5 Contemporary Poets to Teach in the High School Classroom

Poetry selections in high school are too often limited to a hallowed few—Shakespeare and Petrarch, Whitman and Dickinson, Langston Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and perhaps Billy Collins—if poetry is included at all.

While these canonized favorites can enhance any unit of study, they can leave students feeling like poetry is a thing of the past, which couldn’t be further from the truth! A chorus of poets working, writing, and publishing today are taking on the specifics of racial and gender equality and addressing the universal questions poetry is particularly well suited for: How do we preserve and share the sweetness of life? How do we make meaning of its bitterness?

Let’s take a look at five contemporary poets who can enrich and diversify your curriculum:

1. Tracy K. Smith

Who she is: Tracy K. Smith is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, who was named Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry by the Librarian of Congress in 2017 and 2018. Born in Massachusetts in 1972 and raised in California, Smith also hosts a popular podcast, The Slowdown, which delivers poetry to listeners daily.

Why she’s a great fit for students: While some modern poetry can seem abstract and intimidating, Smith relies on familiar language and simple syntax elevated by elegant line breaks and insightful musings to convey her themes. Her work pairs well with classics from Shakespearean sonnets to American transcendentalism, and her sequential poems provide an excellent opportunity to study how themes develop across distinct pieces of writing.

Poems to check out:An Old Story,” “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” and “The Good Life

2. Mary Karr

Who she is: Born in Texas in the mid 1950s, Karr is a poet, essayist, and memoirist. She is known for her blunt and honest view of her life as well as her lyrical, captivating use of language. Karr has published five collections of poetry, made it to the top of The New York Times bestseller list multiple times, and received numerous awards, including grants from the NEA and the Guggenheim Foundation.

Why she’s a great fit for students: Much of Karr’s work considers her coming-of-age experiences as a bookish girl finding herself in the midst of a hardscrabble family in a rural, industrial town. With their expert blend of imagery, metaphor, and personal details, Karr’s poetry pairs well with any bildungsroman such as The Catcher in the Rye or To Kill a Mockingbird.

Poems to check out:Hard Knocks,” “Final Position,” “Lipstick,” and “The Burning Girl

3. Thomas Sayers Ellis

Who he is: Ellis is a poet born and raised in Washington, DC, whose work has been celebrated and anthologized since the publication of his first chapbook, The Genuine Negro Hero, in 2001. In 2015, Ellis was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship for Poetry.

Why he’s a great fit for students: Ellis’s work addresses identity politics, race, and popular culture in America. (The printing of his 2010 collection, Skin, Inc: Identity Repair Poems was delayed so he could include a sequence that considers Michael Jackson’s legacy.)  Meanwhile, Ellis’s attention to sound, rhythm, and diction illustrates how poetry can generate meaning beyond the words written on the page.

Poems to check out:All Their Stanzas Look Alike,” “Or,” “My Meter is Percussive,” and “The Identity Repairman

4. Patricia Lockwood

Who she is: Born in 1982, Lockwood has been heralded as the “Poet Laureate of Twitter” by Rolling Stone Magazine. Lockwood came to fame when her 2013 poem “Rape Joke” went viral. Since then, Lockwood has published two critically acclaimed collections of poetry and a memoir, Priestdaddy.

Why she’s a great fit for students: Lockwood’s style combines the gritty, bitter aspects of adolescence and young adulthood with her distinctive wit and humor. Her combination of formal poetic elements—rhyme, metered lines, odes—with slang and low humor is sure to keep students engaged.

Poems to check out:Government Spending,” “Rape Joke,” “The Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and “The Father and Mother of American Tit-Pics” (which is about Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson)

5. Ocean Vuong

Who he is: Born in Saigon, Vuong immigrated to the US at the age of two and has been living, teaching, and writing on the East Coast ever since. A critically acclaimed poet and novelist, Vuong’s 2016 collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, was ranked a Top 10 Book of 2016 by the New York Times.

Why he’s a great fit for students: Vuong’s work transcends place and time, drawing from classical literature, popular culture, and his own immigration experiences. At the same time, it is grounded in the particulars of coming of age, rebirth, and finding one’s self within one’s family.

Poems to check out:DetoNation,” “Telemachus,” “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong,” and “Aubade with Burning City