An A-Z of Poets – Part 3 (N-S)

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


N… John Henry NEWMAN

As a young man, travelling in Italy, John Henry Newman (1801–1890), was taken ill, but managed to get aboard a sailing ship carrying a cargo of oranges to Marseilles. He wrote ‘Lead, Kindly Light’ while it was becalmed in the straits between Corsica and Sardinia. The hymn asks for guidance, but also looks forward to reunion with lost loved ones after death.

In 1909 an explosion in the West Stanley Colliery, Durham, killed 166 men and boys. But twenty-eight survivors found a pocket of air and were sitting in almost total darkness when one of them began to hum ‘Lead Kindly Light’, and the rest joined in with the words. One boy died of his injuries while the hymn was being sung, but, after fourteen hours, the remainder were rescued.

Learn more about John Henry Newman and his poems

National Institute for Newman Studies
Biography and resources

Saint John Henry – Newman Canonisation
Biography and resources

BBC Radio 4
In Our Time: The Oxford Movement
Beyond Belief: Cardinal Newman


O… Mary OLIVER

Though sneered at by some highbrow critics as simplistic, Mary Oliver (1935–2019) is, says the New York Times, ‘far and away this country’s best-selling poet’. Born in Maple Heights, Ohio, she was abused as a child (as recalled in her collection Dream Work), but found solace in nature, retreating into huts she built of sticks and grass, and writing poems. After studying at Ohio State University and Vassar College, she settled in Provincetown, Massachusetts, with her partner, the photographer Molly Malone Cook. Many of her poems were composed on walks in the surrounding countryside.

Inspired by the Sufi mystics, Rumi (1207–1273) and Hafez (1315–1390), she discerns the natural world as a window on the sacred, but the sacred does not include, for her, belief in an afterlife or a divine creator. She rejects, too, the religious idea that the body and its desires should be suppressed. Like Rilke, whom she admires, she believes that humans are alienated by reason and culture from the natural joy of birds and animals, and her delight in nature is not diminished by a realisation that it is a world of predators and prey. Her best-known poem is ‘The Summer Day’.

Learn more about Mary Oliver and her poems

Poetry Foundation
Biography and poems

Academy of American Poets
Biography and poems

92nd Street Y
Mary Oliver reads from her book of poetry, A Thousand Mornings, on Oct 15, 2012 at the 92nd Street Y (video)

BBC Radio 4
Short Cuts: Mary Oliver – Josie Long (audio)
Front Row: Queer Icons series – Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese – Rebecca Root (audio)


P… Sylvia PLATH

Sylvia Plath (1932–1963) for many is a feminist martyr. Plath was brilliant and rightly ambitious, though unstable. Both her parents were first-generation German immigrants living in a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts. Her father Otto was a university professor, specialising in bumblebees. Plath’s later interest in beekeeping, and her linking of her father with Nazi Germany in the poem ‘Daddy’, derive from this family history (though Otto had left Germany at sixteen, before the Nazi era, and was a pacifist).

When Plath was four her father’s health deteriorated. Fearing he had cancer, he refused to see a doctor. Actually he had diabetes and could have been saved. But he stubbed his toe, gangrene set in, his leg was amputated (hence Plath’s reference to his single ‘black shoe’ in ‘Daddy’) and he died when Plath was eight. She told her mother ‘I’ll never speak to God again’, and in her Journals she seems to blame her father for dying and deserting her.

She won a place at prestigious Smith College, where she worked hard to get A grades. A high-flier, she could not, she admitted, stand the idea of being mediocre, and she was conscious, too, of the need to feel physically desirable. With other top achievers she gained a brief internship on Mademoiselle magazine in New York, but found it unnerving. In August 1953 she attempted suicide, taking her mother’s sleeping pills and locking herself in a cellar. She was rescued by chance and received psychiatric treatment at McLean hospital, Massachusetts, later recalled in her acclaimed novel The Bell Jar. Recovering, she won a Fulbright scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridge, which is how she came to meet Ted Hughes.

Her Journals record her reaction to their first meeting: ‘Oh, he is here, my black marauder, oh, hungry, hungry.’ To her mother she wrote: ‘I have fallen terribly in love which can only lead to great hurt. I met the strongest man in the world . . . a large, hulking, healthy Adam . . . with a voice like the thunder of God.’ At first they were supremely happy. When her Cambridge course finished they sailed to New York on the Queen Elizabeth and she taught for a year at her old college, Smith. In the summer of 1959 they travelled across Canada and the United States, sometimes camping out in the wild. Their first child, Frieda, was born in April 1960.

By that time they were back in England, living in a flat near London’s Primrose Hill, and a second child, Nicholas, was born in January 1962. Deciding to move to the country, they bought an old thatched house in Devon, and let the London flat to a Canadian poet, David Wevill, and his beautiful wife, Assia. Within months Hughes had fallen passionately in love with Assia and walked out of his marriage to Plath. Distraught, she committed suicide in February 1963 by putting her head in a gas oven. Six years later Assia, whom Hughes refused to marry, killed herself and her daughter by Hughes, Shura.

Learn more about Sylvia Plath and her 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 World Service
Witness History: The Last Days of Sylvia Plath (audio)


Q… Salvatore QUASIMODO

Salvatore Quasimodo (1901–1968) was an Italian poet who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1959.  Along with Giuseppe Ungaretti and Eugenio Montale, he is regarded as one of the foremost Italian poets of the 20th century.

Learn more about Salvatore Quasimodo and his poems

Academy of American Poets
Biography and poems

Poets of Modernity
Poems

Nobel Prize
Biography

Library of Congress
Salvatore Quasimodo reading his poems in Italian in the Recording Laboratory, Apr. 22, 1960 (audio)


R… Christina ROSSETTI

Christina Rossetti (1830–1894) was born into a literary family. Her father was a poet and a political exile from Italy. Her mother’s brother was John William Polidori, Byron’s friend, who wrote the first vampire novel. Her brother was the Pre-Raphaelite poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), and Christina was his model for some of his most famous paintings. At fourteen she suffered a nervous breakdown, and later developed a thyroid condition that altered her appearance. She was deeply religious, turning from poetry to devotional prose in her later years. From 1859 to 1870 she worked as a volunteer at a refuge for former prostitutes.

Her masterpiece is ‘Goblin Market’, published in 1862. It is like no other English poem, lavishly sensuous and technically brilliant, with its intricate, though seemingly simple, variations of linelength, rhyme and rhythm. Guilefully unpretentious, it seems at first like a fairy tale for children. That alone distinguishes it from anything a male Victorian could have written. It is about two young women, Laura and Lizzie, and a troop of fruit-vending goblins who cry their wares enticingly.

So it goes on, a relentless battery of lusciousness. Lizzie warns, ‘Their evil gifts would harm us’, and on closer inspection the goblins do look sinister. One has a cat’s face, another has a tail, one is like a rat, another like a snail. But heedless Laura buys some fruit with a lock of her golden hair, and sucks and sucks the glorious juice, sweeter than honey, stronger than wine.

Lizzie is alarmed. She remembers a friend, Jeanie, who bought the goblin fruit and pined away and died. Sure enough, Laura soon pays for her rashness. Next time the goblins appear, Lizzie can hear their song, but Laura can’t, so she can’t buy any more fruit. Her withdrawal symptoms are alarming. She dwindles, and her hair turns grey. Brave Lizzie resolves to save her, and tries to buy fruit for Laura with a silver penny. But the goblins insist it must be eaten on the spot, and when she refuses it they beat and scratch her and tear her gown. They also try to force her mouth open, and squash fruit all over her face and neck, drenching her in juice.

This is what clever Lizzie had planned. She runs home to Laura and cries, ‘Kiss me, suck my juice . . . Eat me, drink me, love me.’ So Laura kisses and sucks, but the juice now tastes bitter and horrible. She falls asleep in a fever, and Lizzie watches over her. In the morning Laura wakes, cured and innocent, with her hair gleaming gold again. Years later, when they are both wives with children of their own, Laura sometimes gathers the little ones together and tells them about the wicked goblins and Lizzie’s saving love.

Goblin Market’ has many meanings, but, whatever else, it is obviously a feminist poem, teaching how love between women can save them from the wicked temptations of men, and Lizzie’s ‘Eat me, drink me, love me’ clearly relates love between women to Christ and the bread and wine of the Eucharist. It seems likely, too, that the poem reflects what Rossetti saw and heard at the refuge for former prostitutes.

Rossetti’s best-known poem, aside from ‘Goblin Market’, is entitled simply ‘Song’. Rossetti scholars insist that the doubt in the second stanza is only about whether the soul is conscious between death and the resurrection, and that Rossetti’s Christian faith would have forbidden any wider doubt. Non-Christian readers may find the poem speaks to them just as powerfully without that assurance.

Learn more about Christina Rossetti and her 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 4
In Our Time: Christina Rossetti


S… Anne SEXTON

Anne Sexton (1928–1974) was poorly educated, a school dropout with an alcoholic and abusive father. She scandalised the literary world by writing openly about menstruation, abortion, incest, masturbation, drug addiction and other taboo subjects, but her poems captured a huge readership among women who did not normally read poetry. Nearly half a million of her books sold in America, and Transformations (1971), her hip versions of Grimm’s fairy tales, were published in Cosmopolitan and Playboy. She writes about the brutality of men in a way that can seem to border on madness, as in ‘After Auschwitz’:

Anger
as black as a hook
overtakes me.
Each day
each Nazi
took, at 8:00 A.M., a baby
and sautéed him for breakfast
in his frying pan.

After many breakdowns and suicide attempts, she killed herself by running the car in a closed garage. Her psychiatrist released tapes of sessions with her after her death, and her elder daughter accused her of incestuous abuse.

Poetry Foundation
Biography and poems

Academy of American Poets
Biography and poems

Poetry Archive
Biography and poems


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.

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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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