Rap game aside, poetry isn’t traditionally thought of as the province of virile manliness. In a way, though, all poets are extremely “manly,” in that you have to have balls of steel to try and make a living while at the same time being a successful poet. (Like it really take any courage to get into private equity.) Here are some of our favorites.
A few years ago, I picked up Mark Strand’s New Selected Poems, having never even read any of the Old Selected Poems. Or any of his poems, I guess. But I was blown away. Strand is hardly unknown—at 80 years of age, he has won pretty much every literary award there is to win, short of the Nobel—but his often humorous, artfully surrealistic oeuvre probably isn’t as well known as it should be. There’s a reason he’s the only guy on this list who is still alive.
Further reading: New Selected Poems (2009)
When searching for evidence of Jeffers’s manliness, one needs look no further than his fortress-like abode in Carmel, California. This residence, which he called “Tor House and Hawk Tower,” looks exactly like something called Tor House and Hawk Tower should look. One feels bad for solicitors who showed up uninvited, knocked on Jeffers’s door, and were summarily doused in boiling oil. (At least that’s how I picture it.) But his poetry, too, was something out of time, something that in many ways belonged to the epic tradition of ancient Greece and Rome. Jeffers ran into some controversy later on in his career when he questioned the morality of war and America’s involvement in it. But what does the master of Tor House and Hawk Tower care about the petty squabbles of man?
Further reading: The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers (2002)
Stevens is considered by many to be the 20th century’s greatest poet. That he achieved this lofty status while working as an insurance company executive is astounding, sort of like if Don Draper revealed that, on the side, he single-handedly won the civil rights movement while co-founding the Beatles. The fact that a man who was arguably our greatest poet was an insurance salesman, though, is poetic beyond words.
Further reading: The Palm at the End of the Mind: Selected Poems and a Play (1990)
Federico Garcia Lorca
Many great artists and writers were tragically lost during conflicts in the mid-20th century—including Spain’s greatest poet, Federico Garcia Lorca. Under the best of circumstances, the dictatorships springing up all over Europe looked upon artists as suspicious, and at worst these people were considered a subversive threat to unthinking obedience. Lorca’s outspoken liberal views and homosexuality made him an obvious target, and he was executed just a month or so into the Spanish Civil War. His remains were never found.
Further reading: The Selected Poems of Federico Garcia Lorca (1988)
“What’s madness/but nobility of soul/at odds with circumstance?” Thanks to Roethke, whenever my wife asks me why the house is such a mess, I have an answer.
Further reading: The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke (1974)
Thomas has many claims to fame. He allegedly drank himself to death at the White Horse Tavern in New York. He was the inspiration for Robert Allen Zimmerman changing his name to Bob Dylan. And, and, he indirectly saved the Earth when President Bill Pullman paraphrased one of his poems in Independence Day, inspiring humanity not to go quietly into the night. Good enough for me.
Further reading: The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas (2010)
One of the telltale, surefire signs of Grade-A manliness is being the leader of your own gang. O’Hara and his crew—the so-called “New York School”—were sort of a mix between the Jets and the Sharks and a hyper-intellectual, Jackson Pollock-inspired circus troupe.
Further reading: The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara (1995)
Author of the Edda
Not much is known about the unknown writer behind this epic Viking poem. One thing we can say for sure, though, is that he was in all likelihood a Viking, and therefore waaaaaaaaaaay more badass than poets from later ages. Also: the whole thing is about warlike Norse gods and some giant serpent that strangles the world.
Further reading: Edda (2013)
Blake is perhaps best known for his poem “The Tyger,” but it’s the poet’s etchings—his day job—that really burn themselves into your brain where it is written they shall reside forevermore. Blake closely identified with the Biblical Job, and did an entire, terrifying series on God’s torment of that poor soul, all apparently surrounding a bet with the Dark Lord. It’s the wager of Mortimer and Randolph Duke writ large.
Further reading: William Blake: The Complete Illuminated Books (2001)