Even the most ancient texts ever found by archaeologists contained the literary genre of poetry.
In fact, the oldest piece of literature ever found, was written over 7000 years ago in Sumerian, entitled The Epic Of Gilgamesh.
Ancient Greece was also the site of some of the earliest poetry ever recorded, some 3000 years ago. Poetry has evolved and developed into many different forms and styles, throughout the world. From Japanese short haikus poetry to major romantic British poets works by Shelley, Keates or William Wordsworth, to American poets Ralph Waldo Emmerson, Maya Angelou, and famous Canadian Poets Leonard Cohen, Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje, poetry has been a popular literary genre throughout the world.
Below is a list of five of the most famous poets of all time whose work has continued to influence their fellow poets to this day.
"Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity."
- William Wordsworth, British Poet Laureate
Homer's The Iliad & The Odyssey, Classic Poetry
Some scholars describe Homer as a myth, so his origins are unclear. Ancient legends about the Greek author circulated, the most common being that he was a wandering blind poet/singer and reciter of heroic deeds, coming from the city of Chios, on the Anatolian coast of what is now modern-day Turkey.
The two major poetry works attributed to Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey are the subject of controversy. Academics think that both texts were written by the same man, a poetry genius but other academics consider that the Iliad and the Odyssey are the classic work of many contributors and rewrites that were eventually labelled in the Homeric tradition. Nevertheless, the works are considered classics and studied by all academics and artists alike.
The Iliad tells the tale of the siege of the city of Troy during the Trojan Wars. It's a tale mixing historical facts, Greek mythology and legend. An epic ancient Greek poem in the dactylic hexameter style (verse of six-foot, each feet being one long and two short syllables).
The Odyssey focuses on the ancient King Odysseus ( known as Ulysses) and his ten-year journey back to his kingdom of Ithaca after the Trojan Wars.
“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
Willian Shakespeare and English Classic Poetry
Perhaps the most famous author of English literature is William Shakespeare. He was not only known for being a playwright, actor and poet, he is also considered one of the world's most eminent dramatists.
Shakespeare is most famous for his numerous theatrical plays, like the romantic tragedy Romeo And Juliet, perhaps his most adapted play. It has been reworked countless times, both for the Theatre, Broadway and Hollywood.
Shakespeare's plays are performed around the world to this day, and throughout the year in both local and major theatre productions. Any one of his famous plays can be expected to be performed on the stages of one of London's many prestigious theatres.
The public may not know as much about William Shakespeare's sonnets and narrative poems, but his influence on future generations of poets are irrefutable. His sonnets covering the topics of love and romance are considered timeless and eternal.
Shakespeare's 154 sonnets published near the end of his life in 1609, were probably never meant to be published, and in no chronological order, which may well have been published against the writer's wishes. Nevertheless, they convey a richness in verse and timeless emotions.
"Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And too often is his gold complexion dimm’d:
And every fair from fair sometimes declines,
By chance or natures changing course untrimm’d;
By thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.
Willian Shakespeare, Sonnet 18
John Keats and Romantic Poetry
John Keats was born in 1759 in London and was part of the second wave of Romantic poets along with Byron and Shelley. This artistic movement was born in Europe towards the end of the 18th century.
His career was very short-lived, having succumbed at the age of 25 to tuberculosis. Although his critics did not appreciate his poems during his brief life, he would later become famous for his works only after his death, eventually becoming known as one of the most beloved English poets of all time. He lived most of his short life under financial duress, and his death in Italy, where he travelled in hopes of improving his condition, was laborious and painful.
At first, Keats studied and trained to be a medical doctor, studying extensively until he made the ultimate choice to switch to literature in his final year of studies, declaring he would die if he could not write. Literature being his true passion, he pursued his true calling studies despite his families trepidations since medicine would have been a more stable and lucrative profession. Although he wrote in the style of the Romantic movement, Keats became known for the sensual imagery, nature and melancholy of his works.
His most renowned piece of poetry is "Ode to a Nightingale", which would later become one of the most studied works in English Literature.
" 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, The American Gothic Poet
Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most famous American poets along with Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, and Sylvia Plath. Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston in 1849 and would later become known for his macabre short stories and poetry.
Poe had a difficult and tumultuous life, his father abandoned his family when he was only one year old and his mother died a year later. He was taken in by a rich merchant family, the Allan's, with whom he had a rocky relationship. He would later marry his 13-year-old first cousin when he was 26, although the nature of their relationship remains ambiguous.
Edgar Allan Poe was one of the first American writers who attempted to make a living solely from his writing. He instantly became famous for the publication of The Raven in 1845.
His tragic background lends to his gothic genre, as the themes of his works depicted death, the reanimation of the dead, mourning and the macabre. The dark romanticism of most of his work became known as gothic due to the blending of romanticism, horror and death.
Poe was one of the first American authors to become more popular in Europe than in America. He was especially popular in France where his work was translated by another famous poet, Charles Baudelaire.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was another reputed writer who was heavily influenced by Edgar Allan Poe. Doyle who wrote the adventures of Sherlock Holmes stated that: "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?".
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“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
Maya Angelou, The Modern American Poet
Born in the Southern state of Missouri in 1928, Maya Angelou has lead an extraordinary life. Despite a traumatic childhood as recounted in her internationally best-selling autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she went on to achieve great success as a writer, poet, and civil rights activist.
World-wide acclaim for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was the first of a seven-volume series, describing how she overcame racism and trauma through love and determination. Angelou overcame numerous obstacles throughout her life to become the iconic American author and poet that she is today.
Her first works of poetry date from childhood and she used literature to help heal after a childhood of trauma and abuse left her mute for five years. Her first published works were produced later in her life after her other careers as a dancer, playwright, singer, composer, actress, and part of the cast member of Porgy and Bess' European tour. She was also an acclaimed calypso music performer during the 1950s.
Angelou was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1971, for Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie, her first volume of poetry published in 1971. She recited On the Pulse of Morning for Bill Clinton's Presidential inauguration, for which she would win a Grammy Award the following year for "Best Spoken Words".
In her autobiographies, Angelou reveals that she was greatly affected and influenced by the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens and Douglas Johnson during her childhood when she became a prolific reader and developed her extraordinary memory and observational mind during her period of silence.
Active in the Civil Rights movement, she later worked alongside Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Angelou is an influential figure in African American literature and her poetry continues to have an enormous influence on modern hip-hop artists such as Nicki Minaj and Kanye West.
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- Maya Angelou, excerpt from Still I Rise
Margaret Atwood, Canadian Political Poet
Margaret Atwood is considered one of Canada’s most eminent novelists, poets, essayists, literary critics and environmental activists. Born in Ottawa in 1939, Atwood’s career would culminate with numerous awards for her writing including several Book prize awards, the Governor General’s award, and the National Book Critics awards to name a few.
She graduated from Victoria College at the University of Toronto with a Bachelor of Arts and earned her MA at Harvard. She has written 15 books of poetry, including Dearly (2020) about the death of her husband from dementia. Along with numerous short stories, children’s books and works of fiction, her novels include the acclaimed The Handmaids Tale (1985) about a dystopian society where women are cruelly subjugated that has now been adapted to an award-winning television series.
Her works often include themes on gender and identity, myth and religion, power politics, and the power of language. Her poetry, in particular, is inspired by fairy tales and legends that have fascinated her since childhood. She is considered the quintessential Canadian author who is proud of her Canadian culture and identity as "still welcoming, still kindly, still pluralistic, still committed to fairness...We need to remember that and hold our country to the standards it likes to believe it believes in - but nonetheless, at the moment it shines, at least by comparison... A beacon of light in a darkening world." Margaret Atwood in The World needs more Canada (Indigo 2017).
Nothing like love to put blood
back in the language,
the difference between the beach and its
discrete rocks and shards, a hard
cuneiform, and the tender cursive
of waves; bone and liquid fishegg, desert
and saltmarsh, a green push
out of death. The vowels plump
again like lips or soaked fingers, and the fingers
themselves move around these
softening pebbles as around skin. The sky's
not vacant and over there but close
against your eyes, molten, so near
you can taste it. It tastes of
salt. What touches you is what you touch.
Margaret Atwood - Nothing
Walt Whitman, A Quintessential American Poet
Walter Whitman, or better known as Walt Whitman, was born on May 13th 1819 in Long Island, New York. Known as a man of the people Whitman dropped out of school at the age of eleven to begin working. He later went on to work as a journalist, a government clerk and even a teacher. Although born in Long Island, Whitman spent a majority of his life in Brooklyn.
Whitman is one of the most renowned poets and novelists in the US and worldwide, producing some of the most innovative work of his time. A common theme running through many of his works was the democratic spirit of America, which earned him recognition as one of the most influential American poets of all time.
Dropping out of school at the age of eleven to begin working, Whitman was the very definition of a self-taught man. He was a strong proponent of democratic values and imagined America as a place of freedom, imagination and pioneering spirits from all nations.
Walt Whitman is equally known for his innovative style and is often cited as the 'father of free verse'. His focus for the collection was to write an American epic, which employed free verse and inspiration from the Bible. Whitman is perhaps most famous for his collection of poems titled Leaves of Grass which he began writing in 1850 and continued writing and revising until his death in 1892.
One's-Self I Sing
One's-Self I sing, a simple separate person,
Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.
Of physiology from top to toe I sing,
Not physiognomy alone nor brain alone is worthy for the Muse, I say the Form complete is worthier far,
The Female equally with the Male I sing.
Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power,
Cheerful, for freest action form'd under the laws divine,
The Modern Man I sing.
As I Ponder'd in Silence
As I ponder'd in silence,
Returning upon my poems, considering, lingering long,
A Phantom arose before me with distrustful aspect,
Terrible in beauty, age, and power,
The genius of poets of old lands,
As to me directing like flame its eyes,
With finger pointing to many immortal songs,
And menacing voice, What singest thou? it said,
Know'st thou not there is but one theme for ever-enduring bards?
And that is the theme of War, the fortune of battles,
The making of perfect soldiers.
Excerpt from Leaves of Grass - Walt Whitman
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