I’ll admit it: in middle school I was that awkward kid that wrote some truly awful poetry. I loved poetry. Still do, really. And I still write it now, although hopefully better. There’s just something about poetry that manages to catch imagery and emotions that prose can’t always reach. It’s easier for those short little snippets to become gut punches, words that bounce around your head for days, you can’t help but roll around on your tongue, and in my case at least, wonder if that’s should go on your list of tattoos to eventually get. Poetry can be just a touch more raw, more soul-stirring, better able to pull at your heart strings with just a few short lines. Shakespeare’s “shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” is regularly riffed on for a reason. Lord Byron was far too full of himself and is often overrated, but “she walks in beauty, like the night” is a hell of a line. And that’s not even touching on Maya Angelou’s poetry and her gift with words.
And if you know poetry fans, you know we love to share our favorites. And that’s what I’ve done here. I’ve collected some of my favorite poetry collections that were released this year. Like a lot of poetry collections, they’re hard hitting, especially after the years we’ve collectively had. Several of these poetry collections were put together in the last year and a half, so they’re angry, sad, cathartic calls to action, all emotions we’re collectively feeling and need to read.
Many Different Kinds of Love by Michael Rosen
You know Michael Rosen, even if you don’t. You’ll especially know him if you had a kid or were a kid during the ’90s to early ’00s. If you know We’re Going On A Bear Hunt, you know Michael Rosen. And last year, Rosen caught COVID-19. Caught it bad enough that he had to go into intensive care. Bad enough that he had to go into a medically induced coma and it wasn’t certain he would wake back up. But the entire time there was a notebook at the foot of his bed that nurses and doctors and his wife would write notes to him in, messages of hope. When he woke back up, before too long he was ready to write for himself, creating prose poetry around his experience. And he collected all of it here: his poetry about his experience, and all the notes his doctors and nurses wrote, all about love and life and being kind in the midst of darkness.
A Blood Condition by Kayo Chingonyi
We are a culmination of everything our ancestors ever were. Everything that they were lives on through us, through our genetics and our memories. And that’s what A Blood Condition is about: inheritance, history collapsing and running through our veins. Tracing his history from Zambia to North Leeds, discussing losing both his parents to HIV-related illnesses, about grief and remembering those who have left us, and the injustices colonization did on his country. The poems carry a quiet dignity to them, a dignity that will resonate with people today as they deal with the trauma of the last years.
Sho by Douglas Kearney
Kearney’s seventh collection is verbally acrobatic, jumping from dialect to dialect, arranging his poetry in a way that is visually stimulating. The stories he tells through his poetry are uniquely his, but is told in a way that your are able to connect and understand his feeling. Bouncing between linguistics and history, pop culture and folklore, it is full of wordplay. Kearney looks at what it means to be a Black male in this day and age, alongside police killings and Christianity, and what it means to be defined by your skin color, making one’s exterior all that represents your interior.
I Am the Rage by Martina McGowan
Written entirely in 2020 by a Black woman, this poetry collection is full of anger, and rightfully so. It covers a century of bottled up pain and rage, having to constantly turn the other cheek and being told “just wait, the next time will be better.” The rage and pain absolutely pours off the page of this collection, with poems dedicated to Breonna Taylor and others killed by the police. It’s written in free verse, unburdened by structure and allows the emotion to become almost fluid, reaching in and gripping your heart in a fist.
Collected Poems by Sonia Sanchez
Sonia Sanchez was one of the founders of the Black Arts movement, working alongside people like James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, and Audre Lorde. She helped lay the groundwork for modern day Black spoken word poetry and hip hop. And this poetry collection has all of her best works, starting with poems from her first collection Homecoming from 1969, and going all the way to poems published in 2019. There’s a variety of structures features that will speak to any poetry lover, from haikus to near book long narrative poems, all about Black liberation, women’s right, and social equality. There’s even poems aimed towards children and young adults in there. This poetry collection is over 400 pages long, you’re sure to find something that speaks to you.
Living Nations, Living Words Collected by Joy Harjo
Joy Harjo, a Muscogee poet, is the first Native American to be the United States Poet Laureate and is in her third term in the position, the second poet laureate ever to serve three terms. This is her laureate project, a collection of works from 47 fellow Native poets from numerous Nations, not just from the continental United States but also Iñupiaq in Alaska and poets from American-occupied Pacific Islands. Some of the poems are bilingual, others retelling their legends, and some chose to represent the realities of their people now and through history. There is no one tradition that ties these poems together, except an appreciation of the Earth, an understanding of suffering, and the feeling of hope. For the full effect of the poetry, I recommend checking out the online portions which include an ArcGIS Story map of the poets and an audio collection of readings and discussions of the collected poems. A lot of poetry is meant to be heard, not read, and these poems are no different.
Worldly Things by Michael Kleber-Diggs
There is no doubting that the United States has failed a lot of people these last couple of years. Worldly Things documents just that, but also calls upon the people to do better, to create something better, a new folklore built on kindness and mutual prosperity. These poems show moments of delight alongside moments of despair, simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking, discussing teaching his daughter to drive before talking about Freddie Gray’s death in the back of a police cruiser. This collection received the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize, and it is more than deserving. This is a hell of a debut poetry collection.
Black Girl, Call Home by Jasmine Mans
If you liked Sonia Sanchez’s work, or Nikki Giovanni’s, then this is the collection for you. It’s a love letter to Black girls, exploring what it means to be a Black woman, digging into feminism and racism, the homophobia Jasmine faced from her mother and strangers, sexuality and rape culture, and treading that line between belonging and not belonging. It goes into Black history in America, and what the community has endured at the hands of the government and those who have sworn to protect and serve. The language is beautiful and lyrical, starting with poems steeped in nostalgia before moving onto works that are a swift punch to the gut and on topics that we would probably rather not have conversations over but really need to.
If you’re new to poetry and a little daunted by some of the poetic techniques you may come across (or you need a refresher), I recommend you check out our primer on popular literature devices in poetry! Or you can always check out our piece on poems to read after losing a loved one, or on the flip side of the coin, poetry collections to read when you’re feeling romantic over a certain someone.