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favorite poetry books

We had so many poets willing to share their favorite poetry books that we’re continuing past National Poetry Month and into May. Today, Brian Spears, shares his favorite books:

I should retitle this to read “My Favorite Book of Poetry and Four Recent Books I’ve Fallen In Love With,” because there’s no way I could actually make the first list happen. It’s an impossible task, I think, to narrow the field in such a way, especially given the way my feelings toward books can change depending on my mood. So instead, I’ll give you the list I want to give you, which is my all-time favorite book along with four books from last year that I thought were really awesome.

Favorite Book: A Selection of Poems by E. E. Cummings

I was already writing poems when I was a junior in high school, but they were very formal, filled with forced rhymes and inverted syntax, clichés and abstractions. Then, in what I imagine must have been an act of desperation to get us to pay attention, my teacher, Ms. Nancy McKee, started writing out “in Just” on the chalkboard. I could tell she hadn’t planned it out—she didn’t have the text of the poem with her and she openly acknowledged that she couldn’t really explain it—but even if she didn’t get another student to perk up, she got me. I went to the local bookstore and got them to order this book, and paid for it with the money I was earning slinging chicken at a local fast food chain, and given that I was making $3.35 an hour, that was a solid shift’s worth of work.

I stopped writing like Cummings eventually, but I’ve never forgotten the feeling I had when I saw that poem going up on the chalkboard and saying to myself “you can do that?” I still have my copy of that book today, 25 years later.

Four Great Books From Last Year, In No Particular Order

Diwata by Barbara Jane Reyes is creation myth and song and foot-stomping rhythm and glorious metaphor throughout. I still pick up this book every few days and read a few pages and revel in them.

Julie Sheehan’s Bar Book, Poems and Otherwise proclaims that it’s not just poetry from the title, but it’s still one of my favorite books of poems from last year. Part of my enjoyment stems, no doubt, from the fact that I (like many other writers, I suspect) spent considerable time behind a bar during a part of my student days. I never worked in a bar as nice as the one Sheehan inhabits, and I never married one of my customers, though I did have one move in with me for a while. Long story. Sheehan veers from witty prose to strongly formal poems with ease, and some of the funniest parts are in the footnotes, which you absolutely must read.

Shahid Reads His Own Palm by Reginald Dwayne Betts is one of the most beautifully honest books I’ve ever read, with incredible range. And he uses the ghazal better than most contemporary practitioners of the form.

The Network by Jena Osman was one of the books I selected for the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, and I chose it because I wasn’t even sure it was poetry. It stretches the boundaries of the genre in complex ways I can’t even begin to describe. This is a book you have to experience on your own.


I pulled off 15 poetry collections from my shelves and whittled my choices down to five favorites. So tough.

The Dead and the Living by Sharon Olds When I read Sharon’s poem “The Victims,” in which the narrator “fires” her father—I was hooked. That book gave me license to “go there” in my own work.

Good Woman: Poem and a Memoir, 1969-1980 by Lucille Clifton. Reading Ms. Clifton’s work (little or no punctuation, all words in lower case) forced me to reexamine the notion of a traditional poem.

Local Time by Stephen Dunn. Dunn’s poems are the right combination of sensitivity and craft in this collection.

Words Under the Words, Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye Some of my favorite poems come from this collection, drawn from Nye’s Palestinian-American heritage.

Nappy Edges by Ntozake Shange Read the poem “With No Immediate Cause,” and then get back to me.

BIO: January Gill O’Neil is the author of Underlife (CavanKerry Press, December 2009).Underlife was a finalist for ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award, and the 2010 Paterson Poetry Prize. She was featured in Poets & Writers magazine’s January/February 2010 Inspiration issue as one of its 12 debut poets. One of her poems has been nominated for a 2011 Pushcart Prize. She is on the advisory board/planning committee of the 2011 Massachusetts Poetry Festival. A Cave Canem fellow, January is a senior writer/editor at Babson College, runs a popular blog called Poet Mom, and lives with her two children in Beverly, Massachusetts.


I am always falling in love with poetry. Right now my favorite poems are those by my MFA thesis students, the undergraduates in my two advanced poetry writing workshops and capstone class, the three books in manuscript sent to me by former students, and several newly written or published books by former students and colleagues. […]


Babylon in a Jar by Andrew Hudgins: I have read this powerful and stirring collection numerous times. Most unforgettable are the two poems titled “Ashes,” which begin in humor and end close to the bone. Hudgins’s poems grab at something inside us that is both vital and elusive, and they don’t let go. Song and […]


Maurice Manning, Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions (2001) I just adore this book. Manning achieves a near-perfect balance of all the hard-to-balance qualities: humor and pathos, high and low diction, invention and convention. And I am a little in love with Lawrence Booth. James Merrill, Divine Comedies (1976) Here, Merrill hits his stride, managing, somehow, […]