The best books about poets

9 authors have picked their favorite books about poets and why they recommend each book.

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By Marion Turner,

Book cover of Chaucer: A European Life

I love this book despite feeling frustrated by the excessive detail. Turner brings Chaucer’s cosmopolitan world and diverse literary works to life by focusing on places and spaces significant to him. I especially enjoyed the chapter on Households, where Chaucer was sent to serve in his adolescence, like many of his contemporaries, as page-boy, valet, entertainer, general factotum. I also learnt about his international travels, as a diplomat, prisoner of war, member of Parliament, and the sadness of his unfulfilled private life.

The last two chapters recount Chaucer’s final year living in the precincts of Westminster Abbey, his sudden death, relatively obscure burial, subsequent reburial in Poet’s Corner, and elevation as Father of English Literature, which Turner controversially challenges, placing him in a European cultural background.

Who am I?

I didn’t enjoy my first degree in Modern History and Political Science and it took twenty-five years and another MA in Women’s History, Gender, and Society, before my enthusiasm was rekindled. I’ve always believed it’s important to know where we come from, as well as the history of our country, and I don’t just mean wars, laws, and politics – but the lives of ordinary people, men, women, and children, because finally, we discover that our hopes, aspirations, and challenges are not so very different to the people who lived 500 years ago. I’m also passionate about the reality of women’s lived experience in all periods of history.

I wrote...

Life in a Medieval Gentry Household: Alice de Bryene of Acton Hall, Suffolk, C.1360-1435

By ffiona Perigrinor,

Book cover of Life in a Medieval Gentry Household: Alice de Bryene of Acton Hall, Suffolk, C.1360-1435

What is my book about?

When I discovered Dame Alice’s household accounts for 1412/13, the daily lists of food served, ale brewed, and bread baked were not exactly exciting, until I noticed the horses. The numbers fed in her stables varied every day indicating continual traffic to and from this gentry household. Why, I wondered, were all these people visiting a middle-aged Suffolk widow?

Finally, I managed to identify over half her named guests, and so was able to paint a vivid portrait of the lives of ordinary people in the medieval countryside, of their festivals and feast days, marriages and monuments, family loyalties and betrayals, life and death, rhythms of the working year and the changing scene in the wider world beyond the household. Who said accounts were boring?

In Byron's Wake

By Miranda Seymour,

Book cover of In Byron's Wake

At last! A book that places Byron’s wife, Annabella Milbank, and mathematician daughter, Ada Lovelace, centre-stage instead of the dusty wings of all previous books about this notorious and complicated man. It is the perfect book for anyone interested in Byron and his world, and more importantly for readers keen to consider a more nuanced account of his wife and daughter.

Who am I?

I have been researching, curating, and writing women’s history for 30 years. I curated the suffragette exhibition Purple, White, and Green at the Museum of London. I wrote The Suffragettes in Pictures; Love and Dirt: The Marriage of Arthur Munby and Hannah Cullwick; Elsie and Mairi Go To War: Two Extraordinary Women on the Western Front; The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton, and Rise Up, Women! The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes. I am a public historian, devoted to sharing my research and writing with all. I am a keen podcaster, Youtuber, and guest on television and radio. You could say I’m a heroine addict. I hope you love my recommendations.

I wrote...

Rise Up, Women! The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes

By Diane Atkinson,

Book cover of Rise Up, Women! The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes

What is my book about?

The suffragettes and their actions would come to define protest movements for generations to come. From their marches on Downing Street, the selling of their paper, Votes for Women, through to the more militant activities of the Women’s Social and Political Union – the bombing of pillar-boxes, acts of arson, and the slashing of great works of art – the women who participated in the movement endured police brutality, assault, imprisonment and force-feeding, all in the relentless pursuit of one goal: the right to vote.

Rise Up, Women! tells the story of a richly diverse group that spanned the divides of class and country, women of all ages who were determined to fight for what had for so long been denied. 

The Savage Detectives

By Roberto Bolaño, Natasha Wimmer (translator),

Book cover of The Savage Detectives

Bolaño’s masterpiece follows two fictional poets (one of whom is closely modelled on the author himself) from their youthful heyday in 1970s Mexico through twenty years of wandering the globe. Narrated in a polyphonic array of voices, the novel is a funny, sexy, playful, surreal and deeply moving vision of the wasting away of youthful potential and the joys and agonies of devoting one’s life entirely to literature.

Who am I?

I’m an award-winning biographer and critic. My essays and reviews appear regularly in the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement, and I teach literature and creative writing at King’s College London. I’ve always loved stories about the lives of great writers – stories that seek to illuminate genius, without ever explaining it away.

I wrote...

The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography

By Edmund Gordon,

Book cover of The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography

What is my book about?

Angela Carter’s life was as unconventional as anything in her fiction. Through her fearlessly original and inventive books, including The Bloody Chamber and Nights at the Circus, she became an icon to a generation and one of the most acclaimed English writers of the last hundred years. This is her first full and authorised biography.

How We Fight for Our Lives

By Saeed Jones,

Book cover of How We Fight for Our Lives: A Memoir

From childhood through college and a burgeoning career, the author’s honest and unambiguous voice matures as he paints a vivid picture of growing up poor, Black, and gay. Despite societal and familial challenges, having a loving single mother committed to his education helped him to navigate to success. Page after page, readers will find something relatable in unexpected ways.

Who am I?

The first twenty-five years of my life appeared to be atypical for an inner-city African American boy from a large family. Only a small number of children were bused to more “academically advanced” schools. I earned that honor by frequently running away from the local school. Overcoming the challenges of being a minority in a demanding, predominantly Jewish, school district eventually benefited me greatly. In the early 1970s, my parents did something unprecedented for a working-class African American family from Queens: They bought an old, dilapidated farmhouse in Upstate New York's dairy country as a summer home. What other unusual life experiences that impact people of color have taken place on the American tapestry? 

I wrote...

Mugamore: Succeeding without Labels - Lessons for Educators

By Jonathan T. Jefferson,

Book cover of Mugamore: Succeeding without Labels - Lessons for Educators

What is my book about?

Written from a unique in-depth child's point of view, this book is designed to trigger a paradigm shift from automatically labeling children to patiently allowing them to grow into themselves. The author compares common disabilities chapter-by-chapter in sync with the child's intentions (or lack thereof). This sharing of the educational lives of two children, coupled with peer reviewed literature and research, provides powerful motivation for change.


By Don Tate,

Book cover of Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton

I’m hooked when authors get to the heart of how someone finds their passion. That’s what Don Tate does as he spins the tale of how an enslaved boy, forbidden to learn to read and write, became a sought-after poet. Children will cheer for George as he teaches himself to read and becomes a published poet. They will hold their breath as George returns to his enslaver, and they will share his joy at his eventual freedom. Tate’s storytelling — this picture book biography brilliantly encompasses the hope, tension, and satisfaction of a story — shows that George’s physical bondage could not imprison his dreams. Through George’s fascinating story, children surely will be inspired to follow their own dreams.

Who am I?

I love sharing poetry with children! I became inspired to write poetic picture books during my 20-year career as an elementary school librarian. In class, we often read aloud, discussed, and performed poems. My students considered word choices, identified alliteration, metaphor, and simile, and developed a sophisticated vocabulary of “beautiful” words. They delighted in using their senses to write about special places and moments and did research to create and illustrate fact-based poems about people and animals. In exploring poetry and biographies of poets, students found inspiration and used their authentic voices to craft their own funny, engaging, and thoughtful poetry.

I wrote...

16 Words: William Carlos Williams and the Red Wheelbarrow

By Lisa Rogers, Chuck Groenink (illustrator),

Book cover of 16 Words: William Carlos Williams and the Red Wheelbarrow

What is my book about?

"Look out the window. What do you see? If you are Dr. William Carlos Williams, you see a wheelbarrow. A drizzle of rain. Chickens scratching in the damp earth." The wheelbarrow belongs to Thaddeus Marshall, a street vendor, who every day goes to work selling vegetables on the streets of Rutherford, New Jersey. That simple action inspires poet and doctor Williams to pick up some of his own tools--a pen and paper--and write his most famous poem.

In this lovely picture book, young listeners will see how paying attention to the simplest everyday things can inspire the greatest art, as they learn about a great American poet.

Pablo Neruda

By Monica Brown, Julie Paschkis (illustrator),

Book cover of Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People

Monica Brown’s picture book biography of Pablo Neruda is a wonderfully written account of his life and the creation of his beautiful writing and poems that sing, even under the weight of tremendous struggles. The lyrical text soars on the page while Julie Paschkis’ colorful illustrations capture the heart and soul of the poet of the people. This is a must-read!

Who am I?

I’m an author and a college writing professor with an MFA in Creative Writing. Additionally, I am involved in and teach other art forms and the humanities including music, film, and literature. I enjoy researching and writing about literary figures, musicians, and other creatives, all of which have been a focus in my children’s books.

I wrote...

Like a Diamond in the Sky: Jane Taylor's Beloved Poem of Wonder and the Stars

By Elizabeth Brown, Becca Stadtlander (illustrator),

Book cover of Like a Diamond in the Sky: Jane Taylor's Beloved Poem of Wonder and the Stars

What is my book about?

Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are. Did you ever wonder who wrote that famous verse?

In the days when most girls were brought up to run a home, Jane Taylor had a different kind of education in the English countryside, where she was inspired by nature and the stars, and dreamed of becoming a writer. But in the late 1700s, it was not considered proper for women to be writers. Jane and other female poets were shunned, unable to use their own names when published. But Jane did write, and she never forgot her love for the beauty of nature and the glow of stars, or her desire to write for children. Her published poetry became universally known for generations to come: Twinkle, twinkle little star.

They Were Defeated

By Rose Macaulay,

Book cover of They Were Defeated: The Classic Novel Set in the Reign of King Charles I

I first read They Were Defeated over thirty years ago, and recently reread to see if it had the power to move me still today. It does. Set in 1641, in Devonshire and Cambridge at the very brink of the Civil War, it reads like a love letter to a lost world, where the poets and Platonists are illuminated in already fading light, beautifully and tenderly observed. Rose Macaulay wrote that she had done her best "to make no person in this work use in conversation any word, phrase or idiom" not used at the time. "Ghosts of words," she calls them, after Thomas Browne. An astonishing feat in the pre-digital age. Yet the language of her ghosts is clear and true and natural. And the still moment, at the very heart of her heart-breaking story, transcends the factions that surround it and stays fixed for all time. This is…

Who am I?

The Hew Cullan stories are historical crime fiction set at the university of St Andrews, Scotland, in the late sixteenth century. I was a student at St Andrews in the 1980s and now live nearby in the East Neuk of Fife, where the imprint of the town and its surrounding landscapes have remained unchanged since medieval times. What interests me most in writing of the past is how people thought and felt, lived and died and dreamt, and I have chosen books which capture that sense of the inner life, of a moment that belongs to a single time and place, and make it true and permanent.

I wrote...

Queen & Country: A Hew Cullan Mystery

By Shirley McKay,

Book cover of Queen & Country: A Hew Cullan Mystery

What is my book about?

1587. Three years after his enforced departure to London, Hew is reconciled with King James VI and recalled to Scotland. He elopes to St Andrews with a young Englishwoman. The death of Mary, Queen of Scots has unleashed a wave of anti-English sentiment among the Scottish people, and fear and confusion in the king himself. James will grant his blessing to their controversial marriage on the condition that Hew discovers what lies behind a painting cunningly contrived to prick the young king's conscience. Meanwhile in St Andrews, the death of a painter is troubling to Giles Locke, and the English Frances, struggling to adapt to a foreign town and culture, helps Hew find the link among the artists and intriguers of opposing courts, a quest for love—and life.

Goodbye to All That

By Robert Graves,

Book cover of Goodbye to All That

This book is poet Robert Graves’ personal memoir of his service with the British Army during and just after the First World War. This book really moved me. What you really get from it is a sense of how war can completely change someone's psyche. It is full of insight and pathos and unsettling imagery, as depicted when Graves sees the ghosts of dead soldiers that he recently fought with as he marches down the road. Later, after he is sent back to England, he looks at the peaceful landscape and his mind tries to work out where in this setting he would deploy his machine guns, the war and its demands having gotten to the bottom of his soul.

Who am I?

War has interested–and frightened–me ever since I was a little boy in the latter-day stages of the Cold War, when I learned that the fate of the world depended on a couple of old men who, to paraphrase Carl Sagan, were standing knee-deep in gasoline and holding lit matches. From then I sought to learn about war, why and how it occurs, and what pushes people to fight. I knew from a young age that I was going to become a novelist, and that one of my novels (my first one, it turns out) was going to be about war. The following books helped me in writing Beckoning War.

I wrote...

A Beckoning War

By Matthew Murphy,

Book cover of A Beckoning War

What is my book about?

Captain Jim McFarlane, a Canadian infantry officer, is coming apart at the seams. It’s September 1944, in Italy, and the allied armies are closing in on the retreating Axis powers. Exhausted and lost, Jim tries to command his combat company under fire while waiting desperately for letters from his wife Marianne. Joining the army not out of some admirable patriotic sentiments but rather because of his own failings and restlessness, he finds himself fighting in a war that is far from glorious.

Farley Mowat based his beautiful and wrenching anti-war memoir, And No Birds Sang, on the Italian campaign in World War II. Now with echoes of war ringing again, Matthew Murphy has taken the same campaign to tell a story of love and war, brilliantly capturing our ambiguous relationship to war. 

The Silent Woman

By Janet Malcolm,

Book cover of The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes

In my secret heart of hearts, I wrote my most recent book, Unspeakable, for an audience of one: Janet Malcolm. All her prose is sharp, but her anti-biography of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes is spectacular in its exploration of the question: is it even possible to write a truthful biography?

Who am I?

I am a historian of sexuality who is fascinated by unknown stories that reveal the past to be way more complicated than we expect. I’ve written about same-sex marriage in early America, a teenage female poet of the American Revolution, a masculine woman who founded her own college, and a notorious British pederast. Now I’m working on the tale of a forgotten American sexual adventuress and jewel thief. I also have a longstanding research project about the history of food and sex from the eighteenth century to the present day.

I wrote...

Unspeakable: A Life Beyond Sexual Morality

By Rachel Hope Cleves,

Book cover of Unspeakable: A Life Beyond Sexual Morality

What is my book about?

The life of the writer Norman Douglas presents an impossible paradox: how could a man who was well known during his own lifetime for his sexual obsession with children have been so beloved by famous authors like D. H. Lawrence, Graham Greene, and Nancy Cunard, as well as by countless readers on both sides of the Atlantic? Answering that question puts the biographer (me) in an impossible situation, as I trace the social history of pederasty and discover that attitudes towards sex between men and children were far more accommodating in the first half of the twentieth century than they are now. Unspeakable is not just a sexual biography of a man who would now be considered a monster, it’s a reflection on how historians of sexuality can write about practices that are more taboo today than they were in the past.

Walking Home

By Simon Armitage,

Book cover of Walking Home: A Poet's Journey

This is one of the best books I have read about a long walk – in this case, the poet laureate Simon Armitage’s account of the 19 days he spent walking the Pennine Way, beginning at its northern extremity and ending up near his home in West Yorkshire. This is not a precious, solipsistic memoir of the sort favoured by many of our celebrated New Nature Writers, but a wonderfully droll account of what was often a hard slog, where at the end of each day Armitage, who set off without any money, sings for his supper, reading poetry in village halls, pubs, barns, and other venues, and takes pot luck with whatever accommodation he is offered for the night. Walking Home provides a vivid portrait of one of our great landscapes, and the quirks of character and acts of kindness he encounters on the way.

Who am I?

I thought I was going to be a farmer, but some serious practical experience after I finished school put paid to that idea. I then focused my attention on conservation, before turning to travel writing. All of which led, eventually, to a growing interest in development issues and how people can make a living from the land. The result is over a dozen books, some of which are narrative-driven travelogues – many based on my experiences in Africa and elsewhere; and some of which focus on the nitty-gritty of agriculture, agroforestry, and related issues. My most recent book, Land of Plenty, provided a state of the nation account of British farming during the tumultuous year (for farmers, at least) when the UK voted to leave the EU.

I wrote...

Land of Plenty: A Journey Through the Fields & Foods of Modern Britain

By Charlie Pye-Smith,

Book cover of Land of Plenty: A Journey Through the Fields & Foods of Modern Britain

What is my book about?

A great many people are fascinated by food – just look at the viewing figures for programmes like MasterChef – but they often know little or nothing about our oldest and most important industry, which is agriculture. This was what stimulated me to write Land of Plenty. During the course of a year, I travelled the length and breadth of Britain talking to the people that supply us with our daily bread and butter, meat and fish, fruit and vegetables. There are certainly many things wrong with the way we use the land, but there is much to celebrate too. Land of Plenty is a homage to the people who have shaped our countryside.

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