Americana: 10 U.S. Poets that Rep their Region
Imagine if Ginsberg never lived in New York, or if Thoreau never visited Walden Pond, or if Maya Angelou never left the little town of Stamps, Arkansas—how different would American literature be?
American poets typically have a certain flavor to their work, depending on their region. To create a quick sampling of poetry from sea to shining sea, we’ve rounded up 10 U.S. poets who represent their region.
Starting with the Northeast, let’s take a look at iconic poet Emma Lazarus. This New York City-born writer began her career when she was just a teenager. Her first book, Poems and Translations gained the attention of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
After her rise to fame as one of the first successful Jewish-American authors, Lazarus was commissioned to write a sonnet for the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. Though she initially declined, she later accepted and wrote “The New Colossus,” (1883) which commemorates the plight of immigrants and was inscribed on the pedestal.
Danielle Legros Georges
Haitian-American poet Danielle Legros Georges earned her master’s degree in English and creative writing from New York University. With two collections under her belt, Maroon (2001) and The Dear Remote Nearness of You (2016), she became Boston’s poet laureate.
When she was appointed, she read “Praisesong for Boston,” which celebrates Boston’s history of settlers from across the globe, rich academia in the arts and sciences, and its “ease of summer days and sturdy neighbors.”
In the midwest, we have Hayan Charara from Detroit, MI. He’s authored three poetry collections: The Alchemist’s Diary (2001), The Sadness of Others (2006), and Something Sinister (2016). Charara’s poetry typically explores themes of family, loss, identity, and growing up as an Arab-American in Detroit. His poem “Thinking American” uses Detroit’s manufacturing history and industrial imagery to create an extended metaphor about his experiences.
Former poet laureate of Illinois Gwendolyn Brooks was the first black author to win a Pulitzer prize. Her winning collection Annie Allen (1945) chronicles the life of an African American girl growing into womanhood.
Brooks was born in Topeka, Kanas, but moved to Chicago, Illinois during her childhood. Themes of her urban, blue-collar upbringing are found throughout her poetry in free verse, sonnets, and other forms. Her poem “kitchenette building” serves as a prime example by intimately depicting elements of her apartment kitchen and her family life.
Just southwest of the Illinois state line, we meet poster boy of Missourian literature: Mark Twain. Twain was raised in the small midwestern town of Hannibal, Missouri. Most famous for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, his writing frequently draws inspiration from his hometown. For a taste of his soft heart and small-town adoration, check out “An Ode to Stephen Dowling Bots.” This heartbreaking poem provides an ode to a young boy and his sudden death’s effect on the town.
Gloria E. Anzaldúa
Originally from Harlingen, TX, Gloria E. Anzaldúa is best known for her book Borderlands/La Frontera. Her essays and poetry incorporate her experience growing up on the border between the U.S. and Mexico. Taking on themes of marginalization, spirituality, language, sexuality, and feminism, her work is critically acclaimed. Her poem “To Live in the Borderlands” lends a voice to those from her region who feel they must teeter between two cultures, two languages, and even two identities.
Born in South Carolina, poet Terrance Hayes intertwines strong emotions with smooth wordplay to help the reader’s eye flow from line to line. Much of his work centers around themes of pop culture, race, music, and masculinity. His latest poetry collection American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assasin (2018) is a finalist for the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award. His poem, “The Golden Shovel” gives readers a snapshot of his upbringing and memories of his father while referencing poet Gwendolyn Brooks’ famed poem We Real Cool.
Raised on the Southern Ute reservation in Ignacio, Colorado, Tanaya Winder writes and teaches about various expressions of love, from self-love to community love and even universal love.
Winder firmly believes that poetry must intersect with the community and aims to provide a space to interact and share experiences through her own work. Her poem “Love Lessons in a Time of Settler Colonialism” provides empowering messages for Indigenous womxn, the community, and even her own daughters.
Shin Yu Pai
Now living in the Pacific Northwest, poet and visual artist Shin Yu Pai has served as writer-in-residence at the Seattle Art Museum and the fourth poet laureate of Redmond, Washington from 2015-2017. Her poetry aims to create emotional reactions—perhaps even outrage. Yet, she’s also willing to implicate herself and question her own lines of thinking throughout her poetry. Her poem, “Chit-chat at the Super Wal-Mart” uncomfortably draws attention to a stranger’s biases while also addressing her own.
This New York-born poet quickly became the darling of the Pacific coast after his move to Caramel-by-the-Sea, California in 1905. George Sterling became the center of several Bohemian writer groups. Sterling’s most famous poem is dedicated to the city of San Francisco, “The Cool, Grey City of Love.”
From the weather to politics, to the region’s history and more, each part of the U.S. offers a wide range of experience to draw from. These authors draw from their vastly different regions to create their work—and it shows.