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10 Life-Changing Poets Every Millennial Needs to Read

Poetry has long been an art form to which people have turned for comfort and advice, seeking voices which both speak to and for them. For today’s generation, facing not only the self-doubt and uncertainty brought about by the beginnings of adulthood but also complex contemporary social and political issues of race, sexuality and identity, poetry may be just the source of solace and wisdom they desperately need. Here we profile 10 poets whose work is particularly relevant to Generation Y.

The Pleasures of the Damned: Selected Poetry 1951-1993, Charles Bukowski | Canongate Books
The Pleasures of the Damned: Selected Poetry 1951-1993, Charles Bukowski | © Canongate Books

Charles Bukowski

Once a cult writer, today, Charles Bukowski is considered the voice of the downtrodden and oppressed in American society. His writing is vivid and angry, using provocative imagery of alcohol, sex and violence in order to expose and reflect the neglected underbelly of contemporary urban life in America. Featuring ideas which would become key themes in American pulp fiction, Bukowski’s poems often centre around dissatisfied, put-upon characters working dead-end jobs, frustrated with the mundaneness of their lives, and seeking futile pleasure in physical and narcotic companionship. In this way, Bukowski exposes the American Dream as a fraud, and, despite the depressive, pessimistic nature of his work, provides comfort to thousands who find in him a voice for their troubles.

Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems, Allen Ginsberg | Penguin Classics
Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems, Allen Ginsberg | © Penguin Classics

Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg’s poetry epitomises youthful struggle against the trappings of social norms and pressures. Part of the acclaimed Beat generation of writers, Ginsberg’s own life was marked by anti-establishment tendencies, opposing capitalism, homophobia, and militarism and the Vietnam War among others. Ginsberg used his poetry as a platform for these ideas – raw, honest, and filled with vivid imagery, his poetry refuses to be silenced or ignored, and instead presents a challenge to authority and social expectations. His most famous work Howl (1955), written when he was only 30, is quite literally a cry of despair, featuring escalating verses which lament the state of America’s marginalised youth.

Lighthead, Terrance Hayes | Penguin Books
Lighthead, Terrance Hayes | © Penguin Books

Terrance Hayes

An award-winning poet, Terrance Hayes has published four poetry collections to date:Muscular Music (1999), Hip Logic (2002), Wind in a Box (2006), and Lighthead (2010). His collections have won the National Book Award for poetry and the Whiting Writers Award, as well as being nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Award. Using self-imposed forms and structural constraints in order to test the boundaries of poetic expression, Hayes’ poetry is writing which the millennial generation can relate to, addressing themes of race, masculinity and music in a contemporary voice filled with humour and references to pop culture.

The Collected Poems of Kenneth Koch, Kenneth Koch | Alfred A. Knopf
The Collected Poems of Kenneth Koch, Kenneth Koch | © Alfred A. Knopf

Kenneth Koch

Frustrated by what he saw as the depressive state of poetry in the mid-20th century, Kenneth Koch sought to revolutionise people’s perception of poetry as an overly sombre, stale art form, by injecting his own poetry with surrealism, familiarity and humour. Together with several other poets who formed the New York School of poetry, including Frank O’Hara and John Ashberry, Koch approached serious, emotional topics with a refreshing sense of fun and optimism, making his work a perfect lesson in accepting the seriousness of life with grace and humour. In particular, his poem ‘To My Twenties’ is a charming, funny ode to an age which Koch depicts as full of possibility and energy: core reading for any uncertain millennial.

The Colossus and Other Poems, Sylvia Plath | Vintage Books
The Colossus and Other Poems, Sylvia Plath | © Vintage Books

Sylvia Plath

In a style that would come to be termed ‘confessional poetry’, so called for its unflinching, intensely personal approach, Sylvia Plath’s writing is an exploration of her own self – of her fragile mental state, troubled relationships, and search for a fixed identity. Dealing directly with unspoken, taboo subjects such as suicide, depression and the ugliness of family life, Plath sought to tear down the veneer of idealised American life, and expose the dramatic hardships of day to day existence. Her language mirrors her bold subject matter, giving these themes wild and violent expression. Through her poetry, Plath does not dismiss the harshness of reality which many young people face, but rather gives them a voice.

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Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke | Penguin Classics
Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke | © Penguin Classics

Rainer Maria Rilke

Born in 1875 in Prague to Austrian parents, Rainer Maria Rilke is today considered one of the most powerful and evocative German-language poets of all time. His work revolves around existential themes, attempting to reconcile contrasting ideas of suffering, joy, beauty and mortality, and using religious and mythological motifs to demonstrate mankind’s constant search for the sublime in an unforgiving world. One of his most famous works, ‘Letters to a Young Poet’, is an intensely lyrical series of letters written to a young soldier. In them, Rilke urges the young man to accept fear and doubt as part of human existence, but to use them in order to live a life full of bravery and love.

Poetry in (e) Motion, Scroobius Pip | Titan Books
Poetry in (e) Motion, Scroobius Pip | © Titan Books

Scroobius Pip

Scroobius Pip’s very name derives from poetry – born David Meads, he adopted the name Scroobius Pip after the creature from the eponymous Edward Lear poem ‘The Scroobious Pip’. Scroobius Pip quickly gained success for the defiance and intensity of his verses, which revolve around contemporary culture, individuality and identity. In 2006, Scroobius Pip began his long-term collaboration with DJ Dan le Sac, creating a hit album Angles(2008) which innovatively blurs the lines between hip hop and spoken poetry. As well as his music, Scroobius Pip has released a poetry collection Poetry in (e) Motion (2010), featuring a selection of his poetry illustrated by a variety of artists.

Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, Warsan Shire | flipped eye publishing limited
Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, Warsan Shire | © flipped eye publishing limited

Warsan Shire

Born in Kenya to Somalian parents, Warsan Shire emigrated to London at a young age, where she began experimenting with writing and poetry. Extraordinary in its rawness and honesty, Shire’s poetry is something unique: marrying straightforward yet intensely lyrical language with issues relevant to today’s young generation. By turns empowering and vulnerable, Shire’s poetry deals with themes of femininity and womanhood, growing up, self-identity, and the idea of belonging, inspired by her own background and experiences. Shire released her first poetry collection Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth (2011) after her poem ‘For Women Who Are Difficult to Love’ gained sudden, enormous popularity online, and was named the first Young Poet Laureate for London in 2013.

Hold Your Own, Kate Tempest | Picador
Hold Your Own, Kate Tempest | © Picador

Kate Tempest

One of the UK’s most successful young poets working today, Kate Tempest confronts the idealism of youth in a non-idealistic world, tackling issues of class, poverty and growing up through her powerful verse. Growing up in south east London, where she became increasingly aware of social and political problems, Tempest began her career as a rapper and in slam poetry circles, before developing her own blend of written and spoken poetry. Her work frequently uses literature and myth to address pervasive narratives in human life from ancient to contemporary times – her epic work Brand New Ancients reimagines the ancient gods as modern feuding families, thereby depicting the heroism and the tragedy in everyday life and actions.

Nejma, Nayyirah Waheed | CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Nejma, Nayyirah Waheed | © CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform

Nayyirah Waheed

On paper, Nayyirah Waheed’s poetry looks very similar to much of e. e. cummings’ work, with short, simple sentences, frequent enjambments, and a distinct lack of punctuation and capitalisation, creating a sense of free, uninhibited expression. Her poetry is rich with emotion and beauty, addressing many of the themes which affect contemporary youth, from love and relationships to the realities of migrant life through powerful words: one verse fiercely claims ‘I am mine./before i am ever anyone else’s.’. Although Waheed has published two collections of poetry – Salt and Nejma – she continues to make use of the Internet as a platform, posting verses, as well as inspiration, on her Twitter and Tumblr.

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Written by PH

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