Poetry Month 2013: Celebrating Great Poets Through the Decades
April is my favorite month. And not because of flowers or showers or more hours of light, but (if you can’t tell already by my preemptive rhyming) because it’s poetry month! To kick off National Poetry Month 2013, I’ve got a brief history of some great poets. Obviously, I’ve got limited space, so I’ve narrowed it down to my favorite poet from each decade (and maybe a couple extras!)
1800’s – Just one, I promise! I mean, can you write a “history of poetry” without including the incomparable Emily Dickinson? I think not. She was everything you imagine a poet to be–a wonderful eccentric who only wore white and had a fascination with death, a recluse whose friendships were mainly carried on through correspondence, a writer who wasn’t recognized during her life but became iconic after her death. She is known for her wonderfully unconventional use of dashes and capitalization. Check out an example here in “The name — of it — is “Autumn” –“, which exemplifies not only her fascinating punctuation, but also her stunning imagery.
(Also, this year Amherst College scanned all of the original Emily Dickinson manuscripts into their Digital Collections. What better way to kick off poetry month 2013 than by reading handwritten Dickinson on scrap paper and envelopes? It’s a bibliophile’s paradise over there!)
1900s- Edna St. Vincent Millay
American and Pulitzer Prize winning “Vincent” was badass. An activist for women’s rights and a heartbreaker known for many love affairs (“And if I loved you Wednesday, / Well what is that to you? / I do not love you Thursday—”), she was pretty much the queen of the sonnets. In fact, her sonnet “What lips my lips have kissed” was the subject of my first University English paper! Her poetry won over most everyone who read it, and when the now famous “Renascence” won fourth place in a contest, the result was met with public outcry that the poem hadn’t received first place. If only we loved poetry so much today!
1910s- Anna Akhmatova,
Russian poet extraordinaire! Once her first book was published in 1912, Akhmatova was an instant hit. Her best known work is most definitely Requiem, the lament of the Russian people’s suffering under Stalin that she wrote in secret, and much of her other poetry was also controversial. In fact, after the second World War, there was an official decree banning publication of her poetry. They called her “half nun, half harlot” and kicked out of the Writer’s Union, but they could not stop her popularity with her widespread readership.
Read Akhmatova’s beautiful poem “You will hear thunder” and see for yourself why she has such a cult following!
1920s- e.e. cummings
(Forgive me Rilke, T.S Eliot, Gertrude Stein & etc. It was a very tough choice!)
American poet e.e. cummings was renowned for his experimentation with form and language, which gave him a very distinct voice. He completely disregarded the rules of grammar and syntax, even disregarding the meaning of words at times in order to define them himself.
“who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;”
(from “if feeling is first”)
In fact, he ignored the rules so much, nobody is sure whether to use upper or lower case letters for his name. He has his own set of regulations for when to capitalize words, and often times his own name did not meet those requirements. His thought-provoking, strange wordings are the affecting results of a very devoted writer who, between the ages of eight and twenty-two, wrote a poem a day! You can read many of his poems here.
1930s- Robert Frost
What can really be said about the legendary Robert Frost? Known for the just-about-perfect-poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and winner of not one, not two, not three, but FOUR Pulitzer Prizes for poetry (three of them in the 1930s), he was a master of the written word. But you already knew that! Perhaps something you didn’t know, though, is that as a child he “heard voices” when alone and was thought to have “second sight” (which perhaps explains the perfectly eerie phantasmic quality to “Stopping by Woods”).
1940s- René Char
Perhaps you haven’t yet heard of the French poet René Char. Well, allow me to introduce you! Let poetry month 2013 be the time to discover new and exciting works to add to your reading shelf.
While a member of the French Resistance in the 40s, Char wrote Leaves of Hynos but did not publish it until later, refusing to publish anything during the Occupation. Each poem is a fragment or aphorism, a powerful feeling contained in a condensed lyric:
“I have manufactured, with scraps of mountains, men who will for some time make the glaciers fragrant”
Also, no big deal, but Char was close friends with Heidegger (!). Both grappled with questions of being and absence, the nameless and the inexpressible. Heidegger aptly summed up the work of this great poet when he referred to him as “a tour de force into the ineffable”
1950s- Allen Ginsberg
The 1950s was the era of the beat poets, a generation led by Allen Ginsberg. A self-proclaimed “angel-headed hipster,” Ginsberg wrote the infamous “Howl” basically as a free speech protesting capitalism. In 1957, the poet and the poem notoriously went to trial, charged with being full of “filthy, vulgar, obscene, and disgusting language.” The poem’s depictions of homosexuality caused a controversy as homosexual acts were illegal in the US at the time, but in the end, in the case of poetry vs. close-mindedness, poetry won. You can watch the story of the poem in the little known but pretty awesome movie Howl, starring James Franco as Allen Ginsberg.
1960s- Pablo Neruda,
writer of the ultimate love poem. The Chilean politician and poet wrote in green ink to symbolize hope and had an uncanny ability to capture feelings– the feelings of a nation, the feelings of a doting lover– exquisitely and convincingly. What coffee table is complete without a copy of Love Poems? Perhaps it is perhaps better to show rather than tell:
everything carries me to you,
as if everything that exists,
aromas, light, metals,
were little boats
toward those isles of yours that wait for me.
(from “If You Forget Me“)
1970s- Maya Angelou
An activist in the Civil Rights movement, Angelou continues to speak out against racism through her writing and reading. Her poems beg to be read aloud, and appeal to many different people. And Maya Angelou is a poet with a poet’s voice! (She has given readings at Bill Clinton’s inauguration, at the United Nation’s 50th anniversary, and a poem of hers was read by Queen Latifah at Michael Jackson’s funeral)
But as great as the reading is, nothing compares to hearing Angelou herself read. Listen to one of her most famous politically-infused poems, “Africa,” here.
1980s- Tomas Transtromer
Interestingly (and fittingly, for a poet who communicates feelings so succinctly), Transtromer is also a psychologist. He writes with gracious simplicity about love, about nature, about music. In 1990, he won the Neustadht (one of the most prestigious prizes for poetry) and, in 2011, he also recieved the most prestigious: the Nobel Prize for literature.
Unfortunately, though, he suffered a stroke in 1990, which hindered his speaking abilities. His translator, Robin Fulton says (in one of the saddest sentences ever spoken) “He has hardly any words.” But, Transtromer has channeled all those unspeakable words into his writing and continues to produce beautiful poetry. At readings, his poetry is read by others.
“I am carried in my shadow / like a violin / in its black case” (from “April and Silence”)
1990s- Seamus Heaney
So, it looks like there is a pattern here. I swear I am not just choosing all the Nobel Prize winners, but how could I leave out Seamus Heaney?
Much of Heaney’s writing focuses on Northern Ireland. At The Poetry Foundation, they say his poetry “is known for its aural beauty and finely-wrought textures.” His mastery of language lies in his expert manipulation and coordination of sounds and lyricism. You can check many of them out here.
On Heaney’s 70th birthday, Ireland announced that two-thirds of the poetry collections sold in the UK that year were by Seamus Heaney! How many poets, especially in the late twentieth century, can even dream of such popularity?
2000s- Anne Carson
You know on The L Word, right before that iconic steamy first kiss when Marina asks if Jenny has ever read Anne Carson and Jenny says, “those books changed my life”? Well, that’s pretty much how I felt too. Hyperbolic? Maybe. But Michael Ondaatje is on board, too! He has dubbed her “the best poet writing in English today.”
So, who is this woman I can’t shut up about who writes about volcanoes and little red monsters, inserts speedboats into Sophocles, Greek gods into preschools? She is a Canadian poet, translator, and professor of Classics and she has written many beautiful books. She has an incredible ability to latch onto that eroticism I mentioned above and hold it, shimmering, in front of us. But she doesn’t stop there! She is continuously pushing boundaries: boundaries of genre, translation, poetry. Check out these videos of poems she wrote in a collaboration with Merce Cunningham dancers.
I leave you with this little slice of Carson:
“When he looked at the world he saw the nails that attach the colours to things and he saw that the nails were in pain” (from “Short Talk on Van Gogh”)
Well, thanks for joining me on this poetic walk down memory lane. If you CAN’T BELIEVE I LEFT OUT SYLVIA PLATH or William Blake or 2pac or Lord Byron or, well, you get it, let’s hear from you! Choosing only one poet per decade is awfully hard, and I am sure you all have many others to add. We’d love to hear all about them in the comments.
What better time to discuss your favorites and discover new voices than Poetry Month 2013?