13 Must-Read Poetry Books to Change the Way You Think


Woman reading must-read poetry books

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:


  1. Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

  2. The Anthology of Really Important Modern Poetry by Kathryn and Ross Petras

  3. the sun and her flowers by Rupi Kaur

  4. Collected Poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay

  5. Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein

  6. View with a Grain of Sand by Wisława Szymborska

  7. Paradise Lost by John Milton

  8. House of Light by Mary Oliver

  9. American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes

  10. The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai

  11. the princess saves herself in this one by Amanda Lovelace

  12. The Truth About Magic by Atticus

  13. How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry by Edward Hirsch


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For best results, read these poetry books out loud to feel how they sound.

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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?


Answer.

That you are here—that life exists and identity,

That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.


(“Song of Myself”)


Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

Buy Leaves of Grass or read more online.


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.”


(“Diddy, ‘The Importance of P’”)


The Anthology of Really Important Modern Poetry by Kathryn & Ross Petras

Buy The Anthology of Really Important Modern Poetry.


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.


you ask

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 -


the sun and her flowers by Rupi Kaur

Buy the sun and her flowers or check out @rupikaur_.


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…”


Collected Poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Buy Collected Poems or read more online.


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.


Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein

Buy Where the Sidewalk Ends.


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”)


View with a Grain of Sand by Wisława Szymborska

Buy View with a Grain of Sand.


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.


Paradise Lost by John Milton

Buy Paradise Lost or read it online.


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”).


House of Light by Mary Oliver

Buy House of Light.


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…


American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes

Buy American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin.


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…


The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai translated by Robert Alter

Buy The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai.


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.

read everything

you can get your

hands on

& then

some.


go on,

collect words

& polish them up

until they shine

like starlight

in your

palm.


make words

your finest weapons⁠—

a gold-hilted sword

to cut your

enemies

d

o

w

n.


(“a survival plan of sorts.”)


the princess saves herself in this one by Amanda Lovelace

Buy the princess saves herself in this one.


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,”

she said

“but snuggling feels important.”


The Truth About Magic by Atticus

Buy The Truth About Magic or check out @atticuspoetry.


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.


How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry by Edward Hirsch

Buy How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry.


Tova Kamioner, Marketing Writer at Wix

A neurotic New York native, hopelessly in love with alliteration and internal rhymes.





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