Five modern classic American women poets

Do you want to read more poetry but not sure where to start?

For April, poetry month, I’ll be sharing various poetry recommendations to help you read more poetry.

For this week, I wanted to share five American women poets that are considered classics from the last 100 years or so.

This is the last week of poetry month and me sharing poet recommendations. I hope you’ve enjoyed this series! Please let me know your thoughts in a comment below.

All five of the women poets mentioned below were born in the 1900’s, and unfortunately none of them are still with us today. Each of them are significant both for their literary contributions and their impact on society.

Five women poets

Here’s a list of five women poets who lived in the last 100 years or so:

  1. Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000)
  2. Sylvia Plath (1923-1963)
  3. Maya Angelou (1928-2014)
  4. Audre Lorde (1934-1992)
  5. Mary Oliver (1935-2019)

I’ve listed them in order of when they were born. Keep reading to find out more about each one.

Photo by Jez Timms on Unsplash

Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000)

  • 1917-2000
  • Won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1950
    • First African American to receive a Pulitzer Prize
  • Won the Robert Frost Medal for Lifetime Achievement in 1989

Gwendolyn Brooks was an American poet, author, and teacher. She is considered one of the most widely read and influential poets from American poetry in the 1900s.

Brooks started writing poetry young, and by 16 she had already written and published around 75 poems!

She born in the south, but was a lifelong resident of Chicago. Living in Chicago was a huge part of her life and greatly influenced her work.

Her work often centers around the lives of ordinary people, with characters commonly a reflection of her life in the inner city of Chicago. She also conveyed a political consciousness through her work, with reflections of the civil rights activism from the 1960’s onwards.

Over her life, she received many public recognitions of her work. In 1950, she received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her book Annie Allen, which made her the first African American to ever receive a Pulitzer. She was also inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters and became the poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, being the first Black woman to achieve either of those.


Sylvia Plath (1923-1963)

  • 1932 – 1963
  • Credited with advancing the genre of confessional poetry
  • Died by suicide when only 30 years old

Sylvia Plath is considered one of the most admired and dynamic 20th century poets. She’s best known for her semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar (1963), and her two published collections of poetry, The Colossus and Other Poems (1960) and Ariel (1965).

When Plath was only 30 years old (1963), she died by suicide. She suffered from depression for most of her life and had tried several times to commit suicide. At the time of her death, she already had a significant following in the literary community and has since inspired countless readers and other poets.

In 1956, she married fellow poet Ted Hughes. Their relationship was tumultuous and Plath said he was abusive in her letters. They separated due to Hughes’ affair with another woman.

Horrifically, Plath died by suicide before their divorce was finalized and thus her entire estate and all her written work were inherited by Hughes. When Ariel was published after her death, Hughes changed the arrangement and selection of poems to be included from what Plath had already chosen. He has also admitted to destroying some of her journals and even lost (probably “lost”) another journal and an unfinished novel. He’s been repeatedly condemned for his censoring and controlling of her work.


Maya Angelou (1928-2014)

  • 1928-2014
  • Died at the age of 86
  • Genre(s): Memoirs and poetry
  • Key books: I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings

She had a far reaching career, both as an entertainer (singer, dancer, actress, composer, and Hollywood’s first Black director), storyteller (writer, editor, essayist, playwright, and poet), civil rights activist (worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X), and educator (as a lifetime professorship at Wake Forest University).

Over her life she wrote 36 books, with her most famous being her series of memoirs. Her book I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings, the first in the series of seven memoirs, was incredibly well received and nominated for a National Book Award.

At Bill Clinton’s inauguration she recited her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” and you can see her inaugural poem recited here. This made her the first poet since Robert Frost (John F. Kennedy in 1961) to recite a poem at a presidential inauguration.

She has received so many medals and public recognition for her work that I’m sure I won’t do it justice, but here’s a short, selective list:

  • Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her book Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie
  • Tony Award for her role in the play Look Away
  • 3 Grammys for her spoken word albums
  • National Medal of Arts given by President Bill Clinton in 2000
  • Presidential Medal of Freedom given by President Barack Obama in 2010
  • Served on two presidential committees (Gerald Ford in 1975 & Jimmy Carter in 19977)

Videos of her performing her poetry


Audre Lorde (1934-1992)

  • 1934-1992
  • Died at the age of 58
  • Key books:
    Sister Outsider, The Black Unicorn
  • Key Essay:
    The Master’s Tools Will Not Dismantle the Master’s House

Audre Lorde was a self described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” She includes all these aspects of her identity in how she described herself, because she focused a lot on intersectionality and how each area of her life contributed to her overall experience.

A lot of her efforts were related to social activism, working to confront and address various areas of injustice, including racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia, both through political activist work and as a thought leader. Her written work centered around feminism, lesbianism, illness and civil rights, all of it as an exploration of the black female identity.

She contributed significantly to feminist theory, critical race studies, and queer theory. Her iconic essay “The Master’s Tools Will Not Dismantle the Master’s House” was an early discussion of the intersectionality of race, class, and gender.

Lorde was very vocal about her issues with the first world/white feminist movement and actively worked to confront race-related issues.


Mary Oliver (1935-2019)

  • 1935 – 2019
  • Won the National Book Award  and the Pulitzer Prize
  • Her work is inspired by nature

Mary Oliver is a well renown American poet. She was declared America’s best-selling poet in 2007. She also won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (for her 5th collection of poetry called American Primitive).

Most of her work focuses on themes of nature and the natural world. Oliver was influenced by both Whitman and Thoreau, as is seen in her clear and poignant discussions of nature. She’s also been compared to Emily Dickinson, as Oliver’s work leans toward solitude and inner thoughts, with a combination of dark introspection with joyous release.

Mary Oliver would often go for walks for inspiration and to help her writing. She rarely gave interviews and preferred for her work to speak for itself. But in a rare interview she said, “When things are going well, you know, the walk does not get rapid or get anywhere: I finally just stop, and write. That’s a successful walk!”

In the late 1950’s, Oliver met Molly Malone Cook, a photographer, and they became life long partners.

One quote that was all over the internet a while ago was:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

It’s from her poem The Summer Day (you can read it here), and it’s much more about strolling through nature and appreciating the little things than grand adventures.


Final thoughts

All these women are incredible and I encourage you to check out their work. All of them shaped the literary world and how we view the world.

Have you read any of these poets’ work?

I hope you’re learned something new and maybe discovered a new poet to read. Now that it’s the last week of Poetry month, what new poets did you discover this month?

Who would you add to this list of classic women poets?

I would love to hear your thoughts in a comment below

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