11 best poetry books to celebrate World Poetry Day

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People around the globe will once again be celebrating ‘the unique ability of poetry to capture the creative spirit of the human mind’ (iStock/ The Independent)

You could hardly hear a pin drop on 20 January as 22-year-old Amanda Gorman became the youngest-ever poet to perform at a presidential inauguration.

Her poem, The Hill We Climb, called for “unity and togetherness” and reminded us all of the power poetry has to touch the soul and inspire change. It will be out in book form on 30 March and her debut collection of poetry, The Hill We Climb and Other Poems will be published in September. 

Penguin Random House will also publish two picture books by the young Harvard graduate. The first, Change Sings: A Children’s Anthem, will be available in September.

Gorman has undoubtedly raised the profile of poetry and on 21 March, people around the globe will once again be celebrating “the unique ability of poetry to capture the creative spirit of the human mind” as they mark World Poetry Day.

The event, which was launched by UNESCO in 1999, has been held every year since and is a day “to honour poets” and promote the reading, writing and teaching of poetry.

To mark World Poetry Day, we’ve chosen some of the best collections of poetry, many of them published in the last few months. Our round-up includes books to suit all tastes, judging them on their beauty, originality and, in a year like no other, their ability to remind us of better times to come.

You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps us to fund journalism across The Independent.

‘Set Me on Fire: A Poem for Every Feeling’ by Ella Risbridger, published by Doubleday

books, poetry, indybest, World Poetry Day, Amanda Gorman, Buy now, The Historians, Poor

Ella Risbridger began collecting poems for this anthology as a present for her best friend, prompted by the realisation that they agree on everything in life – except poetry. “People hate poetry, often, because it has this reputation for being difficult,” writes Risbridger. “It doesn’t have to be. It can be a road map or simply someone yelling out to let you know I was here too! I understand!” She also questions why so many famous poets are “dead white men” and declares that she’s sick and tired of finding that the only poems people know by heart are “by Tennyson (fine) or Kipling (eesh).”

Divided into loose sections and covering everything from “happy” to “rage and trauma”, Set Me on Fire is a delight from start to finish. It’s a refreshingly eclectic collection that will remind you of poets you love, like Rupert Brooke, WH Auden, Louis MacNeice and Dorothy Parker, and introduce you to a host of new names too.

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‘These are the Hands: Poems from the Heart of the NHS' edited by Deborah Alma and Dr Katie Amiel, published by Fair Acre Press

books, poetry, indybest, World Poetry Day, Amanda Gorman, Buy now, The Historians, Poor

This timely anthology is a poetry book like no other. It comprises more than 100 poems about the NHS and offers an extraordinary insight into the experience of the people who work in our hospitals, GP surgeries and health centres. The poems are largely written by NHS staff, from a student nurse at the start of his career to a heart surgeon on the point of retirement, but leading authors and poets have also contributed.

The moving title poem, “These are the Hands”, was written by poet and former children’s laureate Michael Rosen, who spent 47 days in intensive care fighting coronavirus last year. Compassionate and wise, it’s a collection that will resonate with everyone. All the proceeds go to NHS Charities Together, which supports more than 140 official NHS charities and raises money for NHS hospitals, ambulance services and community and mental health services across the UK.

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‘The Historians’ by Eavan Boland, published by Carcanet

books, poetry, indybest, World Poetry Day, Amanda Gorman, Buy now, The Historians, Poor

The acclaimed Irish poet Eavan Boland won the 2020 Costa Poetry Award posthumously for The Historians, her final book (she died in April 2020). She was known for her ability to weave myth, history and the life of ordinary women into spellbinding poetry and this collection is no exception. Poignant and evocative, Boland’s words will stay in your memory long after you’ve finished reading them, whether she’s describing two women burning letters in a back garden or Irish suffragists gathering in cities across Ireland to exercise their “hard-won” right to vote in 1918.

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‘Poor’ by Caleb Femi, published by Penguin Books

books, poetry, indybest, World Poetry Day, Amanda Gorman, Buy now, The Historians, Poor

Caleb Femi is a photographer, film-maker and poet who was named London’s first young poet laureate in 2016. Poor is his debut poetry collection – a tour de force that chronicles “the trials, tribulations, dreams and joys” of young black boys growing up in 21st century Peckham. His poetry and photography vividly depict the north Peckham estate where he himself lived, which only makes his poems all the more heart-rending, passionate and real.

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‘How to Wash a Heart’ by Bhanu Kapil, published by Liverpool University Press

books, poetry, indybest, World Poetry Day, Amanda Gorman, Buy now, The Historians, Poor

The £25,000 TS Eliot Prize is the most valuable award in British poetry, won by names like Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney, Carol Ann Duffy and Alice Oswald in the past. The 2020 judges unanimously chose How to Wash a Heart, Bhanu Kapil’s first full-length collection to be published in the UK, as their winner, declaring her work to be “radical and arresting”. Kapil’s slender volume explores the complex relationship that emerges between an immigrant guest and a liberal host and while it’s an unsettling, demanding read it’s also thought-provoking, compassionate and at times even comic.

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‘The Forward Book of Poetry 2021: The Best Poems from the Forward Prizes’, published by Bookmark

books, poetry, indybest, World Poetry Day, Amanda Gorman, Buy now, The Historians, Poor

The Forward Prizes are among the most prestigious poetry awards in the country so it’s a delight to have a selection of the shortlisted 2020 entries in one volume. Previous winners include illustrious names like Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes, and the chances are that some of the poets whose work features in this anthology will follow in their footsteps. Far from being remote and esoteric, they show that poetry can cover a whole gamut of subjects, from love and loss to the agonies of toothache and even, in one case, an appreciation of the humble raspberry pip.

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‘A Poem for Every Day of the Year’ edited by Allie Esiri, published by Macmillan Children’s Books

books, poetry, indybest, World Poetry Day, Amanda Gorman, Buy now, The Historians, Poor

If you haven’t read any poetry since your schooldays this wide-ranging anthology is the perfect way to rediscover the joy of verse. “Poetry can give us strength, make us double up with laughter or marvel at life’s wonders and absurdities,” declares Allie Esiri in the introduction and her book helped us to do all those things. Reading a poem every day is good for the soul, especially in troubled times, and the joy of this volume is that it does the choosing for you, often matching poems to the months and seasons. Esiri has even thrown a few song lyrics in for good measure, including “All You Need is Love” by John Lennon and Paul McCartney and “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan.

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‘On the Move: Poems About Migration’ by Michael Rosen, published by Walker Books

books, poetry, indybest, World Poetry Day, Amanda Gorman, Buy now, The Historians, Poor

The prolific Michael Rosen joined forces with fellow former children’s laureate Sir Quentin Blake to produce this powerful book of poems about migration. Rosen divides his poems into four sections. In the first, he recalls his childhood as part of a first-generation Polish family living in London. The second explores how he came to know about the Second World War and the third tells the story of his “missing” relatives. After these very personal poems, the fourth section explores migration around the world today. Blake’s haunting drawings complement Rosen’s compelling words beautifully in this very accessible volume.

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‘Teeth in the Back of My Neck’ by Monika Radojevic, published by Merky Books

books, poetry, indybest, World Poetry Day, Amanda Gorman, Buy now, The Historians, Poor

Monika Radojevic’sTeeth in the Back of My Neck was one of the two inaugural winners of the #Merky Books New Writers’ Prize, a competition to discover unpublished, under-represented young writers. Half Brazilian and half Montenegrin, Radojevic says her debut collection (out in May) draws on “the joys, the confusions and the moments of sadness behind having one’s history scattered around the globe – and the way in which your identity is always worn on your skin, whether you like it or not”. The book’s memorable title is taken from a line in “Midriff”, an insightful poem about body image, but one of the most shocking poems in the collection is “56+”, a poem about the increasing use of “rough sex” defences by men in court when they are tried for the killing or violent injury of women during sex. This is a courageous, arresting debut from a poet to watch.

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‘Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright! – An Animal Poem for Every Day of the Year’ by Fiona Waters and Britta Teckentrup, published by Nosy Crow

books, poetry, indybest, World Poetry Day, Amanda Gorman, Buy now, The Historians, Poor

This gorgeous anthology is the sequel to the award-winning I Am the Seed that Grew the Tree and will enchant readers young and old. The book’s title is taken from “The Tiger”, William Blake’s classic poem, and features an animal poem for every day of the year. Exquisitely illustrated by Britta Teckentrup, it features old favourites by Gerard Manley Hopkins and Ted Hughes and more recent poems like Carol Ann Duffy’s “The Wasp” and “Crab Dance” by Grace Nichols. If you’re a poetry novice, an animal lover or a parent looking to share rhymes and verse with your children, this hefty tome will get you off to a flying start.

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‘The Poetry Pharmacy Returns: More Prescriptions for Courage, Healing and Hope’ by William Sieghart, published by Particular Books

books, poetry, indybest, World Poetry Day, Amanda Gorman, Buy now, The Historians, Poor

William Sieghart came up with the idea of The Poetry Pharmacy in 2014 when he started prescribing poems to help people cope with problems in their lives. It was so successful that he went on to produce a second volume. Sieghart describes poetry as “a healing force” and says poems have helped him throughout his life.

This collection addresses a plethora of new themes, from choosing a life partner to political apathy. Our favourites included “Walking Away” by Cecil Day-Lewis, prescribed for empty nest syndrome, and “Oh” by Robert Creeley, prescribed for people caring for ageing parents. Each poem is accompanied by a short essay written by Sieghart, explaining his choice.

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The verdict: Poetry books to celebrate World Poetry Day

Our top choice is Ella Risbridger’s Set Me on Fire: A Poem for Every Feeling. It’s engaging, eclectic and will appeal to poetry lovers and poetry novices alike. Close runners-up are The Historians by Eavan Boland, a moving and insightful collection that will stand the test of time, and the extraordinary Poor by Caleb Femi.

If you prefer prose over poetry, then these are the short stories you have to revisit this Fairy Tale Day

IndyBest product reviews are unbiased, independent advice you can trust. On some occasions, we earn revenue if you click the links and buy the products, but we never allow this to bias our coverage. The reviews are compiled through a mix of expert opinion and real-world testing.

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