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The 10 Essential Poets Every Student Should Encounter in School

Poetry’s lush, diverse history means creative writing and literary studies majors will come face-to-face with far more names and styles than the following 10. But these definitely make for an excellent start to one’s inquiries into the art form, as their creative efforts and experiments came to shape more than just the way verses popped into being. Regardless of where you are from: Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware– their influences stretched beyond the medium at hand, altering music, culture, politics, religion, philosophy, and plenty more, often completely transcending their eras while still firmly remaining a product of them.

  1. Sappho

    For one of the most popular and influential poets of all time, no completed works by Sappho survived into contemporary times. Nor, funny enough, much biographical information beyond what you can glean from her body of work, which, as you can imagine, probably isn’t the most accurate resource. Just about all anyone knows is that she was a poet residing on the Isle of Lesbos (before being shipped off to Sicily as an exile) and penned some of the most sensual, evocative lyrics of all time. Yes, even beating out Barry White.

  2. Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi

    So arresting were Rumi’s poetic musings on Sufi spirituality and mysticism, an entire religious order formed around his oeuvre following his death. Even individuals poorly-versed in Islam know of the UNESCO-preserved Mewlewi Sufi Order — better known as the “Whirling Dervishes.” Much of 13th century Persian music wrapped itself around his distinct rhythms as well. Philosophy buffs join with religious studies enthusiasts to soak up Rumi’s hauntingly beautiful teachings, most notably the six-volume collection reflecting on faith known as Matnawiye Ma’nawi.

  3. Matsuo Basho

    He may not have invented haiku, but he certainly played a significant part in solidifying its form. Belonging to a school for haikai practitioners, Matsuo Basho and his collaborators major contribution came in solidifying the familiar 5-7-5 syllable structure for the first three lines, which was known as hokku at the time. Between 1672 and 1698, he either participated in or published 18 volumes worth of poetry and, occasionally, prose. The Seashell Game, for which Basho also served as both compiler and commentator, established his keen eye and preference for simple, natural themes early on in his career.

  4. Dante Alighieri

    After Homer, the author of The Divine Comedy (Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso) stands amongst the most ambitious, well-known adherents of epic poetry ever. Many even tout the trilogy as the best work of Italian literature of all time, though such statements are obviously subjective in some ways. Famously, Beatrice Portinari and the unrequited infatuation she inspired served as Dantie Alighieri’s major muse. Though they rarely spoke beyond everyday pleasantries, the poet’s paeans to her (most notably La Vita Nuova, a welding of poetry and prose) solidified many familiar romantic tropes still utilized today.

  5. Emily Dickinson

    Emily Dickinson’s poetry was modern before there was modernism. Scholars believe she wrote around 1,800 pieces in her lifetime, though only a small handful saw publication in Springfield Republican, Drum Beat, and Brooklyn Daily Union; even then, they often saw some degree of editing. Following her death in 1886, the rest of Dickinson’s output flitted between her contemporary Mabel Loomis Todd and her family — and funny (sadly) enough, she wouldn’t even be taken seriously until 1955. Her unusual rhythms, punctuation choices, slant rhymes, and preoccupation with death and flower imagery won her plenty of fans among New Critics.

  6. Gabriela Mistral

    In 1945, the Swedish Academy broke gender and national barriers when it awarded Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral the Nobel Prize in Literature, making her the very first Latin American to earn the distinction. Also an activist, consul, and educator, poetry volumes such as Desolacion and Tala celebrated the culture and history of both her native country and Latin America on the whole, enlightening the world about an oft-marginalized facet of the literary world. She also tackled childhood in Ternura and death rituals and memorialization in Sonetos de la muerte.

  7. Langston Hughes

    During the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes found inspiration in the nascent jazz scene, infusing its unique sound into a poetic style that completely defined a significant historical period. Decades before the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, he wielded his words as a weapon against social injustices, also publishing plays, essays, short stories, children’s books, novels, and long-form nonfiction. Promoting equality between the races stood as Hughes’ most passionate goal, and his most lauded poetry collection — Montage of a Dream Deferred — perfectly embodies this ideal. Here, he pulled from jazz and its related genres to illustrate the isolation experienced by African-Americans during a time of heavy segregation.

  8. Pablo Neruda

    This veritable Renaissance man of all things poetic earned the 1971 Nobel Prize in Literature for his experimentations in the political, erotic, magic realist, and historic spheres. Pablo Neruda’s prolific, if not outright epic, career launched at age 19 with the publication of his second volume, the sexually-charged Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. When it came to matters of public policy, he encouraged the cause of Marxism as a direct result of the Spanish Civil War. Both during his life and after his passing, Neruda heavily inspired creatives outside the writing world, with numerous artists, filmmakers, and musicians citing his work as essential.

  9. Allen Ginsberg

    Jack Kerouac may have been the most popular of the beat poets over time, but he pretty much despised the movement and probably wouldn’t enjoy seeing himself lauded as its figurehead. But his contemporary, Allen Ginsberg, perpetuated beatnik tropes just as effectively. Experiments with drugs, sex, and spirituality fed into their jazz-influenced rhymes, which often protested many societal stigmas and posed philosophical questions while also blending in elements of performance art. “Howl,” Ginsberg’s celebrated epic poem, resulted in obscenity charges because of its explicit depiction of the underground youth culture.

  10. Wislawa Szymborska-Wlodek

    One of Poland’s most decorated poets won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature for her politically-charged ruminations on the horrors of life under Joseph Stalin, though she remained sympathetic to socialist causes through much of her life before eventually renouncing them. This is what we are living for, her debut collection, is probably one of her most popular and overtly partisan publications. Wislawa Szymborska-Wlodek also garnered praise for playing around with figurative language devices and unusual perspectives in strange and exciting manners.

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