One of the most powerful, and perhaps underrated, elements in this world is poetry. It is not everyone’s cup of tea, but poetry reveals that no matter the language or time, we are not alone in our emotions and experiences. One can read Ocean Vuong’s poetry and feel less alone in the limbo of grieving and living. We can even look at Sappho’s poems from 500 BCE and relate to her yearning. Poetry shows that we are not so different, but merely humans surviving together.
To conclude National Poetry Month, we have gathered nine of what we consider the most influential poets of all time. We hope that their stories and work inspire you!
9. Sappho (620 BCE-550 BCE)
“The Poetess,” as Sappho was often referred to in comparison to Homer, is speculated to have been born to an aristocratic family on the island of Lesbos. Not many facts are known regarding Sappho, but we can gather her traits and passions through her works. Based on the few poems that have been preserved, she was quite fond of romance and even inspired many of the Romantics that came centuries later. It is speculation that many of Sappho’s emotional poems and songs were dedicated to women with whom she loved, hence the derivation of the words ‘sapphic’ and ‘lesbian.’ Sappho’s most famous works are “Sappho 31,” “A Hymn to Venus,” and “One Girl.”
8. Li Bai (701 AD-762 AD)
Born in what is currently known as Kyrgyzstan, China, Li Bai is regarded as one of the most influential Chinese poets. He developed a love for literature from a young age and followed the family legacy of reading the “Hundred Authors.” Li began to write and became very skillful in formal poetry. Between his multiple bouts of wandering, he wrote, served a prince, and was even arrested. Li’s most famous translated works include “Quiet Night Thought,” “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter,” and “Exile’s Letter.” We continue to celebrate Li’s impact on poetry with his imagery, conversational tone, and poems on humanity.
7. Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784)
Phillis Wheatley, the first African American to publish a book of poetry, was born, and later taken from, West Africa. Her slave owners taught her how to read and write at a very early age aside from her domestic duties. Wheatley was immersed in the classics, such as Virgil and Homer, but hoped to learn more in an academic environment. At thirteen, she wrote her first poem, “On Messrs Hussey and Coffin,” but gained popularity for her elegy to George Whitefield a few years later. Colonists refused to publish anything from an African woman, so the Wheatley’s set their sights on London instead, where she eventually gained acclaim. Wheatley’s poetry spoke of faith, slavery, and death, amongst other things. It is believed she wrote 145 poems, with her most famous being in her collection, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.
6. Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861)
Born in Durham, England, in 1806, Elizabeth Barrett Browning earned the title of one of the most prominent figures of the Romantics. Being educated at home and being mostly self-taught, Browning had read Paradise Lost, wrote her own epic, and taught herself Hebrew. At 20 years old, she anonymously published An Essay on Mind, With Other Poems. While grieving her brother’s death, she published a poetry collection titled Poems. She eventually married fellow poet Robert Browning and dedicated the critically acclaimed Sonnets from the Portuguese to him. Aside from her loved ones, Browning also wrote about her religious faith. However, her most popular work among modern feminists is her epic poem “Aurora Leigh,” which examined the “angel in the house” and entering male-dominated workspaces as a woman.
5. Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
Considered America’s best poet by many, Walt Whitman was born on Long Island and grew up in Brooklyn with little formal education. Despite this, he took up many writing-based careers, such as editing and teaching. Leaves of Grass was his first self-published poetry collection at the beginning of his career, and he added to it throughout his life. In 1865, after working as a clerk and spending time with soldiers involved in the Civil War, Whitman published Drum-Taps based on what he experienced during that time. Though many of his poems did not receive the acclaim they deserved while he was alive, Whitman’s themes of nature and democracy inspired many poets that came after him. He is survived by his most famous works, “O Captain, My Captain!” and “Song of Myself.”
4. Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)
In October of 1854, Ireland’s most intriguing poet of the aesthetic movement, Oscar Wilde, was born to a surgeon and poetess. He attended two colleges in his lifetime and, at the end of his term at Oxford, he received an award for his long poem “Ravenna.” In 1881, Wilde published his first poetry collection titled Poems. About seven years afterward, he published The Happy Prince, and Other Tales, his first book of prose. Throughout the rest of his career, Wilde wrote numerous plays and his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. He even continued writing when he was imprisoned for homosexual activities that were deemed “gross indecency.” Regarding his poetry, Wilde is best remembered for his poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” about his experience in prison.
3. Maya Angelou (1928-2014)
Maya Angelou, born in 1928 in Missouri, was a woman who had achieved many firsts for African Americans, especially in poetry. At a young age, she went through a traumatic event involving sexual assault and did not speak for five years. After being encouraged by her teacher to speak again, Angelou’s love for language and literature blossomed. Angelou wrote multiple autobiographies aside from her poems that focused on Black beauty, women, and humanity. She was the first Black woman, and the second poet, to present a poem at Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration in 1993. Angelou’s most famous works include “And Still I Rise,” “Caged Bird,” and “Phenomenal Woman.”
2. Mary Oliver (1935-2019)
Born and raised in Ohio, Mary Oliver began a writing career steeped in nature and the natural world. At a young age, she would escape to the woods to find solace and write poems. In 1965, she published her first collection of poems titled No Voyage, and Other Poems. In Oliver’s lifetime, she published over fifteen poetry collections, including Dream Work, Blue Horses, and Red Bird. Along with her collections, she also wrote handbooks on poetry, such as Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse. Oliver had a Romanticist outlook on nature that deeply influenced her poetry. She is still praised today for her poems “Dogfish,” “When Death Comes,” and many more.
1. Ocean Vuong (1988-)
One of the leading poets in modern Asian American poetry, Ocean Vuong, was born in Saigon in 1988 and raised in Connecticut. He initially studied business, but dropped out to pursue a 19th-century American Literature degree at Brooklyn College. He released his first poetry collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds, in 2016 and received multiple awards for it, such as the Whiting Award and the T.S. Eliot Prize. In 2019, Vuong released his first novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, and gained more acclaim for his creative use of language and ability to capture the rawness of humanity. This past April, Vuong released his latest poetry collection, Time is a Mother.
There are so many more poets that have graced us with their work! Click here to find more articles on our favorite poets.