April is National Poetry Month. And, as we celebrate an art form that gives shape and language to our experience of the world, it should be noted that many readers still struggle to find the door, the gateway to poetry.
With that in mind, accept these 20 mostly fairly recent titles as an offer of peace and a place to start. Not all will resonate with all readers; but there should be something here for every mood and way to engage.
Jericho Brown, “The New Testament” (2014) In the footsteps of James Baldwin and others, Brown mixes spiritual and sexual desire, eros and agape, until the lines are virtually imperceptible. Brown’s 2019 title “The Tradition” won him a Pulitzer Prize, but don’t overlook the power of this earlier work. Brown will appear in conversation with Tracy K. Smith on April 23 as the culmination event of this year’s Unbound Book Festival.
Scott Cairns, “Slow Pilgrim” (2015) Perhaps the quintessential poet of divine affection of his generation, the former University of Missouri professor holds wonderful company in this volume of collected works. Cairns shakes hands with mystics and martyrs, church fathers and mothers and those who travel daily, stumbling and groping for grace.
Natalie Diaz, “Postcolonial Love Poem” (2020) Much like Brown, there is a different, more sensual set of loci to Diaz’s devotion to his partner’s hips, the arch of a gunshot, the place where domestic and wild creatures settle together but ecstasy is neither less respectful nor less inspired.
Poems for this and every moment
Deborah Landau, “Soft Targets” (2019) The title of Landau’s miraculous text refers both to the state of human beings in the era of mass shootings and to the state of human beings at all times and in any place. To love and to be loved, to take advantage of everything, is to be vulnerable, say Landau’s poems. His works call us to experience a kind of gentle bravery, to recognize and negotiate with our own defenses.
Catherine Pierce, “Danger Days” (2020) The UM graduate, now a professor at the State of Mississippi, looks at the end of the world as she knows it. And while Pierce’s poems blink more than once, bathed as they are in genuine humanity, they also challenge a number of upcoming apocalypses by finding and grabbing all that is left to love about it. ruined world.
Poems for the potholes of life
Anders Carlson-Wee, “The Low Passions” (2019) The dark secrets of the new Old West squint in the harsh light of Carlson-Wee’s handwriting. Dinghies, trash divers, railroad conductors and makeshift families populate his poems, making their lives both heartbreaking and appealing. Carlson-Wee’s work will both satisfy readers’ dark curiosities and point them towards the best angels of their nature.
Franz Wright, “Walking to Martha’s Vineyard” (2003) Few poets fight both angels and demons like the late Wright. This Pulitzer Prize winner is perhaps most representative of his ability to negotiate tough treaties, with mental illness, addiction, and self-doubt sitting to one side of the table in front of God, Grace and of love for other living creatures.
Poetry with a pop-culture bent
Hanif Abdurraqib, “The Crown Isn’t Worth Much” (2016) No contemporary poet weaves personal strands and pop culture like Abdurraqib. Here he writes about Kanye West, punk rock, A Tribe Called Quest, Fall Out Boy, Chicago Bulls, Whitney Houston and many more that honor and transcend the subject. The titles of Abdurraqib’s poems are poems themselves: “The author explains the good-natured, MAAD town to his white friend while driving through Southeast Ohio”; “Guys, we didn’t bother getting those fake IDs so that jukebox didn’t have a Springsteen”; “None of the kids in my neighborhood are going to argue about the existence of God.”
Danny Caine, “El Dorado Freddy” (2020) Most of the poems in this collection are set in franchise restaurants (remember that?) While Caine, the owner of Lawrence, Kansas, The Raven Book Store and anti-Amazon crusader examines the menus and the ways they evoke concerns of fatherhood, nostalgia and consumer culture. Tara Wray’s photographs match Caine’s words step by step, ringing bells of humor and pathos.
The poetry of the place
Tyree Daye, “Cardinal” (2020) “Cardinal” is from and between several places. Beginning, in part, with an epigraph from the Green Book, Daye maps out where black Americans can safely settle, whether in this lifetime or the next.
Jake Skeets, “Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers” (2019) The beginnings of Skeets are a remarkable set of poems oriented towards the axis located within and, spiritually, outside the limits of the Navajo reserves which seem to me. both familiar and totally alien, originally from Arizona. Skeets challenges the outside audience in their perception of his Din people and, from within, overturns his community’s constructs about manhood and sexuality.
Hannah VanderHart, “What Pecan Light” (2021) The latest collection on this list, released April 20, finds the North Carolina-based poet makes sense of a cultural South that has turned an ill-formed history into an unshakeable legacy . Even as VanderHart grapples with what it means to tell the truth, these poems beautifully anchor readers to what can be cherished about this moment and the one that follows. (Disclosure: VanderHart has edited two freelance book reviews in the past year.)
Christian Wiman, “Survival is a Style” (2020) Posted last February, barely a month or so, before the pandemic sent so many of us into survival mode, Wiman’s title seems prophetic. The poems in the book also see us, sifting through the phenomena of religious migration, fast food salvation and more.
Adam Zagajewski, “Asymmetry” (2018) The much-loved Polish poet died on March 21 at the age of 75. Many pieces from the English translation of his 2014 collection sparkle and fail; none quite resonates like “Mourning For a Lost Friend,” which is devastating in its accuracy, capturing the feeling of losing a mate not to death, but to politics. “My friend is hiding from me / He was gripped by a deep political wave / My friend now knows the answer to every question / And can trace the source of every answer,” writes the poet.
Poetry to read with children
Langston Hughes, “The Dream Keeper and Other Poems” (1996) The first poem I memorized was simply called “Poem”. In six lines, Hughes gave language to my grieving freshman class, helping us understand how to articulate the loss of a beloved friend who is gone. The poetry of life, death, love and hope is here for kids, articulated in a simple yet deeply profound way and accompanied by the rich, immersive illustrations by Brian Pinkney.
Miscellaneous, “Hip Hop Speaks to Children” (2008) Edited by the luminous Nikki Giovanni, this collection brings together rhythmic recitations that will speak to children. The words of everyone from Martin Luther King Jr. and Maya Angelou to Queen Latifah and A Tribe Called Quest come together here, touching on topics kids understand and helping them recognize the depth and breadth of hip culture. -hop.
Eve Ewing, “Electric Arches” (2017) Formally inventive and endlessly moving, Ewing’s work here is both a coming-of-age story and coming into your own. With a lively and astute accompaniment, the poet explores the spaces between genres and people in an unforgettable way.
Sarah Sloat, “Hotel Almighty” (2020) Sloat creates a masterpiece of “Misery”, using found and visual poetry techniques to recreate the meaning of words on the pages of Stephen King’s famous novel. Crossing out, coloring and working around the text, Sloat brings some incredibly anxious and awe-inspiring poems to life and calls us to examine where the poetry might lurk near us.
Poetry for a better day
Mary Oliver, “Devotions” (2017) You can read this career anthology back and forth a few times and I never tire of Oliver’s words. The dearly deceased poet taps into endless wells of curiosity, wonder, mercy and kindness as she explores the wilderness inside and outside of us.
Maggie Smith, “Good Bones” (2017) The title poem has spread as widely as a poem can these days, touching something deep inside readers who know what it means to live in a world with “good Bones”. os ”, a habitat that we aspire to create a home. Smith’s poem is sobering, but leaves the door just cracked enough to hope to slip through.
This article originally appeared on Columbia Daily Tribune: 20 Headlines to Guide You Through National Poetry Month
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