The Power of Poetry

Until last year, I’d never been one to read a book of poetry from start to finish. I’d pick up the poetry books I have, flip to a random page, read a couple pieces, and then put the book back on the shelf. However, when I started reading poetry collections from beginning to end, they became that much more powerful. Each collection, like a novel, bears a theme and overarching takeaway, something that gives greater meaning to the individual pieces when examined in context with the whole.

Last week (the 7th) was National Poetry Day. Poetry is something that certainly deserves to be celebrated, as it plays a crucial role, not only in the literary arts, but society at large. It digs into the deepest emotions and shared experiences of humanity, reminds us that we are not alone in our suffering and that our joys are worthy of celebration. For this post, I’ve compiled a list of five phenomenal books of poetry. Each of these, whether a collection or individually-published piece, embodies true poetic power.

Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.

William Wordsworth

1. M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A by A. Van Jordan (2004)

M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A is perhaps the most unique poetry collection I’ve read. Not only is each poem a masterpiece in itself, the collection as a whole is an historical account. It follows the true story of MacNolia Cox, a young Black girl who, in 1936, became the first Black student to make it to the Scripps National Spelling Bee. She faced blatant and despicable racism from the moment she arrived in Washington D.C., and her chance of winning was stolen from her, when one of the southern judges gave her a word to spell that wasn’t on the official list. This account, beautifully-written and heart-wrenching, is just one prime example of how the language and lyrical nature of poetry can magnify the emotional impact of the story it’s telling.

2. The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich (1978)

The Dream of a Common Language explores, through impeccable verse, the shared struggles and triumphs of women. This collection gives voice to the unique power women possess, a faculty which has been historically suppressed and stolen from us. Rich longed to achieve a common language, by which women and all members of society might effectively communicate in order that their desires and dreams would no longer be ignored. She recognizes how severely the world has wounded women and reminds us that it is our duty to push back against these forces that still attempt to defeat us. She does all of this through a language so rich and commanding, one cannot ignore the power of her words.

3. Ariel by Sylvia Plath (1965)

Ariel is a collection of haunting, confessional poems adorned with creative language that, at times, on the surface, may appear nonsense, but when regarded more deeply, may ring true for many women. Plath was among the first to write honest poetry about her experiences as a woman, even when that required her to write about dark and heavy matters. In doing so, she wielded the power to make women feel less alone, less isolated in their own suffering. This collection is regarded by some as the beginning of a movement—that is, the women’s movement through poetic medium. Written in the last days of Plath’s life, these poems expose the bitter truth of her world, a world in which all women are suffering in some way or another. In allowing herself to be truly vulnerable, Plath has done the remarkable work of uniting and empowering women through her poetry, even decades later.

4. Axis Mundi by Karen Holmberg (2013)

Axis Mundi explores, in lovely verse, the richness and force of human perception, how turning ourselves outward can heal us within. Holmberg examines the beauty that comes from recognizing the miraculous in the mundane, the simple and stunning faculties of nature, and the interconnectedness of it all. She touches on such things as the joys and difficulties of motherhood, the devastation of loss, grief, and the life that exists beyond all of that. In writing about these topics with raw honesty, Holmberg, like many great poets, utilizes her poetic power to bring others together, those who have suffered similarly and long for the same solace she seems to have unearthed.

5. Still I Rise by Maya Angelou (1978)

“Still I Rise” was originally published as a poem in the collection And Still I Rise (1978). The version I found at the library, however, was the poem published individually and including illustrations by the world-renowned painter, Diego Rivera. Angelou is a tremendously accomplished Black woman, whose life experiences I would never pretend to relate to. Neither could I fully grasp the true depth of them. However, being witness to her artwork, especially such a beautiful piece of writing as this, is a great and inspiring honor. She writes honestly and intelligently in a way that inspires many, but especially those who have shared experiences with her, those who can wholly comprehend and relate to what she’s been through. For those individuals, her work has the power to unite, to empower and embolden them to “rise up” just as she did.

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