In high school, I thought that poetry was a dead genre, both metaphorically and literally. A quick glance at my English classes’ reading lists had me thinking that the only poets were Shakespearean men with powdered wigs from the 1700s and that no sane person would ever read poetry voluntarily.
However, after some discussions and recommendations from my teachers, I soon realized that there are an abundance of contemporary poets whose work is not only accessible but also eye-opening and illuminating.
Whether you find yourself in a haze of boredom during quarantine or are curious about venturing into the realm of poetry but unsure where to start, here is a list of some of the best poetry collections from contemporary writers to fill your time.
“Night Sky with Exit Wounds” by Ocean Vuong
“The most beautiful part of your body / is where it’s headed. & remember, / loneliness is still time spent / with the world.”
Ocean Vuong’s work has received much attention in the past few years. The recipient of a MacArthur Grant and longlisted for the 2019 National Book Award for his fiction book “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” he has emerged as a unique and esteemed voice in the contemporary literary space. In “Night Sky with Exit Wounds,” the Vietnamese-American poet and essayist chronicles the liminality of immigrant identity, the scripture of inhabiting both a queer and racialized body, and the tumultuous navigation of memory. His voice is sharp and lyrical, and imagery that is at once oblique and haunting permeates his work. Vuong weaves the threads of war, trauma, familial lineage, romance, and melancholia into a lyrical tapestry that sings on the page, conveying the eroticism and electricity of being alive — of being human.
“The Tradition” by Jericho Brown
“I’m sure / Somebody died while we made love. Some- / Body killed somebody / Black. I thought then / Of holding you / As a political act.”
The recipient of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, Jericho Brown’s “The Tradition” is an evocative distillation of the dereliction of modern America. In this collection, Brown navigates the dark waters of American history, interrogating the complex subtext of Black masculinity and vulnerability in a society built upon his dehumanization. He illuminates with harrowing precision the question of what it means to exist in a body that is seen as violent and that has had violence inflicted upon it — to inhabit a life savaged by loss. Brown’s poems, however, are not a series of mournful elegies but ultimately a hopeful ode to the future of black identity — an identity he sees as full of beauty, a beauty as endless and sharp as rain.
“Deaf Republic” by Ilya Kaminsky
“At the trial of God, we will ask: why did you allow all this? / And the answer will be an echo: why did you allow all this?”
Blurring the boundaries between genres, Ilya Kaminsky’s “Deaf Republic” is a parable told in a series of breathtaking poems on the tragedy of public violence and the haunting language of silence. In this collection, Kaminsky interrogates the politics of resistance, the afterimages of atrocity and war, and the brutality of a world in which we must confront our complicit silence in the face of inhumanity. Forming an ambitious tale, each poem serves as a single thread in a larger, lyrical epic, illustrating the ways in which passivity begets violence. The collection serves as both a forewarning and a mirror to a contemporary reality marred by injustice.
“American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin” by Terrance Hayes
“Something happened / In Sanford, something happened in Ferguson / And Brooklyn & Charleston, something happened / In Chicago & Cleveland & Baltimore & happens / Almost everywhere in this country every day. / Probably someone is prey in all of our encounters. / You won't admit it. The names alive are like the names / In graves.”
Written during the first two hundred days after Trump’s inauguration, Terrance Hayes’ collection of sonnets is an introspective self-portrait on the cultural landscape of contemporary America. Hayes’ voice is one of both irrefutable tenderness and melancholy as he examines the open wound of a country bloodied by racialized politics. Hayes is not restricted by the sonnet form but rather liberated; with rhythmic and cyclical musicality and lyricism, he offers a powerful critique of the resurgence of white nationalism and an examination of how to remain hopeful in the face of collective trauma — how to both mourn and love a country of impossible beauty and terror.
“Bluets” by Maggie Nelson
“For to wish to forget how much you loved someone—and then, to actually forget—can feel, at times, like the slaughter of a beautiful bird who chose, by nothing short of grace, to make a habitat of your heart.”
In this profound, philosophical body of work, Maggie Nelson confronts the sharp intimacy of love and loss through her declared obsession with the color blue. Nelson explores the multifaceted lens through which the color blue operates — both as a symbol of beauty and mesmerization yet also one of sadness and coldness — and laces the multiplicity of its meanings into her own individual narrative on modern love and loneliness. She confesses in explicit lyricism the grotesque beauty of the body and the female gaze, the intensity with which personal grief can puncture a person’s livelihood, and the necessity to seek light in our deepest moments of despair.