The best books with poetry inspired by history

DeMisty D. Bellinger Author Of Peculiar Heritage
By DeMisty D. Bellinger

Who am I?

I care about social justice, equality, and history, as well as beauty and art. As an African-American woman who was raised working class and who understands how history informs the present, I have fallen in love with the depiction of history in poetry and prose. Not all of my writing has something to do with race or gender or class, but all of my writing is about justice in some way. I want to get to the good of people.


I wrote...

Peculiar Heritage

By DeMisty D. Bellinger,

Book cover of Peculiar Heritage

What is my book about?

Peculiar Heritage is a response to political upheaval and bigoted violence. But it is also an acceptance and welcoming of widespread growth in gender equality, LGBTQ+ acceptance, and racial justice, as well as a nod to hope.

When I started writing many of these poems in 2016, the United States was going through shaky political and social times. We had a wild election after the first Black president served for two terms, and many Americans feared a regression. I wondered then how did we get to that point, but I came to understand that it should not be shocking. From the peculiar institution that was slavery, through second-wave feminism and beyond, ebbs and flows within our borders should be expected.

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

Suck on the Marrow

By Camille T. Dungy,

Book cover of Suck on the Marrow

Why this book?

It’s a beautiful book, from the cover to the notes. It’s a neo-slave narrative that follows various enslaved, then freed people. Through this book, I learned how poetry collections can be explorations of history based on fact.

Like any good collection, reading one poem compels you forward, but each poem can stand on its own. She is a master of form. For instance, her persona poetry is powerful. The first poem in the book, “The Trapper’s Boast,” devoid of empathy, shows the business of slavery from an undesirable point of view. 

But what is moving is the ability to fall in love and to care even in the worst conditions, as well as the will to live and strive towards freedom in spite of any threats.

I started writing neo-slave narrative poems about a woman escaping slavery. I imagined that the poems I was writing, like Suck on the Marrow or Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard (also a great book), would either grow into a full-length collection or a chapbook. They did not. I had less than enough for a chapbook and I was writing poems about protest, music, and love that did not fit the neo-slavery poems, but spoke to American history and present. When compiling the poems for my manuscript, I revisited Suck on the Marrow many times, as well as other books, to understand how to organize my work. 

Also, though the subject is not quite the same, we do both talk about enslaved people and getting to freedom. 

Suck on the Marrow

By Camille T. Dungy,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Suck on the Marrow as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

**Winner of the American Book Award

**Silver Medalist for the California Book Award

Suck on the Marrow is a historical narrative, revolving around six main characters and set in mid-19th century Virginia and Philadelphia. The book traces the experiences of fugitive slaves, kidnapped Northern-born blacks, and free people of color, exploring the interdependence between plantation life and life in Northern and Southern American towns and illuminating the connections between the successes and difficulties of a wide range of Americans, free and slave, black and white, Northern and Southern. This neo-slave narrative treats the truths of lives touched by slavery with…


Seedlip and Sweet Apple: Poems

By Arra Lynn Ross,

Book cover of Seedlip and Sweet Apple: Poems

Why this book?

This is a biography of Mother Ann Lee, the woman who brought the Shaker Religion to Colonial America. Extensively researched and beautifully rendered, these poems grab you and bring you into eighteenth-century England and New England. It is also a celebration of motherhood, love, death, and grief, as well as of an early American woman in leadership. Sometimes deceptively soft, the movement and violence of Colonial America will snap the reader forward, inviting us to question our past.

I revisited Ross’ book when writing about historical figures, mostly real. In my book, I looked at some historical figures, including Tituba and Harriet Tubman, and found reading Seedlip and Sweet Apple a good primer in writing historical poetry.

Seedlip and Sweet Apple: Poems

By Arra Lynn Ross,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Seedlip and Sweet Apple as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Seamlessly bridging the material and spiritual worlds, Seedlip and Sweet Apple takes the reader into the mind of a true visionary: Mother Ann Lee, the founder of the Shaker religion in colonial America. With astonishingly original poems inspired by extensive historical research, Arra Lynn Ross creates a collection linked thematically through the voice and story of the woman who was believed by her followers to be Christ incarnate. Broadly and inclusively spiritual, this remarkable debut captures the ineffable experience of ecstatic vision, activating the progression from literal reality to heightened perception. Simultaneously, this journey delves into the manifold issues of…


Scranton Lace

By Margot Douaihy, Bri Hermanson (illustrator),

Book cover of Scranton Lace

Why this book?

Physically, a beautiful book. There are these drawings made with scratchboard illustrations and actual lace from a factory in Scranton, PA. The poems are gorgeous, whimsical pieces about a young woman in particular, but working women in general who produced lace. 

Though historical, the factory did not close until 2002, and the building still stands. The book, however, is set in the past, in the 1930s, and follows a lesbian who works in the factory. I love the way that both Douaihy and Hermanson play with negative space, the white, and the dark of letters or lace. 

Of course, I looked to this book for the historicity of it, and how Douaihy handled one character over time.

Scranton Lace

By Margot Douaihy, Bri Hermanson (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Scranton Lace as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Scranton Lace by Margot Douaihy combines tremendous lyric gifts-dense, nervy music, evocative images, an almost classically tragic sense of life's doomed blooming-with a gritty vernacularity that roots these poems in the rusted factory life of the title. Often formally playful but always brimming with emotion, using repetition in ways that evoke the ghostly graphics of lace woven through the book. Douaihy sings poetry's repertoire of love, loss, time and trial in keys that are wholly her own." -Joy Ladin "Margot Douaihy's Scranton Lace is a gorgeous meditation on place, on where we came from and what shapes and makes us.…


Life on Mars: Poems

By Tracy K. Smith,

Book cover of Life on Mars: Poems

Why this book?

This book mixes personal poetry and history and art and space. It is a wonder! Smith looks at the Hubble Telescope and all of its marvels along with one of its engineers, her father Floyd Smith. 

Smith mixes stars, David Bowie, mass shootings, love, racism, sexism all in this poetry collection and somehow, it works. It more than works. It explodes! 

I don’t know if this work has much to do with my own; there is history, yes, and there is social commentary. But mostly, there is excellent poetry that is exemplary for any poet writing today.

Life on Mars: Poems

By Tracy K. Smith,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Life on Mars as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this brilliant collection of new poems, Tracy K. Smith envisions a sci-fi future sucked clean of any real dangers, contemplates the dark matter that keeps people both close and distant and revisits kitschy concepts like 'love' and 'illness', now relegated to the museum of obsolescence. With allusions to David Bowie and interplanetary travel, Life on Mars imagines a soundtrack for the universe, accompanying the discoveries, failures and oddities of human existence and establishing Smith as one of the best poets of her generation.


Rose

By Li-Young Lee,

Book cover of Rose

Why this book?

These poems—most of every poem that Lee writes, really—do more than paint a picture. These poems appeal to every one of your senses. They are rich in description and you want to savor each one, sit with it, and let the poem envelop you. 

I heard or read somewhere that Li-Young Lee is a slow writer, not producing a lot of work but always producing good work. I don’t know if this is true, and except for my greed of wanting to consume more of his words asap, I don’t mind that his poems are slower coming. I like to spend time with them.

I share Rose because Lee teaches me—and my students—that writers depend too much on visual imagery and fear spreading out into the other senses.

Rose

By Li-Young Lee,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Rose as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Table of Contents

I.
Epistle
The Gift
Persimmons
The Weight Of Sweetness
From Blossoms
Dreaming Of Hair
Early In The Morning
Water
Falling: The Code
Nocturne
My Indigo
Irises
Eating Alone

II.
Always A Rose

III.
Eating Together
I Ask My Mother To Sing
Ash, Snow, Or Moonlight
The Life
The Weepers
Braiding
Rain Diary
My Sleeping Loved Ones
Mnemonic
Between Seasons
Visions And Interpretations


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in poetry, African Americans, and race relations?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about poetry, African Americans, and race relations.

Poetry Explore 267 books about poetry
African Americans Explore 509 books about African Americans
Race Relations Explore 168 books about race relations

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Felon, Tougaloo Blues, and How to Grow Your Own Poem if you like this list.