An A-Z of Poets – Part 1 (A-G)

National Poetry Day is a chance for everyone everywhere to read, share and enjoy poetry. Our Little Histories are also all about learning and sharing, so this National Poetry Day we’ve created a brand new learning resource based around our newest Little History book, A Little History of Poetry by John Carey.   In four parts we will be sharing bite-sized biographies of poets along with links to their poems online and links to free resources to discover more.

Find the other parts of An A-Z of Poets here

Teachers and librarians can find a downloadable and printable version of An A-Z of Poets for classroom use at the bottom of this post


A… Maya ANGELOU

Maya Angelou (1928–2014) was a spokesperson for black women, and a civil rights activist alongside Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X, as well as a poet. Born in St Louis, she earned her living in early adulthood as a cook, nightclub dancer, sex worker, singer and actress. The first of her seven autobiographies, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), takes its title from the Black American poet Paul Dunbar (1872–1906). It reveals how, at eight, she was abused by her mother’s boyfriend; the book brought her instant fame, though it was banned in some American schools.

Descended from West African slaves, Angelou sees ‘the auction block’ and slaves’ chains in the faces of old people. Her most famous lyric, ‘Caged Bird’, is about slavery, and ‘Child Dead in Old Seas’ evokes the Africa from which the slaves came.

Learn more about Maya Angelou and her poems

Poetry Foundation
Biography and poems

Academy of American Poets
Biography and poems

Maya Angelou’s Official Website
Biography and resources

BBC Radio 4
Maya Angelou’s Autobiographies (audio)
Great Lives: The amazing Maya Angelou (audio)


B… Elizabeth BISHOP

Elizabeth Bishop (1911–1979) was a protégée of Marianne Moore’s but a very different kind of person. Because of her father’s early death and her mother’s mental illness, she lived as a child with her grandparents in rural Nova Scotia. An inheritance from her father allowed her to travel widely, and after graduating at Vassar she spent half her life outside the USA, first in France with Louise Crane and then in Brazil, where she bought a house and lived for fifteen years with another lover, Lota Soares.

For a major American poet she had a small output, barely a hundred poems. But she has a wider range of tone and feeling than any other modernist, even Eliot. In ‘First Death in Nova Scotia’ and ‘In the Waiting Room’ she writes witty, engaging poems about the irreverence and incomprehension with which children view the adult world, based on incidents in her own childhood. Wit is prominent, too, in ‘The Man-moth’, a kind of nonsense poem, but darker than Victorian nonsense poetry and inspired, she explained, by a newspaper misprint for ‘mammoth’. Her man-moth is a lonely, bewildered, nocturnal creature, who thinks the moon is a hole in the sky he can climb through, and who weeps one tear, ‘his only possession, like the bee’s sting’.

Feeling for the non-human runs deep in her poetry. In ‘The Fish’ she examines a caught fish in exacting detail – its barnacled skin, five pieces of old fish-line, with their big hooks, ‘grown firmly in his mouth’. She imagines its ‘coarse white flesh / packed in like  feathers’. All the while, she keeps us aware, it is breathing in ‘the terrible oxygen’ through its ‘frightening gills’. So when she lets it go at the end you feel real relief. ‘The Armadillo’, written in Brazil, is about the fire balloons that float up into the night sky at carnival time, and about the panic and terror they cause creatures in the wild.

Her greatest animal poem is ‘The Moose’, which took her twenty years to finish and is set in the Nova Scotia of her childhood. It starts with a lyrical, almost dreamy, evocation of life on the Nova Scotia coast with its maples and birches and clapboard farmhouses and humdrum diet, ‘fish and bread and tea’. It lingers on details – the flowers in the gardens, cabbage roses, lupins, sweet peas, foxgloves. Then we are on a rural bus, ‘its windshield flashing pink’, going west through the ‘hairy, scratchy, splintery’ woods of New Brunswick. Outside there is darkness, but inside it is cosy and safe. Some passengers nod off; others engage in quiet, desultory talk about ordinary things. Grandparents remember ‘deaths and sicknesses’, childbirths, a son lost at sea.

Bishop avoided publishing poems about her personal life, though her most popular poem, ‘One Art’, is clearly personal and appeared in 1977. Its form is that of a villanelle: five stanzas rhyming aba and a sixth rhyming abaa.

Learn more about Elizabeth Bishop and her poems

Poetry Foundation
Biography and poems

Academy of American Poets
Biography and poems

Poetry Archive
Biography and poems

BBC Radio 3
The Essay: The Loves of Elizabeth Bishop –
Neel Mukherjee (audio)


C… May Wedderburn CANNAN

In her most famous poem ‘Rouen’, May Wedderburn Cannan (1893–1973) recalls her time in France during the First World War, when she volunteered for four weeks in a railway canteen for soldiers. She remembers how trains full of wounded men would arrive daily, with their ‘Woodbines’ and their ‘gay, heart-breaking mirth’.

Cannan published three books of poetry, In War Time (1917), The Splendid Days (1919) and The House of Hope (1923).

Learn more about May Wedderburn Cannan and her poems

Poetry Foundation
Biography and poems

Academy of American Poets
Biography and poems

May Wedderburn Cannan’s Website
Biography and resources

The English Association’s WW1 Poets
Biography and poems


D… Emily DICKINSON

Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) was born into a prosperous family in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she lived all her life. She attended Amherst Academy and then Mount Holyoake Seminary. Her reading included Wordsworth, Jane Eyre, and Shakespeare’s works (‘Why is any other book needed?’ she asked). She was reclusive, tended to wear white clothing, which

was thought odd, and scarcely left her bedroom in her later years. She was, however, a keen gardener and botanist and made a large collection of pressed flowers. She said she had ‘found my Savior’ during a religious revival in Amherst when she was fifteen, but her poems suggest a sceptical intelligence. Emily Brontë’sNo Coward Soul Is Mine’, one of her favourite poems, was read at her funeral.

She transcribed her poems (there are about 1,800) into handwritten books, which were discovered only after her death. A selection, edited and altered, was put together by her family in 1890. Her complete poems were not published until 1955. Many of them are about death, sometimes imagining her own. Sometimes the imagined death may be either hers or someone else’s, we can’t tell which. Nor is it always clear that the imagined death is imagined as actually happening.

Learn more about Emily Dickinson and her poems

Poetry Foundation
Biography and poems

Academy of American Poets
Biography and poems

Emily Dickinson Museum
Poems, biography and resources

BBC Radio 4
Great Lives: Emily Dickinson (audio)
In Our Time: Emily Dickinson (audio)
Pursuit of Beauty: In Emily Dickinson’s Bedroom (audio)


E… T. S. ELIOT

Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888–1965) was born into a wealthy family related to America’s cultural elite. He grew up in St Louis where his father was chief executive of a brick company. A shy, nervous child, he suffered from a congenital double inguinal hernia, wore a truss, and missed out on sports and physical exercise. As a boy he read Wild West stories and wrote poetry influenced by Edward FitzGerald’s popular ‘Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam‘. He seemed an unlikely person to change poetry worldwide.

In London he met Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf and other Bloomsbury Group members, and, in 1917 he became a British citizen (there was, he told a friend, ‘not much worth preserving’ in America), and secured a post in Lloyds Bank, working on foreign accounts. In 1925 he became a director of publishers Faber and Gwyer (later Faber and Faber), and in 1927 he converted to the Church of England (he had been brought up among Unitarians, that is Christians who believe that Jesus was a man, not God incarnate).

Of Eliot’s longer poems two, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ and ‘Portrait of a Lady’ were written before he came to England. He sent the typescript of ‘The Waste Land’ to Pound, who made several alterations before it was published in 1922. ‘The Hollow Men’ appeared in 1925, and ‘Ash Wednesday’, the first poem written after his conversion, in 1930. Four Quartets, also religious in theme, are meditations on time and timelessness. Burnt Norton came out in 1936, East Coker in 1940, The Dry Salvages in 1941 and Little Gidding, which refers to Eliot’s service as an Air Raid Warden in the London Blitz, in 1942.

Eliot is known as a ‘difficult’ poet. In fact he is not. His ear for linguistic resonance and genius for evocative phrases give immediate pleasure. The ‘meaning’ of his poems matters less. Asking who Prufrock is visiting, or who the Lady is in Portrait, is pointless, because Eliot has withheld this information. Instead he depicts states of feeling, ranging from rapture (‘The awful daring of a moment’s surrender’) to awkwardness and embarrassment, as when the speaker in Portrait is so rattled by the Lady’s woeful reproaches that he wants to stop having human feelings – ‘cry like a parrot, chatter like an ape’. You can read these poems as novellas with most of the humdrum stuff left out but with feelings left in.

Learn more about T.S. Eliot and his poems

Poetry Foundation
Biography and poems

Academy of American Poets
Biography and poems

Poetry Archive
Biography and poems

T.S. Eliot’s Official Website
Biography, poems and resources

BBC Radio 4
In Our Time: Poetry by T. S. Eliot (audio)

The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock – Alan Yentob (audio)
Beyond Belief: TS Eliot’s Religious Poetry – Ernie Rea (audio)


F… Jessie Redmon FAUSET

The novelist Jessie Redmon Fauset (1882–1961) became literary editor of the magazine The Crisis, and promoted work that gave a realistic representation of the African-American community. She introduced writers, including Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Anne Spencer, to a national audience.

Along with her poetry and short fiction in The Crisis, Fauset published several novels known for their portrayal of middle-class African American life.

Learn more about Jessie Redmon Fauset and her poems

Academy of American Poets
Biography and poems

Beltway Poetry Quarterly
Poems

Black History in America
Biography


G… Johann Wolfgang von GOETHE

Germany did not become a nation until 1871. But German poetry had spread its influence through Europe long before that. Asked who ‘invented’ Romanticism, many would reply Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832). He was a scientist, writing treatises on botany, anatomy and colour theory, as well as a novelist, cultural critic and poet. Born in Frankfurt, and trained as a lawyer, he moved to the duchy of Saxe-Weimar in 1775, serving in many offices of state and becoming virtual prime minister. As director of the theatre he produced the romantic dramas of his friend Friedrich von Schiller (1759–1805).

Goethe’s most famous poetic work is his two-part tragedy ‘Faust’. At the start God bets Mephistopheles, an agent of Satan, that he will not be able to lead Faust astray. Faust, however, agrees to sell his soul provided Mephistopheles can give him such delight that he wishes a moment would last for ever. In their ensuing adventures Faust seduces an innocent young girl, Margaret (Gretchen), and kills her brother in a sword fight. She goes mad, drowns her new-born son, is condemned to death, and refuses to save herself by fleeing with Faust. However, at the end of the first part, a voice from on high pronounces her ‘redeemed’.

Faust, Part Two (published after Goethe’s death) is a five-act poetic fantasia, scarcely related to Part One. In a fairy vision of the imperial court, Faust conjures up Helen of Troy, the ‘ideal form’ of beauty, and falls in love with her. With Mephistopheles, he encounters gods and monsters from Greek myth, and visits the underworld. In the last act Faust, old and powerful, experiences a moment of bliss when planning how to better the lives of his subjects, and drops dead. Mephistopheles claims his soul. But angels drop burning rose-petals on the demons, and take Faust’s soul to heaven, where it is received by various sanctified females, including Gretchen.

The best-known of Goethe’s shorter poems is the ‘Erlking’, based on a traditional ballad and set to music by Schubert. In it a father rides through the night clasping in his arms his little son, who sees phantoms, which the father explains away as fog or rustling leaves. At the end the child shrieks that the ‘Erlking’ is harming him, and dies.

More remarkable, though, are the twenty-four Roman Elegies. Magnificently sensuous and elegant, they imitate classical loveelegists, like Ovid, and ingeniously preserve the Latin metre. Recalling Goethe’s Italian journey (1786–8), they describe his amorous encounters. They were considered too indecent to publish in Goethe’s lifetime.

Learn more about Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and his poems

Poetry Foundation
Biography and poems

Academy of American Poets
Biography and poems

The School of Life
Biography

BBC Radio 3
Twenty Minutes: Goethe and the West-Eastern Divan –
Paul Farley (audio)

BBC Radio 4
In Our Time: Goethe (audio)
One Nation Under Goethe – Neil MacGregor (audio)


Find the other parts of An A-Z of Poets here


A Little History of Poetry

This A-Z of Poets is based on John Carey’s A Little History of Poetry.

In the book, John Carey tells the stories behind the world’s greatest poems, from the oldest surviving one written nearly four thousand years ago to those being written today. Carey looks at poets whose works shape our views of the world, such as Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Whitman, and Yeats. He also looks at more recent poets, like Derek Walcott, Marianne Moore, and Maya Angelou, who have started to question what makes a poem “great” in the first place.

For readers both young and old, this little history shines a light for readers on the richness of the world’s poems—and the elusive quality that makes them all the more enticing.

Discover More

Following in the footsteps of E. H. Gombrich’s worldwide bestseller A Little History of the World, the books in our Little Histories series explore the history of the world’s most remarkable people, events and ideas. With engaging personal insights, our authors will take you on a whistle-stop journey from ancient times to the present – exploring all of life’s big subjects from archaeology to science. Other Little Histories available include, Philosophy, Economics, Science, Literature, Language and Religion. More details about the whole series can be found on the Little Histories website.

Stay connected with the latest developments in the Little Histories series by following us on Twitter and Facebook.

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An A-Z of Poets for Classroom Use

Teachers and librarians can find a downloadable and printable version of the full A-Z of Poets below. This version contains suggestions of how this resource could be used in the classroom or library. The download button is in the top left of the frame below.

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