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Self-Published Poets

By Shannon Owens, Reference Department,

Walt Whitman

Using the lens of today’s microscope, hearing the term “self-published author” is pretty commonplace. With technology being what it is, anybody can publish their work online. It’s easy to forget that this designation can be applied to many of the most famous writers, dating back generations. Point of fact: Walt Whitman self-published his masterpiece collection of poetry. “Leaves of Grass” was first published in 1855; a simple volume with a mere twelve poems. Whitman continued to add new poems, change titles, and regroup poems up until his final, “deathbed” ninth volume 1891-1892. This had turned into a daunting collection, comprised of nearly 400 poems. Whitman influenced several famous poets, including Allen Ginsburg, Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams. He never backed away from controversial (at least for the 1800s) topics and changed the game with his unusual rhyme, meter, and cadence patterns.

Today, poetry has seen an epic resurgence of popularity. This is encouraging, given that we’re so inundated with technology of the instant gratification sort: internet, podcasts, Instagram, Netflix, etc. It’s sometimes shocking that people find the time to simply sit down and read a book. Maybe it stands to reason that poetry is the perfect literary hallmark, given that it lends itself to brevity and creativity. Heck, some of today’s most popular poets have gained major steam using that aforementioned source: Instagram. If you’re a poetry connoisseur or just interested in dipping your toe into the poetry waters, we’ve got some great current poets to check out!

Rupi Kaur reading from her book milk and honey in Vancouver – 2017

Rupi Kaur is one of those poets whose poetry is all over Instagram. She’s already a number one New York Times bestseller, with her first collected work, “Milk and Honey”, selling over a million copies. In fact, it’s been translated into 40 languages and has knocked Homer’s “The Odyssey” out of its position as the bestselling poetry book of all time. In 2017, Kaur released her second volume of poetry entitled “The Sun and Her Flowers.” She tackles tough issues familiar to all: love, loss, and trauma.

Tracy K. Smith is the author of four books of poetry, most recently releasing “Wade in the Water” (2018). Her resume and accolades are staggering. She received her BA from Harvard and a MFA in creative writing from Columbia. “Life on Mars” (2011) went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. In 2014 she was awarded the Academy of American Poets fellowship and in 2017 she was named U.S. poet laureate. Her memoir, “Ordinary Light”, was a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction. Academy of American Poets Chancellor, Toi Derricotte, summed Smith’s work up best: “The surfaces of a Tracy K. Smith poem are beautiful and serene, but underneath, there is always a sense of unknown vastness. Her poems take the risk of inviting us to imagine, as the poet does, what it is to travel in another person’s shoes.”

Ocean Vuong

Ocean Vuong was born in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam on a rice farm. When he was two years old (1990), he immigrated with his family to Connecticut (after spending a year in a refugee camp in the Philippines.) Despite the tender age in which this occurred, one suspects his background influences his work, which seems to explore themes of transformation and traumatic loss. Vuong earned his BA at Brooklyn College and is now works for the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His collection, “Night Sky with Exit Wounds,” was the winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2018. He has had works translated into Korean, Vietnamese, Russian, and Hindi.

Mary Oliver is a fitting final mention, given that she has drawn widespread comparisons to Walt Whitman himself. Her poetry focuses primarily on nature, with a particular regard for the quiet aspects and moments it holds. Her fifth book (“American Primitive”) was written in 1983 and won the Pulitzer Prize. “New and Selected Poems” (1992) was the recipient of the National Book Award. She was a prolific writer, producing a new book or collection every one-two years. Her last release (2017) was a greatest hits of sorts entitled “Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver” and can be found at a bookstore or library near you. Oliver passed away at the age of 83 earlier this year.

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