10 of the Most Bad-Ass Contemporary American Poets

By
Share:

As you may know, April is National Poetry Month, so we have poets on the brain a little more than usual. We’ve been celebrating by memorizing poems, but the occasion has also gotten us thinking about the modern perception of poets in America — a lot of people think of poets as having a sort of hippy flower-worshipper vibe that is rather inaccurate (or at least not true all the time). To broaden the field of our collective imagination a little bit, we’ve put together this list of some of the toughest, coolest, most badass contemporary American poets living and working today — though we know there are way more than ten, and everyone has their own idea of what being a badass entails, so we’re definitely open to additions. Click through to check out our picks, and let us know if we’ve missed any of your favorites in the comments!

Nick Flynn

Nick Flynn would probably make this list just for the fact that his memoir is called Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, which is one of our favorite names for anything ever — never mind that the book, which traces Flynn’s relationship with his ex-con father living on the streets of Boston, is brilliant. Flynn, who worked as a ship’s captain, as an electrician, and at a homeless center before he began racking up fellowships and writing awards, writes poems and prose with comedic brilliance and hardscrabble reality in equal measure.

Frederick Seidel

In 1962, Seidel’s first book, Final Solutions, was selected for a prize sponsored by the 92Y. However, both the 92Y and the publisher rejected the manuscript on the grounds that some of the poems “libeled a noted living person” and had “anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic” tones (an accusation Seidel refuted). The prize was revoked, but Seidel’s subsequent works only continued to be controversial and, to some ears, highly offensive. Critics are still torn about him — he is notoriously filthy rich, refuses to bend to the establishment, and doesn’t really watch what he says. The New York Times dubbed him “Laureate of the Louche” and The New Republic’s Adam Kirsch wondered if he were “A violent misogynist, or an elegant seducer, or both?” Regardless, his poetry is brutal and fearless and wonderful, and incredibly important to our day. Plus, the man owns four Ducati motorcycles — and he writes poems about them.

Mary Karr

Anyone who’s read Mary Karr’s memoirs — or seen her speak — doesn’t need us to tell them why she’s a badass, but we’ll give it a shot anyway. Karr, who had a rough upbringing in a poor town in Texas and is many years clean from addictions that once plagued her (pretty badass in itself, we’d say), is a wickedly funny hurricane of Southern sass and whip-smart remarks, possessing that kind of toughness that also somehow reads as impish, heart-wide-open joy. She described her most recent memoir, Lit, as the tale of “my journey from blackbelt sinner and lifelong agnostic to unlikely Catholic.” Plus, she curses like a sailor.

C.D. Wright

Born in the Ozarks, Wright is a constantly evolving poet, rife with contradictions in her work and life, every line as tough and strange as it is beautiful. As she herself explained, “I’m country but sophisticated. I’m particular and concrete, but I’m probing another plane. . . . There are many times when I want to hammer the head. Other times I want to sleep on the hammer.” Poet and critic Joel Brouwer concurred, “Wright belongs to a school of exactly one.” Doesn’t get more badass than that.

Philip Levine

Being the Poet Laureate is pretty badass, we have to say. But Levine, who grew up in industrial Detroit and began working in car manufacturing plants by the ripe age of fourteen, has applied that experience to his excellent poetry, steeped in the working class concerns of 20th century Detroit and the Jewish immigrant experience. His work questions conventional American ideas and values and, especially starting with They Feed They Lion, pushes the boundaries of traditional form. Plus, at 84, he’s still writing up a storm, and you can’t say that’s not badass in and of itself.

Maya Angelou

We’re going to go ahead and call Maya Angelou the ultimate poetic badass here. One of the most decorated and celebrated writers of our time, not only is she a poet, but she’s a playwright, memoirist, essayist, screenwriter, and all-around American icon. She was a force in the Civil Rights movement. She worked as a journalist in Egypt and Ghana during the decolonization. In 1993, she read her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration — the first poet to perform an inaugural reading since Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy’s 1961 ceremony. She astounds us in every way.

Yusef Komunyakaa

Born in Bogalusa, Louisiana at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, Komunyakaa served as a correspondent in the United States Army and as the managing editor of the military paper Southern Cross during the Vietnam war, for which he was awarded a Bronze Star. Later, he began writing poetry, not just about the war — though his collection Dien Cai Dau is astounding — and his poems are filled with fierce, arresting imagery and deep musical cadences. Of his work, poet Toi Derricotte wrote, “He takes on the most complex moral issues, the most harrowing ugly subjects of our American life. His voice, whether it embodies the specific experiences of a black man, a soldier in Vietnam, or a child in Bogalusa, Louisiana, is universal. It shows us in ever deeper ways what it is to be human.” Sounds like a badass to us.

August Kleinzahler

Of the New Jersey-born Kleinzahler, Timothy Williams wrote, “His work is a modernist swirl of sex, surrealism, urban life and melancholy, with a jazzy backbeat. His personality combines Allen Ginsberg’s goofball charm and Norman Mailer’s inveterate pugnacity.” As sweet as Ginsberg but as petulant as Mailer? That’s badass in the best of ways. Kleinzahler blends high and low art, refuses to be a part of the literary establishment, and doesn’t mince words. “I don’t like to call myself a poet,” he told Williams. “Most poets are shiftless, no-account fools.” Kleinzahler, for his part, will remain the gruff, genius loner with a perpetual raised eyebrow.

Lucia Perillo

Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1988, Lucia Perillo, who once had a job killing coyotes at the Denver Wildlife Research Center, approaches her disease and her identity as a “disabled poet” with wit and a serious sense of humor. Or, as Poets & Writers put it, she “stares down multiple sclerosis and laughs in its face.” Also, she has a book of poems called Inseminating the Elephant. We’re not sure quite what that says about her, but we know we like it.

Brian Turner

Another soldier-poet, Turner served for seven years in the US Army, including serving as an infantry team leader in Iraq beginning in 2003, so it goes without saying that this man is pretty tough. His incredible debut collection about his experiences in Iraq, Here, Bullet, is a stark, unflinching look at wartime and humanity.