8 modern poets who have a unique way with words

Good poetry can stir deep emotions, generate epiphanies, and create a sense of comradery between readers and artists. If you grew up feeling that poetry was boring or inaccessible, it’s worth giving this creative form of expression a second look.

What is modern poetry?

Modern or modernist poetry generally refers to the verse writers of the 20th and 21st centuries. However, some scholars argue that American poet Walt Whitman is one of the genre’s founders with his eponymous Leaves of Grass, published in 1855. By choosing to eschew the use of traditional rhyme and meter in favor of free verse, Whitman became a major influence on the modernist and post-modern poets who came after him. Today, modern poetry is known for its emphasis on strong imagery, free form, simple and direct expression, realism, inconsistent meter, and at times dark, controversial, or open-ended themes.

The talented group of modern poets featured below are innovative and inspiring and demonstrate a thoughtful understanding of the human condition that deserves to be heard and appreciated.

1. Amanda Gorman

“We've seen a force that would shatter our nation
rather than share it.
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.
And this effort very nearly succeeded.
But while democracy can be periodically delayed,
it can never be permanently defeated.”

(Gorman, “The Hill We Climb”)

Poetry artist Amanda Gorman is probably best known for her enthralling reading of “The Hill We Climb” at President Biden’s 2021 inauguration. Just 22 at the time, she is the youngest poet to be given this honor. Four years prior, she was named the first National Youth Poet Laureate. Gorman’s work weaves in major themes, including feminism, race, marginalization, politics, and oppression. Her powerful style of spoken-word poetry emphasizes rhythm and rhyme, imbuing it with an almost musical quality.

2. Richard Blanco

“One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes
tired from work: some days guessing at the weather
who knew how to give, or forgiving a father
who couldn’t give what you wanted.”

(Blanco, “One Today”)

Richard Blanco is a man of many “firsts”: the first Latino, first immigrant, and first openly gay person to become an inaugural poet when he read at President Obama’s second swearing-in. His modern poetry contains free verse rich with strong metaphors and delves into the complex hopes, dreams, and struggles of the universal (and his own personal) human experience. Blanco is not afraid to explore controversial topics, and his work touches on everything from immigration and mass shootings to cultural and sexual orientation.

3. Rupi Kaur

you tell me to quiet down cause
my opinions make me less beautiful
but i was not made with a fire in my belly
so i could be put out…”        

(Kaur, “My Mother’s Soul”)

Rupi Kaur’s story is distinctly contemporary. She made a name for herself in the poetry world by sharing her short visual poetry on social media before becoming a #1 New York Times bestselling author. Her self-illustrated collections have now sold over 11 million copies and have been translated into over 43 languages. Kaur immigrated to Canada as a child, and her poetry includes only lowercase letters and periods in a nod to her Punjabi Sikh heritage and the Gurmukhi script of her mother’s native tongue. Her succinct poems focus heavily on love, loss, trauma, femininity, and migration.

4. Gregory Pardlo

“I was born waist-deep stubborn in the water crying
                              ain’t I a woman and a brother I was born
to this hall of mirrors, this horror story I was
born with a prologue of references, pursued
by mosquitoes and thieves…I was born.”        

(Pardlo, “Written by Himself”)

The 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry winner for Digest, Gregory Pardlo is a memoirist and writing professor known for his distinctive voice that has been described as both “urban and highbrow.” Although he speaks to universal themes in his poetry, he also explores themes of Blackness, masculinity, family, and class in American culture. Pardlo’s poetic style can be described as melodic, which is understandable given that he grew up among the improvisational musicians who played at his family’s jazz club.

5. Ada Limón

“Suppose it’s easy to slip
              into another’s green skin,
bury yourself in leaves
and wait for a breaking...
I have, before, been
tricked into believing 
            I could be both an I
and the world.”

(Limón, “Sanctuary”)

The 24th US Poet Laureate, Ada Limón is also the first Latina to be awarded this title. Author of six poetry collections, her outstanding writing abilities have won numerous awards, and her work has been featured in The New Yorker, Harvard Review, and Barrow Street. In her poem, Limón uses recurring places—including the California of her childhood, New York, and rural horse country—and themes that focus on nature and our relationship with it, parental relationships, chronic illness, and identity.

6. Ocean Vuong

“You, drowning
between my arms
You, pushing your body
into the river
   only to be left
with yourself

(Vuong, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous”)

Award-winning author and poet Ocean Vuong has received widespread acclaim for his deeply intimate work that explores the meaning of family, grief, and loss. His bold modernist poetry is constructed with multiple line breaks, stutters, and spaces experimenting with the relationship between the content and form. Born in Ho Chi Minh City but raised in Connecticut, Vuong’s poetry and novel explore overcoming his mother’s death and the effects of being a product of the Vietnam War while living in America.

7. Sherman Alexie

“Hey, Indian boy, why (why!) did you slice off your braids?
Was it a violent act? Did you despise your braids?

Did you cut your hair after booze murdered your father?
When he was buried, did you baptize him with your braids?”

(Alexie, “Good Hair”)

Sherman Alexie is a celebrated contemporary Native American poet, novelist, and filmmaker. A member of the Coeur d’Alene tribe, he grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington, and his work explores themes of poverty, addiction, despair, and violence in the lives of Native American people. Although this subject matter may evoke feelings of sadness, his use of irony, dark wit, and impeccable timing serve to lighten the otherwise dire realities of reservation life.

8. Sharon Olds

“I have never thought I could take it, not even
for the children. It is all I have wanted to do,
to stand between them and pain. But I come from a
long line
of women
who put themselves

(Olds, The “Fear of Oneself”)

Sharon Olds is a renowned modern poetry artist whose first collection, Satan Says, was published in 1980 when she was 37. Since then, she’s received the Pulitzer Prize and the T.S. Eliot Prize and authored 12 books of poetry, including Stag’s Leap, which explores her divorce. Her poetry is autobiographical, emotionally raw, and ripe with sexual candor. In her commanding work, Olds covers topics including family life, trauma, love, abortion, betrayal, gender, age, and sexual politics.

Tap into your creativity at Penn LPS Online

Whether you’re an aspiring poet or author, Penn LPS Online offers two flexible programs to help you enhance your creative writing skills. In the Creative Studies degree concentration for the Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences (BAAS) degree, you’ll have the opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of the creative process and nurture your own creative expression. As you expand your ability to critically analyze and evaluate meaning across literary genres and styles, you’ll also create and edit original works of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and screenplays.

The 4-course Certificate in Creative Writing at Penn LPS Online offers an innovative and collaborative workshop environment wherein you can explore new ideas, learn new writing strategies, and unlock your creativity. As you create and rework your writing with feedback from peers and instructors who are professionals in the field, you’ll gain valuable insights into ways to hone your writing practice and enhance your skills of expression.

Ready to take your writing to the next level?If you haven’t already, apply to Penn LPS Online today and enroll in the Creative Studies concentration for the Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences or register for theCertificate in Creative Writing. You can alsoview our course guide to see what’s available in any upcoming term.

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