ABOUT THE GREAT POETS: The Great Poets Challenge began in 2021 when YWP writer Nightheart wanted to introduce Young Writers Project to the incredible poets she was discovering. We've collected Nightheart's favorites in this archive for you to explore. And we're continuing the tradition by featuring a new poet every month in the Great Poets Challenge, where you'll learn about the poets' styles, themes, and contributions to the poetry landscape. If you're inspired by the monthly challenges, we encourage you to respond with your own writing.
MAYA ANGELOU – We started the series in the month of February, 2021, during Black History Month, and the poet we honored was the incredible Maya Angelou. You'll find a quick bio and some examples of her poems below.
Still I Rise
The Mothering Blackness
BILLY COLLINS – Known for his conversational and welcoming style, Billy Collins makes poetry accessible and universal with his humorous and insightful observations of life – poetry that critic John Taylor says, “helps us feel the mystery of being alive.” Collins, born in New York City in 1941, was U.S. poet laureate from 2001-2003, and New York State poet laureate from 2004-2006. His level of fame is almost unprecedented in the world of contemporary poetry, according to Poetry Foundation. His readings sell out and his books have been popular since the 1991 publication of his fourth book, Questions about Angels. In 2002, as U.S. poet laureate, Collins read a moving poem to a joint session of Congress that he had been asked to write to commemorate the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Collins has taught at a number of colleges and universities, including Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence, and City University of New York, and he has received many honors, including the Poetry Foundation's Mark Twain Award for humorous poetry in 2004, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the New York Foundation for the Arts. In 2016, he was elected into The American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Poetry: American Sonnet (1989)
The Afterlife (1990)
The Art of Drowning (1991)
JANE HIRSHFIELD – Poet, essayist, and translator, Jane Hirshfield has become known, in recent years, as an important poetic voice for the protection of the planet. Her poetry draws from a range of influences – from the sciences and the world’s literary, intellectual, artistic, and spiritual traditions. Born in 1953 in New York City, and now living in the San Francisco area, Hirshfield is the author of nine collections of poetry, including Ledger (2020); The Beauty (2015), longlisted for the National Book Award; Come, Thief (2011); and Given Sugar, Given Salt (2001). Hirshfield is also the author of two collections of essays and she has edited and co-translated four books of world poets. She has recently been lauded for her work commanding our attention to the crisis of the biosphere. Poet Rosanna Warren, quoted by poets.org, says, "Her poems appear simple, and are not. Her language, in its cleanliness and transparency, poses riddles of a quietly metaphysical nature. ... Clause by clause, image by image, in language at once mysterious and commonplace, Hirshfield's poems clear a space for reflection and change. They invite ethical awareness, and establish a delicate balance."
I Wanted To Be Surprised: https://poets.org/poem/i-wanted-be-surprised
Let Them Not Say: https://poets.org/poem/let-them-not-say
A Chair in Snow: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/56174/a-chair-in-…
JOHN KEENE – This 2022 National Book Award winner is a writer, translator, and author of several collections, including Punks: New and Selected Poems (The Song Cave, 2021), winner of the 2022 National Book Award for Poetry and the 2022 Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry; Counternarratives (New Directions, 2015); and Playland (Seven Kitchens Press, 2016). Keene, who was born in 1965 and grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, now lives in Jersey City, New Jersey. He teaches at Rutgers University-Newark, African American and African studies, English, and creative writing. In one of his poems, Words, he writes: "When you said people did you mean punish? / When you said friend did you mean fraud? / When you said thought did you mean terror? / When you said connection did you mean con? / When you said God did you mean greed? / When you said faith did you mean fanatic? / When you said hope did you mean hype? / When you said unity did you mean enmity? / When you said freedom did you mean forfeit? / When you said law did you mean lie?..." (Read the complete poem here.) Of the poem, Keene said, "I started to mull over how we have been struggling to communicate with and understand one another—even at the level of basic language and art-making. We have misvalued and disvalued the power of words and their social, political, and economic meanings and effects."
Punks: New & Selected Poems: https://www.nationalbook.org/books/punks-new-selected-poems/
C.D. WRIGHT – A poem written by YWP writer criss-cross, "Arsenal," was inspired by C.D. Wright – and the Great Poets Challenge, in turn, was inspired to feature this poet! C.D. Wright, 1949-2016, was born in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. Poetry, she said, “is a necessity of life.” She published 16 collections of poetry and prose, including ShallCross (2016) and One With Others [a little book of her days] (2011), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award. She published several book-length poems, including the critically acclaimed Deepstep Come Shining (1998). Wright’s writing has been described as experimental, astute, generous, socially conscious, and showing a strong sense of place. Though much of her work is connected to her Ozarks home, she also spent time on both coasts, in New York and San Francisco, and she taught for many years at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Her husband, poet Forrest Gander, created a website in tribute to Wright – https://cdwrightpoet.com/.
From ShallCross: https://poets.org/poem/shallcross
Imaginary Hollywood: https://poets.org/poem/imaginary-hollywood
From One Big Self "Count Your Fingers:" https://poets.org/poem/one-big-self-count-your-fingers
DANEZ SMITH – Danez Smith is a prolific writer whose work focuses on their experiences of racism as a nonbinary Black person in America. They have published four books, one of which was short-listed for the National Book Award. Their poetry is accessible yet eloquent, and adresses the rural American experience as well, as they currently have residence in Minnesota. They are an excellent example of intersectional, inclusive, and powerful poetry.
dear white america: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/150542/dear-white-america
alternate names for black boys: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/56843/alternate-na...
I'm Going Back to Minnesota, Where Sadness Makes Sense: https://lunchboxpoems.tumblr.com/post/134306673323/im-going-back-to-minn...
ROBERT FROST – Hi writers! The poet for January is a classic of the Vermont scene – Robert Frost! He won a record of four Pulitzer Prizes in his lifetime, and he's seen as an icon of the literary world, in many ways because he's what we think of when we think of classic poetry. The descriptions of soft, snowy woods, the classic New-Englandism of it all. Frost's cottage is in Ripton, Vermont, and he's most famous for his description of the scenery of the woods. His poems are also characterized by a searching for a sense of self – the reflections of a man who lived a turbulent and often lonely life. His works are poignant and still relevant today, so I hope you enjoy them.
Fire and Ice: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44263/fire-and-ice
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/42891/stopping-by-woods-on-a-sno…
EMILY DICKINSON – Our list of Great Poets would not be complete without including one of America’s greatest poets, the incomparable Emily Dickinson. Born on Dec. 10, 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts, Dickinson was one of the most original and prolific poets of all time, although she was never publicly recognized for her poetry during her lifetime. It wasn’t until after her death in 1886 that her family discovered almost 1,800 poems in 40 handbound volumes. The first volume of her work was published in 1890, four years after her death, and it was received with wide acclaim. The final volume of her work was published in 1955. According to the Academy of American Poets, Dickinson and Walt Whitham share a distinguished place “as the founders of a uniquely American poetic voice.”
Hope is the thing with feathers: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/42889/hope-is-the-thing-with-fea…
Wild nights – wild nights!: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44087/wild-nights-wild-nights-269
I'm Nobody. Who are you?: https://poets.org/poem/im-nobody-who-are-you-260
SEAMUS HEANEY – Hi Poets! This month's Great Poet is Seamus Heaney (1939–2013). He's one of the major figures of 20th century poetry, and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. Heaney's work is inspired by his homeland of Northern Ireland, its nature as well as its political strife. Heaney's poetry is known for its imagery, its beauty, and the textures he subtly weaves into his poems. He used his work to preserve his people's customs and traditions, as well as to reflect on the part of Irish history called 'The Troubles', a series of political struggles which plagued his childhood in Northern Ireland. He is one of the most revered and popular poets of his generation, not only because of his wonderful writing but also because of the accesibility of his prose.
Poetry: Death of a Naturalist: https://www.best-poems.net/seamus_heaney/death_of_a_naturalist.html
Blueberry Picking: https://www.best-poems.net/seamus_heaney/blackberry_picking.html
NATALIE DIAZ – In October as we honor Indigenous Peoples' Day, spend some time getting to know this Pulitzer Prize-winning Mojave American poet. Diaz is the author of the poetry collections "Postcolonial Love Poem" (2020), winner of the Pulitzer Prize; and "When My Brother Was an Aztec" (2012). She is also a language activist, former professional basketball player in Europe and Asia, and an Associate Professor in the MFA program at Arizona State University. She was born in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California on Sept. 4, 1978, and is an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe. She lives in Arizona, where she has worked with the last speakers of Mojave and directed a language revitalization program. In her poem, “Manhattan Is a Lenape Word” she asks, “Where have all / the Natives gone? / If you are where you are, then where / are those who are not here? Not here.” Other honors and awards include the Nimrod/Hardman Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry, the Louis Untermeyer Scholarship in Poetry from Bread Loaf, the Narrative Poetry Prize, and a Lannan Literary Fellowship.
Poetry: Diaz reading her poem, "Manhattan Is a Lenape Word:" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MD1t_sGUCTw
"The Facts of Art:" https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/56354/the-facts-of-art
LANGSTON HUGHES – Langston Hughes was a prolific African-American writer and activist who was born in Joplin, Missouri. He was one of the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance, a period of enormous amounts of incredible artistic work within the Black community of Harlem. Hughes is best known for his portrayals of Black life in the United States, and for his outspoken advocacy for accurate portrayals of Black people within media. In addition to being a poet, he also wrote plays, short stories, and essays, co-writing with the likes of Zora Neale Hurston and publishing a huge body of literature during his time.
Poetry: I, Too: https://poets.org/poem/i-too
Let America Be America Again: https://poets.org/poem/let-america-be-america-again
Dream Variations: https://poets.org/poem/dream-variations
MARGARET ATWOOD – Hi poets! Given the current political situation and the overturning of Roe v. Wade on June 24, 2022, the poet this month is one who is renowned all over the world for not only her poetry but also her fiction. Margaret Atwood is one of the foremost feminist writers of our time. Not only does she discuss issues that are relevant to women everywhere, but she has continued to stand up for women's rights for the entirety of her life. She fiercely advocates for a woman's right to choose what she does with her body, and her most famous novel, "The Handmaid's Tale," is a harrowing story about what happens when those rights are taken away. Born in Ottawa in 1939, she is an incredible contemporary thinker who is sadly more relevant now than ever. Read her piece in the Atlantic, "I invented Gilead. The Supreme Court is making it real."
Marrying the Hangman: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47789/marrying-the-hangman
Siren Song: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/32778/siren-song
Helen of Troy Does Some Countertop Dancing: https://poets.org/poem/helen-troy-does-countertop-dancing
NAOMI SHIHAB NYE – To get to know this poet and the humanitarian spirit of her writing, you might start with her poem, "Kindness." It begins:
"Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness. ..."
Naomi Shihab Nye was born in 1952 in St. Louis, Missouri. Her father was a Palestinian refugee and her mother was American. After the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks, Nye became a voice for Arab Americans, speaking out against both terrorism and prejudice. She writes about ordinary people and objects across cultures, showing the universal concerns and hopes that all people share. Along with her poetry, Nye is a children's author, known for her keen sensitivity and cultural awareness, as in the book Sitti’s Secrets (1994) about an Arab American child’s relationship with her grandmother. Nye is the recipient of many honors and awards for her work, including the Ivan Sandrof Award for Lifetime Achievement from the National Book Critics Circle, the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award, and many Pushcart Prizes. She lives in San Antonio, Texas.
Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye, a poetry film by Ana Perez Lopez: https://youtu.be/xFLQOOiAqxQ
Two Countries: https://poets.org/poem/two-countries
T.S. ELIOT – Hey poets! Let's take a look at one of the most famous American poets of all time. T.S. Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri, and became one of the icons of the Modernist movement. He won a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948.The Modernists, who were disenchanted with the old Romantic movement of poetry, which highlighted nature and beauty, instead described the world as they knew it after the First World War: a deeply flawed place. Eliot was famous for his complicated and layered poems, which used allusions and similes to artfully describe the world as he saw it.
The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/44212/the-love-son...
The Waste Land: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47311/the-waste-land
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:
[Photo credit: Yale University Art Gallery, Artist: Boris Artzybasheff]
WARSAN SHIRE – For National Poetry Month, let's explore the poetry of a newer poet, Warsan Shire. She is a Somali British writer who was born in Nairobi. In 2014 she was appointed the first Young Poet Laureate for London. She gained a huge following online, and is releasing her first full collection of poetry in the near future, so keep an eye out. Her poetry explores the themes of her heritage as well as her family's experiences as refugees in the West. She first rose to prominence with her most well-known poem, 'Home'. She's still young and has a lot of work ahead of her, so I thought she would be the perfect pick to introduce a younger poet who will no doubt grow in following years! [Photo by Amaal Said, Poetry Foundation]
CAROL ANN DUFFY – Hello, poets! March is National Women's History Month, and I thought Carol Ann Duffy would be the perfect poet to explore during this time. Duffy is a Scottish poet who is best known for love poems in the form of monologues. She is an advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, and has several standout poems about queer love. She was the UK's poet laureate, and continues to be celebrated among literary circles. Duffy is well-known for subverting traditional stereotypes about women and the lives of women. She is currently a writing professor at Manchester Metropolitan University.
War Photographer: https://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poem/war-photographer/
If I Was Dead: https://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poem/if-i-was-dead/
AUDRE LORDE – An advocate for both black and queer communities. She was born on February 18th, 1934 in NYC to immigrant parents. She was a prolific poet, who used her voice to provide commentary on the injustices around her. In fact, she published her first poem in high school, in Seventeen magazine. She released numerous books and founded institutions such as Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press. She died in 1992 of breast cancer, but she remains a prominent figure whenever we discuss the literary world of the twentieth century.
Father Son and Holy Ghost-https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46462/father-son-and-holy-ghost
MARY OLIVER – Hi poets! This month's poet is Mary Oliver, who was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on September 10th, 1935, and passed away recently in 2019. She is a great example of a queer poet who kept her life mostly private, though she had a longtime partner for most of her life. Her work is based in Romantic traditions of poetry, and is praised in the poetry community for being clear and evocative, with dimensions of the self incorporated in her later work. The theme of nature still dominates though, and some of her best known poems use this theme, combined with simpler words, for a beautiful effect.
The Swan: https://www.poeticous.com/mary-oliver/the-swan-1
The Summer Day:https://www.loc.gov/programs/poetry-and-literature/poet-laureate/poet-la...
Watering The Stones:https://www.ez-blitz.com/inspiration/2019/10/27/watering-the-stones
ANNA AKHMATOVA – The famous Soviet luminary Anna Akhmatova was born in Ukraine, formerly part of Russia, on June 23, 1889. She was interested in poetry for much of her youth, but her family was resistant to the idea of her becoming a poet, so she went to law school instead. After her marriage to a prominent poet and critic, she started writing again and published her first book, Evening. She is known for her sharp imagery and political commentary under the oppressive conditions of Soviet Russia. Akhmatova often faced government opposition to her work.
ALLEN GINSBERG – Hey poets! Happy Pride Month! In honour of Pride Month, I've chosen one of the most influential LGBT poets of the 20th century to be June's poet. The extraordinary poet Allen Ginsberg was one ofthe Beat Poets, a generation of poets and writers including the likes of Jack Kerouac who challenged the idea that poetry had to be written with a certain poetic meter, and what exactly was acceptable content for a poem. Ginsberg was very involved in politics, and participated regularly in protests against the Vietnam War. Ginsberg was openly gay during a very dangerous time, and his words still ring true with queer people all over the world today.
A Supermarket in California-https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47660/a-supermarket-in-california
And when my sorrow was born: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/58723/and-when-my-sorrow-was-born
The Good God and the Evil God: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/58712/the-good-god-and-the-evil-g...
Once you're done discovering his writing, go to the Great Poets challenge and write something that is inspired by his writing, or a homage to the poet himself! Please indicate his name at the top of your piece. If a specific poem or story inspired you, please include it too.
Epitaph for Fire and Flower-https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?volume=89&issue=…
On the Decline of Oracles-https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?contentId=28128