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.
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:
Emily Dickinson lived a solitary life in the mid-1800s, communicating through letters and spending her time writing poetry. Her poems experimented with a style that was beyond her time and she was hardly recognized for it. In reading her work, there is a simplicity to her many (often short poems) that is easy to embrace at first but difficult to really evaluate and get a hold everything that’s there. They are poems that demand re-reading.
Emily penned around 1,800 poems in her lifetime. There were poems about liquor, there were poems about ecstasy, and of course, there were many, many poems about death. I think this poem falls somewhere in-between, weighing a balance between the ecstasy and joy of life with the inevitable sadness that levels it all out—but of course, there is probably more to it than that.
Allen Ginsberg was an influential American poet of the Beat Generation in the 1950s. His poems were often political, expressing his strongly held beliefs against war, materialism, and sexual repression (to name a few). The writing of Ginsberg expressed a revolutionary moment in American poetry. He was angry with America, his home that had disappointed him, and was arrested on numerous occasions for protesting. In this excerpt below from the poem “America,” we see where it all started to go downhill.
When Ginsberg died in 1997, his good friend William Burroughs remembered him as “a great person with worldwide influence.” To get a larger picture of him as a poet and a person, I recommend listening to a recording of one of his readings, like this one here for “America.” You could even put it on in the background to go along with the visuals below.
Wallace Stevens was an American poet with a strong sense of imagination. He believed that reality was an activity, not a static object. Perhaps that’s why he tried to preserve things in jars? He also sold insurance…so there’s that. But really, he was a brilliant poet who lived an interesting life, until he passed on in 1955. There’s a good short article about his life here, drawing attention to the time he insulted Robert Frost and the time he picked a fight with Earnest Hemingway, as highlights.