If you’re the person who blurts out “I’m a poet and I didn’t even know it,” whenever anything related to poetry pops up in conversation, or if you’ve ever uttered the even more brazen of the well-worn poetry phrases — “Poetry is dead” — keep reading. My non-poetic friends, this is a judgment free zone.
But this should serve as a reminder that there are lots (and lots, and lots) of poets that you should be reading, whether you’ve read much poetry in the past or not.
The poets below, all highlighted by the Poetry Foundation, have vastly shaped the writing landscape in the U.S., transforming words and lives in the process. Even when venturing outside of traditional conceptions of poetry, with some poets here writing novels, short stories, and lyrics, they have all done one thing core to poetry with exceeding grace and skill: They’ve routinely elevated language itself, stringing together words in the uniquely astonishing way that poets do.
For their frequent focus on matters of identity and social justice, the work of these poets makes for some excellent reading during Black History Month. But an even better (nudge, nudge) idea is to keep reading their work year-round, letting their words slip into the fabric of your own life, and encouraging others to do the same.
Danez Smith has made major waves in the world of poetry today. The recipient of a plethora of fellowships and accolades, Smith’s poems are even further enriched by their stirring readings. They’ve won awards in poetry slam tournaments, and their readings can be a great entry point for poetry readers that still need some guidance when encountering a new poem for the first time.
To keep listening to Smith on-the-go, you can also tune into the Poetry Foundation’s podcast, called VS, which they co-host.
Haki R. Madhubuti
Haki R. Madhubuti, née Donald Luther Lee, was a member of the Black Arts Movement, whose early involvement with groups like the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee has informed his activist-minded poetry. Madhubuti also founded organizations to provide resources and forums for black writers, including Third World Press Foundation in 1967.
Additionally, he’s won fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, twice, as well as the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Suggested reading: Total spoiler alert for another poet on this list, but Madhubuti’s poem, “Gwendolyn Brooks,” is not to be missed. Published in the 1969 collection, Don’t Cry, Scream, you can access it here on the Poetry Foundation’s website.
Camille T. Dungy
Camille T. Dungy, who received her BA from Stanford and an MFA from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, has forged a unique path as a poet and an educator. Dungy’s poetry often incorporates themes concerning the natural world, giving an urgency to the hope imbued in her poems. (She’s also edited a book, Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (2009), to help shift the lack of black poets in nature poetry anthologies.)
Suggested reading: For those new to Dungy’s work, try her collection Smith Blue (2011), a finalist for a Poetry Society of America award. Smith Blue frames larger questions about love, loss, and nature inside a twenty-first-century understanding of those universal, clawing themes.
I mean, hello, it’s Gwendolyn Brooks. The Poetry Foundation calls her “one of the most highly regarded, influential, and widely read poets of 20th-century American poetry,” and she has the accolades to prove it: Brooks was the first black author to to win the Pulitzer Prize, as well as the first black woman to serve as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress (now called United States Poet Laureate). Her words have inspired countless others, and still reverberate today. In short: She herself is a classic.
Suggested reading: Again, it’s Gwendolyn Brooks. The reach of her career is massive, so it can be helpful to start with some of her best known poems. Maybe start with “my dreams, my works, must wait till after hell” and “We Real Cool” on the Poetry Foundation’s website, and then see where that takes you.
Hardly confined to any formal definition of “poetry,” Rita Dove’s work has bucked genre, distinctive instead for Dove’s own lyricism. Her honors, like her works, are wide-reaching: She’s won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, and served as the U.S. Poet Laureate, as well as the Poet Laureate of Virginia.
When she was named poet laureate of the United States in 1993, becoming the youngest person appointed to the position, Dove traveled around the country, from hospitals to schools, in order to activate widespread excitement for poetry and the literary arts.
Suggested reading: For an expansive career like Dove’s, start with Collected Poems: 1974-2004 (2016), a collection that won the NAACP Image Award in 2017, and was a poetry finalist for the National Book Award in 2016.
E. Ethelbert Miller
As an undergraduate, E. Ethelbert Miller attended Howard University, where he was later the director of African American Studies Resource Center for over 40 years.
He’s published a staggering amount of poetry collections, including Where Are the Love Poems for Dictators? (1986) and Whispers, Secrets and Promises (1998). For his work, he’s received poetry prizes and fellowships.
Another fun accolade? Mayors in Washington, D.C. and Jackson, Tennessee, have both, at some point, proclaimed “E. Ethelbert Miller Day” in their cities, according to the Academy of American Poets.
Suggested reading: There’s a plenty to pick from, but his poem “Malcolm X, February 1965,” available here via the Poetry Foundation, remains especially haunting.
To keep finding other poets to read, you can browse the Poetry Foundation’s website, where you can find more information about even more poets, like Audre Lorde, Langston Hughes, and June Jordan, as well as a treasure trove of poems.