Poetry can be one of the more intimidating literary genres to shop for, especially if you’re buying a book for someone else. While the likes of Amanda Gorman, Ocean Vuong, and Rupi Kaur have recently entered the canon with viral vengeance, it can still be hard to reach beyond your high-school English syllabus without expert guidance.
With this in mind, we asked some of our favorite contemporary poets, as well as the curator behind popular online poetry Instagram and Patreon community @PoetryIsNotaLuxury, to pick out the books they themselves would be happy to give or receive. Rather than the Beat poets or Gertrude Stein, you’ll find 21 thoughtful recommendations here that will please longtime poetry fans and newcomers alike, from publishers like Copper Canyon Press, Wave Books, Soft Skull Press, and more. And if you’re still hungry for even more poetry, almost everyone we spoke with recommended visiting your local independent bookseller and asking them what they’re into.
Two of our poets came in strong with recommendations for June Jordan. Erin Taylor, whose debut collection, Bimboland, will be published in December, says The Essential June Jordan is an “instant classic” by a “legend.” If you want to “really go for it,” according to Emily Kendal Frey, whose new book, Lovability, was published earlier this year, level up and purchase Jordan’s Directed by Desire: The Collected Poems. The latter edition encompasses even more of Jordan’s oeuvre — including some poems unpublished in her lifetime — and has an introduction by Adrienne Rich. For something more specific, Kendal Frey suggests a collection dedicated to Jordan’s love poetry.
Nikki Wallschlaeger, who recently published her third collection, Waterbaby, has been teaching this book at the Iowa Writers Workshop. While she notes that Baldwin is mostly known for his novels and his essays, he was also a prolific poet, and Jimmy’s Blues contains lyrical poems that are “sharp, critical, and infused with the Black American blues tradition.” She recommends it especially for fans of music who are looking to make the leap to poetry.
“Clifton’s work is well-known, and yet not well-known enough,” says poet Gabrielle Bates, whose own collection, Judas Goat, will be published by Tin House in 2023. She likes this particular hardcover edition because, with its smart black-satin bookmark, it “looks, feels, and reads like a gift,” and it features an introduction written “with great tenderness and care” by Aracelis Girmay.
Poet and visual artist Bianca Stone says that any lover of John Ashbery’s work will appreciate this “wonderfully assembled” collection of poems and facsimiles of the lauded poet’s drafts, which includes a section of notes and annotations that a poetry lover will “dork out over,” and will “lead down fun rabbit holes.”
Bell, who passed away in 2020, published more than 20 volumes of verse in his lifetime. Wallschlaeger calls this book, which spans three decades of his poetry, “a mature collection” that takes the reader through the struggles of a character named the Dead Man, whose voice hovers “between the internal world of introspection and external action.” She says it’s a contemplative, ruthless, and compassionate book about what it means to be a modern being in “a world of intellectual uneasiness and political confusion.”
This collection presents poems that lead directly up to Argentine poet Alejandra Pizarnik’s tragic death by suicide at age 36 — including a final piece of verse found written on a chalkboard after her death. Rachel Rabbit White, writer and author of the poetry collection Porn Carnival and the expanded Porn Carnival: Paradise Edition, highly recommends gifting these enigmatic poems, which depict a world “without much hope for transcendence” but are still written with wry humor.
Contemporary poetry books
“I’m hard-pressed to think of a single collection of poetry from the last few years that has moved and awed me more than Aria Aber’s Hard Damage,” Bates says, adding that the lines contained within this recent collection hold up to repeated readings. The book is even more impressive, she adds, when considering that Aber wrote these poems in her third language.
Poet Chen Chen, whose latest book, Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency, is forthcoming next year, says this collection “contains poems that are immediately accessible as well as poems that reward more patient reading and deeper knowledge of the art.” He notes that Smith’s poems explore grief and existential questions, but with a point of difference: “kitschy sci-fi, and shoutouts to David Bowie!”
Not your average book of love poetry, Rabbit White praises this book for its “hypnotic and at times aphoristic” lines that “take on the narrative of romance in order to dismantle it, to find its core, and ask if it is inevitably violent.” A great gift for the recently heartbroken, she says that Kahn’s collection “is a book for anyone who has been in or out of the ‘lie’ of love,” promising that its lines will stay with you “like a haunted chorus.”
The poems here tell the somewhat unusual life story of Nguyen’s mother, a motorcyclist who belonged to an all-female stunt troupe in Vietnam. Taylor calls Hoa Nguyen “a poetry icon,” adding that this book — Nguyen’s latest, shortlisted for a 2021 National Book Award — would be a great gift for longtime fans and new readers alike.
Chen says the work of Latina and Mojave American poet Natalie Diaz will suit poetry newbies as well as seasoned poetry lovers. It’s a “total reimagining of love poetry as a form of Native knowledge” that also happens to feature “some of the best basketball poems I’ve ever read.”
Full of cutting jokes and cinematic glamor that references Hollywood’s golden age, Taylor calls this collection an “absolute banger of contemporary poetry that’s not read nearly enough.”
Stocking stuffer poetry books
City Lights Books in San Francisco is a poetry mecca, and the anonymous curator behind @PoetryIsNotaLuxury says that any of the publisher’s cheap and cheerful City Lights Pocket Poets books “would make amazing stocking stuffers.” Designed to be carried around and thumbed through, these books offer introductions to the likes of Frank O’Hara and Diane Di Prima. With the variety of poets in print, “they are bound to have something for anyone’s taste.”
@PoetryisNotaLuxury often returns to this anthology from online journal Nepantla, calling it “one of the best poetry collections I have read” and “an essential canon of old and new poets.” Edited by Christopher Soto, the anthology surveys more than 100 works from classic queer poets of color like Audre Lorde and June Jordan, as well as their contemporaries, including Tommy Pico, Danez Smith, and Chen.
Stone calls this anthology “an essential book for any poet’s library” and “a perfect reference for both well known African American poets, and those in need of more attention.” She adds that Young’s skillful curation ensures that this anthology, like the best poetry collections, will lead you directly to other books and poets: “I return to it again and again.”
Stone also pointed us to this brand-new anthology centered around a theme with universal relatability and appeal, calling it “a clear winner in terms of gift ideas.” Edited by former Poetry magazine editor Christian Wiman, some of the poems in Home will be familiar to poetry fans, while others have rarely been published elsewhere. “One of my favorite parts of the book are the quotes and excerpts sprinkled throughout,” Stone adds. “These draw upon a wide range of texts that speak beautifully to the poems, including the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, the great Simone Wiel and, of course, Gaston Bachelard.”
Though it’s “not strictly poetry,” Kendal Frey says Jay Ponteri’s creative nonfiction work Someone Told Me “is lyrical and expansive and does what poems do — invites you into the world of another being.” Written over the course of eight years, this surprising book contains diaries of daily life as well as responses to pop culture and literature, from Richard Linklater’s Boyhood to Anne Frank. “I admire this book so much, because of how Jay invites conversation around art, creation, gender, whiteness, parenting, love, and so much more,” adds Frey.
As a gift for a discerning reader who’s skeptical of the 20th-century canon, Stone also recommends this newer, “compassionate” biography of Sylvia Plath, which manages to add new depth to a legendary literary figure by suggesting that much of what she achieved in life has been overshadowed by the circumstances of her death. “I learned a lot, and found the old news still refreshing,” Stone says.
@PoetryIsNotaLuxury says that an affordable letterpress print from Expedition Press would make a “great gift for any art or poetry lover,” especially one whose shelves are already intimidatingly well stocked. The prints can be framed and displayed in the home, or purchased as notecards with envelopes. This Lucille Clifton poem, which you’ll also find in the pages of our pick above, would bring strength to a friend going through a tough time.
The Strategist is designed to surface the most useful, expert recommendations for things to buy across the vast e-commerce landscape. Some of our latest conquests include the best acne treatments, rolling luggage, pillows for side sleepers, natural anxiety remedies, and bath towels. We update links when possible, but note that deals can expire and all prices are subject to change.