As much as we poetry lovers might not like to admit it, poetry does tend to garner far less fanfare than its literary cousin: prose. The opportunities to recognize and celebrate mainstream fiction and nonfiction books are abundant (and we totally love them too!) But there are also a number of poetry prizes awarded every year, and plenty of amazing award-winning poetry collections that deserve your readerly attention as well. And hey — if you’re not already a regular reader of contemporary poetry, the award-winners are definitely a great place to start.
As the folks who already boast some well-stocked poetry shelves know, reading poetry is actually on the rise right now. Whether the technical creativity of iambic pentameter is finally making a comeback, the Beyoncé Lemonade-effect is fully taking hold, or living in a 140-character world means that the poetic form is becoming more familiar to readers, poetry isn’t just for your typical English class bookworm these days. It's accessible to everyone. Contemporary poetry is tackling contemporary issues — exploring a diverse array of things we can all understand, care about, and relate to. All in the span of brief but beautiful verse.
Here are 14 recent poetry prize winners you need to read, right now.
'Afterland' by Mai Der Vang
Won: Walt Whitman Award 2016
The Walt Whitman Award was established in 1975 to support the first book publication of an emerging poet, and is funded by the Academy of American Poets. Mai Der Vang’s striking collection, Afterland, tells an intimate and painful story of family — one of Hmong people who were forced out of Laos as refugees. It’s a story of displacement and exile that is often lost to history, describing the devastation of the Hmong culture, as well as it’s remarkable resilience in the face of such silencing violence.
'Voyage of the Sable Venus' by Robin Coste Lewis
Won: National Book Award for Poetry 2015
Robin Coste Lewis’s debut collection, Voyage of the Sable Venus, explores how the black female body has been thought of, used, depicted, and imagined throughout history — in life, in art, in literature, in law, and in politics. Using bold, difficult, and beautiful language, Lewis describes a painful journey taken by the body, while simultaneously celebrating her own racial heritage. The poems in this collection challenge the kinds of limiting narratives that are most often told about race, sexuality, and feminism in the world.
'Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings' by Joy Harjo
Won: Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize 2017
Not dedicated to a single collection, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize recognizes the lifetime achievements of one US poet each year, and is both one of the most prestigious and one of the largest literary prizes given out in the United States. Joy Harjo, author of a memoir, two children’s books, and eight poetry collections, including the 2015 title, Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, is the award’s most recent winner. Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings takes a personal and political journey through the memory of the Trail of Tears, and Harjo’s writing is magical, and musical, and tragic.
'Citizen: An American Lyric' by Claudia Rankine
Won: Forward Poetry Prize 2015
The Forward Poetry Prize is awarded each year to a collection of poetry that expands the genre’s audience by tackling contemporary issues and speaking to readers in a new way — so it’s no mystery that CIaudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric won in 2015. Blending poetry, prose, and photography, the collection is striking, angry, powerful, and eye-opening — serving as a call-to-action for readers to be mindful of the myriad ways that racism permeates our society, both overtly and subtly.
'Blackacre' by Monica Youn
Won: William Carlos Williams Award 2017
The William Carlos Williams Award recognizes a single book of poetry written by a U.S. writer and published by a small, non-profit, or university press. Also nominated for the National Book Award in Poetry, Monica Youn’s William Carlos Williams Award-winning collection is Blackacre: Poems, which reads as a meditation on the body. Blackacre explores everything from racial identity to infertility, the way body connects to the passing of time. The collection is also filled with echoes of dark fairy-tales — reading like the private meditations of a girl lost in a woods of her own imagination.
'Olio' by Tyehimba Jess
Won: Pulitzer Prize for Poetry 2017
The Pulitzer Prize in Poetry is awarded for a “distinguished volume of original verse by an American author” — and this year, Olio by Tyehimba Jess is that work. A unique collection, Olio weaves together fact and fiction, performance art and poetry, describing the lives and art of ninetieth and early twentieth century African American performers. Spanning the years from just before the Civil War until World War I, Olio explores how these performers, whose art remained largely undocumented through time, broke rules and defied expectations in order to tell truths about the experiences of their lives.
'Falling Awake' by Alice Oswald
Won: Costa Poetry Award 2016, Griffin Poetry Prize 2017
Winner of both the 2016 Costa Poetry Award — an honor recognizing the most outstanding poetry collection of the year, written by a poet based in the UK or Ireland, and the 2017 Griffin Poetry Prize — the world’s largest prize for a first edition single collection of poetry written in English, Alice Oswald’s Falling Awake is a truly stellar collection of writing. Inspired by the history of oral storytelling traditions, Oswald writes with a mind for sounds, syllables, and the rhythm of spoken word. Falling Awake revisits tales from Greek mythology, exploring the gods and goddesses in charge of the natural world and their dealings with the human one.
8. 'The End of Pink' by Kathryn Nuernberger
Won: James Laughlin Award 2015
The James Laughlin Award recognizes and supports the publication of a second book of poetry forthcoming in the year following the receipt of the award. A James Laughlin Award-winning title, The End of Pink by Kathryn Nuernberger, is a collection inspired by the scientific and the science fiction, blending both fact and folktale in order the showcase some of the weirdest and most wonderful mysteries of life on earth: childbirth, motherhood, grief, desire, sickness, death, joy, and so much more.
9. 'House of Lords and Commons' by Ishion Hutchinson
Won: National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry 2016
Established in 1975, the National Book Critics Circle Award celebrates “the finest books published in English” each year, and in 2016 the award for poetry went to poet Ishion Hutchinson for his collection, House of Lords and Commons. Set in an unexpected landscape for a contemporary collection of poetry — the seventeenth-century English Civil War as experienced by a sailor circling Jamaica — House of Lords and Commons is filled with tales of happiness, loss, homesickness, and wanderlust, transporting you into surprising but captivating terrain.
10. 'Ozone Journal' by Peter Balakian
Won: Pulitzer Prize for Poetry 2016
Another Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry collection to make this list, Peter Balakian’s Ozone Journal offers readers a sequence of fifty-four poems that recall the poet’s memories of excavating the bones of Armenian genocide victims in the Syrian desert in 2009, while accompanied by a crew of television journalists. These recollections lead to others — the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, the end of the poet’s marriage, the experience of single parenthood — that seamlessly blend the personal and the political.
11. 'The Performance of Becoming Human' by Daniel Borzutzky
Won: National Book Award for Poetry 2016
The most recent winner of the Natioanl Book Award for Poetry, The Performance of Becoming Human, by Chilean-American writer Daniel Borzutzky, is an edgy and sometimes-violent collection, taking global and political concerns and filtering them through a personal lens. The collecting speaks to the ways politics destroy people, how systemic violence destroys communities, and how humans struggle with being defined by — and transcending — the myriad borders we face.
12. 'Eye Level' by Jenny Xie
Won: Walt Whitman Award 2017
Another Walt Whitman Award-winning collection, Eye Level by Jenny Xie, will be published by Graywolf Press in April of next year (so be sure to add this one to your TBR list ASAP). This year’s Walt Whitman Award judge, the former-U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, chose the collection for its beauty, clarity, and expansiveness, noting that: “…we enter multiple terrains of seeing; we cross cultural borders of time, voices, locations. Then, we notice we are in a trembling stillness with all beings and all things.” Can’t wait for this one.
13. 'Measures of Expatriation' by Vahni Capildeo
Won: Forward Poetry Prize 2016
Vahani Capildeo is known as much for her performance poetry as she is for the words she leaves on the page, and you can hear the rhythm of that performer in every word Capildeo writes. Her 2016 Forward Poetry Prize-winning prose-poem collection, Measures of Expatriation, tells an expatriate story of displacement, separation, and emotional isolation, demonstrating that the expat experience applies to more than that of someone who has left their own motherland for another — we can also expatriate ourselves from relationships.
14. 'Book of Hours' by Kevin Young
Won: Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize 2015
The Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize recognizes one outstanding book of poetry published in the United States in the previous calendar year, and in 2015 that outstanding collection was Book of Hours, by Kevin Young. Book of Hours takes a close look at the mysterious, and often-misunderstood ways that time passes over the course of a life — written a decade after the sudden loss of Young’s father and following the birth of his son, this collection speaks to the twinned joys and sorrows of birth and death.