Updated: Feb 11
While everyone is likely to know acclaimed black poets like Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes, here are a few contemporary poets leading the current writing scene.
Amanda Gorman is most well-known for performing at President Joe Biden’s inauguration with her powerful piece, “The Hill We Climb.” But even before then, she had an impressive career as a poet—publishing her first book The One for Whom Food is Not Enough in 2015 and being the first person to be named National Youth Poet Laureate. Gorman’s work typically deals with ideas of oppression and marginalization, as well as the African American experience. As a writer, her poems manage to feel both subtle yet evocative, and the intimacy in her writing shine in works such as “In This Place” and “New Day’s Lyric”, which speak to her talent as a writer and the power of her poetry.
Further reading: “Ship’s Manifest” from Call Us What We Carry (2021)
Cameron Awkward-Rich is both a poet and professor of women, gender, and sexuality studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Having published two poetry collections, his poems tackle ideas of gender and race in America, especially as a trans black person. Poems like “Meditation in an Emergency” are almost heartbreakingly beautiful, with lines such as “Like you, I was born. Like you, I was raised in the / institution of dreaming.” His writing is lush but determined, providing an unflinching perspective into the society that shapes us.
Further reading: “All My Friends Are Sad & Bright” from Dispatch (2019)
The Poet Laureate from 2017-2019, Tracy K. Smith has received a Pulitzer Prize for her poetry. She often writes about race and identity, and her poetry also features influences from her personal background. The sci-fi imagery of her collection Life on Mars pays homage to her father’s work with the Hubble Space Telescope and showcases the breadth and diversity of her writing. In addition to being a poet, Tracy K. Smith is also the author of the memoir Ordinary Light, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her writing feels almost dreamlike; in the poem, “I Don’t Miss It,” Smith writes, “And when I begin to believe I haven’t left, / The rest comes back. Our couch. My smoke / Climbing the walls while the hours fall.” Her writing brims with these visceral images, painting beautiful contemplations on relationships, identity, and human experience.
Further reading: “Don’t You Wonder, Sometimes?” from Life on Mars (2011)
Claudia Rankine has been highly acclaimed for her work Citizen: An American Lyric, which focuses on race in America. The poems in this collection experiment with the boundaries of genre, crossing between essay, poetry, and memoir while pushing conventions of traditional lyric poetry. In addition to Citizen, she has published many other collections of poetry, essays, and plays. Like Citizen straddles the boundary between literary genres, much of her writing also explores the boundaries and distinctions of constructs like race and social class. Much of her work speaks to the black experience in America, and she uses her craft to create a powerful meditation on society.
Further reading: “You are in the dark, in the car…” from Citizen (2014)