Since its Poetry Month I thought it would be an apt time to share some of the best poetry books I’ve ever read. If you are looking for indelible imagery, clever word play, and pathos all delivered in a musical compactness that novels never seem to achieve, then poetry is your genre. I’ve gathered here some of the most revered works of poetry from the classical world, the romantics, and surrealists, all the way up through some of the most present times.
Works and Days by Hesiod
One of the major ancient Greek poets that you might not know about (but should!), Hesiod was a cotemporary of Homer and they supposedly had a duel in which Hesiod purposefully wouldn’t rhyme properly. Even though he lost, he is still one of the major poets of Greek antiquity. Hesiod here has the deep knowledge of the creation of the universe as well as how to live a simple bucolic life free of worries. The introduction from the Loeb is dependably astute and will situate you comfortably within the original context of the poem itself.
The Iliad by Homer
While most people are first introduced to Homer’s Odyssey, the Iliad is the wild, blood-soaked, glory-mad twin of the more dreamy poem centered on Odysseus’s world travels. The majority of the poem focuses on a withdrawn Achilles and the ravages the rest of the army is forced to sustain while he sulks and refuses to fight and closes with truly epic slaughters once a tragic event pushes the most famous warrior in all of Literature into the fray.
Eclogues by Vergil
Most people are introduced to Vergil by being assigned his Aenid which is the founding myth of the Roman Republic. However, where Vergil’s verse is genuinely mellifluous is in his wonderfully wrought Eclogues, or poems about rustic life. These were cherished by many poets who would come after him, especially by poets like John Milton, John Keats, and William Shakespeare to name a few.
On the Nature of Things by Lucretius
Some of the best poetry ever written thrums between these covers. Not only is On the Nature of Things looked to as the best articulation of Epicureanism that we still have, but it stands as one of the most beautiful and enduring poems in its own right. As usual, the Loeb edition will provide helpful historical context so you can be whisked away as its first ancient readers were.
The Metamorphoses by Ovid
Written by Ovid and literally titled the Book of Changes, this is a treasure trove of ancient mythology and tales of change that philosophers, musicians, and other poets have continually read, referenced, and revered. Essential reading.
Canterbury Tales by Geoffry Chaucer
A tour de force of comedy that is both by turns bawdy and clever. The many poems that comprise the Canterbury Tales takes place as a group of pilgrims head to Canterbury and they tell stories all along the way. If you want to experience Chaucer in the original English, grab the Riverside edition; it is challenging at times but the historical context and natural music are well worth it.
The Divine Comedy by Dante
Composed of the Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradisio the Divine Comedy is a spiritual epic which contains many famous lines and images that have captured some of the greatest minds of Western Civilization since its publication. Written in Dante’s dolce stile novo or “sweet new style,” the equally innovative terza rima commences in a dark wood where Dante has lost his way during the middle ages of his life.
Sonnets by William Shakespeare
An indispensable read regarding the poetry of love, the Sonnets consist of 154 poems abounding in everything you’d expect from The Bard: wit, bravado, deep sorrow, philosophical inquiry, and the most perfect use of words assembled in the most perfect order.
Paradise Lost by John Milton
I first read Paradise Lost as a mental reprieve from my normal heavy load of reading in graduate school and it ended up being an essential work to my dissertation; even now it still poses huge questions for me and how I think about style and some other philosophical things like recollection and authorial or poetic influence. This edition features a special cover which will add a sophisticated presence to your bookshelf!
The Complete Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley
One of the leading British Romantics, Shelley was both a deep student of classical Greek poetry and also contemporary philosophy and science. Collected here in Norton’s Complete Poems of Percy Byshe Shelley a single volume are all of his lesser known and famous poems such as Ode to the West Wind, Mont Blanc, Adonais, Ozymandias, Hymn to Intellectual Beauty, and even some of Shelley’s thoughts in prose.
Canti by Giacomo Leopardi
One of the greatest poets of modern Italian literature, Leopardi was deeply read in the rich antiquity that preceded him. And he made much from it: the modern self is here in these pages and its relationship with pain, boredom, doubt, and a new and general world-weariness as well. The lunar sparseness and pensive nature of these poems makes them instant must reads.
Un Coupe des Des by Stephen Mallarme
Mallarme’s Un Coupe des Des (A Throw of the Dice) is a thrilling ode to chance and one of the greatest experiments in form in all of Poetry, with different fonts in different sizes and an abundance of blank space. It is potentially about a ship, but scholars do not even agree on that.
Les Fleurs du Mal by Charles Baudelaire
Widely considered as one of the most important poems of 19th century France, this work caused an immediate sensation upon its publication. It was even seized and destroyed initially as it contains a cynical and world-weary view of life coupled with a celebration of the darker side of urban Parisian existence. A collection of 140 poems organized around themes such as Spleen and Ideal, Parisian Scenes, Wine, Flowers of Evil, Revolt, and Death all crystallizing the internal conflict lurking within the breast of all moderns: the desires of the flesh and the pursuit of a perfect and eternal beauty. It also contains a famous address to the reader attacking boredom.
Idylls of the King by Lord Alfred Tennyson
A series of 12 poems richly imagined and deeply felt, the Idylls of the King is a poetic recounting of the legendary rule of Arthur, beginning with his romance with Guinevere through her affair with Lancelot, and concluding in the famous elegy Mort d’Arthur.
Canzoniere by Petrarch
Petrarch created the sonnet form with his Canzoniere (little songs) and changed the world of poetry forever. 366 lyric poems trace Petrarch’s unrequited love for Laura and had poets the world over singing like him.
Maldoror by Lautreamont
An examination of evil and a ribald romp from one of the early examples of Surrealist poetry. It’s truly amazing this was ever allowed to be published.