50 Essential Books of Poetry That Everyone Should Read


It’s National Poetry Month, and you’re probably thinking: “I should really read more poetry. But where oh where do I start?” Well, sound the trumpets, because here is Flavorwire to the rescue! After the jump, you’ll find a list of 50 essential books of poetry that pretty much everyone should read. There’s something for everybody here, from the deeply established canonical works to riveting, important books by newer poets, from the Romantics to the post-modernists, from the goofy to the staid. NB: as with other lists like these, only one work per author has been included, and there is a bias against the “Collected Poems of” unless necessary. Obviously, inevitably, painfully, there are many, many poets and works of poetry, both of great renown and less so, that are missing here and should still be read by everyone. This list can only reflect personal taste, chance meetings, and wild subjectivity, so please add on your own favorite collections in the comments.

Lighthead, Terrance Hayes

Hayes is a people’s poet, writing about pop culture and race and masculinity and humanity, with whip-smart attention and playful, exuberant lines that pop and puzzle and give it to you straight and give it to you on the sly. This collection, his fourth, won the National Book Award in 2010. For the record, he also gives a killer reading.

Praise, Robert Hass

The former Poet Laureate’s William Carlos Williams-award-winning second collection is flawless. Architectural and intellectual, beautiful and cheeky, and infused with a deep regard for the natural. Then there are those incredible introductory lines: “We asked the captain what course/ of action he proposed to take toward/ a beast so large, terrifying, and unpredictable. He hesitated to/ answer, and then said judiciously:/ ‘I think I shall praise it.’”

The Book of Nightmares, Galway Kinnell

Fierce and forceful, rich and ravishing, alchemical and academic, Kinnell’s poems are like no one else’s. This one might be even better than his Collected, which won the Pulitzer and the National Book Award.

Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, Pablo Neruda

An essential collection for any lover. How can it not be, with lines like this: “I want / to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees”?

Ariel, Sylvia Plath

Plath’s poems are deeply felt, deeply menacing dreams, roiling and crystalline and absolutely essential.

The Complete Poems, Emily Dickinson


Howl and Other Poems, Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg is one of those figures that our collective consciousness is kind of stuck on. Be one of the people who actually know what his poetry is like — and get more than a taste of the times in which it was written in the process.

Mother Love, Rita Dove

This collection from one of the living poetic greats is modeled on Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, but also makes use of the myth of Demeter and Persephone to explore the cyclical, fraught, essential mother/daughter bond, her poems speaking for those contemporary women who “are struggling to sing in their chains.” Truly glorious stuff.

Mountain Interval, Robert Frost

Avoid the common misunderstanding of the last couplet of “The Road Not Taken” by actually reading the whole poem. Sadly, this is probably the road less traveled. Also, Frost has won four Pulitzers. Just saying.

Where the Sidewalk Ends, Shel Silverstein

The poet for children of all ages.

Sinners Welcome, Mary Karr

If you only know Karr for her incredible memoirs, well, don’t you have a surprise in store: her poetry is packed with just as much truth and beauty and cheeky glory and rough tongues (in the various meanings of the word). This collection centers around her late-life conversion to Christianity, with just the kind of skeptic’s scalpel you’d expect: “I found myself upright/ in the instant, with a garden/ inside my own ribs aflourish. There, the arbor leafs./ The vines push out plump grapes./ You are loved, someone said. Take that/ and eat it.”

The Dream of a Common Language, Adrienne Rich

The classic collection from national treasure Adrienne Rich.

Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman

Whitman is one of those enduring American icons who seem to sum up and rebel against our way of life all at once — especially with these lovely, celebratory, triumphant poems.

Autobiography of Red, Anne Carson

This is technically a novel in verse, but you know what? It counts. Within this slim volume, Carson tackles the myth of Geryon and Herakles, telling the monster’s side of things, as we so often find we want to do. Carson is always exciting, and here she is at her best.

Antidote, Corey Van Landingham

This collection might just be the end-all-be-all of elegies. In these wild, spinning poems, grief is a poison, and words are — possibly, barely, strangely — the cure. Gorgeous and brutal, this book will sink to the bottom of your heart and whisper there for a long, long time.

Dance Dance Revolution, Cathy Park Hong

Imagine if a poet made up her own language and then wrote a book of poems with it — or, you don’t have to, because you can just read this. Each poem is an interview from the bleak near-future, during a tour of a fictional city called the Desert. Fragments of the narrator’s history make up the rest. A genre-bending, important book, political and personal and not a little outrageous.

The Dream Songs, John Berryman

Berryman’s virtuosic project is a feat of technique, form, and perspective, a groundbreaking work that reverberates into the present — and into the future.

No Planets Strike, Josh Bell

A contemporary knockout, Bell’s poems run the gamut of good: they’re seriously funny, bizarre, wry, ambitious, acrobatic, gorgeous. Sometimes they have zombies.

Metamorphoses, Ovid

Despite him being like, so old, Ovid is funnier and sexier than you think. Plus, he’s the original architect of surreal, mythic ch-ch-ch-changes. Can’t beat him.

My Life, Lyn Hejinian

Hejinian has the uncanny ability to turn the ordinary observation or idle musing into the profound. Her landmark work is a poetic autobiography, a gorgeous, funny tableau of experiences and memories, a life in fragments. After all, “only fragments are accurate. Break it up into single words, charge them to combination.”

The Sonnets, William Shakespeare

But of course — some of the best love poetry ever written by one of the masters (and creators) of the English language.

The Morning of the Poem, James Schuyler

The book-length title poem in this collection is widely considered one of the best long postmodern poems — a true masterpiece. The collection itself won a Pulitzer in 1980.

The Waste Land and Other Poems, T.S. Eliot

Take it from Ezra Pound: “I can only repeat, but with the urgency of fifty years ago: READ HIM.”

Lunch Poems, Frank O’Hara

Only O’Hara could make lunch breaks so luminous. “It’s my lunch hour, so I go/ for a walk among the hum-colored/ cabs.”

Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror, John Ashbery

Ashbery is one of the all-time greats. This collection, which won the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976, is also likely his most beloved, and for good reason. This is an astounding work, imaginative, strange, funny, experimental, flexible, and deft beyond belief. Ashbery once said that his goal was “to produce a poem that the critic cannot even talk about.” Instead, you’ll read, re-read, and hold this book to your chest.

The Wild Iris, Louise Glück

Hey, another Pulitzer Prize winner. This powerful book looks up to the heavens and down at the earth and investigates the spaces in between, sometimes even taking up the voice of some kind of god: “Your souls should have been immense by now, / not what they are, / small talking things…”

alphabet, Inger Christensen

Christensen is one of Denmark’s most famous poets, but woefully under-appreciated here. This book-length poem investigates nature in both its fragility and rigidity, taking as its structure both the Fibonacci sequence and the alphabet. It is the work of a truly brilliant writer.

View With a Grain of Sand, Wislawa Szymborska

Szymborska, sometimes described as the “Mozart of Poetry,” won the Nobel Prize in 1996 for what the Swedish Academy described as “poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality.” This collection is one of her best.

Native Guard, Natasha Trethewey

Natasha Trethewey is our Poet Laureate. This collection is incredible. No excuses.

100 Selected Poems, E.E. Cummings

As Marianne Moore said, “E.E. Cummings is a concentrate of titanic significance, ‘a positive character’; and only ingenuousness could attempt to suggest in a word the ‘heroic’ aspect of his painting, his poems, and his resistances. He does not make aesthetic mistakes.” Well then: a sampler platter of pure greatness.

The Master Letters, Lucie Brock-Broido

All of Lucie Brock-Broido’s collections are worth reading, because all of her poetry is smart and difficult and five seconds away from bursting into flames at all times. This one, which takes as a starting point three mysterious letters, two of which begin “Dear Master,” written by Emily Dickinson, is a particular favorite.

Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith

Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry for science fiction fans! Concerned as much with David Bowie as it is with infinity, as much with Smith’s NASA-employed father as with the far reaches of science, as much with the abyss as with the world on the other side. “Perhaps the great error is believing we’re alone,/ That the others have come and gone — a momentary blip —/ When all along, space might be choc-full of traffic,/ Bursting at the seams with energy we neither feel/ Nor see, flush against us, living, dying, deciding…”

The Essential Rumi, Rumi

Who knew that the poetry of a 13th-century Sufi mystic would resonate so much with contemporary Americans? Somehow, the man is a touchstone that keeps on delivering.

Ooga-Booga, Frederick Seidel

The 14th book by the “Laureate of the Louche” is wild, caustic, gleeful, bizarre, and utterly unforgettable. Who other than Seidel could ever get away with “The vagina-eyed Modigliani nude/ Made me lewd”? If that sets you to giggles, buy this book.

Head Off & Split, Nikky Finney

The winner of the 2011 National Book Award for Poetry is a clear-eyed, incredibly powerful ode to what it means to be alive.

Annie Allen, Gwendolyn Brooks

With this book, Gwendolyn Brooks became the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. It’s a little hard to get one’s hands on, though — so the Selected Poems will do you fine.

American Primitive, Mary Oliver

Clear and gorgeous poems about nature and our place in it, both physical and metaphysical. Oliver is the modern Thoreau.

The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, Langston Hughes

The ultimate collection from the bard of Harlem. About his famous book-length poem Montage of a Dream Deferred, included here, Hughes himself wrote: “In terms of current Afro-American popular music and the sources from which it progressed — jazz, ragtime, swing, blues, boogie-woogie, and be-bop — this poem on contemporary Harlem, like be-bop, is marked by conflicting changes, sudden nuances, sharp and impudent interjections, broken rhythms, and passages sometimes in the manner of a jam session, sometimes the popular song, punctuated by the riffs, runs, breaks, and disc-tortions of the music of a community in transition.”

Spring and All, William Carlos Williams

One of the great poet’s greatest collections, a mix between free verse and prose obsessed with language and the world and the many places where they make one another. It also includes “The Red Wheelbarrow,” if you liked that poem when you had to read it in ninth grade. If you didn’t, try again.

The Complete Poems, John Keats

Everyone’s favorite Romantic poet wins his spot with pure beauty.

Stag’s Leap, Sharon Olds

The most recent winner of the Pulitzer Prize in poetry is also one of the most astounding, powerful poets working today.

Coal, Audre Lorde

One of the finest collections from Lorde, exploring her own identity as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.”

Sonnets to Orpheus, Rainer Maria Rilke

Rilke may be every undergrad’s favorite poet, but don’t let that turn you off: his work is dense and lyrical, intense and magical, and worthwhile for readers of any age.

Collected Poems, Wallace Stevens

An adored giant of modernist poetry.

New and Selected Poems, 1962-2012, Charles Simić

Simić has published scores of books of his taut, stunning poems. His most recent is a good place to start.

What the Living Do, Marie Howe

A wrenching, spiritual collection about the death of a brother, and sort of about how devastating the dishes are. Howe creates a whole, real life in the shards of everyday objects and errands, and you’ll never forget it.

Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966-1995, Seamus Heaney

It’s hard to narrow Heaney down to one must-read collection, so we might as well recommend this one, a greatest-hits volume selected by the author himself. The Nobel Prize winner is everything a poet should be: both expansive and precise, both lyrical and matter-of-fact, both serious and winking, both casual and lofty. He was a true great.

Poems, Elizabeth Bishop

A big collection of the much-beloved and much-lauded poet’s work, all place and personhood, beauty and sadness.

Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie, Maya Angelou

The first book of poems from one of our greatest living writers. Lyrical, deftly observed, and straight-up jazzy to boot.

The Complete English Poems, John Donne

The chief among the metaphysical poets, Donne is the object of many scholarly obsessions. He can be the object of yours, too. He’ll never let you down.