Robert Frost once said “There are three things, after all, which a poem must reach: the eye, the ear, and what we may call the heart or the mind. It is most important of all to reach the heart of the reader.”
Like art, poetry can be highly subjective as much of its worth lies in the emotional connection felt by its audience. It can therefore be difficult to judge poetry on its technical merits alone or to rank one poet against another. With that said, there are some poets that have made outstanding achievements in different forms of poetry, influenced literary movements, or left a lasting impression on pop culture. In no particular order, these are our picks for the twenty best poets of all time.
Thy eternal summer shall not fade
Let’s begin with one of the best known poets of all time. These days, William Shakespeare may have found more acclaim as the playwright behind such comedies and tragedies as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliette, and Hamlet (to name a few), but his original fame came from his poetry; earning him the nickname ‘the bard’.
Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets during his career, including the love poems sonnet 18 (shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?) and sonnet 130 (my mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun). His body of work also includes the narrative poem Venus and Adonis, which tells the story of unrequited love between a goddess and a hunter over 199 stanzas.
The blood jet is poetry and there is no stopping it.
Regarded as one of the best postwar poets of the 20th-century, Sylvia Plath had already built a large following by the time she tragically took her own life at the age of 30. Plath’s autobiographical poems explore her battles with mental health, an obsession with death, and her troubled marriage to fellow poet, Ted Hughes.
Examples of Plath’s most famous poems include Lady Lazarus, Daddy, and Mad Girl’s Love Song, all of which are applauded for a raw and energetic style that shrugs off the reservedness of the era. She is also known for her first and only novel, The Bell Jar, which explores similar themes of mental anguish and unresolved family conflict.
There is no better way to know us
Than as two wolves, come separately to a wood
Husband to Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes was a tremendous poet in his own right, known for such volumes as Lupercal and Crow. His poetry was a dramatic departure from the reserved style of the 50s and often explores themes of nature and animals. He rose to fame in the mid 20th-century and held the title of Poet Laureate from 1984 until his death in 1998.
During his studies at Cambridge University, Hughes took a keen interest in myths and legends, which later became an important aspect of his poetry. His final poetry collection was published in 1998 and explored his turbulent relationship with Plath. He received many awards for his poetry and was appointed to the Order of Merit, one of Britain’s highest honours.
Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost.
The Italian poet Dante is best known for his magnum opus La Commedia (The Divine Comedy), which is widely considered to be one of the greatest poems in literature and the Italian language, taking twelve years to complete. Born in Florence during the middle ages, Dante grew up amid the aristocracy and developed a fascination with literature under the apprenticeship of poet Brunetto Latini. The Divine Comedy casts the poet himself as the protagonist as he journeys through the nine circles of hell to purgatory and heaven.
Although he married another woman, he remained in love with his childhood sweetheart Beatrice Portinari and was stricken with grief upon her death in 1290. He committed himself to studying the philosophy of Cicero, Aristotle and Boethius and began to develop his own poetic voice in lyrical poems during this time. He released the collection Vita Nuova depicting Beatrice as the subject of mythical love a few years later.
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Maya Angelou was an American poet, autobiographer and civil rights activist. She was born in the late 1920s and worked for Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Much of her poetry explores race, feminism and black beauty, with her famous poem Still I Rise being an example of all three. She also wrote anti-Vietnam war poetry, and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her poem Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie.
As well as her career in poetry, Angelou pursued a number of other endeavors; she was a singer, dancer, editor, and playwright. Not only that, but she went on to become Hollywood’s first black director in 1988. She received over fifty honorary degrees during her life, and was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Clinton and the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama.
Sweet mother, I cannot weave –
slender Aphrodite has overcome me
with longing for a girl.
Born around 620 BCE on the island of Lesbos, Sappho was known to her contemporaries as ‘the poetess’ and is today regarded as the most famous LGBT+ poet of the ancient era. Although condemned by moralists through certain periods of history, her work was celebrated during her lifetime, with Plato referring to her as ‘the tenth Muse’.
Sappho’s greatest contribution was to the idea of the lyric genre. Contrary to the dramatic style of the period, her poetry was intended to be read aloud to specific individuals and dealt mainly with the themes of emotional and physical love. In the last century, it has been praised for its directness and honesty. Perhaps her most iconic poem is the fragmented Sappho 31, whose four surviving stanzas explain the physical effects of her longing as she watches her beloved talk and laugh with a man.
My heart in passion, and my head on rhymes.
The most famous of the English Romantic poets, George Gordon Byron (more commonly known as Lord Byron) has a reputation as a flamboyant figure of the 19th-century. He is remembered for his creation of the Byronic hero; a romantic yet melancholy and cynical character type, first seen in his epic narrative poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and enduring in pop culture.
His best known work is his epic poem Don Juan, which tells the story of a legendary libertine who devotes his life to the seduction of women. Byron’s version is actually not the first appearance of the fictional character, which was originally written for the play The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest by Tirso de Molina. In Tirso’s version, Don Juan is depicted as an evil figure, while Byron’s character is much more satirical. When it was first published in 1819, the poem was criticised for freely ridiculing the social subjects and persons of the time.
Raising my cup, I invite the bright moon
and turn to my shadow. We are now three.
A Medieval poet from China’s Tang Dynasty, Li Bai was raised in Sichuan Province and left home in the year 725 to explore the Yangtze River Valley and write poetry. He was appointed to the Hanlin Academy by Emperor Xuanzong, where he was adored by both the aristocrats and the common people (though he was later expelled, allegedly for his poems about the emperor’s royal consort, Yang Guifei). Fellow poet, He Zhizhang, gave him the nickname ‘the immortal exiled from heaven’.
Li Bai’s autobiographical poems are known for their clear imagery and down-to-earth style, which influenced several 20th-century poets such as Ezra Pound and James Wright. He was a member of the Six Idlers of the Bamboo Brook: an informal group dedicated to literature and alcohol. It is said that he was often drunk when asked to perform by Xuanzong, and indeed one of his most famous poems is the self-explanatory Drinking Alone Under the Moon.
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
Coming from a black man’s soul.
Raised in small town America during the early 20th-century, Langston Hughes moved to New York City as a young man and became a key figure of the Harlem Renaissance: a time of cultural and intellectual flourishing among African American communities — particularly in New York’s Harlem neighbourhood.
As a poet and a novelist, Hughes sought to give true depictions of the joys and sorrows of the black working class. His books were not well received by black critics, who thought they painted an unattractive image of life as a black American. Hughes was a big fan of jazz and is credited with inventing the genre of jazz poetry, using the same syncopated rhythms and loose phrasing in his work on the page.
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Although Emily Dickinson was not well known during her lifetime, she is now appreciated as one of America’s all-time greatest poets. Born to a well-connected family in Massachusetts in 1830, she studied at Amherst Academy and Mount Holyoke Female Seminary before returning to lead a reclusive life at her family home, barely leaving her bedroom as the years progressed.
During her isolated life, Dickinson wrote nearly 1,800 poems – though only ten heavily edited poems were published while she was alive. A cache of her poetry was discovered after her death by her sister Lavinia, leading to a huge surge in publication. Her poetry was groundbreaking in its unconventional punctuation and irregular meter, and dealt with the major themes of love, death and Christianity.
To do with you what spring does with the cherry trees
Chilean poet and diplomat, Pablo Neruda, is celebrated as being the greatest poet writing in the Spanish language during the 1900s. Born at the beginning of the 20th century, he started writing poetry at a young age and published his first essay at just thirteen. Although his father opposed his writing, he received guidance from future Nobel Prize winner Gabriela Mistral, who was headmistress of his school at the time.
Neruda is chiefly known for his odes and love poems. He published his first volume of verse at the age of eighteen, and the very next year published Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada (Twenty Love Poems and A Desperate Song), which has sold millions of copies in the decades since and is the best-selling poetry book in the Spanish language. At the time, Neruda’s love poetry was controversial due to its explicit sexuality; combining the poet’s own memories with imagery of Chile.
Edgar Allan Poe
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”
A proponent for the ‘art for art’s sake’ movement of the 19th-century, Edgar Allan Poe’s imaginative and expertly crafted poems and short stories were a massive influence on the French symbolists, who altered the direction of modern literature. His first poetry publication, Tamerlane and Other Poems was hugely inspired by Lord Byron, and the titular poem tells the tale of a conqueror lamenting the loss of his first love.
Although Poe wrote in many genres, his most famous works are gothic horror. The Raven is his best known poem, telling of a talking raven visiting a grieving man who slowly descends into madness. Other chilling poems by Poe include The City in the Sea, which tells of an underwater city ruled over by Death, and Annabel Lee, another poem centered on the theme of lost love.
Jalal al-Din Rumi
You are not a drop in an ocean
You are entire ocean in a drop
Known simply as Rumi, Jalal al-Din Rumi was a 13th-century Persian poet and Islamic scholar. His poems have been translated into a huge number of the world’s languages, for which he has earned the nickname the ‘most popular poet’. Translated versions of his works are most popular in Turkey, Azerbaijan, the US, and South Asia.
Rumi wrote mainly in Persian, but he also dabbled in Turkish, Arabic and Greek. His best known work, the extensive religious poem Masnavi, is a series of spiritual poetry books 25,000 verses long, written to teach Sufis how to truly love god. Many consider it to be the greatest work of poetry in the Persian language and the greatest mystical poem in world literature.
You should not peep at goblin men.
Daughter of the Italian poet, Gabriele Rossetti, Christina was born into an exceptionally gifted family. Her siblings all went on to achieve their own successes in academia, art, and literary criticism, but Christina followed most closely in her father’s footsteps and became one of the greatest poets of the Victorian era.
Rossetti began experimenting with verse forms such as sonnets and ballads in 1847, basing her narratives on the bible and well-known folk tales. Her earliest works like Death’s Chill Between dealt with themes of death and loss. Later she created children’s narrative poems such as The Goblin Market, which was published as a collection with her other poems and accompanied by illustrations by her brother, Dante Gabriel. She was seen by many as the natural successor to Elizabeth Barrett Browning for the feminist qualities of her poetry.
Of all creatures that breathe and move upon the earth, nothing is bred that is weaker than man.
Very little is known about Homer. In fact, we’re not even sure whether or not he existed. Literary scholars believe that he was the single author behind two epic poems that form the foundations of ancient Greek literature: The Iliad and The Odyssey. The accounts we do have of Homer’s life suggest that he was a blind bard from Ionia, a coastal area of modern-day Turkey.
What we know for certain is that these two works are some of the most influential ever written. The Iliad is set during the siege of Troy and focuses on the conflict between King Agamemnon and the warrior Achilles, while the Odyssey tells the tale of Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, and his ten year journey home after the fall of Troy. Together, they form the template for every epic poem throughout time.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
A soldier and a poet, Wilfred Owen was born in England in 1893 and died in battle in France at the age of twenty five, just one week before the Armistice. He is considered one of the best poets of the First World War, and his work focused on the visceral horrors of trench warfare, going against the patriotic style of earlier war poetry.
Owen composed nearly all of his poems over the course of a single year between 1917 and 1918, the year he was killed in action. All but five of these were published posthumously, and after his death there was a massive surge in publications. He was mentored by fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon, whose influence can be seen in his two most famous poems, Dulce et Decorum est and Anthem for Doomed Youth.
Spring is passing.
The birds cry, and the fishes’ eyes are
The most famous poet of Japan’s Edo period, Matsuo Basho is celebrated as the greatest master of the haiku. His poems are known around the globe and many can be found on monuments and traditional sites in present-day Japan. He was successful in his time but remained dissatisfied, turning to zen buddhism and eventually embarking on great journeys.
Although Basho is renowned for the haiku, his favourite form of poetry to write in was the renku: a collaborative form of linked verse, where poets take turns writing alternating verses. He is also credited with creating a new form of poetry called the haibun, which is a hybrid between haiku and prose that traces a journey through external imagery and inner thought. Basho based his haibun sequences on the month-long journeys he would take on foot. His most famous, Oku no Hosomichi, is based on the 1,200 mile journey he completed with his disciple Sora.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
San Francisco-born poet Robert Frost achieved great success in his lifetime and was praised by critics for his dramatic scenes and realistic depictions of rural American life. He lived from 1874 to 1963 and is the only poet to ever receive four Pulitzer Prizes for poetry. Not only that, but he was also awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for his works, and was declared poet laureate of Vermont two years before his death.
Frost frequently used New England as the setting for his poems, which examine social and philosophical themes in relation to nature. West-Running Brook from his fifth collection tells the story of a brook that runs west to the Atlantic, unlike all others which flow east. It explores the individualism and self-realisation that can be seen in much of his poetry.
The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.
Your silence will not protect you.
I am deliberate and afraid of nothing.
Refusing to be pinned to a stereotype, Audre Lorde described herself as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”. She was born in 1930s New York City to West Indian parents and published her first poem when she was still in high school. Her poetry deals with themes of identity and is known for its masterful emotional style, expressing outrage at the social and civil injustices that she observed as an LGBT+ person of colour in the 20th-century, and as a woman.
Her poems were published regularly in the 60s, appearing in several magazines and anthologies, including one by fellow poet and social activist Langston Hughes. She went on to write powerful protest poetry, which was published in collections such as Coal and The Black Unicorn.
Your daughter’s face is a small riot,
her hands are a civil war,
a refugee camp behind each ear,
a body littered with ugly things
Many poets on this list only achieved recognition after their lifetime, but it’s clear that Warsan Shire is set to be one of the greatest poets of this generation. Born in 1988, Shire grew up in London and has written four collections so far, including Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth (2011) and Her Blue Body (2015). Her poems have been published in several magazines and journals, including Long Journeys: African Migrants on the Road, and have appeared in Beyonce’s visual album Lemonade and her recent film Black Is King, released in 2020.
Shire’s poetry focuses on themes such as gender, war, sex, and immigration, and is driven by accurate portrayals of character. She is the youngest person ever to be inducted into the Royal Society of Literature and was named the first Young Poet Laureate for London in 2014, as well as the poet-in-residence for Queensland, Australia. A year earlier, she won Brunel University’s first African Poetry Prize. We can’t wait to see what she gets up to next.