10 Favorite Collections to Celebrate National Poetry Month
As National Poetry Month comes to a close, here at the Duck Store, we’re celebrating with some of the best poets in the world. Read on for ten titles by tried-and-true greats, as well as spectacular new voices.
Collins writes of time and death with humor and whirligig images and wordplay so unexpected and delectable, reading his poetry is like watching a magician transform ordinary objects—a coin, a card—into something breathtaking out of thin air. Collins likes to focus on small, unobtrusive beings like a mouse or a squirrel and informs us that he is the tortoise, not the hare. He steals an hour to walk up a hill and sit on a rock the size of a car, which he then imagines once moved along / in the monstrous glacial traffic of the ice age. The poet loves his dog’s long smile, and thinks of Dante in a cavernous mattress store. In this piquant collections hilarious and sweet title poem, Collins riffs on newspaper horoscopes and bemused memories of his beloved dead. A hangover inspires misanthropy, while everyday heartbreaks lead to droll confessions. Including thoughts on his true vocation, which is keeping “an eye on things / whether they existed or not, / recumbent under the random stars.” Collins rules as a charming master of mischievous wisdom. (Booklist)
Go-to poet and reigning literary activist Giovanni admits in her introduction that she cheated: she just couldn’t keep to that nice round number in the title. And who can blame her. As Giovanni enthuses in her peppy introduction, Poems are like . . . two scoops of chocolate ice cream . . . something everyone can enjoy. Her vivid and affecting selections add up to a complexly pleasurable anthology. The delight is in the musical, inventive, and vivid language; the astute insights and humor, passion and tenderness. But these are poems born of suffering and injustice, even as they reach for truth and wisdom. Margaret Walker Alexander’s “For My People” sets the tone in its embrace of African American history, and well-known poets such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, Robert Hayden, and Kevin Young follow, along with many new voices, all treated equally, since no poet biographies are included. Langston Hughes asks, “What happens to a dream deferred?” Georgia Douglas Johnson answers, “Dream your dream anew.” Poets and other performers read 36 poems on the accompanying CD. (Booklist)
It’s hardly surprising that Jess won the National Poetry Series for this work, but it might surprise some readers that it’s a debut. A biography in verse, this remarkable collection blends resonant imagery with excerpts from letters, interviews, and even contracts to resurrect the immortal blues musician Huddie (Leadbelly) Ledbetter. Poetry has rarely sung like this.
4. She Walks in Beauty
Selected and Introduced by Caroline Kennedy
Kennedy’s previous poetry anthologies, The Best-Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (2001) and A Family of Poems (2005), became best sellers. Her newest is an even more exciting and personal assemblage. The idea for a poetry collection charting the phases of women’s lives, Kennedy explains in her wise and gracious introduction, came to her when she turned 50 and friends sent her celebratory poems. Reading poems, she writes, can help bring clarity and insight to emotions that can be confusing or contradictory. She organizes this thrillingly expansive and varied collection in sections with such enticing titles as Making Love, Breaking Up, Beauty, Clothes, and Things of the World, and How to Live. That she is versed in poets tried and true (Sappho, Donne, Shelley, Dickinson, Rilke) is no surprise, but her fluency in contemporary poets is electrifying. Here are poems by Wislawa Szymborska, W. S. Merwin, Mary Oliver, Barbara Ras, Natasha Trethewey, Sandra Cisneros, and Naomi Shihab Nye. This virtuoso anthology of deep feeling and bright humor should reach readers who would not otherwise pick up a book of poems. (Booklist)
Phillips is an intensely philosophical poet whose restrained lexicon is steeped in classical allusions and Elizabethan tropes. In his seventh rarefied and metaphysical collection, one that features his signature stark landscapes and brooding eroticism, this recent recipient of an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature ponders the tension between love, belief, and reason. Phillips’ narrator dreams of God; cherishes light, resistance, stillness, and “things invisible”; perceives solitude as a force of nature; and recognizes the unsettling fact that everything contains its opposite. Phillips’ restrained and abstract lyrics are elegant, enigmatic, and electric, provocative meditations on and enactments of what is “a human need, / to give to shapelessness / a form.” (Booklist)
Stavans follows his invaluable multigenre volume, The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature (2010), with a revelatory and affecting collection of 80-plus poems from 13 Latin American countries, each poem presented both in English and its original Spanish, Portuguese, or indigenous language. In his incisive introduction, Stavans covers matters literary, historical, and political, observing that in Latin American poetry the pendulum between the private and the epic . . . is constantly swinging. From introspection to protest, spirituality to eroticism, poets illuminate first cultures, colonialism, tyranny, war, liberation, and love over the course of the cataclysmic twentieth century, praising the beauty of the land and lamenting the elusiveness of justice. The big four—Jorge Luis Borges, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Pablo Neruda, and Octavio Pazare—are interspersed with such luminaries as Ramón López Velarde, Mexicos national poet; Claribel Alegría of El Salvador; João Cabral de Melo Neto of Brazil and his stalwart Education by Stone; and the globe-trotting Chilean, Vicente Huidobro, who declares, “We must revive the languages / With raucous laughter.” Comedy, tragedy, and everything in between ignites this incandescent, century-encompassing, and foundational anthology. (Booklist)
W. B. Yeats’ The Winding Stair and Other Poems was published in 1933 when Yeats was sixty-eight, ten years after he won the Nobel Prize and six years before his death in 1939. Yeats famously invoked in “Adam’s Curse” the time he spent “stitching and unstitching” the lines of his work, but he also spent considerable time stitching and unstitching his poems to each other. The Winding Stair demonstrates that care, combining and reordering the poems of two earlier publications in an edition intended as the companion volume to The Tower, published in 1928. This Scribner facsimile edition reproduces exactly the pages of the elegantly planned and designed first edition of The Winding Stair and Other Poems as it first appeared, including a photo of the cover design on which Yeats collaborated. It adds an introduction and notes by celebrated Yeats scholar George Bornstein. Yeats’ longest separate volume of verse, it features sixty-four poems written in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Among them are such masterpieces as “Blood and the Moon,” “Byzantium,” the Coole Park poems, “Vacillation,” and two separately titled long sequences ending with the exquisite lyric “From the ‘Antigone.’” These poems amply justify T. S. Eliot’s contention that Yeats was one of the few poets “whose history is the history of their own time, who are a part of the consciousness of an age which cannot be understood without them.” (Publisher’s Marketing)
Poetry lovers and critics will rejoice at the news of this collection from Richard Wilbur, the legendary poet and translator who was called “a hero to a new generation of critics” by the New York Times Book Review, and whose work continues to be masterful, accomplished, whimsical, fresh, and important. A yellow-striped, green measuring worm opens Anterooms, a collection filled with poems that are classic Wilbur, that play with myth and form and examine the human condition through reflections on nature and love. Anterooms also features masterly translations from Mallarme’s “The Tomb of Edgar Poe,” a previously unpublished Verlaine poem, two poems by Joseph Brodsky, and thirty-seven of Symphosius’ clever Latin riddles. Whether he is considering a snow shovel and domestic life or playfully considering that “Inside homeowner is the word “meow,”” Wilbur’s new collection is sure to delight everyone from longtime devotees to casual poetry readers. Exploring the interplay between the everyday and the mythic, the sobering and the lighthearted, “Anterooms” is nothing less than an event in poetic history and a remarkable addition to a master’s oeuvre. (Publisher’s Marketing)
Ryan, the current U.S. poet laureate, may well be the oddest and wisest poet to hold that prestigious post. Her tiny, skinny poems pack a punch unlike anything else in contemporary poetry, though not unlike haiku, if haiku could be cut with a dash of Groucho Marx. This, her first retrospective volume, which also contains a book’s worth of new poems, is a much-needed introduction to the work of one of our best and most accessible poets. She asks the necessary questions hiding just beneath the obvious ones: “Why isn’t it all/ more marked,/ why isn’t every wall/ graffitied, every park tree/ stripped/… / Not why people are; why not more violent?” Odd rhymes draw crystal clear relations between disparate thoughts we never realized had always gone together: “As/ though our garden/ could be one bean/ and we’d rejoice if/ it flourishes, as/ though one bean/ could nourish us.” Pithy poems manage to encapsulate far more than their few words should be able to hold, as in Bitter Pill, a new poem: “A bitter pill/ doesn’t need/ to be swallowed/ to work. Just/ reading your name/ on the bottle/ does the trick.” Sassy, smart, and deep as they are hilarious, Ryan’s poems are among the best. (Publisher’s Weekly)
Long, laddering lines impel you down the page as Hass contemplates the living and the dead, the human and the wild with yearning and philosophic poise. This lustrous retrospective collection, drawn from five previous books, beginning with Field Guide (1973), opens with a generous selection of new poems redolent of Whitman and the blues. Narrative poems are droll and astringent in their musings over love’s paradoxes and history’s shifting claims, children’s pleasures, poverty, and danger. A National Book Award winner and former poet laureate prized for his insights into human nature and our place in the web of life, Californian Hass distills experiences down to their essence as he limns landscapes, portrays friends and loved ones, and imagines the struggles of strangers. The ordinary is cracked open to reveal metaphysical riddles in poems that feel so natural their formal complexities nearly elude our detection. Legacies and ruptures, sex and food, the journaling impulse to stop time, the “strangeness of living,” all become catalysts for the tonic perceptions shared by this compassionate master poet who declares, “Joy seized me.” (Booklist)