10 Must-Read Modern Poets

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Poetry is one of the world’s oldest and most adaptable art forms. A poem can be spoken, sung, read, or performed. It can take the form of a nursery rhyme, an epic, a ghazal, a tanka, a limerick, a film, or even a dance. English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge defined poetry as “the best words in the best order.” Certainly, the greatest poets—from Dante to Sappho, from Rabindranath Tagore to Gwendolyn Brooks, from Li Bai to Coleridge himself—kept to this seemingly simple but highly difficult rule. But great poets are hardly a thing of the past. The poets in this list are among the best English-language poets of the 21st century.

Ada Limón

California-born Limón spent years working in marketing in New York City while writing poetry on her own time. She published three books of poetry before her stepmother’s death from colon cancer in 2010 prompted her to give up her marketing career and pursue writing full-time. Her collection Bright Dead Things (2015) was a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and her next collection, The Carrying (2018), won the latter award. The Hurting Kind (2022) offers more experimental work than that of her previous collections. In 2022 Limón was named the 24th poet laureate of the United States.

The American linden sways nonplussed by the storm,
a bounce here, a shimmy there, just shaking like music
(from “Banished Wonders”)

Natalie Diaz

Diaz grew up in the Fort Mojave Indian Village, on the Fort Mojave Indian Reservation, which overlays the borders of California, Arizona, and Nevada. A Native language activist working to revitalize the Mojave language and a former professional basketball player, Diaz has published poetry that draws upon her Native heritage and her sports career. Her first collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec (2012), tells the story of a sister grieving her brother’s descent into methamphetamine addiction. In 2021 Diaz won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for Postcolonial Love Poem (2020), a collection of poems melding political perspectives on the colonization and destruction of Native land with intimate meditations on queer sexuality, romantic love, and the human body.

The Colorado River is the most endangered river in the United States—also, it is a part of my body.
(from “The First Water Is the Body”)

Paul Muldoon

The son of a laborer and a schoolteacher, Muldoon grew up on a farm in Northern Ireland. In college he was tutored by fellow Northern Irish poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney. Muldoon’s poems appear spontaneous on the surface but reveal deeper significance upon closer inspection. He has worked in various poetic forms such as haiku, sestina, and sonnet. His numerous creative collaborations include an album with songwriter Warren Zevon. Muldoon has also translated the work of Irish-language poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and edited a collection of Paul McCartney’s song lyrics. In 2003 Muldoon won the Pulitzer Prize for the collection Moy Sand and Gravel (2002).

The hedgehog gives nothing
Away, keeping itself to itself.
We wonder what a hedgehog
Has to hide, why it so distrusts.
(from “Hedgehog”)

Ross Gay

An avid gardener and sports enthusiast, Gay became interested in poetry while attending his Pennsylvania high school after reading Amiri Baraka’s “An Agony. As Now.” Gay’s poetry collections include Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (2015), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. One of Gay’s best-known poems is “A Small Needful Fact,” a moving tribute to Eric Garner, a Black man whose death in 2014 at the hands of a New York police officer who had placed him in a lethal choke hold was one of the catalysts for the Black Lives Matter movement. Gay’s poetry is characterized by its musicality and its sense of compassion and joy. Indeed, Gay has written several essay collections on joy, beginning with the best-selling The Book of Delights (2019).

Thank you the quiet
in which the river bends around the elephant’s
solemn trunk, polishing stones, floating
on its gentle back
the flock of geese flying overhead.
(from “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude”)

Sharon Olds

Known for graphic, intensely personal poetry that often addresses family relationships and the pleasures and strength of the human body, the San Francisco-raised Olds made her debut in 1980 with the collection Satan Says. The book was heralded for its daring poems describing in frank language Olds’s early sexual life. In The Dead and the Living (1984), Olds honors dead family members and celebrates the living with a cycle of poems focusing on the traumas of her childhood. She has published many more collections of poetry that address marital and parental relationships. In 2013 Olds was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the T.S. Eliot Prize for Stag’s Leap (2012), which chronicles the dissolution of her marriage.

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When my daughter was in me, I felt I had
a soul in me. But it was born with her.
(from “The Borders”)

Jericho Brown

Brown grew up in Louisiana in a devout Evangelical family and later worked as a speechwriter for the mayor of New Orleans while earning a master’s degree in fine arts at the University of New Orleans. He went on to earn a Ph.D. in literature and creative writing from the University of Houston. Brown’s upbringing informed his second collection of poetry, The New Testament (2014), which won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. In 2020 he won the Pulitzer Prize for The Tradition (2019); the Pulitzer committee praised the collection for its “masterful lyrics that combine delicacy with historical urgency in their loving evocation of bodies vulnerable to hostility and violence.”

A poem is a gesture toward home.
It makes dark demands I call my own.
(from “Duplex”)

Warsan Shire

The daughter of Somali parents who fled their home country for Kenya, Shire was born in Nairobi and raised in London, where her family moved shortly after she was born. In 2014 she was named London’s first Young Poet Laureate. Many of Shire’s poems address the experiences of refugees, particularly political and sexual violence. In 2016 Shire collaborated with R&B singer and songwriter Beyoncé on the music superstar’s acclaimed visual album Lemonade, which brought the poet worldwide renown. In 2022 Shire published her first full-length poetry collection, Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head.

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark.
(from “Home”)

Ocean Vuong

Vuong and his family emigrated from Vietnam to the United States when he was two years old. He began writing poetry while he was in elementary school. In 2016 Vuong published his first full-length collection of poetry, Night Sky with Exit Wounds. Featuring poems about war and violence, immigration, and queerness, the collection won many honors, including the T.S. Eliot Prize, the Whiting Award, and the Forward Prize for best first collection. Vuong’s acclaimed first novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (2019), is written in fluid prose that reads like poetry. His second poetry collection, Time Is a Mother (2022), was a New York Times best seller.

I promise you, I was here. I felt things that made death so large it was indistinguishable from air—and I went on destroying inside it like wind in a storm.
(from “Not Even This”)

Maggie Nelson

When she was 12 years old Nelson won a poetry contest sponsored by the Cure, her favorite band. The San Francisco-raised poet attended Wesleyan University in Connecticut and found early mentors in the writers Annie Dillard and Eileen Myles. Nelson has published essays and memoirs, including two books about the murder of her aunt in 1969 and the “autotheory” work The Argonauts (2015), which mixes feminist and queer theory with an account of Nelson’s marriage to the transgender artist Harry Dodge. Her most beloved work, however, is Bluets (2009). The genre-defying book explores love and heartbreak through 240 prose poems that meditate on the color blue.

Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color. Suppose I were to speak this as if it were a confession; suppose I shredded my napkin as we spoke.
(from Bluets)

Simon Armitage

Armitage worked for six years as a probation officer in Greater Manchester in England before devoting himself full-time to poetry. A prolific writer, he has published numerous collections of poetry as well as plays, novels, and nonfiction works. He has also published acclaimed translations of medieval English classics, including Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the elegiac dream vision poem Pearl. Armitage’s own poetry draws on modern British life for its subject matter, and his most well-known poems are laced with a dark deadpan humor. In 2019 he was named poet laureate of Great Britain.

Songs about mills and mines and a great war,
about mermaid brides and solid gold hills,
songs from broken hymnbooks and cheesy films.
(from “The Unaccompanied”)
René Ostberg