Poetry is a beautiful art form (and one of my favorites), but it’s no stretch to say it can be intimidating and often not the most relatable. It’s easy to feel like the most revered poems come from long-dead white men, and while they certainly have merit, it would be unfair to poetry as a whole to say that’s where it stops.
It is easy to brush things off—to paint both pop culture and poetry as cliche. But in the face of that, these five poetry collections do the ultimate work: they make illuminating use of the world we live in today, from a variety of perspectives, to prove that using language in the form of poetry is still relevant, important, and exciting.
Here’s a collection of five poets who meaningfully reference pop culture.
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The synopses below were provided by Amazon and Goodreads.
1. The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, Hanif Willis Abdurraqib
Synopsis: The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib‘s first full-length collection, is a sharp and vulnerable portrayal of city life in the United States. A regular columnist for MTV.com, Willis-Abdurraqib brings his interest in pop culture to these poems, analyzing race, gender, family, and the love that finally holds us together even as it threatens to break us. Terrance Hayes writes that Willis-Abdurraqib bridges the bravado and bling of praise with the blood and tears of elegy. The poems in this collection are challenging and accessible at once, as they seek to render real human voices in moments of tragedy and celebration.
Pop culture proof: The titles in this collection alone make me excited—”Ode to Drake, Ending With Blood in a Field,” “At My First Punk Show Ever, 1998″—but that doesn’t even touch on the way his use of language will make your heart sing like the music he references.
2. There are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce, Morgan Parker
Synopsis: There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé uses political and pop-cultural references as a framework to explore 21st-century black American womanhood and its complexities: performance, depression, isolation, exoticism, racism, femininity, and politics. The poems weave between personal narrative and pop-cultural criticism, examining and confronting modern media, consumption, feminism, and Blackness.
This collection explores femininity and race in the contemporary American political climate, folding in references from jazz standards, visual art, personal family history, and Hip Hop. The voice of this book is a multifarious one: writing and rewriting bodies, stories, and histories of the past, as well as uttering and bearing witness to the truth of the present, and actively probing toward a new self, an actualized self. This is a book at the intersections of mythology and sorrow, of vulnerability and posturing, of desire and disgust, of tragedy and excellence.
Pop culture proof: Morgan Parker‘s collection features poems titled “Freaky Friday Starring Beyoncé and Lady Gaga,” “Heaven be a Xanax,” “99 Problems,” “The President’s Wife,” and the brilliant lines “if you aren’t interested in self- / absorption, do not follow me.” I could scream.
3. E! Entertainment, Kate Durbin
Synopsis: E! Entertainment sparkles with the static of TV personalities, the privileged dramas of MTV’s The Hills and Bravo’s Real Housewives, the public tragedies of Amanda Knox and Anna Nicole Smith. Kate Durbin traces the migratory patterns of the flightiest members of our televised demimonde, from the vacant bedrooms of the Playboy Mansion to the modern gothic of Kim Kardashian’s fairytale wedding, rendering a fabulous, fallen world in a language of diamond-studded lavishness.
Pop culture proof: Anything that crafts chapters on Lindsay Lohan & Anna Nicole Smith is something I will read. Multiple times.
4. Good Morning Midnight, Kim Rosenfield
Synopsis: For those trying to understand the relation between innovative writing and feminism, Kim Rosenfield is required reading. By sampling and blending the languages of science, money, beauty, and fashion, Rosenfield presents a critique of how these languages define and limit women.
Pop culture proof: This book was brought to my attention by a poetry professor who told me he thought I’d like it, describing it as a book that uses language from fashion magazines mixed up with weird psychoanalytic text. He was right. I liked it. “A Japanese-made little flight-attendant-esque scarflette// I don’t have much of a waist/ This will give me a waist.// Prada citizen!/ Vote the party line/ The Slim Skirt party.// This isn’t brain surgery/ it’s a skirt.”
5. The Selected Jenny Zhang, Jenny Zhang
Synopsis: In Jenny Zhang’s work, she describes everything from sloppy sex and menstruation to a depression so intense she shat herself rather than get out of bed. This visceral bodily descriptiveness is never deployed simply for shock value, though: by articulating the taboo, Zhang has carved space within literature for the brutal honesty of postmodern girlhood. In many instances, she does this by calling out her readers’ preconceived notions of who she is and what she is writing about.
Pop culture proof: Zhang poignantly asks “Remember in the teen flick Heathers, when Shannen Doherty’s character, Heather 2.0, informs Winona Ryder’s character, Veronica, that the school’s numero uno loser Martha Dumptruck attempted suicide and failed? When even one’s failure to live is a failure … is there anything more poetic?” I mean…