Often overlooked compared to prose literature, there is a common belief that poetry no longer matters, a view that is shared among even many lifelong readers.
However, I believe this couldn’t be further from the truth. Poetry touches the heart and soul in a way that prose achieves only rarely—when it is at its most poetic. Poetry can also make powerful social commentary in a succinct form that will leave an indelible mark on the reader.
Without further ado, here are six of my favorite poetry collections from recent years. I hope you will be moved by them as much as I was.
Citizen Illegal by José Olivarez
Blurb: Citizen Illegal is a revealing portrait of life as a first generation immigrant, a celebration of Chicano joy, a shout against erasure, and a vibrant re-imagining of Mexican American life.
In this stunning debut, poet José Olivarez explores the stories, contradictions, joys, and sorrows that embody life in the spaces between Mexico and America. He paints vivid portraits of good kids, bad kids, families clinging to hope, life after the steel mills, gentrifying barrios, and everything in between. Drawing on the rich traditions of Latinx and Chicago writers like Sandra Cisneros and Gwendolyn Brooks, Olivarez creates a home out of life in the in-between. Combining wry humor with potent emotional force, Olivarez takes on complex issues of race, ethnicity, gender, class, and immigration using an everyday language that invites the reader in. Olivarez has a unique voice that makes him a poet to watch.
Review: Citizen Illegal is a vibrant collection of poetry. The poems are simultaneously laugh-out-loud funny and dead serious. Olivarez makes a powerful case for social justice near the U.S.-Mexico border by contrasting the lives of white Americans, whose personal attributes are considered “legal,” with those of Mexican immigrants, considered to be “illegal.”
Olivarez makes his social and political commentary with a dry and biting wit. My favorite parts are a series of poems with the recurring title, “Mexican Heaven,” which contrasts the views of heaven between white Americans and Mexican immigrants. The view of St. Peter presented in these poems is especially amusing.
Altogether, this is a very powerful and emotionally charged collection of poems that seeks to overcome social and political divisions among people at the U.S.-Mexico border, using humor as a means to emphasize the absurd nature of many current controversies.
Hybrida by Tina Chang
Blurb: In Hybrida, Tina Chang confronts the complexities of raising a mixed-race child during an era of political upheaval in the United States. She ruminates on the relationship between her son’s blackness and his safety, exploring the dangers of childhood in a post–Trayvon Martin era by invoking racialized roles in fairy tales.
Meditating on the lives of Michael Brown, Leiby Kletzky, and Noemi Álvarez Quillay—lost at the hands of individuals entrusted to protect them—Chang creates hybrid poetic forms that mirror her investigation of racial tensions. Hybrida is a twenty-first-century tale that is equal parts a mother’s love and her fury, an ambitious and revelatory exploration of identity.
Review: In Hybrida, Tina Chang has published a very timely and accomplished collection of poetry dealing with the anxiety of motherhood and the very real dangers faced by Black and mixed race children in a political climate with pervasive white nationalism and a judicial system that systematically discriminates against people of color.
Tina Chang considers many of the recent cases of Black children being murdered or falsely accused of criminal activity for the simple act of living their lives.
As a mother of mixed race children, Chang fears for their safety and for their ability to live their lives and enjoy the freedoms that are guaranteed to them in principle but not necessarily in reality.
This is a powerful collection of poems and paints a brutal picture of the hypocrisy of our times and the need for real change to ensure that everyone can live their lives without the specters of race-based discrimination and brutality.
The Undressing by Li Young-Lee
Blurb: Celebrated poet Li-Young Lee returns with a breathtaking new volume about the violence of desire and the peace of love. The Undressing is a tonic for spiritual anemia; it attempts to uncover things hidden since the dawn of the world. Short of achieving that end, these mysterious, unassuming poems investigate the human violence and dispossession increasingly prevalent around the world, as well as the horrors the poet grew up with as a child of refugees. Lee draws from disparate sources, including the Old Testament, the Dao De Jing, and the music of the Wu Tang Clan. While the ostensive subjects of these layered, impassioned poems are wide-ranging, their driving engine is a burning need to understand our collective human mission.
Review: Li-Young Lee’s collection of poems, The Undressing, is reminiscent of The Song of Songs in its beautiful celebration of love.
The first and longest poem, “The Undressing,” focuses on physical passion as a stand-in for a much deeper union. The imagery clearly invokes The Song of Songs.
While the collection initially approaches the cliché in its focus on love, the latter half of the collection becomes much deeper with its mysticism, turning its attention to the divine. Lee addresses the nature of God in the context of the love we have for each other and our love for the divine.
In this sense, The Undressing really is a modern retelling of The Song of Songs. It is also beautifully written, with taut lyrical verses. Every word and every phrase are carefully chosen.
These poems have a very personal feel. They do not address any larger social issues. Rather, the focus is on individual emotions in connection to someone we love and how this love brings one closer to the divine.
There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker
Blurb: There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé uses political and pop-cultural references as a framework to explore 21st century Black American womanhood and its complexities: performance, depression, isolation, exoticism, racism, femininity, and politics. The poems weave between personal narrative and pop-cultural criticism, examining and confronting modern media, consumption, feminism, and Blackness. This collection explores femininity and race in the contemporary American political climate, folding in references from jazz standards, visual art, personal family history, and Hip Hop. The voice of this book is a multifarious one: writing and rewriting bodies, stories, and histories of the past, as well as uttering and bearing witness to the truth of the present, and actively probing toward a new self, an actualized self. This is a book at the intersections of mythology and sorrow, of vulnerability and posturing, of desire and disgust, of tragedy and excellence.
Review: Anyone who thinks poetry doesn’t matter anymore needs to There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker.
Morgan Parker’s poems are bursting with life and with insightful commentary on race, feminism, celebrity culture, and more.
This collection of poems will leave a long lasting impression on you. There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé is among the best poetry collections I’ve ever read.
Memories of the Cultural Revolution by Luo Ying
Blurb: At once a work of narrative lyricism and an act of personal courage, this memoir in verse documents the human cost of a period of political turmoil in China’s recent past. Luo Ying—the pen name of Huang Nubo, a celebrated poet, Forbes billionaire, and mountain climber—draws readers into the depths of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) by rendering its defining moments in his life with devastating precision and clarity. The narrative poems that make up Memories of the Cultural Revolution combine the ardor of youthful experience with the cooler insight of mature reflection, offering a nuanced picture of life in the midst of historic change.
The “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” marked a critical passage on China’s road to modernity, as momentous for the world as it was for one boy caught up in its throes. In poetry that juxtaposes the political and the personal, the social and the individual, Luo Ying depicts a time when ultraleftist mass movements and factional struggles penetrated the deepest level of private daily life. In bleak yet vivid portraits of his mother, father, classmates, and coworkers, he reveals how the period indelibly marred him. “I am a red guard just as I always was,” he writes.
Giving voice to the inner life of a man haunted by his experiences, Memories of the Cultural Revolution bears witness to a traumatic time when ideology threatened to crush individuality. Luo Ying’s poetry stands as eloquent testimony to the power of the individual voice to endure in the face of dire social and historical circumstances.
Review: In this collection of about 100 poems, Luo Ying gives his first-hand account of the Cultural Revolution, which claimed the lives of millions of Chinese people during 1966-1976.
Luo captures of the zealotry of this period, where the entire country of China essentially became a personality cult for Mao Zedong. Mao sought to erase all non-Communist aspects of Chinese history and culture. The cult of Mao dominated all facets of people’s lives, from the way they dress to the way they think.
Anyone who opposed Chairman Mao was violently executed. These public executions became some form of twisted public entertainment:
Watching counter-revs get shot was a major form of entertainment in our city
We would run behind the tumbrel truck to get a spot with a view
The biggest thrill was when they shot a big group all at once
Once they lined up seventeen people in a long row, male and female
At a wave of the conductor’s flag, shots rang out and died away
Sometimes they would forcefully stomp on a corpse’s chest
Or they would give the bodies a second shot, one by one
They walked on blood-spattered dirt, letting us yell: Shoot her again
Because we saw that the chest of a female corpse was still heaving
Beyond this brutal violence, Luo also writes of the impact of the Cultural Revolution on literature and the arts. He reminisces of reading contraband novels like The Count of Monte Cristo under the covers late at night. Luo also tells of his teacher’s daugher, who was arrested for playing Paganini on her violin.
Luo shows us the impact of the Cultural Revolution on families, including the sudden loss of family members and the daily fight for nourishment due to the Communist Party’s incompenent handling of basic agricultural and economic issues.
The last part of this volume describes the long-lasting impact of the Cultural Revolution on all those who lived through it. Luo discusses the way that living through the Cultural Revolution affects people’s way of thinking, such as the aggression exhibited by former Red Guard members and the mistrust that many people harbor.
The book ends with a plea for China to come to terms with the atrocities of the Cultural Revolution. This is a haunting collection of poetry and a stark reminder of the dangers of political extremism and intolerance.
Selected Poems by Xu Zhimo
Blurb: The first English edition of poems by China’s foremost modern poet Xu Zhimo, who studied in Cambridge in the early 20th Century. Whilst here he became enchanted by the Romantic poets such as Keats and Shelley; this form of poetry was to infuse his work from that point on, inspiring him to break through traditional Chinese poetic reserve and constraints and changing the medium forever. His poetry is revered by young and old alike in China, but especially amongst the teenagers and young adults. One of the most renowned romantic poets of 20th-century Chinese literature, Xu Zhimo is known for his promotion of modern Chinese poetry and making great contributions to modern Chinese literature. This selection contains some of his most famous and well-loved works including By Chance, You Are in His Eyes, For Whom, The Weak Flame of a Star, A Pipa Tune in an Alley at Midnight and the seminal Taking Leave of Cambridge Again.
Review: Xu Zhimo is my favorite poet from China. His poems are so eloquent and evoke many emotions. He tragically died in a plane crash in 1931 at only 34 years old, but his beautiful poetry lives on.
Xu studied at Cambridge, where his most famous poem, “Taking Leave of Cambridge Again,” is carved into a rock. This is a go-to destination for Chinese tourists in Cambridge, and I had the pleasure of seeing it a few years ago.
This entire collection is beautiful, but let me leave you with Xu’s ode to Cambridge as a taste for what’s in store for you in this volume.
Taking Leave of Cambridge Again by Xu Zhimo
Softly I am leaving,
Just as softly as I came;
I softly wave goodbye
To the clouds in the western sky.
The golden willows by the riverside
Are young brides in the setting sun;
Their glittering reflections on the shimmering river
Keep undulating in my heart.
The green tape grass rooted in the soft mud
Sways leisurely in the water;
I am willing to be such a waterweed
In the gentle flow of the River Cam.
That pool in the shade of elm trees
Holds not clear spring water, but a rainbow
Crumpled in the midst of duckweeds,
Where rainbow-like dreams settle.
To seek a dream? Go punting with a long pole,
Upstream to where green grass is greener,
With the punt laden with starlight,
And sing out loud in its radiance.
Yet now I cannot sing out loud,
Peace is my farewell music;
Even crickets are now silent for me,
For Cambridge this evening is silent.
Quietly I am leaving,
Just as quietly as I came;
Gently waving my sleeve,
I am not taking away a single cloud.