20 Books of Poetry Everyone Should Own
Verse to reach for on a lazy evening—or a difficult day: The poetry no reader's library should be without.
By Carmela Ciuraru
O, The Oprah Magazine |
March 18, 2011
Once out of print, Bishop's love poems ("Insomnia," "The Shampoo") were originally intended for women, but they now seem universal, and her famed villanelle "One Art" is among the greatest poems on loss ever written.
The current U.S. poet laureate (see "Tree Spirit," page 176), is a master of unpunctuated style and dreamlike meditations. His work is passionate and powerful, especially on the topic of our endangered landscape.
The 13th-century Persian mystic's words continue to resonate, particularly in this translation, which offers a remarkably contemporary voice.
Published in 1924 by a then-unknown 19-year-old Chilean, these stunning poems move seamlessly between exquisite expressions of intimacy and almost unbearable suffering.
The Nobel laureate is regarded as the finest Irish poet since Yeats. His rough-hewn work is steeped in rural life,' ' family, aging, and loss.
Spanning more than 20 years, this must-have collection reads like a memoir: nervy, honest, open, and brave. (See "Finding the Muse," page 181.)
She wrote almost 1,800 poems, but few were published in her lifetime. She rarely left her room, much less her father's house; locals regarded her as an eccentric. Yet Dickinson's verse grappled with big issues—love and death and solitude—and her passion is nearly unparalleled.
In this acclaimed 1995 volume, the former poet laureate tackles the fierce, intense bond between mothers and daughters: "I survived / their shoves across the schoolyard / because my five-foot-zero mother drove up / in her Caddie to shake them down to size."
Fatally struck by a dune buggy on Fire Island at age 40, this iconic New York poet was exuberant and magnanimous, and never took himself too seriously: "And here I am, the / center of all beauty! / writing these poems! / Imagine!"
This collection is worth owning for the powerful title poem alone ("In my heart and its rooms is dark and windy"), which seems to foreshadow her 2009 suicide.
Kinnell's work spans everything from politics to Parkinson's disease and brims with plainspoken beauty.
This Polish Nobel laureate is notable for her spare, elegant verse: "This waiting, it's taking forever. / Any second now. / No, not yet. / Yes, now." Amazingly, the chilling—and prescient—"The Terrorist, He's Watching" was written more than 30 years ago.
The only poet ever to have won four Pulitzer Prizes, Frost is widely read in American grade schools. Especially worthy: much less anthologized gems such as "For Once, Then, Something."
At once direct and mysterious, Ryan's brief poems are gnomic delights: "Intention doesn't sweeten. / It should be picked young / and eaten."
Playful, radical experiments with spelling, syntax, and punctuation are Cummings's poetic signature. Less well known—his gift for erotic verse: "i like my body when it is with your / body."
Throughout her career, Oliver has taken the natural world as her muse: Her poems are inhabited by egrets, hares, hawks, rabbits, fields, ponds, peonies, turtles, and more. (See "One Wild and Precious Life," page 168.)
Raised on Chicago's South Side, Brooks (who died in 2000) devoted her work to the lives of African-Americans, depicting scenes of anger, compassion, and resilience. In addition to the classic "We Real Cool," this edition also includes treasures like "The Lovers of the Poor."
Before her suicide in 1963, Plath wrote these pieces in a frenzy—as many as 25 poems in one month. As her daughter, Frieda Hughes, notes, Plath's work "dismembered those close to her." Rarely has raw emotion been conveyed with such intensity and precision.
The Harlem Renaissance poet is celebrated for "A Dream Deferred" and "I, Too, Sing America," but this definitive collection also offers stunners such as the pithy "Suicide's Note."
A New Jersey doctor as well as one of the most inventive poets of the 20th century, Williams wrote deftly about love ("At mere sight of you / my voice falters, my tongue / is broken"), and just about everything else—including plums in the refrigerator.