20 of the Best Poetry Books

So, what are the best 20 poetry books?

This sensational list of the best poetry books of all time will open you up to new ideas, change your perception of the world around you and set your heart on fire with raw emotion. Continue to reading to see our top 20 poetry books.

Also, below the top 20 are a few other we very much like!

Here's our top 20 poetry books

1. The Collected Poems by Sylvia Plath

Authored by Sylvia Plath and originally published in 1981, The Collected Poems is an apt title as it features a treasury of musings written by the acclaimed poet between 1956 and 1963. The original publishing house, Turtleback, aimed to put together a comprehensive edition of Plath’s perfectly crafted words in chronological order. It now includes a compilation of 224 poems that were recovered following the writer’s untimely death, along with 50 preselected odes written prior to 1956.

Plath’s poetry ultimately pulls you in and transports you through a familiar journey that many of us take – which is first seeing the world through naïve and youthful eyes followed by her taking a more cautionary and mature approach to life. The Collected Poems went on to receive a Pulitzer Prize in 1982 and is still a trending poetry book today.

2. Love's Proclamation: Michael A Paladino

In Michael Paladino's contemporary poetic novelette Love's Proclamation it begins with a boy named Rureese who is eager to understand why morality exists. He goes on a punishing journey while he challenges man and the existence of God. On his journey he meets a woman named Noella, who he describes as a goddess. Rureese becomes addicted to a drug (the type of drug is left out of the story) and uses it to search for new morals which leads him to understanding himself.

Excerpt:

Be not discouraged; fatalism is: impotence.

O how greatly we humans can pretend!

I was caught in the strings of barbarianism.

As I flew I saw heights and new thanksgivings.

 

How to unpack? How to digest? How not to forget?

The curation was exponentially growing!

And as the master of the plan, I felt it was necessary

To dig deeper, to inquire, to question, and then some.

Michael Paladino's poetry is ancient-like, but is explained in a futuristic way. Love's Proclamation is made up of 61 poems with each able to complete the task of poetry in and of themselves. A must read!

3. Odyssey: Homer

Take a step back in time with Homer’s Odyssey, which paints a larger-than-life picture of a Greek soldier, Odysseus, and his 10-year trek back to his homeland of Ithaca following the Trojan War. Scholars believe Odyssey was written in the 8th century B.C., or 2,800 years ago. The classic tale is the second of a two-part series authored by Homer. The first, titled lliad or Song of Ilion, is also an iconic stroke of genius.

The Odyssey is considered to be the second oldest book in the Western Hemisphere. It has been rendered into multiple languages and editions. The running joke is that every generation needs a new interpretation. Talk about the classics!

4. Divine Comedy: Dante Alighieri

The Divine Comedy offers a snapshot in time of worldviews of the afterlife, circa 1320. Written by Italian author, Dante Alighieri, the poem offers a detailed chronicle of the author’s thoughts on what happens after we breathe our last breath. It is split into three parts: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso.

Even though the book was finished in 1320, it wasn’t until 1555 that it was published. This classic poetry book has long been considered to be one of the most important pieces of literature in world history.

5. Shakespeare's Sonnets

One simply cannot make a shortlist of the best poems of all time without referring to the Bard. Published in 1609, William Shakespeare’s Complete Sonnets has been reinterpreted numerous times by scholars worldwide.

Explore more than 150 14-line poems that confront romance, death, beauty, and life lessons – written elaborately by the famous English poet and playwright. Need we say more?

6. Night Sky With Exit Wounds

Courageous and unforgettable, Night Sky With Exit Wounds is an undeniable masterpiece and page turner. Written by Vietnamese-American Ocean Vuong and published in 2016 the collection teaches us that no amount of inner strife can’t be calmed by the gentle power of the human touch.

Night Sky With Exit Wounds was the 2016 winner of the Whiting Award and the recipient of the 2017 champion of the Publishing Triangle's Thom Gunn Award.

7. The Princess Saves Herself in this One

Most classic princess tales teach us that pretty little girls sit around and wait on a brave knight and shining armor to save the day.

Amanda Lovelace breaks tradition in The Princess Saves Herself in this One, going out on a limb to compose a refreshing twist on an old tale – only, the book does not speak of princesses.

Published in 2016, it simply describes an average girl desperate to dream big and take control of her own destiny. The poetry collection is divided into four parts, including the princess, the damsel, the queen, and you.

For all the chronic damsels in distress out there, this poetry collection shakes you out of a rut and inspires you to take action and change your life.

8. Where the Sidewalk Ends

Written and illustrated by Shel Silverstein in 1974, Where the Sidewalk Ends is a masterful display of what it means to think outside the box. Silverstein writes and draws vivid renderings of his wild imaginations on page, too.

From rinsing off one’s shadow on the sidewalk to a girl eating a whale (you read that right), a little boy who magically becomes a TV to crocodiles getting dental care, the collection of poems in this book is ideal for unleashing the inborn creativity of children – where nothing is professed to be impossible.

Remember those days? There are 130 poems in this classic and it’s intended for readers four to 10 years of age.

9. Paradise Lost

Published in 1667 and written by English poet, John Milton, Paradise Lost tells tall tales of God and his arch-nemesis, the Devil. Adam and Eve, God’s prized creations, are at the core of the story.

Paradise Lost ultimately invokes one of two thoughts, which is either:

i. the belief that Christianity is a vile religion, or,

ii. God’s wrath is completely justified in the context of the narrative

Milton clearly stated in his first edition that his intention is to “justify the ways of God”.

Settings: The book was penned in Milton’s 50s – he was blind and in a hostile state of mind due to the Restoration which was happening at the time.

10. The Essential Rumi

The Essential Rumi takes you on a quest of spiritual enlightenment. Written by Persian poet, Jelaluddin Rumi (Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi) in the 1200s and originally published in 1961, the collection of poems reflects the former teacher’s train of thoughts on life and faith. Prior to becoming an artist, Rumi was a revered intellect and professor.

Rumi has long been considered as the founding father of Islamic or Sufi mysticism and was inspired by the nomadic Shams of Tabriz at around 27 years of age. Upon meeting them, he famously said, "What I had thought of before as God, I met today in a human being."

Covering 310 pages, The Essential Rumi is a personal testimony of the mystical enlightenment Rumi felt following this chance encounter. The classical poetry book has been translated into multiple languages and is one of the best-selling books of all time in this genre.

Tease of Middle Eastern Poetry by Rumi

Let the lover be disgraceful, crazy,

absentminded. Someone sober

will worry about things going badly.

Let the lover be.

11. Citizen: An American Lyric

Merging critique and poetry, Claudia Rankine beautifully fuses these writing genres in a colorful masterpiece: Citizen: An American Lyric.

The book was published in 2014 and has 160 pages. It’s a thought-provoking reflection on racial tensions in modern-day America.

Since its debut, the book has received multiple accolades, including the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry, the NAACP Image Award, the PEN Open Book Award, and the L.A. Times Book Prize. Dozens of publications, including The Boston Globe, The New York Times, and the Washington Post have left glowing reviews on the collection of poems, which opens the dialogue of what it means to be black in today’s America.

12. Lunch Poems

Grab a bite at your favorite eatery and be sure to take Lunch Poems along with you. Published in 1964 and authored by Manhattan-based poet, Frank O'Hara, the backdrop of his contemplations on life take place during his daily strolls through the City That Never Sleeps.

O’Hara, on his daily trek to grab his favorite meal of the day (lunch), would often think about life’s eternal questions. It was on these outings that O’Hara would jot down his philosophical thoughts. The end result is a 37-poem compilation that is hard to resist.

13. Milk and Honey: Rupi Kaur

If we were to choose two words to describe Milk and Honey, it would be powerful and moving. As no one leaves this world unscathed, Rupi Kaur, the author of this masterpiece, reminds us that there is true beauty to be found in even the most painful of occasions.

Milk and Honey was printed in 2015 and quickly went on to become a bestseller around the world. Coupled with each poem is a beautiful illustration drawn by Rupi herself. The book features 208 pages that are fragmented into four separate chapters to reflect a distinct genre of pain. Stack it on your nightstand to reflect on how to weather “the hurting”, “the loving”, “the breaking”, and “the healing” in life.

Synopsis:

the first boy that kissed me

held my shoulders down

like the handlebars of

the first bicycle he ever rode

i was five

he had the smell of

starvation on his lips

which he picked up from

his father feasting on his mother at 4 a.m.

he was the first boy

to teach me my body was

for giving to those that wanted

that i should feel anything

less than whole

and my god

did i feel as empty

as his mother at 4:25 a.m.

Even for the most discerning reader – particularly women bibliophiles, Rupi Kaur blows your mind with indescribable words that pull at your heartstring. So popular is Milk and Honey, it has now been translated into 23 languages.

14. The Waste Land

The Waste Land is a popular poem written by acclaimed American poet T. S. Eliot. It was published in 1922 and the original draft features 434 lines.

The long poem is subcategorized into five sections, including:

  • The Burial of the Dead
  • A Game of Chess
  • The Fire Sermon
  • Death by Water
  • What the Thunder Said

The Waste Land, according to most critics, symbolizes the moral and intellectual deterioration of our society. Eliot’s writings merge both myths and facts relating to cultures and religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism. The book is believed by many to be the most essential piece of poetry of modern times.

15. Lighthead

Published in 2010, Terrance HayesLighthead won the National Book Award for Poetry that same year. With his head in the clouds and his feet firmly planted on the ground, Hayes refers to introspections of cultural icons and stylizes his lyrics in a popular Japanese style format known as Pecha Kucha.

Hayes reflects on the human experience and how memory is shaped. He most notably wrote:

“I believe, as the elephant must, that everything is punctured by the tusks of Nostalgia.”

Lighthead is the fourth poetry collection by Hayes. His three preceding titles include Muscular Music, Hip Logic, and Wind in a Box.

16. The Prophet

Authored by Lebanese-American, Kahlil Gibran, and published in 1923, The Prophet consists of 28 prose poetry folktales with mind-bending illustrations drafted by Gibran himself. Since its release, the classic poetry book has been translated into 20 or more languages and has been purchased by millions of readers in the United States and around the world.

Gibran’s inspirational essays touches on a plethora of life issues that every generation can relate to. With philosophical and mystical introspections, the book is a must-read for anyone on a quest for spiritual enlightenment.

17. The Last Two Seconds

In a world where everything is measured by time and countdowns of catastrophes to come are endless, Mary Jo Bang, the author of this 2015 poem collection, explores the reasoning behind this madness.

The Last Two Seconds confront the challenges of living in our modern world, where a special kind of war is being fought. Think escalating social injustices, fear of nuclear annihilation, Planet Earth’s looming demise due to pollution – and so much more.

Essentially, we’re walking on a tightrope through multiple ticking time bombs. The New York Times reviewed it as “one of the Best Poetry Books of 2015” and it has caught the attention of scores of literary critics – in a good way.

18. The Chaos of Longing

Even in the midst of chaos and pandemonium, whether it be physical, emotional, or mental anguish, K.Y. Robinson reminds us what the human heart wants and needs. The collection of poems is structured into in four sections, including Inception, Longing, Chaos, and Epiphany.

Published in 2016, The Chaos of Longing is written for mature audiences only. It explores eternal topics, such as unrequited love, mental illness, and more.

19. The Rose That Grew from Concrete

Published in 1999 and written by American rapper, Tupac Shakur, The Rose That Grew from Concrete features the raw, uninhibited, and inspirational thoughts of Tupac’s inner world. The poetry book includes 72 provocative poems originally written by hand from 1989 to 1991.

The Rose That Grew from Concrete teaches us that even in a cold hard world, life still unfolds when we persevere.

Tease:

“Did you hear about the rose that grew

from a crack in the concrete?

Proving nature's law is wrong it

learned to walk with out having feet.

Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams,

it learned to breathe fresh air.

Long live the rose that grew from concrete

when no one else ever cared.”

20. Howl and Other Poems

Published in 1956 and authored by Allen Ginsberg, Howl and Other Poems has a storied past.

Detained by local law enforcement and U.S. customs, it was believed to incite violence and include obscenity. Fellow poets and professors protested these claims and the courts ultimately ruled that the book had real merit in modern literature.

So what was all the fuss about?

Plenty.

Howl wrote poetry based on his life experiences in the Vietnam War. Most notably, his musings highlight social injustices of the time. The American born writer inspired people from all walks of life, from hippies to scholars alike.

Other heavy hitters in poetry

Some of the other poetry books that didn’t make our top 20 poetry books list, but are no less influential, include:

From timeless classics to modern marvels, this satisfyingly delicious rundown of poetry books will leave you saying “take my money”.

Resources
Last Reviewed:
August 12, 2017
Last Updated:
September 29, 2017