3 Contemporary Poets Worth Reading

September 14, 2011 § 3 Comments

I feel a little sheepish when I tell people I like poetry. I expect I’ll be pegged as a sentimental, large-eyed, diary-toting girl like P.G. Wodehouse’s character Madeline Bassett, known for whispering things like, “The stars are God’s daisy chain,” on an unsuspecting evening.

Alas, that metaphor has me overcome.

The truth is: poetry is powerful. William Blake’s poems about child suffering paved the way for child labor laws. Anna Akhmatova’s poems which she read to packed auditoriums rallied Russians to war during WWII. Javier Sicilia’s last poem (until Mexico finds peace) speaks to the violence of drug cartels and his son’s brutal murder. Poetry gives voice to the unspeakable. Poetry rests in a moment.

It seems harder for women to escape the Madeline Bassett stereotype. But here are three contemporary poets who have. Their words inspire on larger themes of justice and unity and in the smaller, private triumphs of life.

1. Kim Addonizio

Dang–she just tells it like it is. She’s hard-hitting and sassy. She’s been through shit and spits life right back at you. Even when a poem starts with an angry rant, by the end, she has you wrapped around some beautifully-crafted revelation of the human heart (yes, the shift is that dramatic here).  She teaches poetry in San Francisco and plays a mean blues harmonica. Below is the poem that opens her collection, Lucifer at the Starlite.

Sign Your Name

on a scrap of paper,
crumple or tear it up and throw it away;

that’s how the world works, friend.
Maybe you can’t even get as far

as gripping a pen, maybe your hand
is scrabbling in a few dirty grains

of rice, or you’re licking a tin plate
or just your fly-crawled lips. Welcome

and farewell: you’re stacked or stashed
or set aflame, turning on the spit,

the axis, the long pole that runs
through everyone. If you’re here

you’re already nearly gone. Write
if you can. If you can, give us a song.

2. Naomi Shihab Nye

Not only does she write herself (lyrics, children’s books, and poetry), but she’s compiled several anthologies for a number of ages, regions, and ethnicities. She writes about her experience as an Arab American women, and her poems tackle the themes of justice, travel, and of course, those sad, small or good moments that make us human. Some pieces take longer to unpack–you need to time to savor her (though savoring is a treat with poems like, “The Traveling Onion.”)  Below is one of her shorter-but-still-delightful poems.

Please Describe How You Became a Writer

Possibly I began writing as a refuge from our insulting first grade text book. Come, Jane, come. Look, Dick, look. Were there ever duller people in the world? You had to tell them to look at things? Why weren’t they looking to begin with?

3. Lisel Mueller

I first heard Lisel Mueller’s poetry through Garrison Keillor reading “Not Only the Eskimos.” My love for her could have been triggered by Keillor’s unassuming voice, but its her words that continually fell me in one swoop. I like her tight, controlled language, her slight humor and sadness. She’s a German immigrant who settled in the Midwest, and her books and translations have won several awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Alive Together (1996). In the poem below, she explores the relationship between one’s name and self.

Fulfilling the Promise
A man I know named Booker
runs a secondhand bookstore.
My florist’s name is Fiore.
Formica designs kitchens
in California, and Richard Hazard
sells real estate and insurance.
We can change our names
or grow into them.
Except the unlucky ones.
Even their murderers knew
the children of the Czar
were innocent. But they could not kill
the name Romanoff
without killings its bearers.
Today, in the hospital nursery,
I visit Grace, asleep
under a pink blanket,
her hands still curled into shells.
She lies between Tiffany
and Marvella, who soon must wear
the heavy crowns of their names.
Her mother named her Grace
in spite of her red skin
and her head like an egg. She likes
the old-fashioned sound. “Give her time
to fulfill the promise,” she says.
At her wedding, a woman gave up
half of her name
and exchanged it for another.
Half of her is public,
subject to trade, the other
private, treasure and loneliness,
what he thinks of as her,
what she would share, if she could.
And the man who testified
for the State,who named the mobster,
how does he manage the old self
behind the new glasses
and the removable beard?
Under the memorized name
and the false documents
the container and sinner of memory
endures, uninterrupted.
At night with the lights out,
and the TV turned up,
a woman whispers his secret name
it frightens and excites him
like the hundredth name of God.

What contemporary poets would you recommend?


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§ 3 Responses to 3 Contemporary Poets Worth Reading

  • I just wanted to say that your writing is wonderful! There’s something about a certain style of prose that gives me such a great pleasure to read, and your first paragraph captures it perfectly.

    Also I like poetry too. I even write it when the mood takes me.
    I really liked the poem you’ve put up by Kim Addonizio that starts ‘Sign your name…’ Very poigniant ending.

  • Terry says:

    You got me at contemporary. I’m still milking Rilke.

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