Ten poetry books that illuminate a decade’s struggles

Occupy Wall Street. The Peoples Climate March. The Women’s March. Black Lives Matter. The ongoing mobilizations to defeat Trump and the extreme right that supports him.

As we marched and organized against injustice, poets, often marching right alongside us, were creating enduring works of literary art that spoke to the struggle and the times we live in.

As a new generation took to the streets between 2010-19, poetry increased in popularity, whether reading poetry of social consciousness in traditional forms, or through hiphop rhymes and rhythms, going viral on social media.

We know that people have always turned to the intimate voices of poetry to speak to the complex times they live in, and to open up new worlds. One particular reason now may be the increased access to a range of new voices—Black, Latinx, Asian, Indigenous, women, LGBTQ, etc.—opened up by social media, both nationally and globally.

What follows is not a “best of” the incredible diversity of poetry published in the decade 2010-19 in the U.S. (let alone worldwide)—although many of these poems could claim that mantle—but a selected list of ten important poetry books written from, about or for the movement for social justice.

A People’s History of Chicago by Kevin Coval (Haymarket, 2017). Amazing hip hop- driven poems bearing the scars of Chicago history, as well as the sagas of people’s struggles that make Chicago the city it is. Indigenous peoples, Ida Wells, Albert Parsons, Eugene Debs, the Daley political machine, Fred Hampton, Rudy Lozano, Chicago teacher strikers, Gwendolyn Brooks, all make their appearance. “Muddy Waters Goes Electric,” “Studs Terkel Drops a Mix Tape,” and “Martin Luther King  at Marquette Park” indicate the range. Although the book is “just” about Chicago, this could serve as a fine poetry accompaniment to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

Olio by Tyehimba Jess (Wave Books, 2016). One of the best of the African-American poets gathered around the Cave Canem foundation, Olio’s subject is the Great Migration of African Americans from the 1870s up to to World War One. But the astonishing thing about this almost encyclopedic collage of sestinas, haikus, long poems, letters, and interviews is that the subject is seen through the eyes of minstrels, vaudeville and jubilee singers—Blind Tom, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Harry “Box” Brown, Scott Joplin, Sissieretta Jones, etc., performing for white audiences a generation out of slavery. Langston Hughes would have loved this book. The book becomes an opera of unrecognized voices and the forgotten people behind the masks.  And the deeper Jess delves into this unrecognized slice of American history, the more powerfully the poetry resonates with our present day.

Vivas to Those Who Have Failed by Martin Espada (Norton, 2016). Widely recognized as the leading Latinx poet of his generation, Espada is also a poet of the working class. The title poem eloquently portrays the workers of the epic 25,000 Paterson, New Jersey, silk workers’ strike of 1913, which ended in defeat but led to later gains for workers nationwide. Espada’s fiery imagery has led some to call him “the American Neruda.” The powerful poem “El Morivivi” uses the metaphor of a flower that grows in Puerto Rico and the meaning of its name to commemorate his father, a long time civil rights and Puerto Rico liberation activist. Like the flower, the poems explore the notion that the spirit of the downtrodden, forgotten and dead who have “failed” lives on after their death and can speak to us through poetry.

Tonight No Poetry Will Serve by Adrienne Rich (Norton, 2010). This completes the arc of her journey from art for art’s sake poet in the 1950s to one of the finest political poets of her generation with towering poems against militarism, white supremacy, and patriarchy, always combining the personal with the political. Long a mentor for feminist poets, Rich refused the prize for National Medal of the Arts by the Clinton  administration, using the occasion to speak out against endless war, racism and inequality.

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine (Graywolf, 2014) The most talked about poetry book in years at first glance looks nothing like poetry. Citizen links to everything from police killings, Serena Williams, “driving while black,” to the Jena Six. But the heart of the book  is the portrayal of mundane everyday ways African Americans are positioned in society as “the other” on the one hand, and rendered invisible on the other. A series of  dehumanizing encounters are portrayed through shifting tones and a language sometimes searingly concrete and sometimes hauntingly dissociative. By the end of the book we realize the turning off of “devices” the poet alludes to are not our phones but our devices of evasion, denial and compromise about the African-American experience in America.

The Last Shift by Philip Levine (Norton, 2016). In his final volume Levine leaves us more moving poetry commemorating the dignity of work and honoring the workers upon whose backs were built the profits of the auto bosses in the furious economic engine that was Detroit in the 20th century. Although Levine’s workers are often isolated individuals, acted upon, rather than acting through collective action, Levine was almost unique among his contemporaries in admitting the grit of the industrial working class to poetry, at the same time capturing the complexity and beauty of working people’s lives. The music of his plain speaking is all the more impressive in a decade when postmodernism and its esoteric offshoots continue to be influential.

Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth by Warsan Shire (Flipped Eye, 2011). Shire, a Kenyan-born Somalian refugee, writes of relationships and young womanhood, but also about displacement, immigration and the traumas of war and political upheaval. Her poem “Home” became an anthem for the immigrant rights movement worldwide, going viral on social media. “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.”

The Big Job by Robert Edwards (Red Dragonfly, 2016). Part poetry manifesto, part call to action, the “Big Job” here is to abolish the stranglehold of the rich and powerful and construct a new egalitarian society. If Edwards traces his ancestors back to Tom McGrath and Meridel Lesueur, his rich imagery and surprising leaps of language are as accomplished as any writing today. In addition to poems inveighing against the extreme right, Edwards offers powerful poems about American working class heroes like Pete Seeger and Grandma Millie.

My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter by Aja Monet (Haymarket, 2016). With echoes of literary ancestors like Audre Lorde, Jayne Cortez and Sonya Sanchez, Monet writes fierce flowing lines about police violence, displacement, genocide, racism and sexism. This collection also contains quietly powerful meditations on motherhood, sisterhood, spirituality and solidarity. The poem “My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter” was read by Monet at the one-million-strong Women’s March in Washington, D.C., the day after Trump’s inauguration, the largest single-day protest in U.S. history. The poem ends with the rousing line, “my mother was a freedom fighter and she taught me how to fight!”

Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah by Patricia Smith (Coffee House Press, 2012). In her newest collection, Patricia Smith writes about her family’s move from Alabama to Chicago in the 1960s, the difficulties of growing up African American in a white neighborhood, the joy of soul music, and Black pride. Smith is a former poetry slam champion, like Monet. This is gripping and accessible poetry, no less masterful for that in its shifting use of spoken word, free verse, and traditional forms.

That’s it. Ten poetry books, all of them worth reading, thinking about and acting upon. Every movement for social change—in fact, every socialist revolution—has had its poetry that illuminates, inspires and helps unify our struggles. Let us add a few of these poetry books to our library along with the necessary New Jim Crow, This Changes Everything and others, as we venture forth into the new decade of terrible danger and great promise.


Chris Butters
Chris Butters

Chris Butters is a socialist and labor activist, retired NYC court reporter, and a former DC 37 (AFSCME) chapter officer. In addition to participating in anti-racist and labor struggles, his poetry continues to be published in Blue Collar Review, a quarterly journal of poetry and prose published by Partisan Press, and many other literary and left poetry magazines.