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The Poetic Gaze: 10 of the Best Memoirs by Poets

Tertulia •
Apr 5th, 2023

Victorian poet and novelist George Meredith once referred to memoirs as “the backstairs of history,” which is to say that a writer’s intimate musings give us privileged access to the true flavor of being alive at the time.

The concept of the “backstairs of history” is exploded today, as we share and shape our personal narrative in real-time through public posts and tweets and videos. But memoirs inspire us ever more for their slow and reflective stories told through beautiful prose.

When poets turn their keen power of observation inward, their life stories can be some of the most vulnerable and profound. To celebrate National Poetry Month, we bring you a list of 10 must-read poets’ memoirs from all-time greats like Maya Angelou to talented new voices like Camonghne Felix.

Dyscalculia: A Love Story of Epic Miscalculation by Camonghne Felix

This candid memoir reckons with heartbreak through the lens of the author’s childhood math learning disorder. Sharing the emotional story of her tumultuous breakup and subsequent hospitalization, Felix finds parallels between her struggles with love and a lifelong difficulty with numbers. 

"If you haven’t yet gotten into memoirs written by poets, just know that they hit differently, and this one’s unique premise, which ties Felix’s relationship with math to love and childhood trauma, is super clever. The writing is at times funny, devastating, and effervescent." Writer and editor Erica Ezeifedi via BookRiot

H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Written by an acclaimed English naturalist, poet and professional falconer, this bestselling memoir blends nature writing with meditative introspection. Only a masterful poet could reveal the depths of grieving for her father through the story of her quest to train a bird of prey. 

"Helen Macdonald’s beautiful and nearly feral book reminds us that excellent nature writing can lay bare some of the intimacies of the wild world as well. Her book is so good that, at times, it hurt me to read it. It draws blood, in ways that seem curative." Book critic Dwight Garner via The New York Times

Story of a Poem by Matthew Zapruder

This brand-new memoir is a tender meditation on the process of writing poems and of parenting an autistic child, from a celebrated poet and Guggenheim Fellow.

“Zapruder explores the connection between parenting and writing as he embarks on a new project: a long poem written patiently and painstakingly, a poem allowed to take as much time and as many changes as it needs to take shape. If there is a better metaphor for the act of parenting through challenge and mystery, I don’t know it.” Poet Maggie Smith via The Washington Post

Just Kids by Patti Smith

Patti Smith's National Book Award-winning memoir chronicles the legendary singer-songwriter's friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in 1970s New York City. From rocking out at CBGB, to rummaging the stacks at the Strand bookstore, to holding court with Andy Warhol at Max’s Kansas City, this is an indispensable glimpse at a bygone bohemian era.

“Just Kids should interest any reader who wants to know how an artistic ­career can be launched... this book brings together all the elements that made New York so exciting in the 1970s—the danger and poverty, the artistic seriousness and optimism, the sense that one was still connected to a whole history of great artists in the past.” Novelist Edmund White via The Guardian

Solito by Javier Zamora

An immigrant poet recounts his harrowing 3,000 mile journey from war-ravaged El Salvador to the United States at the age of 9. The story follows the courageous little boy as he crosses the Southern border on foot with a group of strangers in order to reunite with his mother and father.

"Zamora's storytelling is crafted with stunning intimacy, and you'll feel so close to the boy he was then that you'll think about him long after the book is done. It's impossible not to feel both immersed in and changed by this extraordinary book." Novelist Lynn Steger Strong via Los Angeles Times

A Coastline Is an Immeasurable Thing by Mary-Alice Daniel

This debut coming-of-age memoir recounts the poet’s immigrant experience, tracking her move from the Nigerian savanna across various continents to eventually settling in California. The book is an introspective take on religion, colonialism, race and the complexity of discovering one’s identity while struggling with the feeling of not truly belonging in one particular place. 

"Striking, discerning and haunting… Read this book once for the furious beauty of Daniel's prose. Read it again for a master class in how we might finally come to tell our stories on our own terms." Essayist and professor Savala Nolan via The New York Times

Crying in the Bathroom by Erika Sánchez

The popular Mexican American poet, essayist and bestselling YA author recounts her difficult adolescence with trademark candor and humor, while tackling weighty issues like depression, sexism and white feminism through the eyes of a first generation immigrant in '90s Chicago. 

“The book proves that delicacy and strength are no opposites. It is easy to imagine a vulnerable reader gobbling up Sánchez’ honesty and her reassurances that sorrow does not preclude pleasure.” Author Melissa Febos via The New York Times

Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood

In this critically acclaimed and darkly comical memoir, a poet reflects on her offbeat religious upbringing in the American Midwest after moving back in with her mother and father, an eccentric, guitar-jamming Catholic priest. 

"Priestdaddy gives 'confessional memoir' a new layer of meaning. From its hilariously irreverent first sentence, this daughter's story of her guitar-jamming, abortion-protesting, God-fearing father will grab you by the clerical collar and won't let go." Novelist Sloane Crosley via Vanity Fair

You Could Make This Place Beautiful by Maggie Smith

A bestselling poet’s reflections on grief, renewal, family and endurance in the face of heartbreak. Through candid vignettes, the poet grapples with the disintegration of her marriage amid the complexity of middle age.

"Smith's conjuring of beauty through pain and her special blend of vulnerability and encouragement go down like a healing tonic." Editor Annie Bostrom via Booklist

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

A timeless classic about coming of age and overcoming trauma in the racially-charged South during Jim Crow. Now firmly cemented in the American canon, this James Baldwin-championed work catapulted the bestselling author and civil rights activist to global literary stardom.

"After reading Maya Angelou's memoir, something in my heart and mind clicked, and forever changed me. I suddenly understood that her story was part of the larger story of Black womanhood and survival. She wrote openly about injustice, celebrated Black motherhood, criticized racism in the Jim Crow South, and unequivocally fought for her own personal freedom." Writer Glory Edim via Subway Reads

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