John Donne was an English poet in the 16th century who tried to defy death, but alas, it got him. He was often criticized as a writer during his time and perhaps not fully acknowledged for his worth. He was a critic of English society and is often remembered for his erotic poetry.
Donne was adept at metaphor, and before his time in a lot of his poetic conventions. He lived in poverty for a good part of his life and spent a lot of money (perhaps unsurprisingly) on womanizing, literature, and travel.
What I find most engaging and liberating about Donne is that his poems connect modern audiences to the world very different from ours, yet very much the same in some ways. It’s a testament to his skill that his work can still be deemed relatable, and that his metaphors and connections can still strike true.
If only he were still alive to see it.
Gertrude Stein is perhaps most notably known as a friend, a confidant, and a central figure in the Parisian art movement of the 1920s. Her home at 27 rue de Fleurus (which she shared with Alice B. Toklas), was a gathering place for modern artists and writers, from Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso to Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Besides being a strong influence on many notable figures, Gertrude was in her own right an accomplished novelist and poet. Her writing was bold and experimental. She rejected the idea of linear storytelling and took great leaps in her fiction and poetic style. With a dense form, that often lacked a plot, her writing was not warmly embraced by publishers or critics. She distilled language into an abstraction (like and abstract artist), so much so that it was hard for anyone to understand it.
Her writing received more interest from other writers and artists that it did the general public. She was always the great influencer of artists. To read her writing is to look not only into her mind, but into the minds of the many creative people that she had influence upon. It is a deep and puzzling place.
William Blake was a poet and artist living in the 18th–19th century. He was trained as an engraver and his poetic work developed alongside his artistic endeavours, resulting in a beautiful symphony of art and words. He late transitioned into relief etching in addition to engraving. Just look up an image of any one of him poems to see the accompanying art he produced.
In his writing, Blake believed in leaving some things unsaid, so that the reader was pushed to use their imagination to interpret the work: “That which can be made Explicit to the Idiot is not worth my care” (Blake). Although, he did want to produce work that was accessible to the general public, an idea that influenced his poetic vision. He could see a poem for it’s artistic merits, for his person needs, and also for how the reader would interpret the words.
Often involved in politics, Blake held strong and vocal opinions. He disliked the traditional figures of English society and resented the necessary commissioning of art that providing a living wage for him. He believed in being “just & true to our own Imaginations” (Blake).
Perhaps these views brought Blake his fair share of enemies. Or perhaps the poem below is inspired by a strange incident in which Blake’s gardener hired a soldier to help out on some garden work without Blake knowing. Resulting in this surprise encounter, and an accusation of sedition:
I desired him, as politely as possible, to go out of the Garden; he made me an impertinent answer. I insisted on his leaving the Garden; he refused. I still persisted in desiring his departure; he then threaten’d to knock out my Eyes, with many abominable imprecations & with some contempt for my Person; it affronted my foolish Pride. I therefore took him by the Elbows & pushed him before me till I had got him out; there I intended to leave him, but he, turning about, put himself into a Posture of Defiance, threatening & swearing at me. I, perhaps foolishly & perhaps not, stepped out at the Gate, & putting aside his blows, took him again by the Elbows, &, keeping his back to me, pushed him forwards down the road about fifty yards–he all the while endeavouring to turn round & strike me, & raging & cursing, which drew out several neighbours…. (from PoetryFoundation.org)
Pablo Neruda was a Chilean poet and politician who took a pen name from the 19th-century Czech poet, Jan Neruda. Pablo served as Senator for the Chilean Communist Party for a few years before President González Videla outlawed communism in 1948. This ruling forced Pablo to go into hiding, relying on his many friends to keep him safe and out of site.
Pablo’s political beliefs can often be found in his poetry. He also wrote many poems about love and relationships. The poem below seems to be about love and forgetting the lovers you’ve had in the past, but perhaps it is also a commentary about building ones politics upon the politics of those who came before.
Pablo’s writing and his politics were one. He believed “that the work of art and the statement of thought—when these are responsible human actions, rooted in human need—are inseparable from historical and political context,” (Salvatore Bizzarro in Pablo Neruda: All Poets the Poet). He had a powerful voice of influence and the voice of a performing poet. Something that is worth remembering while reading his poems.
Sappho was a highly admired and well-regarded poet of antiquity. She was born around 630 BCE and died around 570 BCE. Unfortunately for us, not much is known about her outside of what can be inferred from her poetry, and even that has only survived in fragments. Nonetheless, her influence as a poet lives on, and the beauty and power of her words seeps through the fragments that remain.
For a good introduction to Sappho’s poems, Anne Carson’s translation, If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho is well worth a read. Carson employs brackets and white space to denote missing text and gives you a vision of the poems as a whole.
Sappho may be far from us now, but her poems do still connect with us though the fragments that we have. They are poems about love, longing, loss, and everyday life. And so, we celebrate her vision.
Maya Angelou was a poet, a civil rights activist, and wore many other hats. As a young single mother in the 1940s, she worked a plethora of jobs to make ends meet, including work as a freelance writer, which eventually led her to write her acclaimed autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1969.
Maya did so many things with her life that it’s difficult to shorten the list. She cared deeply about equality among all people, and advocated strongly for the equality and fair treatment of black people in America. She wrote many heart wrenching, beautiful poems that express these notions. The poem below is of a perhaps less serious subject, but reflects greatly upon the life of a woman who gave so much of herself. Who exhausted herself in the pursuit of what was right.
E. E. Cummings (or e e cummings) was an American poet perhaps best know for his creative use of form and language. He created new words and bent the definitions of words and the rules of grammar to suit his poetic needs. While often writing about poetically archaic themes, like childhood, love, and flowers (including this poem below), he did things to the form of these “plain” poems that changed what modern poetry could be.
While speaking about his work, Cummings once said: “So far as I am concerned, poetry and every other art was, is, and forever will be strictly and distinctly a question of individuality.” He opposed ideas and politics that restricted or opposed individuality, perhaps brought on (in part) by his experiences during the war and his trip to the Soviet Union—but that’s another story. Instead, we have here a poem that expresses Cummings as an individual, with his own unique inclinations: