The Ultimate L.A. Bookshelf: Poetry

Flowers sit atop a pile of books with decorated spines.
(Patrick Hruby / For The Times)

For our Ultimate L.A. Bookshelf, we asked writers with deep ties to the city to name their favorite Los Angeles books across eight categories or genres. Based on 95 responses, here are the 14 most essential L.A. poems or poetry collections, including verse from Wanda Coleman, Robin Coste Lewis, Sesshu Foster, Charles Bukowski, Bertolt Brecht and more.

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In advance of the 2023 L.A. Times Festival of Books, we surveyed 95 writers and culled 110 works into the Ultimate L.A. Bookshelf. Get ready for some surprises

April 11, 2023

A Stab in the Dark by Facundo Bernal, 1921

The Sonoran-born poet-journalist spent four years in “the beautiful Angelo-polis,” which was an ironic designation in a particularly lurid entry (“The Crime Wave”) in his groundbreaking poem cycle. Bernal’s Mexicans of “Yankee-landia” were not the invaders of xenophobic caricature but victims — subject to scams, seduced into louche lifestyles, alienated from home. He was starkly traditional, at times misogynist and racist, but his vision of a fluid border scarred by colonialism made him — as Juan Felipe Herrera wrote in a bilingual 2019 edition — “a profound forerunner and city street-news poet of a Latinx word howl to come.” — BK


"A Stab in the Dark" by Facundo Bernal
(LARB Books)

Noon on Alameda Street by Hildegarde Flanner, 1937

The sunshine-noir dialectic, the intimations of doom in the hard light glinting across acres of traffic — the most powerful tropes of Los Angeles, before they became tropes, were all in Flanner’s five-stanza distillation, as deceptively simple as Wallace Stevens. “For in this noon there is no light like light… But brightness spawning upon dirty glass,” she writes, like a naturalist describing a most unnatural scene. By now we have all “heard delirium in a claxon, / Seen revelation lit on chromium.” Flanner put it into words first. — BK

Hollywood Elegies by Bertolt Brecht, 1942

The great dramatist’s sparse German lyrics — set to music by Hanns Eisler — reflect at least a part of the experience of Europe’s World War II refugees in L.A. (Thomas Mann, Arnold Schoenberg, et al.): gratitude singed with bitterness and a kind of dazzled contempt for a land of pepper trees and mascaraed “angels” where “musicians play the whore.” And they contain one of the best dark jokes about Hollywood: God, “Requiring a heaven and a hell, didn’t need to / Plan two establishments but / Just the one heaven. It / serves the unprosperous, unsuccessful / As hell.” — BK


Evening in the Park by Henri Coulette, 1959

Narrated by a man lingering on a park bench after “The children have packed up the light,” these tight verses by a lifelong Angeleno turn on that late ’50s obsession: the “Familiar and American” and its discontents. The park happens to be Griffith Park, its wildness embodied by a hermit the narrator contemplates — “Gaunt Crusoe of a nowhere isle.” According to Boris Dralyuk, who recommended the poem, it was a real hermit, a World War II veteran who hid out for years. Coulette’s verse, Dralyuk writes, “taught me that Hollywood poems needn’t be Busby Berkeley spectacles or Bukowskian gripes.” — BK

'Letter to an Imaginary Friend,' by Thomas McGrath
(Copper Canyon Press)

Letter to an Imaginary Friend by Thomas McGrath, 1962

The writer-editor Paul Vangelisti nominated this book-length, partly autobiographical epic poem with an ambition and sprawl to rival L.A.’s own. It begins, “I’m sitting here at 2716 Marsh Street / Writing, turning east with the world. / Dreaming of laughter and indifference…” Poet Philip Levine called this “a book every American should be required to read before receiving a high school diploma.” Blacklisted by L.A. State College, exiled to North Dakota, McGrath died in 1990. His “2716 Marsh St.” home lies somewhere beneath the intersection of the Golden State and Glendale freeways. But “Letter to an Imaginary Friend” is still here, awaiting the many more real friends it deserves. — DK

95 writers with deep ties to Los Angeles weighed in on the L.A. books that affected them most. Beyond our big list, here are some of their greatest insights

April 11, 2023

Love Is a Dog from Hell by Charles Bukowski, 1977

Bukowski’s poetry celebrated grimy dives and boozy lives; it was often hilarious, frequently indefensible and internationally adored. This huge and uneven collection traced an era in which he went from underground poet to underground poet with a devoted following. Packed with beer and broads and violence (and yes, misogyny), his poetry connected with people who didn’t ordinarily read poetry. For those literary types who did embrace him — including 10 of our survey respondents — he gave L.A.’s dive bars and cheap lonely rooms a stage. — CK


"Love is a Dog From Hell" by Charles Bukowski

Artemis in Echo Park by Eloise Klein Healy, 1991

Nature bleeds through the city in Healy’s landmark debut poetry collection, which, Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo writes, “showed me how to be vulnerable with my writing and how to use every part of L.A. for material. The bears in the foothills, the coyote standing on a hill, the windy streets around Echo Park could all be fodder and symbols for a love poem.” Healy, an educator and advocate for women and LGBTQ causes, was named Los Angeles’ first poet laureate in 2012. — CK

The activists undoing the racist gentrification of East L.A.

May 26, 2021

City Terrace Field Manual by Sesshu Foster, 1996

“It corrals the mundane and the serious into a single tight space, which is what life feels like,” former U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith once said of Foster’s work. Now firmly ensconced in the L.A. canon, “City Terrace” is a frank exploration of the poet’s Eastside youth, one shaped by political and personal unrest but also deep love. It presents a striking picture of undulating landscapes and air you can chew. “The night with its sirens, hidden stars, big tunnels,” he writes. “A motorcyclist roars away. Van Gogh would recognize the eucalyptus trees in this Carlos Almaraz city.” — CAM


"Mecurochrome: New Poems" by Wanda Coleman
(Godine / Black Sparrow Press)

Mercurochrome by Wanda Coleman, 2001

Coleman, who died in 2013, was the unofficial poet laureate of Los Angeles and more. Fiction writer, essayist, newspaper columnist, radio host — she was the literary heart and soul of the city, which she loved and resisted at once. “Mercurochrome” was a finalist for the 2001 National Book Award in poetry, and it’s a vivid representation of her sensibility. “Love / as i live it,” she writes in the title poem, “seems more like mercurochrome / than anything else / i can conjure up. it looks so pretty and red, / and smells of a balmy / coolness when you uncap the little applicator. / but swab it on an / open sore and you nearly die under the stabbing / burn.” — DLU

The Language of Saxophones by Kamau Daáood, 2005

Daáood is among the last living links to the Watts Writers Workshop, founded in 1965 by Budd Schulberg. Smack in the middle of this collection, the dazzling poem “Los Angeles” strobes with quick images, zigzagging down the page like a spent firework — most memorably in the great couplet “bebop atop / the San Andreas.” Fellow poet Vickie Vértiz rhapsodizes that Daáood’s “portraits, improvisational spirit, rhythms, and invocations reflect the rich life he’s led. L.A. poetry does not exist without him.” — DK


"The Language of Saxophones: Selected Poems of Kumau Daaood" by Kumau Daaood
(City Lights)

The River: Books One, Two, and Three by Lewis MacAdams, 2007

“Poetry makes nothing happen,” W.H. Auden wrote, but Auden never met Lewis MacAdams. The L.A. River was more like the L.A. Rivulet back when MacAdams began writing the most important poem in the city’s history. Along the way he created the nonprofit Friends of the L.A. River, which has helped secure tens of millions of dollars for habitat restoration and set off a land rush that’s reshaping the whole county. Maybe not since “The Grapes of Wrath” has a work of imaginative literature by a Californian done so much for the world beyond its bindings. — DK

A local poet and lifelong environmental activist, MacAdams dedicated his life to restoring the Los Angeles River.

April 21, 2020

Lost in Los (Angeles) by Marisela Norte, 2008

Cutting against the confessional grain of the city’s performance poetry scene, Norte makes a kind of found poetry; the bus is her studio, as she’s said, and her focus is East L.A. Nowhere is her style — prosy description punctuated by the numinous — more evident than in this work, collected in her book, “Peeping Tom Tom Girl.” “I love this poem for the candor, the color, the music, the laundromats and the Kool-Aid,” says Rosecrans Baldwin. “So much living detail from what seems like just another single night.” — BK

Really Mystic River by Suzanne Lummis, 2016


If you want to understand two or more writers, give them each the same subject. Assign the L.A. River to MacAdams, a maximalist bard in the tradition of Walt Whitman, and he’ll write you an epic. Show the same river to the noir-besotted poet Suzanne Lummis, and she’ll write you “Really Mystic River,” a short, witty, profound, elusive charmer as full of questions as answers. Lou Mathews, no mean L.A. chronicler himself, called it “a great poem.” This indispensable lioness of California letters is also a granddaughter of the city’s great early champion, Charles Fletcher Lummis. — DK


To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness by Robin Coste Lewis, 2022

As if winning the National Book Award for her debut collection, “Voyage of the Sable Venus,” wasn’t enough, Coste Lewis followed up with this brilliant combination of art and image. Crafting narratives of deep time and Black art-making that run obliquely alongside photographs of her family’s diasporic past — including a cover photo of downtown L.A. taken by her grandmother — the author, a Compton native, calls this book “a film for the hands” and “an origin myth for the future.” Coste Lewis, who served as L.A.’s poet laureate from 2017-20, continues to push artistic boundaries beyond compare. — CK

Robin Coste Lewis’ latest epic is an excavation of what she calls ‘deep time’ — millennia of Black art-making, community-building and innovation.

Nov. 28, 2022