Modern poetry has the unfortunate reputation of being “difficult” – as in “I have multiple graduate degrees in English and an IQ of 130 and I still don’t get this.” Some poets only other poets can read; some poets no one can read. But that’s not all there is to modern poetry; in fact, there are many poets who combine technical skill, formal experimentation, and scholarly learning with accessibility and character.
This is not a list of your boring, safe Poet Laureates and sophomore English anthology-approved poets (though some are, or should be, both of those things). They are poets who write about life, sex, sadness, joy, and even food, with wry, real voices and personality that comes through every word. They are poets with something for everyone, and knowing them and their work will not just help you become a well-rounded Super Scholar – it will help you see the world through new eyes.
Sherman Alexie (b. 1966)
Sherman Alexie is a literary one-man-band – a novelist, short-story writer, essayist, young adult author, screenwriter, and director. He’s also one of the funniest, most enlightening lecturers you’ll ever hear. But he made his name as a poet, and no matter what the project, that poet peeks through, turning phrases in sharp, unexpectedly resonant ways.
Alexie is not a Romantic or a Modernist – he’s a storyteller, and the stories he tells run the gamut of human experience: love, loss, dignity, humiliation, heartbreak and exhilaration. Some of his narrators are recognizably himself, especially as he has aged and writes more of his personal family life; some are characters, richly, deeply realized characters with their own hearts and souls. His knowledge of human complexity is deep, as in “Dangerous Astronomy,” in which he ruminates on his newborn son’s preference for his wife:
A selfish father, I wanted to pull apart
My comfortable wife and son. Forgive me, Rough
God, because I walked outside and praised the stars,
And thought I was more important than the stars.
Alexie’s voice can be prickly, sarcastic, self-lacerating, and even brutal as he writes about the oppression of his people (the Spokan/Coeur d’Alene Indians) and the slow horrors of poverty and addiction on the reservation. But even these stories are often delivered with a sardonic wit, as in the poem “Good Hair”:
Hey, Indian boy, why (why!) did you slice off your braids?
Was it worth it? Did you profit? What’s the price of braids?
Did you cut your hair after your sister’s funeral?
Was it self-flagellation? Did you chastise your braids?
Has your tribe and clan cut-hair-mourned since their creation?
Did you, ceremony-dumb, improvise with your braids?
But no matter how righteously indignant, Alexie is never cynical. No matter how devastating the story, Alexie’s faith in the power of joy and love illuminates it
The Business of Fancy-Dancing (1992)
Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)
A notorious perfectionist, Elizabeth Bishop’s Complete Poems: 1927-1979 runs 276 pages. Those aren’t magnifying-glass, two-column type either – they’re generously laid out, each poem to itself. That’s not much for a 52-year career. But their small volume makes every word precious to Bishop’s devoted fans.
Bishop was fortunate to inherit money from her father and spend her life traveling, and her poems are filled with precise, vivid images of the places and experiences of her life. Bishop writes what she sees and thinks with a crystal-clear, unaffected voice, as in the opening lines of “At the Fishhouses”:
Although it is a cold evening,
down by one of the fishhouses
an old man sits netting,
his net, in the gloaming almost invisible,
a dark purple-brown,
and his shuttle worn and polished.
There is never a wasted word in a Bishop poem; every word is carefully inspected, turned from every angle, and placed precisely where it is needed. Bishop’s poetry is of the utmost craftsmanship. Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box, a collection of Bishop’s manuscripts and unfinished poems, includes sixteen distinct drafts of her best-known poem, “One Art,” and some of her poems spent decades in revision until she was satisfied to publish them. And still, through all that refinement, her poems retain a sense of powerful emotion and worldly wit that never seems forced or overworked, always fresh. Her lines describing a fish she catches, in a poem simply called “The Fish,” reflect this perfect detail:
Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
The intensity of Bishop’s gaze and the character of her voice inspire great devotion. When her unfinished poems were published, an outcry among her followers raised a literary controversy usually reserved for the desecration of religious figures or Founding Fathers. Bishop, they argued, would never have wanted her unfinished poems published; it would be like going out undressed. But, for others, having a little more of Bishop’s jewels, even unpolished, was worth any embarrassment.
The Complete Poems: 1927-1979 (1983)
Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments (2006)
Elizabeth Bishop on Wikipedia
Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997)
There are, in a way, two Allen Ginsbergs. There’s the pop-culture figure, the bearded, proto-hippie whirling and chanting, hanging with Bob Dylan and the Beatles, and trying to levitate the Pentagon with the power of love. That Allen Ginsberg is ripe for parody, and hard to take seriously. Even Ginsberg’s fans have to admit – trying to levitate the Pentagon is just ridiculous.
But behind that Allen Ginsberg, there’s the other one, the one who made pop-culture Ginsberg possible, and the one who gets lost in his embarrassing twin’s shadow – the magnificent, funny, heartbreaking poet of Howl, Kaddish, and smaller poems like “America” and “A Supermarket in California.” Inspired by William Blake and Walt Whitman, Ginsberg made himself a prophet for his age, the turbulent post-WWII America, and wrote in long, confident lines that were at once plain-spoken and Biblically-weighted. His expansive vision could combine Jewish tradition, British Romanticism, and American pop music in just a few lines of Kaddish, the stirring eulogy for his mother:
I’ve been up all night, talking, talking, reading the Kaddish aloud, listening to Ray Charles blues shout blind on the phonograph
the rhythm the rhythm—and your memory in my head three years after—And read Adonais’ last triumphant stanzas aloud—wept, realizing how we suffer—
He was also capable of the sly satiric humor of “America”:
America when will you send your eggs to India?
I’m sick of your insane demands.
When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?
Allen Ginsberg, the pop figure, is hardly obscure, but Ginsberg the poet needs continual rediscovery. A poet who wrote for all America, in a voice that could only be his, deserves to be read and heard as a living voice rather than a cultural artifact.
Howl and Other Poems (1956)
Kaddish and Other Poems (1961)
Collected Poems 1947-1997 (2005)
Robert Hayden (1913-1980)
Robert Hayden’s troubled childhood is often cited as a foundation for his poetry – taken in by a foster family whose abusive marriage turned into abuse toward him, still living next door to his emotionally-disturbed birth mother – but Hayden’s impeccable voice and insight into the depths of the human heart are his own ingenious creation.
A formalist poet of the greatest technical skill, Robert Hayden wrote poems that combine poetic refinement with fierce emotional power. As a student of W.H. Auden at the University of Michigan, Hayden developed a uniquely controlled voice and an eye for precise details that could speak volumes. In his best known poem, “Those Winter Sundays,” for instance, he writes of his father, who on Sundays
with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
Hayden’s facility with such simple, evocative images, as well as an ear for sound (say “cracked hands that ached” without feeling the pain yourself), allowed Hayden to craft poems that a reader inhabits more than reads.
While Hayden considered himself an American poet, rather than confining himself to the label “Black poet,” Hayden’s poems, such as “Frederick Douglas” and “Middle Passage,” delve deeply into black history, and Hayden wrote unapologetically political poems such as “El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X),” his elegy for the assassinated radical, and a series of poems on the Vietnam War. Whether inciting political ire, or depicting his own troubled childhood and neighborhood in poems like “The Whipping” and “Those Winter Sundays,” Hayden brings to each topic, no matter how different, an honesty and wisdom only the greatest poets master.
Collected Poems (1985)
Robert Hayden on Wikipedia
Frank O’Hara (1926-1966)
Like his friend John Ashbery (a notoriously difficult poet, who wrote poems designed to confound and frustrate critics), Frank O’Hara wrote some challenging, demanding poems in his time. But those are not the poems he is remembered and loved for. O’Hara’s best, most memorable poems are the poems of walking and talking in New York City, poems of everyday experience best encapsulated in the Lunch Poems – poem literally written about, and during, O’Hara’s lunch breaks. Like this one, simply called “Personal Poem”:
I walk through the luminous humidity
passing the House of Seagram with its wet
and its loungers and the construction to
the left that closed the sidewalk if
I ever get to be a construction worker
I’d like to have a silver hat please
O’Hara’s poems are exuberant, enthusiastic lists of experiences, feelings, objects and people, with subjects as simple as picking up a new watchband or reading a movie magazine. Often addressed to friends, O’Hara’s poems speak to the reader as an intimate, dropping names and places the way you do with someone you’ve known forever. These poems, dashed off during free moments on scrap paper, typed on store display typewriters, or improvised in personal letters, usually ended up stuffed away in a drawer or even lost in sofa cushions. O’Hara’s books were often composed of whatever he could scrape together digging through his apartment. But their deliriously excited voice captures a poet in love with life, with things, and most of all with people, and their warmth and personality have ensured that, even if he dismissed or forgot his poems, no one who reads them ever will.
Lunch Poems (1964)
Collected Poems (1995)
Sharon Olds (b. 1942)
A feminist poet known and revered for her unflinching honesty, Sharon Olds draws on her abusive upbringing and family dramas to create raw, daring, vulgar works of searing intensity. But Olds is no wailing, self-absorbed misery-wallower; her incisive humor and eye for surprising images sparkle in the darkest subjects. Imagining her parents just before their terrible marriage, she considers warning them, then decides to bring them together herself:
[I] take them up like the male and female
paper dolls and bang them together
at the hips, like chips of flint, as if to
strike sparks from them, I say
Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.
In “The One Girl at the Boys’ Party,” Olds takes what could be a maudlin subject and tweaks it:
They tower and
bristle, she stands there smooth and sleek,
her math scores unfolding in the air around them.
While Olds’ unfiltered language and euphemism-free descriptions of bodies – hers, her lovers’, her children’s – may sometimes be shocking, they reveal a startling tenderness and surprising emotional innocence, as if Olds has learned to take life as it is and love it anyway. On seeing her children sleeping, Olds writes of her son’s “dry dirty boyish palm / resting like a cookie,” and of her daughter’s “face like the face of a snake who has swallowed a deer, / content, content,” and such unexpected freshness and rightness in those phrases reminds a reader of what poetry is supposed to do – show us life anew.
The Dead and the Living (1983)
The Father (1992)
Strike Sparks: Selected Poems 1980-2002 (2004)
Wislawa Szymborska (1923-2012)
Born in Poland in 1923, Wislawa Szymborska was relatively unknown in America until her 1996 Nobel Prize for Literature. Living in Poland during the Nazi occupation, Szymborska witnessed the darkest depths of the human heart; a lifetime spent under that nation’s Communist regime further impressed upon her the degradation of oppression and totalitarianism. But Szymborska’s poetry, against all odds, is clever, insightful, and fearless, written in such a precise and recognizable voice that, no matter the translator, Symborska always sounds like Symborska.
Her understatement and delicious irony allow her to confront the great horrors of the 20th century, and human depravity in general, with a wit that needles as it consoles. To read Szymborska is to cuddle with a porcupine for protection against the winter. Only Szymborska could state, so matter-of-factly (in “The End and the Beginning”):
After every war
someone has to clean up.
straighten themselves up, after all.
Szymborska is the master of the ironic twist that turns a poem on its head at the very last moment. In “True Love,” for instance, she voices the cynic’s case against true love – “Is it normal, / is it serious, is it practical?” – with line after line of condemnation, only to turn in the last lines with a devastating refutation:
Let the people who never find true love
keep saying that there’s no such thing.
Their faith will make it easier for them to live and die.
But for all the horrors of her poetry – war, atrocity, loneliness, fear – Szymborska remains a humanist. Her poetry has given light and boldness to generations of Polish and world readers, and her voice is likely to last for ages more.
Monologue of a Dog (2005)
Poems, New and Collected, 1957-1997 (1998)
View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems (1995)
Natasha Tretheway (b. 1966)
One of the most promising, acclaimed poets of her generation, Natasha Tretheway uses her poetry to examine southern and American life, often using her own life as a microcosm. Biracial, born to a black mother and a white father in Mississippi (where interracial marriage was still illegal), Tretheway’s life experience provides a cross-section of contemporary life. Coming from two races, experiencing both acceptance and bigotry, Tretheway’s poetry explores people on the margins of mainstream white culture: a New Orleans prostitute in Bellocq’s Ophelia, poor working-class people in Domestic Work, and the black soldiers of the Civil War in Native Guard.
But perhaps Tretheway’s most affecting work is the poems describing her own experience as a child pulled and torn between identities. Writing with a fresh, straightforward voice that disguises its tight craftsmanship in a companionable, conversational style, Tretheway finds sly metaphors in the everyday play of light and shadow, white and black, as in “The Flounder”:
A flounder, she said, and you can tell
’cause one of its sides is black.
The other side is white, she said.
Or, as in the quietly devastating “White Lies,” when she passes for white:
But I paid for it every time
Mama found out.
She laid her hands on me,
then washed out my mouth
with Ivory soap.
Through such idiosyncratic metaphors, so plainly yet painstakingly delivered, Tretheway almost magically transforms her individual experience into everyone’s story. The accidents of birth made her a perfect symbol of America; her own brilliance recognizes her symbolic potential, and turns it into art.
Domestic Work (2000)
Bellocq’s Ophelia (2002)
Native Guard (2006)
Kevin Young (b. 1970)
Inspired by blues, hip-hop, graffiti and film, Kevin Young makes poetry that crosses genre and style, that incorporates the common voice and innovative experiments, and that sings, sings, sings. Young is a prolific poet – seven books since 1999 – and each collection further cements his status.
While his debut collection Long Way Home showed promise, Young announced himself as a major contemporary voice with To Repel Ghosts, a book-long series of poems about Jean-Michel Basquiat. Weaving together phrases from Basquiat’s paintings with playfully experimental forms (telegrams, newspaper headlines, trailer voice-overs) and startlingly imaginative phrasing, Young creates a funny, intellectual, and harrowing story that finds the common ground in poetry and graffiti. This imagined telegram, for example, captures Basquiat’s reputation:
FOUND A SAMO TAG COPYRIGHT HIGH
ABOVE A STAIR STOP NOT SURE HOW YOU REACHED STOP
YOU ALWAYS WERE A CLIMBER STOP COME DOWN SOME
DAY AND SEE US AGAIN END
With further genre experiments like Jelly Roll: A Blues (incorporating the language and rhythms of jazz and blues) and Black Maria (a “film noir” full of atmospheric language effects and a sharp, witty voice), Young proved to be a master of genre and tone.
Since this trilogy of genre exercises, Young has taken on history, both those of his people and himself, in For the Confederate Dead, Dear Darkness, and Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels. These works too share Young’s bright voice and simple, economical language. In “For the Confederate Dead,” the title poem to his collection, Young imagines his own Civil War:
In my movie there are no
horses, no heroes,
only draftees fleeing
into the pines
With his career still new, and seemingly endless energy, Kevin Young looks prepared to take his place with his idols, every bit the force of nature Langston Hughes or Basquiat inspire him to be.
To Repel Ghosts (2002)
Jelly Roll: A Blues (2003)
Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels (2011)