As a serious book lover, there have been plenty of different books that have meant different things to me throughout my life — Beverly Cleary and L.M. Montgomery stories in my pre-teens; Sarah Dessen and Jane Austen novels when I was first learning about love; Jack Kerouac, Hunter S.Thompson, and Joan Didion when I first left home at 18; and later, in graduate school, was when I first started to really dive into poetry, including these poets that every 20-something should read. Now I get it, I get it: poetry isn’t for everybody — or at least, everybody doesn’t think poetry is for them. But as a regular reader of iambic pentameter (and a whole lot more) I guarantee that if you start with one of the poets on this list, you’ll find yourself falling in love with the poetic form in no time.
The writers on this list, and the amazing poetry collections they’ve written, are modern and edgy, experimental and political, fierce and feminist, beautiful and sad, intelligent and relatable. And if you’re not already a regular reader of poetry, they’ll make you realize all that your bookshelves have really been missing.
1. Carrie Murphy, author of ‘Fat Daisies’
With a chapter title like “Just Lock Me Up With My Netflix Queue & Let Me Die” and “Don’t Read The Comments” Carrie Murphy’s poetry reads like a journey into the darkest depths of the twenty-something woman’s subconscious. From navigating the aisles of Target to taking selfies in the bathroom mirror, navigating the early insecurities of motherhood to feeling pressured to justify your income simply because you’re a woman, and exploring issues of racism, jealousy, feminism, materialism, and so much more, Fat Daisies is a must-read for every twenty-something poetry lover.
2. Camille T. Dungy, author of ‘Smith Blue’
Tackling one of the biggest challenges facing our lives — climate change and the destruction of the natural world — poet Camille T. Dungy’s collection, Smith Blue, draws parallels between the damaging effects of modern living on the environment with the vulnerabilities of man against nature. As filled with hope as it is with heartbreak, Smith Blue portrays humanity as both the antagonist and the antagonized, demonstrating the fraught and fragile relationships humans have with the earth, and those human shave with each other. Perhaps even more timely now than when it was first published in 2011, this collection ultimately makes a case for the “oneness” of everything in our world, both man and nature.
3. Warsan Shire, author of ‘Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth’
Whether you’re an avid poetry reader or not, if you don’t know who Warsan Shire is by now then you were definitely not paying attention last year. From earning herself a faithful cult following by sharing her verse through limited-release poetry pamphlets and social media, to catapulting into poetic superstardom via her collaboration on Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade in 2016, Shire was the poet to watch in 2016. We are still waiting for her first fill-length collection to drop, but in the meantime, Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth explores themes of home and displacement, immigrant and refugee stories, feminism, trauma, politics, and more.
4. Ocean Vuong, author of ‘Night Sky with Exit Wounds’
In a recent interview with Poets & Writers magazine, where poet Ocean Vuong was recognized as one of the best debut poets of last year, the 28-year-old poet said he found inspiration in medical marijuana, Gushers fruit snacks, and fire escapes — so you know you’re going to want to read whatever verse results from that trifecta of amazingly bizarre influence. His debut collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds appeared this past spring, and is a blend of spare, sharp language and vivid, often disturbing imagery that deals with themes of sadness, loss, war, and cultural and political disruption.
5. Erika Meitner, author of ‘Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls’
The girls and women in Erika Meitner’s poems are as in danger as they are dangerous, as at-risk as they are risqué, as startled by their own coming-of-age as they are startling. In Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls Meitner presents readers with a vividly rendered series of awkward, uncomfortable, and sometimes-creepy encounters between girls and boys, women and men, and yes, at one point aliens. Structured in three sections: girlhood, womanhood, and aged reflections on the experience of being a woman, Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls shares with readers a cacophony of relatable and sassy female voices, all learning to get through life one makeshift instruction at a time.
6. Sandra Beasley, author of ‘I Was the Jukebox’
Winner of the 2009 Barnard Women Poets Prize, Sandra Beasley’s I Was the Jukebox is an energetic and fantasy-filled collection, featuring a myriad of unexpected and artfully rendered voices — sentient and not. From the perspective of an eggplant to that of a duck-billed platypus, a piano and World War II, Beasley’s poems are as playful as they are pissed off, intelligent and surreal, beautiful and experimental. Many of her poems offer a distinct sense of place, others deal with universal themes: love, loss, death, immortality, and more.
7. Tracy K. Smith, author of ‘Life On Mars’
The author of three poetry collections — including Life On Mars, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011 — and one mesmerizing memoir, Tracy K. Smith’s writing perfect blends current events with the realm of science fiction and imagination, highlighting equally the beauty and the absurdity of modern life on Earth. Though much of Smith’s poems are narrative, she plays with other forms as well — the rhyming, 19-line villanelle, for example — in a way that keeps her work fresh, compelling, and exciting. Definitely a poet to keep your eye on.
8. Sam Riviere, author of ‘Kim Kardashian’s Marriage’
Practically every twenty-something who has ever turned on a television knows that in 2011 reality television celebrity Kim Kardashian had a 72-day long marriage to basketball player Kris Humphries. Whether or not they knew that much buzzed-about marriage was worthy of an entire poetry collection all its own is another story. Irresistibly absurd and entire of-the-moment, poet Sam Riviere’s 2015 collection Kim Kardashian’s Marriage features 72 different poems that explore confessional writing, the hyper-exposure of life in a social media-driven culture, the differences between public and private life — and what happens when those living both begin to blur the boundaries — and what it means to create and manipulate our identities for public consumption, rather than simply living them.
9. Anna Moschovakis, author of ‘You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake’
Poet Anna Moschovakis is provocative, defiant, and artful, using her poetry to play with not only the boundaries of language and structure,but also the boundaries of genre. Bending autobiography with fiction and literature, history, scientific research, and current events, her 2011 collection You And Three Others Are Approaching A Lake looks at what it means to be human in the age of the internet — exploring and critiquing consumerism, capitalism, over-exposure, and globalization. One of my favorite things about reading Moschovakis is that she often utilizes the second-person perspective in her work, bringing the reader directly into her verse with her.
10. Chinaka Hodge, author of ‘Dated Emcees’
Any young person who has been in a relationship (or many) that they have struggled to make sense of needs to read poet Chinaka Hodge — and particularly her 2016 collection Dated Emcees. Reading like a hip-hop album in print Dated Emcees takes readers through Hodge’s hip-hop influenced relationships, demonstrating how the music influenced the men who influenced her, and vice-versa. Juxtaposing gritty imagery with musical language and feminist, soul-filled themes, Hodge demonstrates the perfect poetic balance of power and grace.
11. Cate Marvin, author of ‘Oracle: Poems’
Cate Marvin is kind of the coolest and her latest collection Oracle, published in 2015, showcases the finest of her poetic skills. Distinctly set on New York City’s Staten Island and telling an equally angry and wonder-filled coming-of-age story of female adolescence and the process of learning and re-learning how to be a woman in the modern, often hostile, world, Oracle is both funny and poignant. Marvin’s poetry is composed with a striking focus on sound, rhythm, and language, and I guarantee you’ll love it — even if you’re not a die-hard poetry lover.