If we know each other well and speak poetry together, then I’ve probably already recommended some of the books on this list.
I’m sharing this list as the most recent books I’ve pulled from my own shelves, books I’ve enjoyed and want to recommend. I’ve put the emphasis in this list on more recent work (so yes, also: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, from 2014) and, frankly, on the books that most recently blew me away with their power.
This is not by any means an exclusive list, just a handful of poets yanked somewhat at random from the shelves in my living room. I'm sure I've forgotten some, and also have the delight of looking forward to many more. An imperfect and incomplete list, for certain.
Poetry is a somewhat subjective art. When I read a book of poetry, I consider it especially “good” if, in addition to being well crafted, the poet is doing something I think is unique. I love to read poets who generate in me a kind of artistic envy, where I wish I was capable of the kind of artistic acrobatics I see in their work. Every book on this list has that quality.
Buy these wherever the best books in the world are sold, ideally through your local independent bookshop. Buy at least two copies of each, because it will be hard to resist sharing them.
“I have withheld more than I have written.” — Dionne Brand
This book was nominated for the Griffin Poetry Prize and gave me chills when I read it. I thought it should have won every award going that year and it’s still one of my favourite poetry books of all time. It’s essentially an extended meditation on the nature of writing. A clerk examines the hand-written left hand pages — the counterpage to everything written.
I love every page of this work, but Verso 18.4.3 is an inventory of lemons the clerk has collected and floors me with its existence — the very idea of it! The placement of it in the book, just after “Violet the clerk has collected…” and “Blue the clerk has collected from exhaustion:…” — and it’s last phrase: uncertain lemon.
This is a book for language lovers. I would like to be buried with it, please.
(Check the Griffin link above for a video of Brand reading from The Blue Clerk. Also here’s a fantastic interview with Brand conducted by Canisia Lubin, who appears herself on this list below.)
“A poem is a gesture toward home
It makes dark demands I call my own.” — Jericho Brown
If you follow literary news, then you’ll know that Brown has just recently won a Pulitzer prize for this book.
Quite apart from the beauty of this collection, here’s why:
Brown has invented a new kind of poem: the duplex, which is a combo of the sonnet, the ghazal and the blues. (What did you do today? Oh, I invented a new kind of poem.)
So much beauty: I bow down. I love his poems of desire and the body as well.
“My friends were all the wounded people
The black girls who held their own hands
Even the white boys who grew into assassins.” — Terrance Hayes
This book. I lost my first copy of this book when I lent it to a friend and loved her too much to ask for it back. (Buy multiple copies is what I’m saying!) A series of contemporary sonnets that flays open the bloated belly of current American (world?) culture, from what it is to be Black to how technology owns us all.
I love how the title of one poem bleeds into the next as we’re forced to face Hayes’ “past and future assassin.”
This book felt like something of an antidote for the part of my soul that felt beaten down in the face of the neverending Nazi nonsense spewed by Trump and his followers.
I love what Hayes has to say about writing poetry in this profile: “A poem is never about one thing…You want it to be as complicated as your feelings.”
Here’s a video of Hayes reading a few poems. You’ll want to watch it a few times to let the language wash over you again and again.
“I still got jewels in throat — embedded,
planted well behind the voice, the word box,
and still the birds flock round me, as they should.” — Chelene Knight
As they should indeed. You think you know what a memoir looks like. You think you know what a book of poetry looks like. Until you’ve read this book, you don’t know anything about either. (The publisher lists it as a creative nonfiction memoir.)
Knight won the City of Vancouver Book Award in 2018 for this book. This book instructed me to not be so damn uptight with what I consider a poem, a line, a home, motherhood.
Not incidentally, Knight also runs Learn Writing Essentials, an online course studio for writers. If you’re looking for a writing workshop right now, it would be a great place to start.
“Somewhere, we are not just desperate blood
castled in skins, bound by visions
of what we once were, of knowing we love
what we hate, mirrorless and haloed
in ores of heavens greener than this.” — Canisia Lubrin
Read those lines aloud and revel in the music of them. I heard these poems performed before I read them on the page. They were/are mesmerizing in their cadence and Lubrin is such a gifted performer. Being in that audience was like floating on a warm wave in “the wisped sea.”
I also love Lubrin’s evocative way with a title. Some examples:
- On Being at the Dawn of Remembrance
- Give Us Fire or the Black Prometheus
- And If Today I Die
Her endings sometimes echo off into the future (with a dash, or no punctuation at all in an otherwise punctuated poem, or even with “I don’t know”) and she had me caught up in imagining new possibilities and new endings.
Lubrin was named one of the Writer’s Trust Rising Stars for 2020.
Here’s a great interview with Lubrin on CBC Radio’s The Next Chapter.
“My body is an argument I did not start.” — Morgan Parker
Morgan Parker is also the author of There are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé which I confess I first bought for the title and cover. (The gaze of the woman in the cover photo by Carrie Mae Weems — a photo *not* of Beyonce — is glorious.)
But I want to sing praises here also for Parker’s more recent collection Magical Negro.
I am a big fan of poets with voices that are straight ahead and unapologetic, almost to the point of giving a finger to the traditional lyric. (I love the well-turned traditional lyric too, just not all the time.)
Parker has a profound gift for unleashing the music in a line — thinking here specifically of “I Feel Most Colored When I Am Thrown Against a Sharp White Background” and “IT WAS SUMMER NOW AND THE COLORED PEOPLE CAME OUT INTO THE SUNSHINE.”
Also: the CAPS in some titles! It never even occurred to me you could do that.
Definitely don’t read this book “Now More Than Ever” — just read it. Then read it again and rejoice.
Tracy K. Smith
“I love you in the rusted iron
Chains someone was made
To drag until love let them be
Unclasped and left empty
In the center of the ring.” – Tracy K. Smith
I first came across Tracy K. Smith when her collection Life on Mars came out and she won the Pulitzer for it in 2012. The versatility in her poetics is astonishing, as is her thematic range. I pause at every single poem in this collection [Wade in the Water] and wait to catch my breath.
A Short Personal Note
I prepared this post to honour the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the people putting their bodies on the line for justice right now. I believe this is a time when we must stop and reflect about our own roles in perpetuating our racist systems and society. (Thanks to Morgan Parker I can never say “Now More Than Ever” ever again.)
It would be easy for me to pretend that myself and my bookshelves were always this “woke” and that I had always been reading a diverse selection of books, including books by Black writers. But that isn’t true: it’s probably only within the last decade that I’ve been reading a truly diverse group of authors and proactively seeking out more Black writers in particular.
And why is that, I wonder?
Certainly there’s a comfort in experiencing the language and stories that are familiar to me, so that would be in my case the language and stories of white women, of Newfoundlanders, of Canadians. I still read these books: it’s not an either/or situation and there’s always room on the bookshelf for one more.
But also, it’s what’s easy. The books on the bestseller lists and the awards shortlists and even the books published and available to me on the shelves and tables at my local bookshop over the years have been predominantly white. Recently I think that’s improved a little bit, but only very recently and only a very little bit relative to the number of books published and celebrated each year.
Sometimes it takes a little bit of work — a very little bit of work, as it happens — to seek out books by authors who are not white.
I want to shout-out the work of Jael Richardson and the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD) she founded to celebrate and promote non-white authors in Canada. Her recommendations populate my shopping list on a regular basis and I’m really grateful for that. (And my friend Miranda reminded me this week that I need to put my money where my gratitude is and hit the Donate button. Join me, won’t you?)
If you think reading a diverse list of writers is a “worthy” thing to do, and that’s what gets you doing it, then start there. But I promise you that’s even if that’s the reason you start, it won’t be the reason you continue. I do believe in the power of books to change people and thereby change society, but I also know that my life as a reader — and as a person — is so much richer than it was when I was mostly reading books by people who look, sound and think just like me.
So these are just some of the Black poets whose work I love and want to celebrate today, and I’d love to hear your recommendations as well. Please do let me know about the Black poets you love to read — ideally with links to where I can buy: I’m a woman with a book budget and I’m not afraid to use it!