Poetry is a literary genre that goes as old as some of the most ancient text archaeologists ever found.
The Epic Of Gilgamesh was written in Sumerian more than 7000 years ago. It is to this day, the oldest piece of literature ever found.
Some of the earliest poetry writers can be traced all the way back to Ancient Greece, almost 3000 years ago. Since then poetry has flourished, evolved and developed in many different styles, all over the world, from Japanese short haikus to major romantic British poets Percy Bysshe Shelley or William Wordsworth and American poetry figures such as Charles Bukowski, Shel Silverstein or Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Below is a list of five of the most famous poets of all time whose work influenced their poet peers forever.
“If I feel physically, as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”
– Emily Dickinson, American poet
Every attempt at depicting the famous Greek poet Homer was a work of imagination as most of the details we have of Homer’s life is thought to be legendary.
The origins of Homer are so unclear that some scholar describes him as a myth. Many legends about this ancient Greek author circulated, one of the most common is that he was a blind wandering bard from Chios, a city on the Anatolian coast of what is Turkey today.
Even the two major poetry works that are commonly attributed to Homer is a subject of controversy. Some academics think that both texts were written by the same man, a poetry genius while other considers that the Iliad and the Odyssey are the work and re-writing of many contributors which eventually were all labelled as belonging to the Homeric tradition.
Nonetheless, those two poems are seen today as a timeless classic, taught in most western schools curriculums, still inspiring writers, artists, and even movie directors, to this day.
The Iliad is set during the Trojan War and tells the tale of the siege of the city of Troy. Mixing historical facts, legendary stories and Greek mythology, this ancient Greek epic poem in dactylic hexameter (verse of six foot, each feet being one long and two short syllables).
The Odyssey focuses on Odysseus (most commonly known as Ulysses) and his ten-year journey back to his kingdom of Ithaca.
“Like the generations of leaves, the lives of mortal men. Now the wind scatters the old leaves across the earth, now the living timber bursts with the new buds and spring comes round again. And so with men: as one generation comes to life, another dies away.”
Homer, The Iliad
William Shakespeare is the most famous English writer of all time and probably the best playwright ever born.
Maybe the most famous author of all English literature, Shakespeare was a poet, playwright and actor. He is still regarded today as the world’s most eminent dramatist.
While he is mainly known by the public for his numerous theatre play, among which Romeo And Juliet, the most famous romantic tragedy of all times, has been adapted countless times, both for the theatre, Broadway or Hollywood.
Shakespeare’s plays are still performed today all around the world, and at any given time of the year, it is not surprising to find more than one of his plays being acted on the stage of London’s theatres.
What the public might not know as much are Shakespeare’s sonnets and narrative poems.
Published in 1609, towards the end of his life, Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets were probably never meant to be published and the order they have been printed in most likely did not reflect their actual chronology nor the author’s wishes.
“Unthrifty loveliness why dost thou spend,
Upon thy self thy beauty’s legacy?
Nature’s bequest gives nothing but doth lend,
And being frank she lends to those are free:
Then beauteous niggard why dost thou abuse,
The bounteous largess given thee to give?
Profitless usurer why dost thou use
So great a sum of sums yet canst not live?
For having traffic with thy self alone,
Thou of thy self thy sweet self-dost deceive,
Then how when nature calls thee to be gone,
What acceptable audit canst thou leave?
Thy unused beauty must be tombed with thee,
Which used lives th‘ executor to be.”
Willian Shakespeare, The Fair Youth, Sonnet 5
John Keats had a short-lived career. He died of tuberculosis when he was 26 years old ( by hires).
Born in 1795, Keats was part of the second wave of Romantic poets, the artistic movement born in Eupore towards the end of the 18th century.
His career was short lived as he died at the age of 25 years old from tuberculosis. Even though critics did not receive his poems very well during his lifetime, his fame came after his death and he eventually became one of the most beloved of all English poets.
His style was characterised by a sensual imagery typical of the Romantic movement.
Some of his works became so popular that it ranked amongst the most analysed piece of English literature. Of the most famous piece of poetry he wrote, the “Ode to a Nightingale” is probably the most well known.
‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,
That thou, light-wingèd Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease”
– John Keats, Ode to a Nightingale, lines 5 to 10
Edgar Allan Poe had a surprisingly successful career in the army before confessing that he lied about his identity and hiring someone to take over his military engagement.
Maybe one of the most famous American poets along with Robert Frost, Walt Whiteman, Langston Hughes or Sylvia Plath, Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston in 1849.
Edgar Allan Poe was one of the first American writers to try to live solely from his writings. He only succeeded to do so in his late 20’s after joining the Southern Literary Messenger (which he was fired for drunkenness, but eventually re-hired).
Poe had a tumultuous life, abandoned by his father when he was one year old, his mother died a year later. He was adopted by the Allan family with whom he had a rocky relationship.
Maybe because of his tragic background or because the genre please his public tastes, his work often approached themes such as death, the reanimation of the dead and mourning.
Most of his work is considered to be part of the dark romanticism genre, in opposition to transcendentalism, which Poe openly abhorred.
During his career, Poe was one of the first American authors to become popular in Europe, especially in France where his work was translated by another famous poet, Charles Baudelaire.
He notably inspired the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, writer of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, who said:“Each of Poe’s detective stories is a root from which a whole literature has developed…. Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?”.
Not many copies of Poe’s first book survived and one of them reached a price of $662,500 in 2009 during an auction in New York. It is believed to be the highest price ever paid for a work of American literature.
“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door —
Only this, and nothing more.”
– Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven
Dr. Maya Angelou represents modern American poetry at its best.
Maya Angelou has had an extraordinary life. Born in 1928, in the Southern state of Missouri, she recounted her troubled childhood in her autobiography and international best-seller, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969.
Her book, the first of a seven-volume series, described how she overcame racism and trauma through love and determination.
Her first poetry work dates from her childhood, during which she used literature as a healing tool. Her first published work only occurred after she performed various jobs, such as a cast member for the Porgy and Bess European tour and calypso music performer during the 1950’s.
Her first volume of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie, published in 1971, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
During Bill Clinton Presidential inauguration, she recited “On the Pulse of Morning” and became the first African American and woman to read a poem at a presidential inauguration. She won a Grammy Award the following year for “Best Spoken Words”.
She mentioned in her autobiographies that she was greatly affected by the work of William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe or Douglas Johnson during her childhood.
She in turned had a huge impact on African American literature and her poetry influenced modern hip-hop musicians such as Kanye West, Tupac Shakur or Nicki Minaj.
“A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Mark the mastodon.
The dinosaur, who left dry tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.
But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow.
I will give you no hiding place down here.
You, created only a little lower than
The angels, have crouched too long in
The bruising darkness,
Have lain too long
Face down in ignorance.
Your mouths spelling words
Armed for slaughter.”
– Maya Angelou, On The Pulse Of Morning