13 Must-Read Poetry Books to Change the Way You Think
We’ve all had that moment of wanting to create pure poetry. Staring at an email, blog, or code that we’re writing and just… blinking.
So how can we shake up our perspective? When I’m in a rut, amazing poetry does the trick. It inspires me to take myself less seriously, more seriously, or a little bit of both. Even if you don’t identify as a “poetry person,” there’s likely a poem out there that can change your mind.
Only you know what you need, so find your antidote in the list below. Here are 13 poetry books you can read to start thinking fresh:
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
The Anthology of Really Important Modern Poetry by Kathryn and Ross Petras
the sun and her flowers by Rupi Kaur
Collected Poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay
Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein
View with a Grain of Sand by Wisława Szymborska
Paradise Lost by John Milton
House of Light by Mary Oliver
American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes
The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai
the princess saves herself in this one by Amanda Lovelace
The Truth About Magic by Atticus
How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry by Edward Hirsch
For best results, read these poetry books out loud to feel how they sound.
1. Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman (1855)
To read and get existential
If you read Whitman in high school, read him again. If you never read Whitman in high school, read him now. Leaves of Grass pushed boundaries as one of the first American free verse poems. The book combines Whitman’s relatable stream of consciousness with splashes of classical poetry. As the speaker considers his existence and purpose, so does the reader.
Read this legendary collection of poetry to think about your place in the world. Then listen to that late, great Robin Williams monologue.
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
(“Song of Myself”)
2. The Anthology of Really Important Modern Poetry by Kathryn & Ross Petras (2012)
To read and laugh out loud
There’s important modern poetry, and then there’s really modern poetry - that is, ridiculous quotes from celebrities tastefully broken up into poems. Petras and Petras take stars way too seriously using line breaks and schools of thought. By obsessing over famous people, they remind us that not all famous people deserve our obsession. Get inspired to take celebrities (and yourself) with a grain of salt.
It felt like the “P” was coming between me and my fans.
We had to simplify it.
It was, you know, during concerts
and half the crowd saying “P. Diddy”
and half the crowd chanting “Diddy.”
Now everybody can just chant
(“Diddy, ‘The Importance of P’”)
3. the sun and her flowers by Rupi Kaur (2017)
To read and simplify
If you’ve heard about Instagram-famous poet Rupi Kaur, it’s probably been in ten words or less. The Indian-Canadian poet has a knack for distilling powerful emotions into compact lines. Though each word seems simple, the concepts in this poetry book pack a punch. Read and remember that beautiful things don’t need to be complicated.
if we can still be friends
i explain how a honeybee
does not dream of kissing
the mouth of a flower
and then settle for its leaves
- i don’t need more friends -
4. Collected Poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay (1917-1950)
To read and organize
Edna St. Vincent Millay picked up the pieces of World War I and made some sense of them. If you’re in a hectic headspace, read her poems. Millay wrote within the strict structure of a sonnet, with 14 lines and iambic pentameter. Within the structure, she reaches peak creativity. I needed to memorize one of her sonnets in college, and I’ve been coming back to it ever since: “I will put Chaos into fourteen lines / And keep him there; and let him thence escape / If he be lucky…”
5. Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein (1974)
To read and play around
Silverstein got me into poetry as a kid, and there’s no question why. His poetry books play with adventure and stretch the boundaries of reality. As both an author and an illustrator, Silverstein brought his quirky poems to life. So think up brand new inventions and imagine a crocodile at the dentist. Read this stuff to remind yourself to break the rules every once in a while.
Listen to the MUSTN’TS, child,
Listen to the DON’TS
Listen to the SHOULDN’TS
The IMPOSSIBLES, the WONT’S
Listen to the NEVER HAVES
Then listen close to me—
Anything can happen, child,
ANYTHING can be.
6. View with a Grain of Sand by Wisława Szymborska (1957-1993)
To read and feel deeply
Sometimes we need to break our hearts to put them back together again. If you’ve been feeling numb or want to indulge in some strong emotions, pick up Szymborska. She wrote her poetry books in Polish, and the translation doesn’t skip a beat. Each poem in this collection faces the reader in plain language. The book asks us: “Life is tough. Now what?”
It was written in marble in golden letters:
here a great man lived and worked and died.
He laid the gravel for these paths personally.
This bench — do not touch — he chiseled by himself
out of stone.
And — careful, three steps — we're going inside.
(“A Great Man’s House”)
7. Paradise Lost by John Milton (1667)
To read and listen better
To be honest, I’ve always preferred the original Adam and Eve story to Milton’s rewrite. I didn’t appreciate Paradise Lost until I read it out loud. For example, check out the end when the two characters **spoiler alert** leave Eden together. Milton blends harsher sounds like “t” and “p” with softer sounds like “w” and “s”. The reader gets the sense of Adam and Eve’s fear and love all at once. Read this epic to practice listening to annoying people and projects. You might be surprised by what you find.
Som natural tears they drop'd, but wip'd them soon;
The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,
Through Eden took thir solitarie way.
8. House of Light by Mary Oliver (1990)
To read and slow down
Feel like you don’t have time to breathe? You’re probably not functioning at your best. Mary Oliver’s poetry book is the next best thing to strolling through a forest. Read her nature-inspired poems to stare at the world with wonder. Look away from the screen and consider Oliver’s challenge: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” (“The Summer Day”).
9. American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes (2018)
To read and rethink identity
Hayes proves that seeming contradictions can breathe together. His poems challenge what it means to be a black, American poet and effortlessly weave slang with references to Greek tragedies. Turn to this poetry book to reconsider how you see, how you’re seen, and how you see yourself. Make sure to read Hayes’ sonnets out loud to hear their music.
The black poet would love to say his century began
With Hughes or God forbid, Wheatley, but actually
It began with all the poetry weirdos and worriers, warriors,
Poetry whiners and winos falling from ship bows, sunset
Bridges & windows…
10. The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai translated by Robert Alter (1955-1998)
To read and focus
Think your open workspace is distracting? Read this poetry book to zoom in. Even in the chaos of wartime, Amichai explored love and history. Somehow, he manages to blend biblical references, summer flings, and childhood memories. Sink into this collection and focus, if just for a poem.
Now that the water presses hard
On the walls of the dam,
Now that the returning white storks
In the middle of the firmament
Turn into flocks of jet planes,
We will feel again how strong are the ribs,
How bold the warm air in the lungs,
How urgent the faring to love in the open plain,
When great dangers arch overhead…
11. the princess saves herself in this one by Amanda Lovelace (2017)
To read and draw power
Personally, I’ve got days when imposter syndrome takes over. Lovelace’s poems address us in that place of self-doubt. Using strikethroughs and italics, this poetry book plays with stability and whispered thoughts. Lovelace writes about her own relatable insecurities, so prepare for validation. Then, get the power to build yourself back up.
raid your library.
you can get your
& polish them up
until they shine
your finest weapons—
a gold-hilted sword
to cut your
(“a survival plan of sorts.”)
12. The Truth About Magic by Atticus (2019)
To read and daydream
Had enough of focusing? Follow these poems and let your mind wander. Atticus’ poetry book is brief, romantic and dreamy. Illustrations and photos surround the poems, creating as much magic as the words themselves. (Full disclosure: I have an Atticus art print hanging in my room. It reminds me to sink into a storm.)
“I don’t know many things
with any certainty,”
“but snuggling feels important.”
13. How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry by Edward Hirsch (1999)
To read and get started
I’m including this one as a bonus because it is technically a poetry book. It’s about poetry and features it, but it’s more of a guide. Hirsch writes with a contagious passion for the written word. He breaks down the rules of poetry while selling what makes poetry exciting. Learn to fully appreciate poems with this starter kit.
Read these poems to yourself in the middle of the night. Turn on a single lamp and read them while you’re alone in an otherwise dark room or while someone else sleeps next to you. Read them when you’re wide awake in the early morning, fully alert. Say them over to yourself in a place where silence reigns and the din of the culture—the constant buzzing noise that surrounds us—has momentarily stopped. These poems have come from a great distance to find you.
Tova Kamioner, Marketing Writer at Wix
A neurotic New York native, hopelessly in love with alliteration and internal rhymes.