Six years ago I wrote a blog post. 10 Poems That Teenagers Might Actually Love. I was fresh out of an English Literature undergrad and midway through my library degree. I decided that for a poem to be appealing to teens it should meet two major criteria:
- Vivid imagery
- Relevant subject matter
10 Poems That Teenagers Might Actually Love is by far the most popular post on this website. When you search “poems for teenagers” on Google, it comes up as the first result. It beats my second most popular post by tens of thousands of views. I am so glad to know that teachers and librarians and teens are using my list to find poetry.
But here’s the thing. Almost all of the poets on my list are men. Almost all of them are North American. And all of them are white. Yes, those are 10 poems that may appeal to teens. But there are so many more voices that deserve to be featured. I can do better.
10 Contemporary Poems by Women that Teens Might Actually Love
1. Bubblegum or Bruise by Olivia Gatwood. I could have included almost any of Gatwood’s poems on this list because of how well they fit my criteria for poems that appeal to teens. Her storytelling ability is especially evident in Bubblegum or Bruise, a poem about a girl who decides to wear some blush to her seventh grade class. Many of her poems center around moments from young-adulthood, and can be vividly imagined. Easily accessible and entertaining poems, that usually have unexpected twists. Topics for discussion: storytelling in poetry, repetition, metaphor, pop-culture references, rhythm, shifting tone.
2. Awus Awus by Gwen Benaway. In this poem, Benaway writes about her experience with harassment as a trans woman from an Annishinabe/Mètis perspecitve. Her unique perspective and vulnerability will strike a chord with teen readers. Many readers will relate to the tone in the final line: “they started it”. I love the way the couplets in this poem could mimic the sound of quick footsteps or a racing heartbeat. Readers may feel transported to the moment, and will feel the raw emotion. Topics for discussion: perspective, storytelling in poetry, metaphor, form, rhythm, sound.
3. Give Back Our Children by Canisia Lubrin. This Canadian poet infuses a recognizable and strong voice in all her writing. The perception of blackness is often discussed, and vivid imagery is always there. Give Back Our Children explores inherited trauma, and has tie-in potential to history class. The first line of the poem is “Born”. It’s the only line in the poem with only one word, which begs to be analyzed, and could make for an interesting class discussion. Topics for discussion: line breaks, voice, repetition, pacing, sound, context, the phrase “root-thick hearts.”
4. Dressing Down by Kamilah Aisha Moon. The opening lines of this poem are “When you’re gay in Dixie / you’re a clown of a desperate circus.” If that’s not vivid imagery and relevant subject matter, I don’t know what is. This poem will draw teen readers right into another person’s perspective. An important layer to this poem is the dedication, which addresses a drag queen who uses blackface in her performances. I think this poem is the perfect opportunity to teach the importance of context. Could be useful to do multiple read-throughs of the poem in class – one before and one after discussion of the dedication – to demonstrate how differently the poem reads. Topics for discussion: context, sentence structure, imagery, tone, and perspective, social activism in poetry.
5. The birthday of the world by Marge Piercy. While this might be the most challenging poem on my list, it’s worth a deep dive. Marge Piercy is known for her environmental topics and activism, which will speak to many teenagers today. Six of the seven stanzas bleed into each other, with phrases split in half by a line break. How might that reflect the subject matter? I would lead an inquiry-based discussion on why the poet chose to do that, and how it affects the flow and reading experience. Topics for discussion: activist poetry, introspection, flow, line breaks, imagery, the power of pause, form impacting theme.
6. Text by Carol Ann Duffy. First published in 2005, this poem about connecting through instant messaging is still relevant today, and will lead to discussions on how technology has changed the way we communicate. Duffy’s poem’s are known for their depth of emotion, and often include themes of desperation. The final word in each couplet is a rhyme or slant rhyme with each of the others – why did the poet choose to do that? Why didn’t she make them all full rhymes? How might that reflect the message of the poem? Does Duffy like text messaging or resent it? Topic for discussion: repetition, couplets, metaphor, rhyme and slant rhyme, context.
7. Seaweed by Charly Cox. Young British poet Charly Cox is known for her coming-of-age poetry, and is popular with young readers online. Many of her poems have a spoken word feel to them, including Seaweed, which is set to music and read by the author in the link provided. Cox writes of the things that worry her, compares them to her childhood fear of seaweed, and tells of how her Grandad helped her grow. Students will appreciate her references to current events, vivid imagery, and her relatable storytelling. Topics for discussion: lists in poetry, repetition, spoken poetry, memory, rhythm.
8. One Child Has Brown Eyes by Marylin Chin. Many of Chin’s poems will appeal to teenagers as they often include coming-of-age topics and dive into a character’s unique perspective. She is know for a bluntness that many young readers will appreciate. Although it doesn’t fully follow the format of a sonnet, this poem does seem to be a reaction to traditional sonnets. Eight of the ten lines begin with the word “One,” and the final two lines take a turn beginning with the word “Understand.” I would ask teen readers to reflect on the different characters presented in the poem – do they envision two characters, or more? What are they like? Topics for discussion: identity, repetition, comparison, explore the metaphors in the 7th and 8th lines, vocabulary.
9. of course i want to be successful by Rupi Kaur. It would not be a contemporary list of women poets with teen appeal without Rupi Kaur. Her sparse, Instagrammable poems strike a chord with readers because of their vulnerability. Many readers feel instantly connected to her work, as though she has put their own feelings into words. While each poem appears simpler than more “traditional poetry,” there is room for a lot of exploration. Ask readers to discuss why Kaur uses so much blank space on each page. Topics for discussion: minimalism in literature, connection, female trauma, feminism, the visuals of poetry, and blank page space.
10. Still I Rise by Maya Angelou. This is likely already in every grade 12 poetry unit plan already, but if it’s not, it’s a must. Often brought out for International Women’s Day, this poem embodies power, specifically the power of black women. Self-confidence and overcoming oppression is at the core. Ask readers to compare the form of this poem to traditional hymns. Dive into the figurative language like “the certainty of tides,” and “oil wells / Pumping in my living room.” Explore the powerful end of the poem – how does the form add to that power? Who is the “you” that Angelou is addressing throughout? Topics for discussion: inter-sectional feminism, metaphor, voice, rhyme, repetition, use of question to address the reader.
Bonus 11th poem! Try reading this poem with Still I Rise: A Woman Speaks by Audre Lorde.
Here are more women poets to consider, including some non-contemporary options:
- Edna St. Vincent Millay
- Christina Rossetti
- Emily Dickinson
- P. K. Page
- Gwendolyn Brooks
- Dorothy Parker
- Sylvia Plath
- Elizabeth Barrett Browning
- Laura Riding Jackson
- Gertrude Stein
- Marge Piercy
This is by no means a comprehensive list, nor am I suggesting that the poems on this list are better than poems that are not on this list. This is intended to be a starting place for educators or teens looking for engaging poetry with relevant subject matter. There are thousands of other worthy women poets out there. Leave your suggestions in the comments. I’d love to see them!