An A-Z of Poets – Part 2 (H-M)

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


H… HAFEZ

Hafez (1315– 1390) was born in Shiraz, Iran, but not much is known of his life. He is said to have learned the Quran by heart as a child, and worked as a baker, before becoming a court poet. He studied Sufism, an Islamic form of mysticism, under a Sufi master. His lyrical poems, called ghazals, use love, wine and women to express the ecstasy of divine inspiration. This treatment of bodily joy, not as a temptation but as a mystical equivalent of the divine, is an achievement that would be inconceivable in Western poetry of the Middle Ages (though it can be matched in the Old Testament Song of Songs). Even today, Western readers of Hafez’s poems (which are available in translation) still find it difficult to relate them to religious experience. In Iran, however, they are prized as the greatest achievement of Persian literature, and have passed into common currency, being drawn on for proverbs and sayings. Hafez is still Iran’s favourite poet, and it is said his works can be found in almost every Iranian home.

Learn more about Hafez and his poems

Poetry Foundation
Biography and poems

Academy of American Poets
Biography and poems

BBC World Service
Heart and Soul: The Poetry of Hafez (audio)


I…IVOR Gurney

The musician and composer Ivor Gurney (1890–1937) was born in Gloucester and enlisted as a private in the British Army during World War I.  He served in France and began writing poetry at the front. He hated the ‘blither’ about war ‘written by knaves for fools’ in the popular press, and noticed the ‘small trifles’ of trench life, like Fray Bentos corned beef tins and ‘café-au-lait in dugouts on Tommies’ cookers’ (in ‘Laventie’). But these domestic moments only intensify the realities of destruction. His poem ‘To His Love’ is addressed to the fiancé of his childhood friend Will Harvey. He remembers how the three of them used to walk together in the Gloucestershire countryside, among quietly browsing sheep.

Gurney survived the war, but he was wounded and caught in a gas attack, and spent his last fifteen years in psychiatric hospitals.

Learn more about Ivor Gurney and his poems

Poetry Foundation
Biography and poems

Poetry Archive
Biography and poems

The Ivor Gurney Society
Biography and resources

The Ivor Gurney Collection
Digitized manuscripts


J…Samuel JOHNSON

Samuel Johnson (1709–1784) came to London as a poor, unknown country boy in 1737, and his poem London (1738) describes the contempt, abuse and physical danger the poor suffer in a big city, where ‘All crimes are safe but hated poverty.’ It was based on Juvenal, and so is Johnson’s The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749), which satirises hope. For Johnson, hope is not a virtue but a curse, because it tricks its victims into grand ambitions. Suffering is universal, he warns, even if you prosper:

Yet hope not life from grief or danger free,
Nor think the doom of man reversed for thee!

His (very English) dislike of pride and grandeur found personal expression in On the Death of Dr Robert Levett. It mourns a shy, obscure physician who worked among London’s poor, often for no fee. Johnson’s deep Christian faith is reflected in its closing reference to the parable of the talents.

His virtues walked their narrow round,
Nor made a pause, nor left a void,
And sure the Eternal Master found
The single talent well employed.

Learn more about Samuel Johnson and his poems

Poetry Foundation
Biography and poems

Academy of American Poets
Biography and poems

Poetry Archive
Biography and poems

The Yale Blog
The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age (extract)


K… John KEATS

John Keats (1795–1821) was a London boy from a poor background. His father hired out horses for a living. After leaving school he became a medical student and ‘dresser’ (surgeon’s assistant) at Guy’s Hospital. He fell in love with a local young woman, Fanny Brawne, and his passionate, desperate letters to her are now classics. In 1818 his brother, Tom, died of tuberculosis and Keats, who nursed him, contracted the disease himself. His greatest poems, including the Odes (‘To Autumn’, ‘On a Grecian Urn’, ‘To a Nightingale’, ‘On Melancholy’, ‘On Indolence’ and ‘To Psyche’), were written in a single year, 1819. He died in Rome, where he had gone in hope of recovery, in a house overlooking the Spanish Steps, now a pilgrimage site. His poems were cruelly mocked by critics, partly on grounds of his social class (he was called a ‘cockney’ poet), and he wanted his gravestone to bear no name or date but only the words, ‘Here lies One whose Name was writ in Water’. It is in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, and also attracts many pilgrims.

Discussing poetry in his letters he praises sensation – ‘O for a life of sensation rather than of thoughts!’ – and sees the poet as a ‘chameleon’ who can take on the feelings of others: ‘if a sparrow come before my window, I take part in its existence and pick around the gravel’. In The Eve of St Agnes, the greatest of his narrative poems, these qualities are evident from the start as he registers the effect of a winter night in the wild: ‘The owl for all his feathers was a-cold’; ‘The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass’. The poem is about two lovers, Porphyro and Madeline, who, like Romeo and Juliet, are separated by family enmity. Daringly, Porphyro enters the enemy castle, gains admission to Madeline’s bedroom and, in hiding, watches her undress. Keats registers not just sights and sounds, but temperatures. Madeline unclasps her ‘warmed jewels’, and as her dress slips down to her knees she stands, chillily, ‘like a mermaid in seaweed’, before getting into bed.

Keats’s most famous poem, ‘To Autumn’, is as densely sensuous, conveying not just how things feel (the ‘moss’d’ apple trees; the bees’ ‘clammy cells’) but how they move. In ‘sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep / Steady thy laden head across a brook’, we feel the gleaner’s momentary unsteadiness as we cross the line-break. The sensory power of Keats’s poetry extends not just to sight and hearing but to touch. He can make us feel the difference between two kinds of metallic friction.

Learn more about John Keats and his poems

Poetry Foundation
Biography and poems

Academy of American Poets
Biography and poems

Poetry Archive
Biography and poems

British Library
Biography, manuscripts and articles

BBC Radio 3
The Essay: An Ode to John Keats (audio, 5 episodes)

BBC Radio 4
In Our Time: The Later Romantics (audio)


L… Philip LARKIN

Philip Larkin (1922–1985) was born in Coventry. His father, the city treasurer, was an enthusiastic Nazi who attended Nuremberg rallies, but also an avid reader who introduced Larkin to modern literature, above all D.H. Lawrence, whom both father and son idolised. Larkin went to King Henry VIII School, Coventry, and St John’s College, Oxford, where he read English and got a first. Typically, he used to tell people he had got a second, which played up to his reputation for glumness. He once said that deprivation for him was what daffodils were for Wordsworth. On the night of 14 November 1940 the Luftwaffe blitzed Coventry, killing over 500 people. When Larkin hitchhiked from Oxford the next day he found much of his hometown reduced to rubble. His lifelong xenophobia may date from this.

He wanted to be a novelist, published two sensitive, discriminating novels, Jill (1946) and A Girl in Winter (1947), and supplied his friend Kingsley Amis with ideas for Lucky Jim (1954). After Oxford he drifted into librarianship as a career (poor eyesight exempted him from military service) and proved very good at it, while grumbling about it endlessly (see, for example, his poem ‘Toads’). As a librarian he worked in Wellington (Shropshire), Leicester, Belfast, and eventually Hull, where he became University Librarian in 1955.

He seems to have regarded marriage and children (‘selfish, noisy, cruel, vulgar little brutes’) as a threat to his art, so he remained single. However, despite his claim (in ‘Annus Mirabilis’) that ‘Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three’, which was ‘rather late for me’, he led, from 1945 on, an active sex-life with several women, among them Monica Jones, an English lecturer at Leicester University, who became his wife in all but name.

But his true ‘muse’, some critics have concluded, was his mother, Eva. From 1948, when his father died, until her death in 1977, aged ninety-one, he took responsibility for her, writing many hundreds of letters. Several of his poems are associated with her. He wrote ‘The Old Fools’, his tirade against the humiliations of old age, while she was slipping into dementia. He completed ‘Aubade’, his poem about the terror of death, a few days after her life ended.

His first collection, The North Ship (1945), was strongly influenced by Yeats. He explained that he wrote it while he was ‘isolated in Shropshire with a complete Yeats stolen from the local girls’ school’ (actually it was stolen for him by a girl at the school, Ruth Bowman, then aged sixteen, with whom he had an affair). A permanent reaction against Yeats followed. His new model was Hardy, whose poems he took to reading every morning before work. When he edited The Oxford Book of Twentieth-century English Verse (1973) he included twenty-seven poems by Hardy (as against nine by T.S. Eliot).

It was Hardy’s attention to the commonplace, contrasting with Yeats’s Byzantine grandeurs, that attracted Larkin. ‘I love the commonplace,’ he wrote, ‘Everyday things are lovely to me.’ In his poems he chooses symbols that show how the commonplace is bound up with our deepest feelings. ‘Mr Bleaney’, a howl of rage at fate’s unfairness, is about a tacky bedsit (actually one Larkin lived in when he first moved to Hull). ‘Sunny Prestatyn’, relating time’s rape of beauty, is about a seaside poster. ‘An April Sunday brings the snow’, which mourns his father’s death, is about some pots of jam.

The poems express two different personalities. One is abrasive (‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad’; ‘in a pig’s arse, friend’). The other reacts tenderly to nature and to people. ‘Water’ and ‘Solar’ are virtually expressions of nature-worship. Trees (in ‘Trees’) come into leaf ‘like something almost being said’. The imagined thoughts of the stricken rabbit in ‘Myxomatosis’ – ‘Perhaps you thought things would come right again / If only you could keep quite still and wait’ – are piercingly human. But this sensitivity combines with a vision of reality that is brutally bleak. Life, in ‘An April Sunday brings the snow’, is ‘sweet / And meaningless, and not to come again’. Both these ways of reacting to the world display an unsparing accuracy – intellectual, but also an accuracy about what is seen and felt, noticing, for example, how the snow makes plum blossom seem ‘green / Not white’.

Accuracy debars sentimentality. So in ‘An Arundel Tomb’ the sentimental outburst, ‘What will survive of us is love’, has already been identified in the previous line as only ‘almost true’. Similarly, in ‘Talking in Bed’, the aim of finding ‘words at once true and kind’, is modified, realistically, to ‘not untrue and not unkind’. In ‘Afternoons’ the young mothers, happily watching their children play, are, Larkin reminds us, being replaced by their children even as they watch: ‘Something is pushing them / To the side of their own lives.’

A theme Larkin often reverts to, as in ‘Wants’, for example, is ‘the wish to be alone’. But by the end ‘Wants’ desires not solitude but oblivion. ‘Beneath it all, the desire of oblivion runs.’ This wish for nothingness contrasts with ‘Aubade’ where nothingness, ‘Not to be anywhere’, is terrifying. Here it is desired. Several of Larkin’s poems end with an upward sweep into emptiness, which surmounts argument and seems transcendent rather than threatening. ‘Here’ ends with ‘unfenced existence’; ‘High Windows’, with ‘deep blue air, that shows / Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless’; ‘Cut Grass’, with a ‘high-builded cloud / moving at summer’s pace’; ‘The Explosion’, with a religious vision. The effect is of a poem opening itself to the unknown, rather than ending.

Learn more about Philip Larkin and his poems

Poetry Foundation
Biography and poems

Academy of American Poets
Biography and poems

Poetry Archive
Biography and poems

The Philip Larkin Society
Biography and resources

BBC Archive
Philip Larkin speaking about his work and life in Hull (video)

BBC Radio 4
How Much Do You Know About Philip Larkin (quiz)
Desert Island Discs – Philip Larkin (audio)
The New Elizabethans: Philip Larkin (audio)


M… Marianne MOORE

Marianne Moore (1887–1972), was strongly influenced by her maternal grandfather, a Presbyterian pastor, and grew up believing that it was not possible to live without a religious faith. She and her brother, who became a naval chaplain, were brought up by their mother (her father, an engineer, was admitted to a mental hospital before her birth). After graduating from Bryn Mawr, she devoted herself to caring for her mother. They were hard up, and lived in cramped apartments, often sharing a bed. Apart from a brief infatuation at college with a niece of Henry James, there is no record of Moore being sexually attracted to anyone. Her satirical poem ‘Marriage’ is addressed to a man who had taken an unwanted romantic interest in her, and remarks:

. . Men are monopolists
of ‘stars, garters, buttons
and other shining baubles’ –
unfit to be the guardians
of another person’s happiness.

In 1918 she and her mother moved from Carlisle, Pennsylvania, to New York’s Greenwich Village, where she edited the literary journal The Dial and met avant-garde writers, including Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens. Continuing to care for her ailing mother, she moved to Brooklyn in 1929, where their basement flat was so small they had to eat meals perched on the bath.

Her mother’s death in 1947 left her grief-stricken. After a long period of mourning she moved back to Manhattan in 1965, and became a much-loved Greenwich Village eccentric, conspicuous in her cloak and tricorn hat, a keen admirer of Muhammad Ali, and a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers – later of the New York Yankees. Over her lifetime her poetry won virtually all of America’s literary prizes.

Her poems often feature small creatures in cramped or menacing surroundings. A pangolin, for example, is a kind of anteater. It is covered in scales, and when threatened it curls in a ball, resembling (in Moore’s poem ‘The Pangolin’) an ‘ant- and stone-swallowing uninjurable / artichoke’.

Moore’s wonder at nature’s power to survive embraces plants as well as animals. Her poem ‘Nevertheless’ features a prickly-pear leaf, caught on barbed wire that sends down a shoot to take root in the earth ‘two feet below’. She applauds its courage – a moral quality she recognises in other plants.

‘An Octopus’, her longest and most magnificent poem, is entirely free of modernist obscurity and centres on Mount Rainier, an extinct volcano in Washington’s Cascade Range. Moore sees the mountain, surrounded by glaciers, as resembling an octopus and its tentacles. The poem celebrates the trees – fir, larch and spruce – and the diversity of animals – bears, elks, deer, wolves, goats, marmots, wild ponies, ‘thoughtful beavers’, ‘the exacting porcupine’ – that survive in this world of ice. The mountain’s rocks and ice-fields seem alive too. The poem includes quotations from National Parks Service publications and other factual documents, and this kind of collage was common with Moore. Her poems pluck quotations from many real-life sources, perhaps illustrating her famous advice that poets should create ‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them’.

Disguise, admired in the pangolin, was something she practised herself. Some of her poems are based on an exact syllable-count in every line, repeated in every stanza. ‘Poetry’, for example, has lines of 19, 19, 11, 5, 9 and 17 syllables in each stanza. Keeping to the exact syllable-count means that she has sometimes to divide words in the middle – one part of the word at the end of one line, the rest at the start of the next. Syllabic verse was not her invention. It had been used by English-language poets before. But readers generally do not count syllables, so they do not notice what Moore is doing, which means that her disguise has worked.

One of her most loved poems, ‘The Steeple Jack’, describes a peaceful New England seaside town, where you can see a ‘twenty-five pound lobster’ and fishing nets hung out to dry. The trees and flowers are covered in fog so they seem like a tropical forest. There are snapdragons and foxgloves, morning glories trained on fishing twine by the back doors, sunflowers, daisies, petunias, poppies and black sweet peas. A ‘diffident’ little newt, spotted with white ‘pindots’ on his black stripes, also appears. It all seems – and is – far away from the usual conundrums of modernist poetry.

But there is also something oblique about the poem that marks it as modern. The only human characters are a mysterious college student named Ambrose, who sits on a hillside reading, and a steeplejack, with a sign giving his name – C.J. Poole – and a red and white sign saying ‘Danger’. He is at work on the church spire, letting down a rope ‘as a spider spins a thread’, and gilding the star on the top of the steeple, which ‘stands for hope’. Critics have offered many ‘high sounding interpretations’ of ‘The Steeple Jack’. But it succeeds because it remains subtly elusive, as well as beautiful.

Learn more about Marianne Moore and her poems

Poetry Foundation
Biography and poems

Academy of American Poets
Biography and poems

Marianne Moore Digital Archive
Notebooks and educational resources

Marianne Moore Society
Educational resources

BBC Radio 3
The Essay: Dear Marianne Moore – Ian Sansom


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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