21 Best Poetry Books of All Time
Discover the best poetry books, from classics to modern masterpieces.
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Poetry in motion
Paul Engle noted that “poetry is ordinary language raised to the nth power.” Poetry books have the power to capture feelings that are often elusive and put into words our deepest pain and strongest outrage. But the real superpower of poetry lies in giving expression to our love, happiness and passion.
The best poems explore all aspects of life: love and heartbreak, unity and injustice, gender and race. And in this year of missed connections, isolation, and division, poetry has been a glimmering ray of hope and joy. When a then relatively unknown Amanda Gorman took the stage at President Biden’s inauguration to recite “The Hill We Climb,” she made history as the youngest inaugural poet. More than that, she inspired generations of Americans to “envision a way in which our country can still come together and can still heal” without glossing over the hard truths the country needs to face.
Whether you are new to the art form or are a budding poet looking for some inspiration, we’ve found the best poetry books and collections for you. While some of these are classics, others are collections from award-winning poets. You’ll find books by female authors and poets from different races and ethnicities. You’ll also find some poetry books, old and new, that are flying off Amazon’s shelves this year. And once you’re done reading these, we also have a selection of the best books of all time and most underrated books for you to get started on. We hope you’ll find one that suits your taste and reminds you of the better times to come.
1. And Still I Rise by Maya Angelou
From one of the most respected and celebrated poets in the world, this book is a collection of 32 short poems, divided into three sections. Originally published in 1978, the book speaks of everything from love, longing, dreams, and Saturday night partying to the sounds of the South. Home to inspirational poems like “Phenomenal Woman,” this book encourages readers to rise above their difficulties and challenges, irrespective of their race or gender. Stock your shelves with these other great books by Black authors.
2. Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
The sole book by the “poet of America,” this collection of poems was first published in 1855. Walt Whitman treated it as an evolving manuscript, editing it, adding new poems, and republishing it multiple times. In this collection, Whitman writes passionately about natural beauty and of love and relationships that defy the bounds of time. In his poems about love and nature, Whitman contemplates his existence and purpose in life and pushes the reader to do the same (think of it like a self-help book with poems). If you didn’t read Walt Whitman in school, this collection is a great place to start.
3. Selected Poems by John Keats
Home to some of John Keats’s most celebrated work, such as “La Belle Dame sans Merci” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” this book, which was published in 2007, collects poems published during his lifetime (1795 to 1821) and after. Together, the collection celebrates a poet with a profound understanding of art, beauty, suffering, loss, and love. A talent the world lost too early! Keep reading with the best fiction books of all time.
4. The Essential Rumi by Rumi and translated by Coleman Barks
A Sufi master born in 1207, Rumi’s mystical verses have enchanted, enlightened, and inspired people of all religions for centuries. This expanded edition was published in 2004 and features even more of Rumi’s poems about love, loss, silence, separation, emptiness, union, and more. The poetry on these pages proves Rumi wasn’t just a mystic; he was a doctor for the soul. Get more book recommendations with this list of ideal books for your zodiac sign.
5. Robert Frost’s Poems by Robert Frost
Robert Frost is arguably one of the most celebrated poets to emerge from the early part of the 20th century. Home to one of Frost’s best-loved poems, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” this collection of poems, published in 2002, revolves around themes of nature and humanity. Like classic books that are passed down through generations, Frost is one of the few poets whose work will never be out of date. This collection would also make an excellent gift for any book lover in your life.
6. Set Me on Fire: A Poem for Every Feeling, edited by Ella Risbridger
If you are tired of all the famous poems from dead white men, this delightful anthology, published in 2019, is a refreshing take. Full of new perspectives and voices from around the world, it covers everything from grief, rage, trauma, and loss to happiness and love. Poetry books are ideal for rereading, and this is one you can always go back to. For more of the feels—well, one of them in particular—browse this list of books that will make you cry.
7. These are the Hands, edited by Deborah Alma and Dr. Katie Amiel
Especially relevant now more than ever, this 2020 anthology houses more than 100 poems about the United Kingdom’s National Health Service providers. Largely written by NHS staff, these poems explore the life, work, joy, and sadness of the people who care for us from birth to death (and pandemics in between). Compassionate and informed, this collection is truly a tribute to healthcare workers around the world. Fit some nonfiction into your reading diet with the best biographies.
8. Mary Wants to be a Superwoman by Erica Lewis
Published in 2017, the second in Erica Lewis’s trilogy of poetry books is a personal account of her family’s history. As a Black poet, she takes care to lift up the voices of the Black women on her mother’s side. Part of the new confessionalism movement, the poems draw from stories she learned as a child living in Cincinnati, Ohio.
9. The Sun and Her Flowers by Rupi Kaur
Rupi Kaur is Instagram-famous for her poetry, but the short verses she shares on social media don’t do justice to her ability to access some of the most powerful human emotions. In her poetry books, simple words pack a stronger punch than some of the most refined writing. Her 2017 collection, The Sun and Her Flowers, shifts from the love poems found in Milk and Honey to a commentary on the implications of immigration and racial issues. If you’re a fan of feminist books, you’ll want to pick up one of Kaur’s.
10. How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry by Edward Hirsch (2000)
While this is technically not a book of poems, it’s a starter kit to appreciating the poetry books on this list. Edward Hirsch writes with contagious passion about the rules and styles of poetry while analyzing works by the masters. Since its publication in 2000, it’s been helping poetry skeptics think of poetry in a whole new light. Check out these other great nonfiction books.
11. Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Kaveh Akbar
Kaveh Akbar’s 2017 debut poetry book is, on its face, about addiction and its traits. But it also touches on something bigger and more difficult: existential emptiness. Without shying away from describing the smeared details of alcoholism, Akbar speaks of the respite he felt from his inner spiritual hunger when using substances. He’s surely a poet to watch out for.
12. The Wild Fox of Yemen by Threa Almontaser
In her stunning 2021 debut poetry collection, Threa Almontaser beautifully switches between English and Arabic, making language a character of its own. Like the best autobiographies, many poetry books get personal, and that’s the case here. Almontaser speaks lovingly of her people in Yemen, juxtaposing it with the reality of a young Muslim woman living in New York after 9/11.
13. When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz
The first of Natalie Diaz’s poetry books, published in 2012, draws heavily from her experience as a Native American woman. She intersperses stories from her own life with mythological symbolism. In doing this, her poems become a political gesture, speaking about the disintegration of Native American culture. Follow it up with her 2020 collection, Postcollonial Love Poem, which earned her the Pulitzer Prize.
14. Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
While many question whether Claudia Rankine’s 2014 poetry book can actually be classified as poetry, a reading of Citizen will prove that it does not matter. Part poem, part critical essay, it’s an honest portrayal of the racism that exists in day-to-day encounters in society. We recommend reading it alongside Americanah, an international fiction book by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s.
15. Afterland by Mai Der Vang
This 2017 collection of poems by Mai Der Vang sings tales of life during the Laos war and of the Hmong refugees starting a new life in a foreign country. With the current scenario in Afghanistan, it’s especially important to read and understand the refugee experience in the United States.
16. The Vault by Andrés Cerpa
Between the tumultuous presidential election and the pandemic, people’s understanding of time has changed. Uncertainties have become a part of life now, and that is echoed in Andrés Cerpa’s 2021 collection. Loaded with grief and loss, it is a story of dealing with a father’s suicide and spinning into addiction as an attempt to cope. Cerpa weaves his own narrative around these themes, allowing grief and loss to be nonlinear. Next, browse more books by Latinx authors.
17. The Performance of Becoming Human by Daniel Borzutzky
This 2016 collection is like a listicle for a nightmarish, post-apocalyptic world, where everything is overdeveloped, capitalized, and bureaucratized. It’s on the reader to decide whether the book jars us from our complacency or despairs at the inability to change the dying world.
18. Lighthead by Terrance Hayes
To read Terrance Hayes’s poetry is to experience light-headedness as a normal state. It is jarring, uncomfortable, and unfamiliar. The poems in this 2010 National Book Award-winning collection are playful yet complicated and cover themes like race, gender, age, and even violence. Here are more books about race relations in America.
19. Pillow Thoughts by Courtney Peppernell
No list of poetry books is complete without poems about love and heartache. Courtney Peppernell’s 2017 book is an intimate collection of poems that read quite like the pillow talk shared between lovers. The book’s chapters are divided so readers can find solace in whatever step of a relationship they are in.
20. Soft Science by Franny Choi
Published in 2019, Franny Choi’s collection of themed poems combines the representation of immigrants, people of color, and queer people with science fiction. Each poem considers the relationships between people of different colors, genders, and sexualities and asks what it means to be human. If you’re a fan of this, you’ll go wild for our round-ups of the best sci-fi books and books by LGBTQ authors.
21. Alexa, what is there to know about Love? by Brian Bilston
If you are someone who hasn’t enjoyed poetry because of its reputation for pretense and farfetchedness, you’ll enjoy this down-to-earth collection of funny poems, published in 2021. Called the Banksy of Poetry, Brian Bilston asks the hard questions about love while also throwing in a giggle along for fun. Follow it up with one of the funniest books of all time.
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