I guess I should start by saying that this isn’t necessarily “recent poetry” – it’s poetry that I’ve discovered recently and loved. But I’ve been trying, for the past few months, to read at least a little poetry every day (which also means working through my backlog of unread poetry books), and I’ve run across some books that I’ve really thought were great. So here we go, four recommendations from me for books that are objectively (my opinion is objective, right?) great books of poetry.
The Darkness Around Us Is Deep by William Stafford
I am not sure how I had never run into William Stafford before in my reading – I didn’t know anything about him. But he was the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1970 (the position that is now Poet Laureate), so he’s hardly obscure. I actually had this book on my bookshelf, and when Robert Bly died recently, I noticed that he had written the introduction to this, so it caught my eye.
It’s a fantastic book that also has the bonus of a very good introduction (I always like to hear poets talking about other poets, especially when they knew each other as in this case). And Stafford’s poems are clear yet deep; he looks at the world around us, but he also makes those beautiful leaps that leave you feeling not confused but awed.
Poems from Greek Antiquity edited by Paul Quarrie
I will admit, I have a weakness for little books of poetry, the kind that can fit in a jacket pocket or a purse really easily. And that might even have been why I picked this little book off the shelf in the first place. But there are a number of reasons I would recommend this book to just about anyone.
First of all, as an anthology, you can skip past what you don’t like. There were a few poets in here that I didn’t like – well, no need to read them! After all, it covers a thousand years – just turn a few pages and find something else. And secondly, when you have that free approach to flipping through it, I think you are likely to find some poems that jump out at you that you love – I did. The collection also has a variety of translators, and there were some fantastic love poems in here translated in a very casual style that brought them to life in a way that more formal translation wouldn’t have – I have a couple pinned up on my cubicle at work, in fact!
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
I know this is hardly new, but I re-read this recently, and I think it’s worth a re-read even if you’ve read it before (and I have… multiple times). Walt Whitman is my favorite poet, and this – and especially “Song of Myself” – is just incredible. His worldview manages to be expansive, but not by being vague or abstract – a true expansiveness that looks at the details of the world and contains them all. It is a poem that celebrates the self, yet expands that out into the world in the wildest sort of love.
It’s also an early example of self-publishing, which I think is pretty cool! He published the first version in 1855 and revised it multiple times up until his death. He even, long before the days of asking all your family to write Amazon reviews, wrote “anonymous” newspaper reviews praising it… but self-publishing and self-promotion (and ethics) aside, there’s a reason Emerson described the book as “incomparable things said incomparably well.”
And if you get the chance to track it down (unfortunately we don’t have it in our library system), there’s a very interesting version of “Song of Myself” published by Shambhala and edited by Stephen Mitchell where he has actually taken, as he says, “the first edition as [his] main source … adopt[ing] any revision that seemed to be even a minor improvement.” I think Mitchell did a very good job, and it’s the copy of the poem that I own myself.
When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities by Chen Chen
If you’ve ever read Christopher Smart’s “For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry,” you’ll find a beautiful play on that in this book, “For I Will Consider My Boyfriend Jeffrey.” (And if you haven’t, the Smart poem is old enough to find online at poets.org.) The poem that Chen Chen begins as a playful take on Smart’s poem quickly turns into a quite beautiful celebration of his boyfriend.
And I would say that’s very much the style of the book overall – conversational, humorous, and then slowly or suddenly veering into something deep and emotional. I picked this book up off a display at the library on a whim (turns out it’s won about a million awards), and I am so glad I did.