Poetry is something that seems to spark controversy because people don’t seem to agree on what is good or bad, accessible or not. Like art of any nature it is subjective but can perhaps be most easily related to, when it speaks to ourselves. Thus to read the poetry of some of the most significant contemporary poets means we can perhaps find some inspiration, comfort and stimulation, amongst other things. The following poets provide an opportunity for just that and will perhaps spark a new or renewed interest in this often overlooked medium.
Elizabeth Bishop was born in 1911 and died in 1979. Her writing career spanned some 50 years and yet her complete works can be condensed down to 276 pages of poems. Left with a healthy inheritance she was able to travel the world and describes her varied experiences in and unaffected and piercing voice that is masterful in it simplicity. However this simplicity belies the often fraught intensity of multiple drafts that she worked through before achieving a satisfactory conclusion.
Robert Hayden, a contemporary of Elizabeth Bishop was born in 1913 and died in 1980. Unlike Bishop, Hayden had a troubled childhood suffering at the hands of an abusive foster family. Like most poets we can contend that he used the circumstances of his life to focus his thoughts and he produced highly emotional yet technically refined poems that immerse the reader in the circumstances of the instance he has captured. Often concerning himself with issues of race he did not confine himself to black issues but covered a wide range of social and political matters. His clarity, honesty and insightful voice make Hayden one of the great modern poets.
Sharon Olds, born in 1942 shares a similarly honest voice as Hayden also as a result of an abusive childhood. Her style is very direct and often times shocking in its lack of pretense or euphemism.However this fresh almost innocent take on her world gives the reader a similarly new angle on the common place and thus achieves what good poetry should, a fresh take on life.
Suffering hardships of a different nature, Wislawa Szymborska was born in Poland in 1923 and died in 2012. Relatively unknown, until her Nobel prize for literature in 1996, Wislawa drew on her experiences living under Nazi occupation in Poland. Her first-hand experience of oppression and hardship enabled her to speak with insightful and often witty clarity, never afraid to speak the truth and expose the often darker sides of human behavior.
Sherman Alexie born in 1966 not only excels as a poet but has conquered the mediums of screen writing and directing, the novel and short story as well as public speaking. As a consummate storyteller Alexi tackles the human experiences of loss, love, heartbreak and everything in between. He beautifully draws on his personal life experiences but is equally effective as the biting voice exposing the oppression of his native American people.
Natasha Tretheway was also born in 1966 and like Alexi gives voice to a way of life that she herself grew up experiencing. Her point of reference is rooted in Southern America where as the product of a multi racial marriage, at a time when that was still illegal, she experienced both bigotry and acceptance. This fragile balancing act allows her to give voice to wide ranging stories that resonate with people from a variety of circumstances. Her insightful, skillful hand has produced the kind of poetry that establishes Tretheway as an acclaimed narrator of her generation and beyond. The fluid, conversational style makes her poetry so relatable and that surely is something great poets aspire to. The list of accomplished and noteworthy modern poets is of course extensive and will no doubt vary depending on your point of you. However, the aforementioned poets have demonstrated a common aptitude for tapping into a personal history that can then, through various means, translate to the written word and touch the lives of the reader.