Perhaps Anne Carson best introduces poetry as “If prose is a house, poetry is a man on fire running quite fast through it.” Poetry can feel like a world almost alien to that of prose, particularly if you’re unused to reading it. That unfamiliarity, however, is part of the unique wonder that poetry creates.
With all that being said, today has never been better to start reading poetry. Begin the morning with a poem; end the night with a poem; have a midday lunch poem. Whatever your preferred hour of poetry consumption, this moment of 2020 when we’re all so busy, and yet so trapped at home, is the perfect time to begin a foray into verse. If you’re looking to celebrate National Poetry Month but are unsure of where to start, consider this list a brief primer for the world of contemporary poetry.
sad boy / detective by sam sax
A chapbook (a short collection of about 10-20 poems) is a wonderful place to begin your reading. sam sax’s sad boy / detective follows a bildungsroman narrative structure, something a bit more close to what you might find in a prose novel or coming-of-age film. The collection finds the boy detective speaker discovering his sexuality, sense of wonder at the world, and place in society. To cap it off, this book unfurls language in ways that make familiar images strange, that “make the stone stony,” and the world altogether new.
Bluets by Maggie Nelson
Prose, poetry, or somewhere in-between: Maggie Nelson’s Bluets is a hybrid-genre exploration of the color blue, and how it is the most human color. Pulling from a diverse body of references, this book is at once academic and intellectual and explicit and keen. For an uncompromising look at suffering, love, and loss, Bluets is the lyric essay to read.
The Wild Iris by Louise Gluck
If you’re feeling ready to dive into a full-length poetry collection, Louise Gluck’s 1992 book The Wild Iris is a magnificent accomplishment in the unique power of poetry. Framed from the perspective of a couple tending their garden over the course of four seasons, the book also reflects the powerful act of creating and nurturing for life outside yourself. For a powerful, authoritative voice that’s slyly funny, look no further. Read The Silver Lily here.
Citizen Illegal by Jose Olivarez
Jose Olivarez’s humorous, hip-hop-inspired collection Citizen Illegal is a moving journey through the multi-faceted emotions that make up the immigrant experience in the United States. The poems here live in-between, constantly in a moving state, but always staying true to themselves. The speakers’ everyday language invites the reader in but masks complex examinations of race, class, and gender. Read Ars Poetica here.
The Tradition by Jericho Brown
What does it mean to know fear? Jericho Brown’s gorgeous collection The Tradition examines the aggressions marginalized people feel on the personal and societal levels. Each fear and crisis is grounded in the personal body, making the existential threats one of personal bodily harm. The collection also abounds in formal skill, as the crafted series of “duplex” poems combine the traditional forms of sonnets, ghazals, and blues for an entirely new form, a re-up ending, of tradition. Read Duplex (I Begin With Love) here.