For those who want to dip their toes, or dive head first, into the strange, sparkling sea of contemporary poetry, but don’t know where to start, look no further, cuz I’m your gal! Come on in, the water is warm…
I get asked for newer poetry recommendations quite a bit. When presented with this question, the collections here are the ones I am most excited to share. They aren’t all brand new, but they are some of personal favorite books of poetry from this decade.
Each of these has something strange and unexpected to offer, while also, I think, remaining palatable to those who may not be all that familiar with, or are intimidated by, contemporary verse. Innovative, but not opaque, each of them catch the light and shimmer in their own unique way. All of them embody the things I personally look for in poetry—beautifully crafted, devoid of cliche, innovative with language, dark and deep and thematically rich while maintaining a sense of play.
Surely not all of these are for everyone, but I do think anyone can find one or two from the pile that speaks to them.
I’ve given a description of each below, some a little more than others. To read the publisher’s blurbs, and what other readers have to say, click on the titles to check out their Goodreads pages.
So—behold! My go-to most recommended contemporary poetry collections, in no particular order.
Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith
To meet what refuses to let us keep anything
For long. What teases us with blessings,
Bends us with grief. Wizard, thief, the great
Wind rushing to knock our mirrors to the floor,
To sweep our short lives clean. How mean
—The Universe as Primal Scream
If you love David Bowie, contemplating the cosmos and our place among them, and lush, strange, out-of-this-world metaphors, this one’s for you.
As a child, Smith’s father was one of the engineers who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope, and Life On Mars sings of the universe with her eye to the peep hole, squinting in wonder at all the glittering bigness and smallness of life.
Both vast and infinitesimal, she weaves pop-culture, science, art, and history with the mundane, the familial, the political, exploring the tenuous relationships and interconnectedness of all things.
As Flight of the Concords would say, that’s pretty freaky, Bowie.
Smith’s new collection— Wade in the Water
Bluets by Maggie Nelson
Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color. Suppose I were to speak this as though it were a confession: suppose I shredded my napkin as we spoke.
What to say about Bluets? Well, it is a love song to the color blue, the unreliability of vision itself, and everything warped and refracted through it. With this comes the subtext of everything that blue is, and everything that is blue. It is innovative to be sure. Nelson is finder of poems in the strangest of places, and Bluet’s is unabashedly genre-fluid, which is the signature of all of her work.
It reads much like a writer’s notebook, disjointed snippets of musings and analysis and lists and quotes and recollections and re-tellings—like a series of interconnected prose poems that become whole between the covers. She weaves critical theory, philosophy, psychology, science, suffering, relationships, sex, and the most tangible objects into an obsession, an immersion, of blue.
Nelson’s new collection—Something Bright, Then Holes
Her experimental memoir—The Argonauts
The Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong
Then, as if breathing, the sea swelled beneath us. If you must know anything, know that the hardest task is to live only once That a woman on a sinking ship becomes a life raft—no matter how soft her skin.
One of the most human collections I’ve ever read, Vuong’s debut is full of beauty, sorrow, longing, loss, melancholia and joy. He explores the immigrant and queer experiences, desire, family, war, the body, moving both recklessly and deliberately through the void. His words are strange and singular, beautifully composed, visceral, each line a beating heart.
Vuong’s forthcoming collection— On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
Rhapsody in Plain Yellow by Marilyn Chin
The moon is a drunk and anorectic,
constantly reeling, changing weight.
My shadow dances grotesquely,
resentful she can’t leave me.
The moon mourns his unwritten novels,
cries naked into the trees and fades.
Tomorrow he’ll return to beat me
blue—again, again, and again.
—Get Rid of the X
Of all of these, Chin’s Rhapsody in Plain Yellow is the most musical (as alluded to in the title), the most wild and unspooled at times, and formal and subdued at others. The book is a romp through culture, family, interracial love, politics and identity, and she is not afraid to be explicit and naked and lurid in her portrayal of these things. Her imagery is vivid and fresh and odd and, at times, uncanny.
My favorite part of this book is her Broken Chord Sequence, a series of poems within the collection that come together as an elegy to her mother and grandmother. It is a beautiful, sorrowful exploration of love and grief and guilt and the frailty of life.
I love these words so much on the page, and listening to her read her poems is another experience in itself—a completely different, almost manic, experience of the words—definitely worth checking out if you enjoy seeing poets perform their work.
Chin’s newest collection— Hard Love Province: Poems
The Boss by Victoria Chang
with stars lie to the moon for anyone to listen
punching anything in sight on some nights
the moon speaks up because it knows it will still
have a job on some nights the moon
shines its white mane on everything
I’ve never done wrong I can’t bear
to look at the light the blank doe eye
like a shadow I can’t shake
—Edward Hopper’s Automat
Of all of these books, this is definitely the most experimental, and least likely to be “for everyone.” The tone and pace and distance make it an uncomfortable read at times, but that is the beauty of it. The book was published by McSweeny’s (an independent and experimental press founded by Dave Eggars—also original creators of the literary magazine The Believer) that I really love. If you are familiar with the type of work they publish, this will give you a good idea of what to expect. They also strive to make the physical books they publish objects of art in themselves, which, when you hold this book in your hands, you will see that it is—book materiality at it’s best.
Chang uses the boss figure as an archetype, and the metaphor of the office space as a setting to obsessively and unflinchingly explore the power structures at work in our society, while the real subject of these poems is the everyone else who is NOT the boss.
The poems are heavy with anaphora, the staccato and jarring pace of repetition, calling to mind the drone of existence in the space she has built for the characters within.
Of the poems within, I was most drawn to her Edward Hopper series, scattered throughout in a way that appears haphazard (though of course each is meticulously placed) throughout the book. These explore the same themes of loneliness in his paintings.
I was fortunate to meet Chang when she came to read and discuss this book in one of my undergrad creative writing workshops, and it was so interesting hearing her perspective on her own work. She let us choose which poems we wanted her to read and then ask her questions about each. She discussed with us her process, which is (strange and unexpectedly) often sitting in her car, writing down her thoughts with no punctuation or line breaks—just letting the words come. Knowing this in retrospect, it is evident in the collection.
Chang’s new collection— Barbie Chang
Hilarity by Patricia Seyburn
I do not want the world a certain way.
The world is that way, and I am vehicle
on the road of nomenclature. I tend the road.
In my dream, all events coterminous—
no linear narrative, preceding or next.
The odd vignette, lone scene, an image
in isolation, no neighbors.
Then I awaken and pace
—The Alphabetizer Speaks
I was so fortunate to have Patty Seyburn as my mentor in my undergrad creative writing program. Not only was she an outstanding professor, but I have never met anyone with her passion for poetry—for language and sound and the exploration of humanity through words. She is tough and intelligent and funny. A true poet, through and through, and so gifted at teaching others how to hone their own talent.
I love all of her work, and can honestly say that I think she is the best of the best. This is my favorite of her collections. I am blown away by every line and image—the striking metaphor, the unexpected language, the exquisitely-tuned attention to sound and flow, the strange imagery and juxtapositions, the masterful line breaks, the wry humor. With a PhD in literature, she is a master of allusion and intertextuality, and the play between the mythical and the mundane is both jarring and so very human.
Oh, and her favorite word is cruller.
Seyburn’s newest collection— Perfecta
And finally, a collection on my reading list for December that I am VERY stoked about! Jenny Xie is one of my favorite poets, and though she’s published in many literary journals, and has a few outstanding chapbooks, this is her first full-length book!
Eye Level by Jenny Xie
Jenny Xie’s award-winning debut, Eye Level, takes us far and near, to Phnom Penh, Corfu, Hanoi, New York, and elsewhere, as we travel closer and closer to the acutely felt solitude that centers this searching, moving collection. Animated by a restless inner questioning, these poems meditate on the forces that moor the self and set it in motion, from immigration to travel to estranging losses and departures. The sensual worlds here―colors, smells, tastes, and changing landscapes―bring to life questions about the self as seer and the self as seen. As Xie writes, “Me? I’m just here in my traveler’s clothes, trying on each passing town for size.” Her taut, elusive poems exult in a life simultaneously crowded and quiet, caught in between things and places, and never quite entirely at home. Xie is a poet of extraordinary perception―both to the tangible world and to “all that is untouchable as far as the eye can reach.”