Humanity has been writing poems since the ancient time of the Greeks. It is a writing genre that has passed the test of time and it is still very popular today.
Like any literary genre, it has evolved differently across the planet, from the classic Greek prose of Homer and the Odyssey to the most famous haikus poet, Matsuo Basho, in Japan.
The earliest poetry text, 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.
It is hard to decide who should make the list of the top 5 most famous poets of all time and any list will be biased depending on your origin and preferences.
However, some poets have been regarded as more influential on literature than others, inspiring the future generation of authors and writer all around the globe. These are the ones we will do our best to pick.
But what is poetry?
The term poetry comes from the Greek “poeio” meaning “I create”.
As a literary genre, poetry consists of written or oral work in which words are chosen to emphasise feelings, emotions or ideas through the use of musical or incantatory effects such as assonances and repetitions.
Each layer of a poem interacts with another to give the poem its ultimate meaning.
Poetry puts the linguistic form and the aesthetic qualities of words before their semantic meaning. The ideas that each word carries can be interpreted differently depending on the reader’s background which explains why translating poetry can be really difficult or even impossible.
The Oxford dictionary gives the following definition: “Literary work in which the expression of feelings and ideas is given intensity by the use of distinctive style and rhythm”.
Nevermore is an intriguing photobiography published by the National Geographic in 2009. It examines the life and times of the author and poet who would have a huge influence on future generations of writers, poets, artists, and even songwriters. (by Vernon-Barford-School-Library)
Most European students will at some point in their curriculum study the work of Homer. The Ancient Greek poet wrote some of the oldest Classical poems known to man.
Enve though the origins of Homer are so unclear that some scholar describes him as a myth, many legends about the 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
The two major poetry collections that are commonly credited to Homer are seen today as a timeless classic, taught in most western schools curriculums, still inspiring writers, artists, and even movie directors, to this day.
John Keats is also amongst the most famous poets of all time, despite or maybe because of his short-lived career. Keats died of tuberculosis at the young age of 26. 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.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Edgar Allan Poe is certainly one of the Americans’ favourite poets. One of the first American poets to live solely from his writings, Poe’s dark romantic poems eventually grew popular in the US but also in Europe. His work was translated in French by another famous poet, Charles Baudelaire.
“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
The poetry literary genre has been dominated by males entities.
The patriarchy of the time often belittled women for being too sensitive, too emotional, too dramatic, but such attributes are often what characterises poetry.
Using words, their order, dissonance and assonance, and the weight they carry rather than their semantic meaning, to convey an emotion or a feeling are often what characterised the best work of poetry.
Fortunately, there have been women whose work emerged and was published, which 200 years ago was an accomplishment in itself.
Sappho can most likely be credited for paving the way for so many other talented women poets that came after her. Even though little is know of the Ancient Greece poetess, Sappho was born sometime around 630 BC, and she is probably the first example of a female poet in history.
This painting by Simeon Solomon depicts Sappho and one of her supposed lover. (by G.Starke)
“To my side: “And whom should Persuasion summon
Here, to soothe the sting of your passion this time?
Who is now abusing you, Sappho? Who is
Treating you cruelly?
Now she runs away, but she’ll soon pursue you;
Gifts she now rejects–soon enough she’ll give them;
Now she doesn’t love you, but soon her heart will
Burn, though unwilling.”
– Sappho, Hymn to Aphrodite
Her legacy during antiquity was just as great as Homer. While he was referred to as “The Poet” she was sometimes called “The Poetess”. Plato and Socrates, the classical Greece philosopher, founders of Western Philosophy, even cited her or her work in some of their speeches and writings.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning was one of the rare female figures of English Romantic poetry. Her work had a great influence on some of her famous contemporary writers among which Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson.
Elizabeth Bishop is amongst some of the most prominent figures of modern American poetry. A lifetime nomade, Bishop’s travels inspired her most of her poems which in turn won her man awards including a Pulitzer Prize.
Gwendolyn Brooks and Maya Angelou, two African-American female poets had to face racism and prejudice throughout their career but both emerged as magnificent writers, whose insightful work greatly inspired the generation that came after them.
The Poetry Foundation was founded in 1941 to support the publication of Poetry magazine, whose first edition was printed in 1912. On its online platform, the foundation lists more than 40,000 of the most famous poems. Its editors read more than 150,000 poems every year and publish about 600 of them in their monthly printed magazine.
On the website, you can find your favourite poets, from Emily Dickinson to Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, Edgar Allan Poe or Sylvia Plath.
Poetry is a literary form that is thousands of years old, but which has never perished and on the contrary flourished over time.
This unique genre allows the writers to transcend the semantic meaning of words by using the “words’ baggage” and transmit the readers their emotions, feelings and ideas.
Being used to convey a romantic missive, a meditative note, a phantasmagoric depiction or a protest pitch, poems have often carried more weight than their prosaic novel counterparts. By appealing to the feelings and emotions of the readers, poets have been able to impart their message compellingly.
But amongst the hundreds of thousands of poems ever written, some have stood out either for their writing style, the history behind them or the subject they approached.
William Shakespeare‘s sonnets, even though not very well known to the public compared to his playwright work, including some of the most beautiful love verses ever written. Sonnet 18, 116, 147 are amongst the best.
Matsuo Basho, who is credited to have founded the modern Japanese haiku poem style during the 17th century, is the author of some of the best work of the genre. Haikus such as “An Old Pond” reached writers well over Japan’s borders, inspiring many Western poets.
This commemorative marker in Ripton, Vermont celebrates the life and work of Robert Frost (by jimmywayne)
Robert Frost, who became one of the most famous American poems of all times, has written some of the most read poems about nature and the life in the countryside. His use of American colloquialism in poetry won him four Pulitzer prize. New Hampshire, a poetry work collection published in 1923, includes some of the most studied poems in American classrooms: “Fire and Ice” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”.
“Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.”
– Robert Frost, Fire and Ice
Poetry has always been a literary genre that tapped into the deepest and strongest emotions of poetry writers.
Because of the figurative writing style often used in poetry, poems have often been open to interpretation and poets used that to convey to the readers their deepest, most intimate feelings, sometimes going against the literary world etiquette.
“Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.”
– William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116, Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds
Some of the most famous love poems were often written by troubled writers, who’s tortuous life stories inspired them the most delicate and sensitive poems of all times.
From Elizabeth Barrett Browning who escaped a reclusive life and an overprotective father at the age of 40 to W.B. Yeats who only married when he was 51 years old after pursuing an unrequited love for 20 years.
Before being a famous poet, Maya Angelou had a successful career as a Calypso singer (by-Wishbook).
The list of British poets, writers, novelists, essayist or story writer is almost endless and the amount of plays, poems, novels, biographies, tales, essays, prose and verse that they have published through the centuries is probably beyond our imagination.
William Shakespeare is considered to be the all-time best British writer and even though he is most famous for his playwright work, he also contributed a great deal to the poetry genre.
Indeed Shakespeare wrote at least 154 sonnets which were probably never meant to be released and the order they have been printed in 1609 for the first time, most likely did not reflect their actual chronology nor the author’s wishes.
Other great British poets include Lord Byron, William Butler Yeats, William Blake, Matthew Arnold or Rudyard Kipling but these are just a few names of the British Literature Pantheon.
This exhibition at the National Library of Ireland celebrated Yeats lifelong work and influence on British literature (by Canadian Pacific).
– Lord Byron, She Walks in Beauty