Six poetry collections every young writer should read

  • From left to right: the cover art for "Love, An Index" by Rebecca Lindenberg, "Don't Call us Dead" by Danez Smith, and "Praise" by Robert Hass.

In a world of smartphones and social media, poetry might seem like an antiquated art. However, new research by the National Endowment of Arts shows that poetry reading is actually increasing; in fact, it’s doubled among young people age 18-24. The genre’s growth is bolstered by social media, which makes it easy for writers to share their work and build their audience.

With thousands of new poetic voices available on paper and online, it can be difficult to choose your next read. We asked Interlochen Arts Academy alumna and Instructor of Poetry Brittany Cavallaro for a list of must-read collections. Here’s what Brittany had to say about some of her favorites.

Love, An Index by Rebecca Lindenberg (McSweeneys)
Lindenberg's book takes grief as its subject. Her speaker in these poems tries out and discards different containers for talking about her loss—poems disguised as phrasebooks, as illuminated manuscripts, as lists of flowers, and finally, in the book's most ambitious project, taking on an 'index' of love that unspools for page upon luminous page. A great place to start for the poet wanting to play with form.

Don't Call Us Dead by Danez Smith (Graywolf Press)
In their debut collection, a finalist for the National Book Award and the winner of the Forward Prize for Poetry, Smith interrogates race, gender, illness, and trauma through poems that sing out about the body: "we say our own names when we pray," they write in "summer, somewhere." "we go out for sweets & come back."

To See the Queen by Allison Seay (Persea Books)
Seay's collection builds with a mysterious intensity. Her short, focused poems—writing of femininity and the domestic, imaginary towns and 'figments' that haunt her speaker—accumulate in their effect until, suddenly, the reader is knee-deep in treacherous waters. These poems burn with a "fire that looks like a mouth / that is trying to swallow too much."

Praise by Robert Hass (Ecco)
The oldest collection on the list, Praise was published in 1979 by a former Poet Laureate. Robert Hass's poetry traffics in ideas—lofty ideas, giant ones, that speak of the things of this world serving as "some tragic falling off from a first world / of undivided light." But his musings are always tethered to this world, to its woodpeckers and blackberries and rivers, and young poets can learn from this collection to ground their ideas in experience.

Elegy on Toy Piano by Dean Young (Pitt Poetry Series)
Any of Young's collections will do, but Elegy on Toy Piano is one of my favorites. A master class on mixing sharp humor and devastating grief, these poems are at once playful and deadly serious. "You don't need a pony / to connect you to the unseeable / or an airplane to connect you to the sky."

Virgin by Analicia Sotelo (Milkweed)
This is the collection I keep lending out to my students. Sotelo's debut collection, released just last year, is full of tense magic—poems that play with searing language and snarky asides, with Greek myth and Kanye West, all the while invested in the kind of music that makes you want to read them out loud. "Look now: my heart // is a fist of barbed wire. His heart / is a lake where young geese // go missing, show up bloody / after midnight."

If you want to learn more about Brittany Cavallaro, read her Meet Your Faculty profile. You can apply for a place as her student by applying to Interlochen Arts Academy.

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