Kick-@ss Writers—Who Just Happen to be Poets

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Excuse the title–I know it isn’t my usual style, but I thought it might get people’s attention.

It has come to my attention through the years that we poets really have a bad wrap as writers. In example, I once interviewed with a manager at an internet company (I believe it was Web MD!) hiring editors to basically, proofread the material that writers had submitted. These articles were then turned over to somebody with a medical degree to do some real editing.

When she heard I was a poet (with a master’s degree no less), man, her enthusiasm towards me really waned. And I wasn’t going to tell her, after that, about my degree in journalism, too, or the B.A. in straight English Lit. In short, people think we are ‘foofy,’ to coin a term and take poetic license—you know, a little light in the theme department, usually, and given to unicorn chasing and a delight in pretentious rainbows, etc.

Of course, that really is about somebody who has read too many Hallmark greeting cards—and not the poet, usually—at least not a poet worth his or her salt.

So I’ve compiled a list of d*mn cool writers who also just happen to be poets. I realize that reading and writing poetry is always going to be a specialized sport, but thought I’d do what I can to promote the cause.

Charles Bukowski

Ha! People think they’ve heard raunchy and low? Think that kind of writing was developed to the utmost by script writers (as indeed four films were based on his life) and rock musicians? Think again. You haven’t experienced culture low until you’ve read it written with the intensity of a poet. He’s not my personal favorite, but for those who love this kind of thing, he is the king.

See his The People Look Like Flowers at Last and Mockingbird Wish Me Luck as examples of some of his best collections.

Phillip Levine

Born in Detroit, MI, he is known as the working man’s poet. His book of poems, and its titled poem, What Work Is, won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1991.

Publisher’s Weekly sums his work up well: “Levine writes gritty, fiercely unpretentious free verse about American manliness, physical labor, simple pleasures and profound grief, often set in working-class Detroit (where Levine grew up) or in central California (where he now resides)…. He rocks. Check out his work.

Joy Harjo

An ultra-talented Native American Indian woman, she also happens to be among my all time favorites, based entirely on her collection, The Woman who fell from the Sky. More lyrical stuff was never written, at the same time, no more imagistic.

She also tours around with her blues/rock/reggae group, Poetic Justice, and makes pretty good Indian fry bread, according to an acquaintance of mine. Cool.

Rainer Maria Rilke

OK, here we enter the realm of one of those poets some may consider really ‘foofy.’ This usually means he was writing years ago—enough for the establishment—be that the academy or what have you—to have canonized him/her. Rather like the Impressionists in art history. Downward spiral for a writer’s coolness factor from there, I believe.

But his stuff is just beautiful. And I haven’t yet spotted a badly clichéd rainbow within any of the Duino Elegies that I have read. Promise.

Carolyn Kizer

For me, intellectually, she rules.

According to a biographical description, her work reaches, “into politics, into feminism, especially in her series of poems called “Pro Femina”; into science, the natural world, music, and translations and commentaries on Japanese and Chinese literatures.” That pretty much covers it well.

See her Mermaids in the Basement: Poems for Women for a good representative sample of her work.

Allen Ginsberg

Such an influence, still, on American poetry that almost all male freshman creative writing majors (and some women, too) imitate him in their first work. No lie, I’ve been in enough writing workshops to notice! And who wouldn’t find him somebody to emulate? The power behind the words, and the rolling cadence that is a power of its own.

Of course, see Howl. Then get back to me and we can have a discussion about those stupid rainbows.


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