A friend once asked me what makes a “good poem.” I said, “a good poem makes me feel something, moves me.” How subjective. What moves me might not move you. Besides, what moves me might not even look like a poem to you.
This is the trouble and the beauty of poetry: there is so much room for relationship. It’s something you either connect with or you don’t. Because poetry tends to be more abstract than prose, it hits us all differently.
I can’t tell you, objectively, what makes good poetry. However, I can tell you that I’m an incredibly emotional person. I feel things deeply and often. The poetry books that hit me hardest are ones that keep pulling on my emotional heartstrings every time I read them. The books I reread are ones that tell the truth, no matter how inconvenient or tiresome it is. Books that reveal parts of our collective humanity that often go unacknowledged and unspoken.
That is all to say: take this list with a grain of salt. This is my personal opinion, like any list of book recommendations is bound to be. But also note that salt strengthens other flavours. I’m here as a poet who’s used poetry to heal myself and I’m recognizing the work of other poets who have done the same. This list is bound to hit you differently than one that’s researched off the bestseller lists. It’s nice to have a bit of salt.
Please note also that the links below are Amazon Associates links, which means I get a nominal commission if you buy through them. If you’re opposed to this, don’t click on the links, and just search for the books yourself.
Without further ado, I hope that the poetry books below will make you laugh, cry, and write, just like they did for me.
Bone by Yrsa Daley-Ward
Bone was one of the first poetry collections I read after I decided to take myself more seriously as a poet. There are pages in this book that I have read dozens, if not hundreds, of times. There’s something about the way these words hit on uncomfortable truths that is unmatched in so many other collections. There’s also something about her level of transparency about her family and her past. At the very least, I can guarantee that this book will make you more honest.
Helium by Rudy Francisco
I first found Rudy’s work through his spoken word videos. Something about his flow captured me and took my breath away. When I finally read his book, I was surprised to see how differently the words sat on paper. I was also surprised by how differently the narrative had been arranged—how the page poems stood as a different art form altogether. I highly recommend this collection to anyone who’s interested in both spoken and written poetry. Rudy Francisco is a perfect example of how to execute both with emotional and intellectual precision. He’s also a perfect example of combining political content with love poems. His poems about racism and prejudice sit beside his poems about heartbreak. He is a whole human being when he writes: mind, body, and soul. I can’t say enough about this collection. You’ll have to find out for yourself.
Andrea (who now goes by Andrew) Gibson is another poet I first found through spoken word. When I started buying their books, I couldn’t stop. Admitedly, these poems came to me at a time when I was questioning my sexuality, so the topics were hitting hard, but I felt more than just an experiential overlap. There’s this ability Andrea has: jumping through metaphors, combining them into labyrinths of imagery and feeling, saying so much while dancing around what is being unsaid. These poems are guaranteed to confuse you just enough to make you feel something profound. And if you are exploring yourself as a member of the LGBT community, then you’ll surely find solace in the subject matter as well.
Deaf Republic is the only book on my list that’s been applauded by poetry critics. To be honest, I find the literary sphere in relation to poetry to be incredibly elitist and exclusive. Most people who make it onto those lists are there for a reason: who they know. I tend to find the subject matter boring and the writing style intolerable. Then, this little book came to me. I have to admit, my interest in Ilya’s work came partially because of my own background. He’s a Ukranian immigrant to the USA who’s writing poetry about his political experiences. But these poems are more than just emotions. They’re woven into a story. Ilya introduced me to the idea of crafting a solid narrative out of a poetry collection. He also showed me how much I still had to say about my relationship to my culture. I can say with some certainty that this book will blow you away. Especially if you also enjoy fiction, there’s a storybook element to this collection that is mindblowing. And if you also happen to be Eastern-European, you’ll surely find pieces of your family history in these pages.
This book is an emotional rollercoaster, and its structure is nothing short of brilliant. The author paints a picture of racism in America using film as a theme. Except it’s not a film: it’s writing (and not just any writing, but poetry) that draws on the film world for reference, inspiration, and reflection. The words in this book will educate you, move you, and haunt you. They will also inspire you to use the page in ways you’ve never imagined.
This collection inspired so many of the poems in my book Love and Gaslight. There’s something about the way Olivia makes use of structure, not only within her poems but also within the collection, to tell shocking, relatable truths. Before I read this book, I didn’t realize how much I still needed say and how badly I needed to say it. Watching her be so honest about her experiences as well as the intricacies of her emotions, I can honestly say it’s made me the artist I am today. I also found her to be incredibly pleasant when I emailed to tell her this, so I can tell you that I’m deeply amazed by the art and the artist alike.
Love and Gaslight by Vironika Wilde
Speaking of Love and Gaslight, I have to risk sounding self-promotional here because this poetry collection saved my sanity. I had just left a toxic relationship, ended up in an even more toxic rebound, and then got sexually assaulted by a so-called spiritual healer. Then, I got locked down in New Zealand for the first spring of COVID. It was a stressful time to say the least, and I felt like I was drowning in trauma. This poetry collection, which is also a story in 5 parts, gave me a sense of purpose. It helped me feel heard and helped me process the giant pile of unaddressed emotions that had built up over the years I hadn’t been releasing my poetry to the world. If you read the other books on this list, you’ll also see how the various collections here inspired my own. These poets all helped me become the writer I am today. That is something I adore about poetry: it’s a conversation. It’s not only a dialogue between ourselves and our inner worlds, but it’s also a constant interplay between our work and the work of others. The inspiration is never-ending.
I am not overexaggerating when I say that all modern-day poets owe a hat tip to Nayyirah Waheed. She’s been a pioneer in many ways, and if you scour the internet, you’ll find that some of the most famous poets of our time (I won’t mention any names) have been accused of plagiarizing her work. Just like Rudy Francisco, she manages to strike a balance between the personal and the political. But what I love most about Waheed’s work is that it doesn’t hold back. She says exactly what she means, and sometimes, it hurts. But it’s the pain of truth. She’s also famous for her short poems, saying so much in so few words. She’s the one who gave Instagram Poetry the feel it has today. If you’re a modern-day poet or simply someone intersted in the genre, you must read this book.
Nejma by Nayyirah Waheed
If you’re going to start reading Nayyirah Waheed, you’ll find it hard to stop. So, here’s another recommendation. I found this book on the bookshelf of an apartment where I was cat sitting. I devoured it in one tearry-eyed, belly-breathing afternoon. I can honestly say I felt every single emotion possible reading it: love, fear, anger, disgust, shame, guilt, arousal, inspiration, sadness, everything. This is the power of Waheed’s work. I cannot stress this enough: she is a pioneer of modern-day poetry and definitely deserves your attention.
Nothing is Okay by Rachel Wiley
Of all the books on this list, Rachel Wiley’s has something special: humour. She’s just as honest and vulnerable as any poet I adore, but she also allows herself space to laugh at the worst things that happen to her. The poem, “A response to the men of OKcupid adamant about showing me their cocks,” for example, has a hilarious spin at the end and that laughter acts as a healing salve for anyone who’s been uncomfortable in those situations. She heals not only with tears, but also with giggles. To me, that makes her special and absolutely worth reading. If you have a comedian inside you, Rachel will show you how to use that side of you to process your trauma and connect to your art form.
That’s it, friends. Those are my top 10 modern-day poetry reads. Now, I’d love to hear what you think.
Which of these are you going to pick up ASAP? Have you read any of them already? Are there any books you think belong on this list that you didn’t see? Please let me know in the comments below. I love hearing from you.