Poetry is sometimes overlooked in favor of novels and other prose — but the artistically inclined form of literature is one of the most honest and emotionally impactful types of writing; a soul-baring approach to describing and sharing feelings of love and pain alike.
Although picking up a collection of poems might seem intimidating compared to selecting another novel or work of nonfiction, getting into poetry for the first time doesn’t need to come with a gatekeeping barrier to entry if you’re willing to open your mind to refreshing new literary experiences.
In order to help get you started, we’ve curated a list of some of the very best examples of Canadian poetry over the past century for all types of readers. Whether you’re looking for nature-inspired stories, poetry about past romances, political commentary or a little of everything, here are the top works of Canadian poetry to add to your reading list.
’Book of Longing’ by Leonard Cohen ($20.79; amazon.ca)
Leonard Cohen might be most well-known for his songwriting, but the Canadian artist had also published a fair few collections of poetry throughout his lifetime. “Book of Longing” was published in 2007 but continues to be just as relevant as ever thanks to its overarching themes of desire and lust expressed through a distinct form of dark humour.
’Milk and Honey’ by Rupi Kaur ($18.81; amazon.ca)
New York Times-bestselling author Rupi Kaur has quickly won the hearts of poetry aficionados around the world since the publication of her debut book of poems in 2015. Although Kaur has since gone on to publish a handful of other collections, “Milk and Honey” is going to be the best place to start if you’re looking to explore topics of femininity, love, loss and survival.
’The Circle Game’ by Margaret Atwood ($14.95; amazon.ca)
Margaret Atwood has become an international household name due to the rise of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” but the award-winning author is just as skilled at writing poetry as she is at dystopian novels. “The Circle Game” is Atwood’s first major collection of poetry and features overarching themes of love and epistemology.
’NDN Coping Mechanisms’ by Billy-Ray Belcourt ($19.75; amazon.ca)
The follow up to “This Wound is a World,” Billy-Ray Belcourt’s ‘NDN Coping Mechanisms: Notes from the Field’ challenges the politics and mainstream portrayals of Indigenous life in Canada while exploring the challenges of life, love and melancholy from a distinctly queer lens.
’The Gospel of Breaking’ by Jillian Christmas ($14.80; amazon.ca)
In ‘The Gospel of Breaking,’ award-winning author Jillian Christmas explores the things she describes as “holy”: her family history, queer lineage and what it means to be an unapologetic Black woman in Canada.
’Red Doc>’ by Anne Carson ($19.75; amazon.ca)
Anne Carson’s “Red Doc>” comes as an artful mash-up of poetry, drama and narrative that follows the red-winged Geryon, a mythic boy-hero, and his friend and lover, Sad, as they travel through a variety of landscapes and geographically diverse regions while searching for a sense of home and belonging.
’The Collected Works of Billy the Kid’ by Michael Ondaatje ($17.05; amazon.ca)
Think of ‘The Collected Works of Billy the Kid’ by Michael Ondaatje as poetry for those who prefer prose. First published in 1969, this Canadian classic follows Billy the Kid, a 21-year-old assassin and anti-hero who wrestles with life knowing that his last breath is on the horizon.
’The House the Spirit Builds’ by Lorna Crozier ($22.72; amazon.ca)
Looking for a book of poetry that combines both written and visuals to paint the picture in your mind? “The House the Spirit Builds” does just that. Lorna Crozier’s collection of poetry was inspired by Diane Laundy and Peter Coffman’s photographs taken in the Frontenac Arch Biosphere in Southwestern Ontario, allowing readers to drink in both the literal and anecdotal sides of the Canadian landscape.
’Coke Machine Glow’ by Gordon Downie ($16.43; amazon.ca)
Not everyone knows that The Tragically Hip frontman and Canadian legend Gord Downie dabbled in much more than songwriting before his untimely passing. His debut book of poetry, “Coke Machine Glow,” offers a glimpse into how Downie saw the world — in all its gritty, nostalgic, and romantic glory.
’Eunoia’ by Christian Bok ($16.78; amazon.ca)
Award-winning poet Christian Bok’s “Eunoia” has been one of the most read works of Canadian poetry since it was first published nearly two decades ago — and for good reason. The five-part book is an experimental account of “beautiful thinking” that’s both a pleasure to read through and a gateway into Bok’s experimental way of seeing the world.
’The Weight of Oranges’ by Anne Michaels ($18.99; amazon.ca)
“The Weight of Oranges” was first published in 1986 but remains one of the most well-loved works of Canadian poetry to date thanks to Anne Michaels’ unmatched way of celebrating the juxtaposition of art, nature and science through the written word.
’Land to Light On’ by Dionne Brand ($19.95; amazon.ca)
The Governor General’s Award-winning collection of poetry, “Land to Light On” is a must-read for anyone looking to better understand the history of the Black experience — particularly throughout postcolonial North America. Brand’s work is best described as a crossroads of confrontational and confessionalism that is equally striking and at times difficult (but essential) to digest.
’Not One of These Poems Is About You’ by Teva Harrison ($21.73; amazon.ca)
Teva Harrison’s “Not One of These Poems Is About You” explores the emotional ups and downs that come with living with metastatic breast cancer and the realities of the disease. The raw collection of poetry offers overarching themes of life, love and hope that will leave anyone with a reignited sense of lust for all aspects of life.
’Poems for All the Annettes’ by Al Purdy ($14.95; amazon.ca)
First published in 1962, “Poems for All the Annettes” is considered to be one of the most read collections of Canadian poetry to date. The collection is one of the most comprehensive documentations of poet Al Purdy’s life work and is a must-read for anyone looking to grasp a deeper understanding of the Canadian landscape and literary history.
’Heft’ by Doyali Islam ($19.95; amazon.ca)
Doyali Islam’s “Heft” wrestles with a broad range of topics and emotions, but the overarching themes are based on Islam’s experience with chronic illness, the burden that comes with it and how the world can live within the body.
’77 Fragments of a Familiar Ruin’ by Thomas King ($19.79; amazon.ca)
Award-winning writer Thomas King is best known for his short stories and novels — but “77 Fragments of a Familiar Ruin” put him on the map as a thoughtful and poignant poet. The collection of 77 poems comes as a reflection of mortality and greed juxtaposed against Indigenous and mythological undertones.
’Burning Sugar’ by Cicely Belle Blain ($18.76; amazon.ca)
Cicely Belle Blain’s “Burning Sugar” comes as an artful exploration of Black identity in Canada and how the constant search for liberation continues to rule the lived experience of Black Canadians from coast to coast. The contemporary collection was published in 2020 and offers an unfiltered look into systemic oppression and the ways in which moments of joy can still blossom amid pain and anger.