13 Political Poetry Collections To Read This Election Season
For me, poetry and politics have always gone hand-in-hand, which is why I've compiled these political poetry collections you need to read. From the American Transcendentalists who wrote out against Puritan dogma and sexism in America, to the poets of the Harlem Renaissance who created far-reaching outlets that gave voice to the experience of being black in the United States, to the poetry of the Beat Generation that did everything from protest war to advocate for gay rights, to the poets that are writing hard truths about racial tensions, economic disparities, global violence, and women’s rights today, many poetry writers have used the power of their pens to do a whole lot more than scatter pretty images across the page (although don’t get me wrong, the beautiful stuff is definitely necessary too). My own bookshelves are filled with this kind of political poetry — anti-war poetry collections, and feminist poetry collections, and collections of poetry about equality, acceptance, and justice.
With a 2016 election season that can’t seem to help but only get crazier, I’d say we’re well overdue for a little reality check, and a reminder of why elections are so important (and should be taken so seriously) in the first place. This is something our long history of political poets is great at — getting back to the basics, whittling down words and ideas to their essential meaning, challenging the status quo, and even shaking things up a bit (or, you know, a lot). So with that in mind, here are 13 political poetry collections you’ve got to read this election season.
1. An Essay in Asterisks by Jena Osman
Funny, big-hearted, and just a little bit scary, Jena Osman’s An Essay in Asterisks is a consciousness-awakening poetry collection that challenges the politics and ethics of modern-day America, and will make you rethink all the tiny things that make up your day-to-day living. Check out the poem Dropping Leaflets, in particular, which reads like a poetic whirlwind of war and life and mess in post-9/11 America.
2. Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth by Warsan Shire
By now we all know (and definitely love) the writer behind Beyoncé’s Lemonade. As a Kenyan-born Somali poet who has traveled all over the world, Warsan Shire's raw, beautiful, and unflinching poetry collection, Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, tells stories of trauma, political activism, female strength, and journeys both into the world and deep into the self. Definitely read her poem What They Did Yesterday Afternoon, which is just so beautiful and painful and spot-on.
3. The Weary Blues by Langston Hughes
One of the most well-known poets to come out of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes’s poetry is busy and musical, filled with equal parts joy and suffering, and vibrating with a distinct sense of place, politics, and what life was like for black Americans in the early 20th century. The Weary Blues was Hughes's first poetry collection, published when the writer was only 24 years old.
4. Poems of Nazım Hikmet by Nâzım Hikmet
Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet had a life-long career of political writing, which included his being arrested and imprisoned by the Turkish government for working on a left-wing magazine. As a result, much of Hikmet’s poetry is about the experience of being incarcerated for one’s political beliefs Check out the poem Some Advice to Those Who Will Serve Time in Prison, included in this collection.
5. Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
Claudia Rankine blends poetry, prose, and photography in her multiple-award-winning collection Citizen: An American Lyric; and the effect is striking, aggressive, powerful, and timely. The collection explores the myriad ways that racism permeates American society, and offers a specific and eye-opening history of Serena Williams’s very public experiences with racism, both explicit and subtle.
6. Tyrannus Nix? by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
One of the writers who took 1950s San Francisco by storm and helped spark the Beat movement, Lawrence Ferlinghetti uses his poetry to raise the political consciousness of the average American reader and challenge the popular opinions of the day. Published in 1969, Tyrannus Nix? is Ferlinghetti’s prose-poetry work of political satire and absurdity that perhaps resonates even better with the political landscape of 2016 America than it did in 1969.
7. The Speed Of Darkness by Muriel Rukeyser
Muriel Rukeyser spent her life as a poet and a political activist who focused on issues of feminism, social justice, and faith. A poetry collection that takes an unflinching look at a politically and spiritually broken America, Muriel Rukeyser’s The Speed of Darkness is ultimately a collection filled with sparkling wisdom and hope for the future. Check out the poem Poem, which is one of the collection’s best, IMO.
8. The Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley by Phillis Wheatley
Phillis Wheatley is an unsung hero of political poetry, having inspired the likes of Langston Hughes and other prominent writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Born in Senegal, Africa and sold into slavery when she was only seven-years-old, Wheatley was one of the first African-American poets ever published in the U.S., and her writing largely focused on the experience of being a slave, and the ways that experience of slavery can reverberate through future generations.
9. Green Rice: Poems by Lam Thi My Da by Lam Thi My Da
For many political poets working in the last several decades, the Vietnam War is a defining event in not only their political consciousness, but in their writing lives as well. For Lam Thi My Da, a writer born in the Quang Binh Province who witnessed the Vietnam War firsthand, this is particularly true. In her collection Green Rice: Poems by Lam Thi My Da, My Da evokes both the beauty of her Vietnam home, and the devastation of the war.
10. Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg
You know a poetry collection has people riled when police arrest its publisher and editor, as well as the manager of the bookstore that was selling the collection in the first place. Credited with defining the post-World War II Beat generation, Allen Ginsberg’s iconic book-length poem, Howl, is still as raw and edgy as it was when it was first published in 1956, and continues to inspire many political poets writing today.
11. Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds by Eleanor Lerman
Breaking the mold of what was acceptable for female poets in the 1970s, Eleanor Lerman wrote about feminism, sexuality, drugs, and politics with such sharp honesty that her writing was ill-received when it first hit shelves. After publishing two highly-criticized collections Lerman removed herself from the literary scene, only to return over two decades later even stronger than ever. Published in 2005, Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds is sassy, harsh, and in-your-face writing.
12. The Collected Poems, 1975-2005 by Robert Creeley
While not exclusively a political poet, Robert Creeley’s writing resonates with echoes of his politically-inclined forebearers, like William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg. Over the course of his career as both a poetry and prose writer, Creeley published more than 60 books. The Collected Poems is the most comprehensive collection of Creeley’s poetry, which deals with not only politics, but life and love and all facets of the human experience as well.
14. Civil Disobediences: Poetics and Politics in Action by Anne Waldman
Technically not a poetry collection, consider Anne Waldman’s Civil Disobediences: Poetics and Politics in Action to be a bonus book on this list. Filled with academic essays and lectures compiled by political poet Anne Waldman, this anthology explores the role politics have played in poetry (and vice-versa) essentially since the earliest days of the written word. If you love your poetry with a side of politics, this is definitely a must-read.