Thirteen Essential Poetry Collections That Pass the Test of Time

EACH MONTH, Orion’s poetry editor, Camille Dungy, and friends recommend recently published poetry collections they think our readers might enjoy. This month we’re offering some older seminal works on the list. Don’t sleep on these timeless titles published before 2010.


Camille Dungy’s Ten Recommended Poetry Collections:



Collected Poems: Robert Hayden edited by Frederick Glaysher 

When I was gathering poems for Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (University of Georgia Press, 2009), this collection was one of my guides, and I still return to it regularly. Robert Hayden’s eye for the complicated realities of our intertangled world is always astonishingly fresh. There’s “A Plague of Starlings,” in which the birds, black and gorgeous though they are, slick the walkways of a historically black college and university campus with their droppings so that workmen seek to destroy the flocks and bystanders are forced to confront the “troublesome” creatures left alive, as well as the bodies of those that have been killed. The scenario sounds wholly gruesome but, touched by Hayden’s hand and ear, the poem sings. Another poem compares the mind of the poet to trees burdened and broken by a December ice storm. There’s the speaker who witnesses the varied lives that thrive among the wreckage of our world. In a poem that observes a child’s brutal punishment, there are elephant ears and zinnias and a consoling tree. Even the nearly uncomplicated awe the speaker experiences while witnessing a cactus bloom is resonant with the weight of time and place and impermanence and culture. I couldn’t collect all the environmentally charged Hayden poems in Black Nature because there are so many gorgeous ones. Robert Hayden is a poet I turn to when I want to read sheer beauty that doesn’t shrug off the realities of nearly every interaction in the world. Though I depend on my dog-eared copy of the 1995 edition (W. W. Norton), a newer edition of Hayden’s Collected (Liveright, 2013) has an introduction by current New York Times Magazine poetry editor, Reginald Dwayne Betts. If you don’t know the work of Robert Hayden, or haven’t read it in a while, I urge you to get your hands on one of these books as soon as you can.



Sea Change by Jorie Graham

In a New York Times review of one of Jorie Graham’s more recent collections (From the New World: Poems 1976–2014, published by Ecco, 2015), Dan Chiasson writes, “Graham has become a twenty-first-century nature poet the old-fashioned way, by counting cherry blossoms and returning birds. Lyric poetry, with its traditional itemizing of the natural world, flower by flower, cloud by cloud, has, in her work, become a forum for ecological consciousness.” The precision of Graham’s attention often feels nearly dissociative. It’s as if she looks so closely that things we might otherwise recognize take on new shapes and meanings, which is what both disconcerts and delights about her work. And when this attention is focused on ecological crisis, things get more disconcerting still. In Sea Change (Ecco, 2008), Graham reckons directly with the reality that the future, certainly the future we’ve sold ourselves on expecting, is far from assured. Graham’s poems are redolent with justified and clearly documented witness and warning, and yet here I am, years since the initial publication of Sea Change, asking whether any of us have really listened to what these poems have to say.



The Wild Iris by Louise Glück

Louise Glück just won the Nobel Prize and likely doesn’t need publicity help from someone like me, but I can’t make a list of recommended books for Orion readers without mentioning The Wild Iris (Ecco, 1993). The risks this book takes are astonishing, and the payoffs as well. Each poem in this collection is spoken in a voice from the garden. They are in the voices of domesticated and desired plants, and some so-called weeds as well, and also the wind and the light and, perhaps, the voice of God. By the time Glück wrote The Wild Iris, twentieth-century readers like me were appropriately suspect of the overreach of pathetic fallacy, the dangers of appropriating the voices of the greater than human world, and yet Glück manages to exemplify the important work of empathy. By revealing the self in the flower and the flower in the self, Glück changes (for the better) how I related with the world around me.



Now You Care by Di Brandt 

Sometimes I think of this book’s speaker as a modern-day Cassandra. Though I want to say I’ve listened to the warnings laid out so clearly in Now You Care, I read it again, more than twenty years after its first publication, and know the situations she was already mourning have only gotten worse. Now You Care (Coach House Books, 1999) wanders the northern border between Windsor and Detroit, documenting environmental degradation with unflinching specificity and concern. The poems refuse to turn away. Serial poems operate as catalogs, and within each poem are more catalogs, and Brandt’s use of rhyme and repetition and other sonic play also add to the book’s sense of unceasing accrual. Yet, somehow, these poems manage to make something beautiful out of this compendium of terrifying truths. Not the kind of beauty that eases suffering, but the kind of beauty that slows a person down and helps them stop and look. Allison Adelle Hedge Coke (another poet whose work readers should explore) is known to say, “What we need are tear leaders, not cheerleaders. We need tear leaders to teach us how to mourn.” Di Brandt is one such tear leader. Now You Care is an essential instruction book for our time.



The work of Anne Spencer (1882–1975) collected by various sources

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, two books were published that feature Anne Spencer’s work: Half My World: The Garden of Anne Spencer, a History and Guide, eds. Rebecca Frischkorn and Reuben M. Rainey (Warwick House, 2003), and Anne Spencer: “Ah, how poets sing and die!” by Nina Salmon (Warwick House, 2001). I would direct readers to both because they highlight different aspects of the poet’s remarkable life and garden. Or you could locate a copy of the long out of print Time’s Unfading Garden by J. Lee Greene (Louisiana State University Press, 1977). It’s high time for another wave of interest in Spencer’s work. Her writing is as perfect for our present moment as it was for the early and mid-twentieth century when she was actively writing. Though she was the first Virginian woman to be included in the Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, and was featured in many of the key publications of the Harlem Renaissance, Spencer’s attention was often more focused on civil rights activities and her magnificent garden than on what people nowadays call po-bizz (the glad-handing and bureaucracy often connected to the publication of one’s poetry). As I said in a 2018 conversation with the writer and critic Tess Taylor, “The fact that [Spencer] was a black woman living in the South diminished her relevance to the tastemakers of the time.” And yet, despite only publishing a handful of poems during her lifetime, Spencer consistently wrote lyrics charged with life and love and fury that fill me, to this day, with awe. The fact that she lived simultaneously as an activist for social justice and environmental connection makes her a model I return to again and again.



The work of Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889) collected by various sources

If you were to ask me to name the place and time when my literary life intersected directly with my environmental interests, I might point you to a particular spot on the banks of the Thames River, just outside of Oxford, England, where I spent one July afternoon in the early 90s. In those years, I spent my summers in England, working as a counselor in a residential program for American high school kids. Those were, as you sometimes hear, among the best summers of my life, full of brightly lit moments like the one I describe here. A notoriously attractive man I met there—whose name I remember was pronounced Rall-fee, though I don’t know whether this was spelled Ralph or Rolfe, nor whether this moniker was his given name, surname, or just an endearment—knew I was a poet and asked one day if I wanted to see the place Hopkins writes about in “Binsey Poplars.” Of course I did. We packed a picnic, and we drove in the lovely man’s lovely convertible to a little stretch of land just outside of town so we could sit in the same place where Gerard Manley Hopkins once stood, and we read “Binsey Poplars” out of my then brand-new Hopkins: Poems (Everyman’s Library Pocket Series, 1995), and Hopkins’s sprung rhythms broke into the hazy summer brightness, and I understood something different about how great poetry holds in it the world that we love and the world we have already lost and are always still losing. Whether or not you have a chance to actually follow in his footsteps, you will find in much of Hopkins’s poetry a clear-eyed, vibrant vision of our glorious and always endangered world. I’m still a fan of my Everyman collection, but readers can also look to the newer Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins ( Publishing, 2018) for a chance to experience some of the magic of this wonderful poet’s work.



Lake Superior: Lorine Niedecker’s Poem and Journal, Along with Other Sources, Documents, and Readings edited by Joshua Beckman

Summertime means lake time for many of us, and there is no bigger lake in North America than Lake Superior. It seemed reasonable and necessary, therefore, that I point you to one of the most remarkable books about that most remarkable lake. I’m cheating my own criteria a little because the book I am recommending was published a few years after 2010, but the long poem around which Joshua Beckman centers the rest of what’s collected in this volume (Wave Books, 2013) was written after a road trip Niedecker (1903–1970) took with her husband in 1966, well before the 2010 cutoff for this feature. (See also Niedecker’s Collected Works from University of California Press, 2004.) A travelogue, scientific treatise, ethnography, cartographic sketch, geological survey, and much more, Niedecker’s Lake Superior has been hailed as a masterpiece of docupoetry, an early model for ecopoetry, and a gobsmackingly good poem. The Wave Books edition also collects Niedecker’s journals from around the time of writing the poem, as well as related writing by Aldo Leopold, Bashō, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, and more.



The Essential Muriel Rukeyser, with a foreword by Natasha Trethewey 

My plan had been to suggest you turn to The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser (University of Pittsburg Press, 2006), and you still should, but this new volume (Ecco, 2021) collects much of Rukeyser’s most moving and engaged work, including excerpts from her still relevant U.S. 1, a 1938 volume that contained “The Book of the Dead,” her astonishingly powerful documentary collage about life in America’s coal mining regions. Rukeyser (1913–1980) was one of the twentieth century’s best American poets. Her influence has been registered by the likes of Alice Walker, Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, and Sharon Olds. (I recommend reading “A Student’s Memoir of Muriel Rukeyser,” which you can find in By Herself: Women Reclaim Poetry, edited by Molly McQuade [Graywolf, 2000], in which Olds has much to say about learning from Rukeyser’s life and work.) I am happy to know that this new collection will keep Rukeyser’s poetry in the hands of a new generation of readers.



Magic City by Yusef Komunyakaa

I don’t think enough people list Yusef Komunyakaa when they catalog key environmentally engaged poets of our time, but we all should. In so many of his poems, you’ll find the greater than human world living alongside the human, as richly endowed with personality and will as any of the human figures in the poems. In fact, sometimes the earth and ponds and blackberries and grass and cows of Komunyakaa’s early poems seem to have more will and sense of self-possession than the human actors on his pages. I must confess that there seems to be a running theme in these little notes I’m writing for you here. I wanted to bring attention to work published before 2010 that readers should keep on their radar; and in several cases, other writers, editors, and publishers have also made it their mission to ensure readers are able to access this work today. I looked up publication details about Magic City (Wesleyan Poetry Series, 1992), my personal favorite of all my most beloved Komunyakaa collections, and discovered I’m a month late celebrating a new Komunyakaa volume—Everyday Mojo Songs of Earth: New and Selected Poems, 2001–2021 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021)—that will give readers a chance to peruse a large body of his seminal work. You can see from the title of this new book that Komunyakaa centers Earth in his poetic imagination. If you want to take a deep dive into Komunyakaa’s complex and uncompromising environmental vision, I recommend you get your hands on his newest collection as well as many of his early books, like Magic City and Neon Vernacular (Wesleyan University Press, 1993).



A Fish to Feed All Hunger by Sandra Alcosser 

Sometimes I have to cull my bookshelves because I love books so much that things start to get dire in our house if I don’t make room. But this is a book that won’t get culled no matter how tall my poems pile grows. My grandmother was a librarian, so even my overflow piles of unshelved books tend to be organized first by genre, then alphabetically by author’s last name. This way, I can find books when I need them. Alcosser’s A Fish to Feed All Hunger (University of Virginia Press, 1986; Ahsahta Press, 1993) is a book I find myself needing at least a few times each year. “[Alcosser] gives meaning when it is most needed,” James Tate wrote in his introduction to the collection. These poems are often spare, always sensual, compellingly taut and strong, and full of so much life. They are grounded in the lived and living world, and they continue to teach me new ways to see and to survive.



Recommended Collections from Established Poets: 



David Blair recommends Selected Poems, Derek Walcott edited by Edward Baugh

Derek Walcott is one of the great poets of the hemisphere, and syllable by syllable, beat by beat, he has more music to him with his deep ear than any of the other great late twentieth-century formalists, and he ties musical perception to painterly and otherwise physical perception with more body heat than even Seamus Heaney. Walcott has a novelistic eye for his cherished island landscape and the social worlds of towns and cities, a sense of other people, and he is as critical and implicated in his treatment of colonialism as he is of his own macho ego that he continuously decenters with the intensities of grief, wonder, friendship, love, compassion, and self-appraising rather than self-flattering comedy. In short, Walcott shows that art always wins. Start here in this shorter selection (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007) of Walcott’s work with the short lyrics in Sea Grapes, the narratives “The Schooner’s Flight” from The Star-Apple Kingdom, and “The Light of the World” from The Arkansas Testament, then get copies of those books whether or not they are out of print, and Walcott’s poetry can befriend you for the rest of your life and improve your vision.



Jessica Jacobs recommends Interpretive Work by Elizabeth Bradfield

I love to read the debut collections of poets I admire, witnessing the first flock of poems they chose to release into the world, identifying the signs of obsessions and craft choices to come. Elizabeth Bradfield’s Interpretive Work (Arktoi Books, 2008) is a tender marvel. There’s the joy of seeing through a trained naturalist’s eye everything from the dark fireflies of a childhood forest to breaching whales to an ocean floor “more vast than the myth of Wyoming.” And woven within this close looking is appreciative gaze turned to the speaker and her partner, often in settings less than welcoming to the love of two women, as well as of the speaker for her partner in a powerful and often very funny sequence of “Butch Poems.” “Let me trust that mystery still eddies,” she implores, “that what’s daily and familiar is worth a second look.” I urge the same: Bradfield’s first book is more than worth revisiting or exploring for the first time.



Danusha Laméris recommends The Elements of San Joaquin by Gary Soto

There are books you read once, books you read again, and books that define your inner geography. For me, Elements of San Joaquin (Pitt Poetry Series, 1977, reprinted by Chronicle Books in 2018) is such a book. Soto brings us to the Central Valley of California, where he picked grapes and onions as a boy, where he says, “A fine silt, washed by sweat / Has settled into the lines / On my wrists and palms.” “Already,” he says, “I am becoming the valley.” Here, nature comes to us through one who has been pressed into the service of harvest, who is careful to name pine, foxtail, fiddle-neck, chickweed, chinacherry, and manzanita. These poems document place, as well as the price paid to live as we do on this land. If there is redemption here, it is in the intimacy with the dirt, in the religion of remembrance. Though “nothing,” the speaker tells us, “Will heal / under the rain’s broken fingers.”


Want more poetry recommendations from Orion poetry editor Camille Dungy? Click here


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