is invisible, transparent, already dead the minute she walks
onto the stage.
Poems about mothers, daughters, and sisters, whether in the streets of New York, Chicago, or Palestine. Monet writes about Black joy, about the love among women for each other, and how those relationships shore up women to fight the racism, sexism, and other myriad ways culture wants to obliterate a woman’s voice. In these poems, Monet emerges as the freedom fighter, but also the tender lover whose words knock down barriers.
we were inevitable and since then
inseparable. I fell for your eyes before
I knew what your mouth could do, we
wandered inside the looking, silence
dozed in a gaze that spans a lifetime,
a landscape of gazing.
The structure of the book is set up like the structure of a house, with sections of poems assigned to different “rooms.” In the “Bedroom,” poems about encounters with lovers speak of boredom and porridge, while in the “basement,” McGlynn’s characters could be the trolls who populate internet forums. Throughout the collection, there’s a note of playful anarchy that punctuates American culture that doesn’t make sense.
I was a black rubber mallet mid-swing
& you were a menagerie of glass figurines:
pouting princesses & nickering ponies
& they were in my way. I’m sorry if
you felt that way, but my anger was
the lesser crime.
Espada sings the songs of immigrants in this collection that begins with a series of poems about the Paterson Silk Strike of 1913. Espada pays tribute to real-life characters such as Hannah Silverman, who Elizabeth Gurley Flynn called “The Joan of Arc of the Silk Strike;” the journalist James Foley, killed on assignment in Syria; Trayvon Martin; Howard Zinn, and others. A series of tributes to those who fought, this gorgeous collection is heart-breaking.
We are the hard-handed men of Athens, the rude Mechanicals:
the tailor, the weaver, the tinker, the bellows-mender.
Tonight, we are actors in the forest, off the grid, surrounded
in the dark by fairies and spirits, snakes and coyotes.
Carnivorous vegans live in these woods. They leave the drum circle
to nibble at the sliced ham I smuggle in the folds of my costume.
Hewett documents his failing sight in poems that also pay attention to the small moments of fatherhood and getting older. Reviews have called attention to Hewett’s exploration of prime numbers and queer identity, queer identity and pornography. The poems are complex, yet simple, resisting efforts at reductionist understandings of what comprises a man.
Circumstance sits across the table from me
like a doctor or a lawyer, in a room too clean,
breaking news too quietly.
Fortune arrives, a demon demolition
derby king, flipping a doughnut on my life.
Parker has described her references to Beyonce as a way of talking about all black women, a way of interrogating a culture that sometimes writes about Beyonce as if she is the only black woman in the world worth writing about. Parker’s use of pop culture figures in her work, while facetious on some level, are also ways of marking moments, of marking history in which people might have more ease remembering the summer of 1997 if reminded that it was the summer that Princess Di died. Parker’s poetry riffs and tumbles on notes that play just below the words. In the future, February of 2017 may be remembered as the time when Morgan Parker released her award-winning poetry collection.
Okay maybe it is about sex.
What passes for magic. How a sleeping volcano
is still a volcano. How with my tongue
I turn on a light like God & I have less
privilege than God.
Simic has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize and has served as U.S. Poet Laureate. Born in Serbia, Simic came to the United States as a child. His sense of humor lights up this newest collection, which take as their subject a wide range of Simic’s quotidian observations. And yet, the poems carry within them the sardonic wit of a man who knows that his daily observations are also “unpeopled” by those who are passing on, the result of being a man getting older, and watching as things continue, as always, to change.
Now that it’s warm to sit on the porch at night
Someone happened to remember a neighbor,
Though it had been more than thirty years
Since she went for a little walk after dinner
And never came back to her husband and children.
Coval is the founder of Louder Than A Bomb, the Chicago Youth Poetry Festival that has turned the youth of Chicago into staggeringly good poets. In his latest collection, Coval channels the late Howard Zinn to tell the history of his city in verses that commemorate events from the eighteenth century to today.
there was a time when hip-hop felt like a secret
society of wizards & wordsmiths, magicians
meant to find you or you were meant to find
like rappers i listened to & memorized in history
class talked specifically to me, for me.
Another of the poets in this list who has been feted by critics for decades, including two Pulitzers. This book, published in 2016, was written during the time that he was losing his eyesight. The poems are sharp with sensory detail, each poem paying close attention to the minutia that make up a life. The Washington Post named this collection as a “best book” of the year.
now as I listen to you I hear in your voice
the forgotten freedom leaping over the rocks
and flying flying again and the rocks are singing
under you out of the unending silence
where the world goes on beginning
Boland writes of the relationship between a woman who is no longer certain that she belongs to or in the country of her birth. Critics have paid attention to Boland’s command of language for her 42-year career as poet, and, in this latest collection, that command focuses on specific words, such as the “cobbler,” or “nostalgia.” While it’s not in this collection, her poem about Demeter and Persephone, the ultimate mother-daughter from Greek mythology, breaks me open each time I read it.
If love is a civilization,
As I once hoped it was,
And you and I are its living citizens
And if our words
Are less than rules and more than remedies
As we speak, Maybe
Someone escapes from a wounded morning
Native American identity appears in various permutations in this incredible collection. Family stories mix with myth to create a dark combination of history and humor. Diaz was a star basketball player at Old Dominion who went on to play professionally in Europe. Her poetry writes of her father as Sisyphus, bearing the burden of her troubled brother up the hill; her mother who went hungry in order to make sure her children ate. When her brother dies, Antigone shows up to bury him.
Despair has a loose daughter.
I lay with her and read the body’s bones
like stories. I can tell you the year-long myth
of her hips, how I numbered stars,
the abacus of her mouth.
Vuong won a Whiting Award in 2016. This collection probes the space between the American body and America, what society asks of young men and what it gives. Vuong’s poems pull the reader into their current, like an undertow that is easier to let pull you out to sea, as the strength of the words carry you further into his sea of meaning. Do not be surprised to feel a catch of breath as you read.
Sometimes I feel like an ampersand. I wake up waiting for the crush.
Maybe the body is the only question an answer can’t extinguish. How many
kisses have we crushed to our lips in prayer—only to pick up the pieces? If
you must know, the best way to understand a man is with your teeth.
Kooser is the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize and served as U.S. Poet Laureate. In this collection, which took ten years to produce, Kooser draws his inspiration from “ordinary” people doing ordinary things — eating at chain restaurants, waiting at the automobile repair shop, parking their cars. The poems summon autumn light and spring breezes, odes to the simplest of events that are so hard to say goodbye to.
The nest of some tiny bird,
each blade of dead grass
spun into its place
on the potter’s wheel
of her busy movements
preparing a vessel for song.
The death of a parent is something that, no matter how old the parent is, as children, we don’t seem quite ready for. When that parent dies young, the pain is magnified. Later, when children are born, we may see that missing parent in our children’s mannerisms or the shape of their jaw. In Book of Hours, Kevin Young, who has just been named poetry editor at the New Yorker, writes poems about the experiences, separated by a decade, of the premature death of his father and the birth of his son. This seems like a perfect Father’s Day gift.
and I saw
you storming forth,
taproot, your cap of hair half
in, half out, and wait, hold
it there, the doctors say, and
she squeezing my hand, her face
full of fire, then groaning your face
out like a flower, blood-bloom,
crocused into air, shoulders
and the long cord still rooting
you to each other, to the other
world, into this afterlife
among us living, the cord
I cut like an iris
No list would be complete without the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, whose technical command of poetry inspired awe, and who broke hearts with her words. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and was U.S. Poet Laureate. She was also the granddaughter of an escaped slave. Her poetry, with its ability to capture street life, emotional life, working class life, and the lives of the desperate makes her one of America’s greatest poets. Her ability to make poetry accessible to everyone means that everyone should have a copy of Gwendolyn Brooks on their shelves.
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We