A flatlay of must-read poetry collections set against a navy blue background.
A flatlay of must-read poetry collections set against a navy blue background.

It was once a cliché that poetry was an inaccessible medium, shielded in ivory towers of academia or banished to decades-old school textbooks. But there’s arguably never been a better time to reacquaint yourself with the pleasures of the artform.

In recent years, a new generation of poets have reminded readers why the medium remains as vibrant as ever, and 2021 has been no exception: this year, a host of brilliant poets have brought it to life on London estates, at inauguration podiums, in Covid hospital rooms and on West Country roads.

Whether you’re a master of verse or looking to jump in for the first time, there’s something for you in our roundup below of the must-read poetry collections making waves this year.

Poor by Caleb Femi

Eagle-eyed readers will point out that Caleb Femi’s incredible debut technically came out in November of 2020, but it would feel wrong not to include his collection here, such was its impact into this year. Across the dozens of poems in Poor, all told from a North Peckham Estate “where spring was told not by flowers but by fresh Air Jordans,” Caleb brings to life a world where painful truths and white hot rage butt up against expressions of joy, where community can mean safety and danger at the same time, and where, against all odds, beauty grows from the hard pavement. Rarely is a debut as generous, its world so vividly rendered, as with Femi’s masterful Poor.

Many Kinds of Love: A Story of Life, Death and the NHS by Michael Rosen

Fewer books of poetry will resonate this year like Michael Rosen’s heart-rending portrait of his struggle with Covid-19, in which the beloved author contends with his six week coma, followed by a gruelling rehabilitation as the kindness of his community – Michael’s wife, his doctors, and a host of dedicated nurses – helped propel him along the road to recovery. Combining his own gorgeous poems with diary entries from his wife and NHS nurses, and complemented by illustrations by Chris Riddell, Many Kinds of Love is a stirring love letter to community, hope, love, and life itself – its beauty and its fragility.

A Blood Condition by Kayo Chingonyi

This second collection of poetry by the author of Kukumanda is an ambitious, conceptual one; over the poems of A Blood Condition, Kayo Chingonyi tells “a story of inheritance”, illuminating the stories that comprise a life, from the people who raise us to the places from which we hail, from ancestral memory to the cultural exchanges we make. In A Blood Condition, the present is always informed by the past, and Kayo dives deeply here, tracing a history that touches on Leeds and London but floats along the Zambezi river, too, raising questions of time and distance, the personal and the global, all rendered in his rich, musical prose.

Wicked Enchantment by Wanda Coleman

Mere pages into the late Wanda Coleman’s first UK-published collection of poetry, you’ll wonder just how you’d never come across her work before. Animated, acute, and antagonistic, Coleman’s poems evoke a hard life of hustling and gritty determination, expressed via a voice that nobody could sum up better than the ‘unofficial poet laureate of Los Angeles’ herself: “most of my poems are written in a sometimes frenetic, sometimes lyrical free verse, dotted with literary, musical, and cinematic allusions, accented with smatterings of German, Latin, Spanish, and Yiddish, and neologisms, and rife with various cants and jargons, as they capture my interest, from the corporate roundtables to the streets.” You’ve never read anything quite like it.

Teeth in the Back of My Neck by Monika Radojevic

In 2020, the inaugural #Merky Books New Writer Prize was awarded to two dazzling new literary talents: one was Hafsa Zayyan, author of We Are All Birds of Uganda; the other was poet Monika Radojevic, the young mind behind the bold, insightful Teeth in the Back of My Neck. In just her debut collection, Monika shows the kind of ease of expression typically reserved for virtuosos as she navigates themes of identity and the modern diaspora, untangling the complicated emotions associated with a “history scattered around the globe” and finds meaning from such tension, at turns beautiful and melancholy – and often both simultaneously.

Rotten Days in Late Summer by Ralf Webb

Though Ralf Webb has been establishing his voice for years now – he’s been published in London Review of BooksPoetry ReviewOxford Poetry and more, and he’s the managing editor of The White Review – it’s in his new debut, Rotten Days in Late Summer, that he makes his strongest literary statement yet. Alongside the individual poems in Ralf’s collection stand three longform poetic sequences that confront the complications of young relationships, trace the death of the poet’s father, and explore mental health struggles, respectively, all of which are treated with Ralf’s sharp eye for detail and a nuanced tenderness that demonstrates emotional wisdom – and poetic dexterity – beyond his years.

The Crossing by Manjeet Mann

Somewhere between the horrors of the refugee crisis she saw on the news and the ugliness of the far-right protests she saw in the UK, actor and author Manjeet Mann was moved to pen her second novel, The Crossing, a story of two teenagers – one from Dover and one a refugee from Eritrea – and the sense of hope that their fateful meeting yields. Manjeet write The Crossing in verse – a choice motivated, she says, by the fact that she found it “easier to deal with big emotional subjects by getting straight to the heart of the issue and saying more with very little”, and because the use of space on the page allowed for “playing with key phrases”. This heartfelt, timely story is a must-read.

Poems 1962-2020 by Louise Glück

At 78 years old, American poet Louise Glück has been mastering her craft for six decades, but there’s never been a better time to delve into her impressive oeuvre – just last year, Glück was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Known for her emotional intensity, and for using mythology and nature to bring out the themes of trauma, sadness, isolation and desire in her work, Glück’s poetry is defined by intelligence and wit. And while her work might sound dense and difficult, she’s a firm believer in poetry as a medium for all: her Nobel lecture touched on the relationship between poets, readers, and the greater population. As far as introductions go, you can’t miss with Poems 1962-2020, a 736-page collection out this summer.

The Hill We Climb and Other Poems by Amanda Gorman

Chances are you’ve already heard of Amanda Gorman – that is, if you were one of the global millions tuned in to the inauguration of US President Joe Biden, where the 22-year-old Gorman delivered her impassioned spoken-word poem, ‘The Hill We Climb’. Advocating for truth and braveness in rebuilding “a nation that isn’t broken”, Gorman’s poem stirred the likes of Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Hillary Clinton and Lin-Manuel Miranda, and announced an exciting new voice in poetry. A slim volume of the poem is available now (click on the book cover to the left); later this year, she’ll release The Hill We Climb and Other Poems, a debut collection containing her iconic inauguration poem as well as an array of new poems to continue her literary journey.

What did you think of this article? Email editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk and let us know.

Image: Alicia Fernandes/Penguin

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