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 writers 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".
The Most Famous Poets Of All Time
Most 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.
Even 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 Most Famous Female Poets
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.
"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.
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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 Most Famous Poems
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.
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 Prizes. 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
The Most Famous Love Poems
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, whose 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.
The Most Famous Australian Poets
Now let's talk about Australian poets. The list of Australian poets, writers, novelists, essayists or story writers is almost endless and the amount of plays, poems, novels, biographies, tales, essays, prose and verse that they have published throughout the decades is probably beyond our imagination. Here is a list of five of the best Australian poets, according to The Charles Sturt University:
1. Banjo Paterson
Andrew Barton ‘Banjo’ Paterson was born in 1864 on a property just outside Orange, New South Wales. Paterson is commonly described as a ‘bush poet’. Much of his work celebrates and romanticises the figure of the bushman at home in the Australian wilderness. His poems often highlight the independent spirit and heroic underdog status of the bushman. This is one reason why his poetry has become so well loved and why he is thought of as one of the best Australian poets. And his ballad "The Man from Snowy River" could certainly be considered the most well-known Australian poem. Not many poems can claim to have inspired a film!
Orange holds an annual poetry festival which celebrates Banjo’s skills. In addition to writing verse, he also worked as a solicitor and as a correspondent during the Second Boer War. He served in the army during World War I. Banjo died in 1941.
2. Dorothea Mackellar
I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges
Of droughts and flooding rains
- Dorothea Mackellar, My Country
Generations of Australians will recognise these lines from Dorothea Mackellar’s poem "My Country". The poem has been taken to the country’s heart. Especially during World War I when feelings of patriotism ran high, as did the longing for home among Australian troops and the longing for their return among their families.
Mackellar was born in 1885. She travelled widely throughout her life. However, her work showed she was especially adept at evoking the Australian landscape, and with it embodying the emotional connection Australians have to the land – even though that land can sometimes be a hard place.
3. Lionel Fogarty
Lionel Fogarty was born in 1958 at Barambah, now known as Cherbourg, in Southern Queensland. He has been intimately involved in the political struggles of the Aboriginal people. This includes the land rights movement, establishing Aboriginal health and legal services, and the issue of black deaths in police custody.
This political engagement has informed much of his writing and is combined with the innovative use of Aboriginal English language to usurp traditional cultural assumptions. His engagement is evident throughout the nine collections of verse he has published, and was fully formed even in his first book, Kargun, published in 1980, which announced a voice that was truly unique.
4. Les Murray
Translated into 11 different languages and winning countless awards (including the prestigious T.S. Eliot Prize), Les Murray’s poetry engages not only with contemporary questions, but also with the act of writing and the linguistic potential of poetry itself. At once dense and engaging, Murray examines themes like religious values, democracy, the contradictions in Australian society and the influence of Aboriginal culture on not only his own thinking but on the nation’s psyche as a whole. He also has a deft feel for small-town Australia, those rural places where the Australian notion of independence abuts the realities of carving out a meaningful life.
Born in 1938, Murray grew up in a one such rural location, and the proximity to Australia’s wilderness imbued him with a love of nature that is also evident in his verse. Murray published his first solo poetry collection, The Weatherboard Cathedral, in 1969, while his latest, Waiting for the Past, was published in 2015.
5. Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker)
Oodgeroo Noonuccal was born in 1920, and named Kathleen (also known as Kath). Her father belonged to the Noonuccal people, the traditional inhabitants of Minjerribah. He worked for the Queensland Government as part of a poorly paid Aboriginal workforce. His campaigning for better conditions for his fellow workers would have a lasting impact on Noonuccal’s life and work.
She didn’t start writing verse until she was in her forties. She had spent her career thus far in secretarial and domestic service roles while raising her children. Her first collection, We Are Going, was published in 1964. By all accounts it was a publishing sensation. It sold more than 10,000 copies – a volume rarely achieved for a poetry book – establishing her as one of the best Australian poets in her lifetime.
In her verse, Noonuccal engages with her Aboriginal heritage and the political imperatives of Aboriginal rights, social justice and conservationism.
Other great Australian poets include this list compiled by Poetry Australia:
- Henry Lawson
For his short, sharp, and punchy bush poetry, Henry Lawson was said to be the raw version of Ernest Hemingway. A poet who also dabbled in journalism, he suffered psychological and artistic adversity throughout his life. His humanisation of the Australian landscape was what made Lawson’s ballads so successful. An iconic read is "The Drover’s Wife".
- Judith Wright
A poet at the heart of all turmoil and adversity throughout Australian history, Judith Wright was known as the 'conscience of the nation'. Her call to see Aboriginal people equal to European Australians was groundbreaking. It was Judith’s passion which helped shape the Australian landscape to be a more hospitable place for both women and Indigenous people. Her most famous poems include "Bullocky" and "The Moving Image".
- Gwen Harwood
Regularly nominated for literary awards, Gwen was an Australian poet who spent most of her time living in Tasmania. She was a radical feminist, and an unconventional writer famous for her poem "Suburban Sonnet", capturing themes of motherhood, female empowerment, and Tasmanian suburban landscape. She has written an incredible 386 poems, most of those speaking out to Australian feminists and mothers.
- Dorothy Hewett
Dorothy was a leading poet and feminist in Australia. She was a member of the Communist Party in which that time led her to abandon her Arts degree uncompleted and have six children with her husband. During these years, she was unable to write. Once her artistic flair regained strength, she became one of the most progressive Australian poets of her time. Her major collections include Windmill Country (Overland, 1968), Rapunzel in Suburbia (Prism, 1975), Greenhouse (1979) and Alice in Wormland (1987).
- Peter Porter
Peter was an Australian poet who had spent most of his time in England. He was well respected in the poetic realm, receiving the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, and was the subject of a special issue of Poetry Review. His most valued piece of work was a stoic elegy, in loving memory to his deceased wife, "Non Piangere, Liu". His writings revolved around civilisation and the idea of age, loss and the value of art. He blended Australian and English cultures together to construct a unique theme of poetry.
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