Little-Known Facts about 9 Famous Poets

by Shmoop

Poets are known for being mysterious, brooding recluses. As far as unfounded stereotypes go, this is a very sexy image to have of poets. However, poets’ quirks usually aren’t that cut-and-dried.

Here is a cornucopia or variety pack of sweet, funny, unexpected, and downright creepy facts you probably didn’t know about nine famous poets.

1. Been There, Donne That

John Donne (1572 – 1631)

John Donne was an English poet who really, really liked metaphors. Ever consider how love is like that thing you strap your pencil into so you can draw perfect circles for geometry class? Then “A Valediction: Forbidden Mourning” is the poem for you.

If this doesn’t ring a bell from high school English class, try this Donne phrase on for size: “Death, be not proud.”

Or how about: “For whom the bell tolls.”

And if all else fails: “No man is an island.”

Yeah, that John Donne.  The big (poet) cheese.

Before penning his most famous works, however, Donne’s life was headed in a very different direction. In the 1590’s, he participated in several military expeditions against the Spanish to pursue a career as an English diplomat. His travel companion? Walter Raleigh. As in Sir Walter Raleigh, the bodacious New World explorer who helped make smoking tobacco fashionable in Europe. Guess now we know for whom the bell tolls.

2. Drear Diary

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882)

In addition to writing some of our favorite Transcendental essays like “Self-Reliance” and “Nature,” Ralph Waldo Emerson holds a place in our minds as a great poet.

His 1837 “Concord Hymn” (which commemorates the American Revolution) coined the oh-so-famous phrase “the shot heard round the world” – which has since been used to describe everything from sports events to assassinations to swine flu. (The Coughs Heard Round the World? Thank you, New York Times.)

What most people don’t know about Emerson is that he loved his first wife. A lot.

Even though Ellen Tucker died just seventeen months into their marriage, Emerson always considered her his one and only love of his vida.

Need convincing? This diary entry, dated almost two months after her death, says it all: “I visited Ellen’s tomb & opened the coffin.” Wowsa.

3. I Contain Verisimilitudes

Walt Whitman (1819 – 1892)

Of everyone in the American canon, Walt Whitman is probably as far from the image of the brooding poet as it gets. His exuberance spills out in lines like, “I sing the body electric,” “I am large, I contain multitudes,” and “I sound my barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world.”

It’s no wonder that Whitman was quoted so heavily in the film Dead Poets Society. O CAPTAIN! my Captain? You definitely make it happen.

Whitman was one of those lucky artists who was appreciated in his own time. Especially by himself.

To “salt” the literary mine a bit, Whitman wrote glowing reviews of Leaves of Grass when he first published it in 1855. In one review, he described himself as “a naïve, masculine, affectionate, contemplative, sensual, imperious person.” Naiveté has never been sneakier.

Later, when his buddy Emerson wrote him a private letter of praise, Whitman reproduced it in the next edition of the book. And frankly, from the guy who said, “if you done it, it ain’t bragging,” we’d expect nothing less.

4. Hale and Heart-y

Thomas Hardy (1840 – 1928)

Thomas Hardy is best known for writing Tess of the D’Urbervilles, a novel so controversial at the time that its constant criticism helped convince Hardy to permanently switch from writing novels to poetry.

Although few of Hardy’s poems were published during his lifetime, they’ve since been reexamined and ranked up there alongside his ground-breaking prose.

Despite the initial resistance, Hardy was a respected writer by the end of his life, prompting the executors of his estate to recommend that he be buried in the Poets’ Corner of Westmister Abbey.

Because Hardy wanted to be buried alongside his first wife, however, the two made a compromise: Hardy’s body would be sent to Poets’ Corner and his heart, to the grave of his wife.

(Legend has it that his heart was accidentally eaten by a cat along the way and cleverly replaced with that of a pig, but since this sounds remarkably similar to how the hunter tricks Queen Grimhilde in Snow White, we’re going to go ahead and chalk that up to good old urban legend.)

5. A Built-In Remedy for Khrushchev and Kennedy

Robert Frost (1874 – 1963)

Despite being from San Francisco, Robert Frost is best known as a New England poet who captured rural America through poems about cottages, bird nests, stone walls, snowy woods, and horse-drawn carriages.

Against these simple backdrops, Frost managed to convey complex social interactions – which probably has something to do with why he won four Pulitzer Prizes.

Although most Americans know that Frost gave a poetry reading at John F. Kennedy’s presidential inauguration in 1961, many aren’t aware that the US government deployed Frost to Russia a year later to mediate with Nikita Khrushchev.

Frost was so sick with fatigue and fever at the time that he couldn’t even make the drive to see Khrushchev, forcing the Soviet leader to come to him instead.

6. Eschew Obfuscation (gesundheit!)

T.S. Eliot (1888 – 1965)

Thomas Stearns Eliot is best known for writing long, intricate poems smattered with fancy allusions and snippets of other languages.

His “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is a staple of high school English curriculums, but a lot of us never quite make it past the “patient etherized upon the table” part. Prufrock hypothesizes, speculates, doubts, and retracts, all the while describing how tea and neckties fit into his daily routine.

And yet, the poem is considered one of the most brilliant of the twentieth century.

How does Eliot pull it off? Suffice it to say the guy’s complicated. Where there’s complication, there’s usually contradiction.

In a 1920 essay called “Hamlet and His Problems,” Eliot calls Shakespeare’s Hamlet “an artistic failure” filled with “inconsistent scenes” and “hasty revisions.” Prince Hamlet’s complexity is not the result of his being a deep, sensitive soul, Eliot claims, but of Shakespeare’s bad writing. “We must simply admit that here Shakespeare tackled a problem which proved too much for him.”

From someone who wrote 132 lines of rambling hesitation about a guy having a mid-life crisis, them’s fightin’ words.

7. Leaves, Ho!

Langston Hughes (1902 – 1967)

James Mercer Langston Hughes is a poet of the Harlem Renaissance, an early 20th-century movement that sparked mainstream interest in African-American intellectualism.

As a testament to the longevity of his career, Hughes’s best known poem, “Harlem (Dream Deferred),” actually came several decades after the movement ended.

This classic poem not only sums up the mounting racial tension of the 1950’s, but contains the phrase that inspired the name of Lorraine Hansberry’s play “A Raisin in the Sun.”

Before becoming recognized as a poet, however, Hughes was a world traveler. While working on a ship headed for the West African coast, he one day decided that literature and poetry diluted his experience of the real world. In a symbolic act, he then threw every book he owned overboard – save Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Apparently, he’d heard it was really “contemplative” and “sensual”…see above!)

8. Been Caught Stealin’

Allen Ginsberg (1926 – 1997)

Irwin Allen Ginsberg is one of the most famous poets of the Beat Generation, a 1950’s counter-culture characterized by literary, chemical, and sexual experimentation.

Ginsberg’s best known poem, “Howl,” was so radical for its time that Ginsberg’s publisher was arrested on charges of obscenity.

The charges were eventually overturned on the basis that the poem had redeeming social value, but nevertheless, the poem continues to meet with shock and censorship even today.

“Howl” is famously dedicated to Carl Solomon, whom Ginsberg met while spending eight months in “an armed madhouse” receiving electroshock therapy.

So how did Allen Ginsberg end up committed to a psychiatric hospital? By stowing a friend’s stolen goods in his college dorm. After getting caught and realizing he faced serious criminal charges, Ginsberg decided to plead insanity. So much for escaping the heat.

9. The Virtuoso

Maya Angelou (1928 –)

Marguerite Ann Johnson, a.k.a. Maya Angelou, is one of the most important autobiographers in America.

If you think you can’t make an entire career writing one autobiography, think again: Angelou split hers across six volumes, the first and most famous of which made her an international icon.

At a time when most people’s careers bottom out, Angelou then went on to make a name for herself as a poet – and won a Pulitzer Prize nomination for it in 1971.

Feel inadequate yet? Angelou’s also a dancer, composer, playwright, actress, political counselor, and polyglot.

And if that doesn’t satisfy your craving, you can also savor her gems of wisdom two sentences at a time: as of 2002, Angelou has her own line of greeting cards with Hallmark. Ninety percent of the writing is penned specifically for the cards, a task which Angelou has found to be particularly “challenging and daring.” Coming from one of the greatest poets of all time, that’s saying something.

Shmoop Spring 2010 Inaugural Essay Contest


Hey, there! Looking for the latest Shmoop Essay Contest?

Look here:


Spring 2010 Essay Contest


– original post below –

In celebration of National Poetry Month, Shmoop announces our first essay contest for high school students.

Answer this question in 500 or fewer words:

In Robert Frost‘s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” …

Examine the relationship between the speaker in the poem and his environment, which includes not only the woods themselves but his horse, the owner of the woods, and the community. Include in your discussion an examination of Frost’s use of language and imagery, focusing on how these contribute to the meaning of the poem and help him to achieve his purpose. Be sure to support your ideas with evidence from the poem.

1 Grand Prize Winner Wins an iPad

3 Runners-Up Get a Shmoop T-Shirt

  • Yeah, it’s no iPad. But you’ll look great. Trust us.

Finalists to be Judged by Jim Burke

  • Jim Burke is a Special Advisor to Shmoop and an all-around awesome English teacher.
  • Mr. Burke teaches AP English Literature and 9th grade College Prep English at Burlingame High School in Burlingame, CA.
  • Mr. Burke is the founder of the English Companion Ning, an online community of 15,000 English teachers.
  • Mr. Burke has published 20 books for English teachers.
  • Check out Jim Burke’s personal website.

Contest Rules

The Fine Print

  • No purchase necessary to enter.
  • Contest void where prohibited by law.
  • 1 student per entry (no group submissions allowed). Student must be currently enrolled in High School, Sr. High School, or equivalent (homeschooled students are welcome). If younger students (e.g. Middle School) want to give it a shot, we welcome your submissions, too.
  • Prizes may not be exchanged for cash or other goods and are non-transferable.
  • Finalists and winner will be selected by the sole discretion of Shmoop’s judging panel. Sorry, we cannot provide individual feedback on entries.
  • Can’t Buy Me Love: Shmoop judges do not respond to any attempts to win favor (even if we have major weaknesses for chocolate, cupcakes, and roasted almonds).
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  • Shmoop is all about inspiring original thought… let’s keep this contest clean: By submitting an entry, you confirm that this work is entirely your original work and that you have not received any help from others. If you have relied on any other person or publication’s thoughts to write your essay, you must cite your sources in MLA format. You acknowledge that Shmoop may use an anti-plagiarism service to verify that your essay is original and may inform your school administration if you have submitted plagiarized materials.

9 of the Weirdest Poems You Will Ever Read

In Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams outlines the three worst styles of poetry in the universe: 3) that of the Vogons; 2) that of the Azoths of Kria; and 1) that of Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings in Greenbridge, England. Since Adams has already got bad poetry covered, let’s take a look at some of the weirdest poetry in history. (In Earth’s history, anyway.)

While some may associate “weird” with “modern” when it comes to art, you might be surprised to see how many of these were written in the seventeen- and eighteen-hundreds, long before being weird was even cool. In chronological order, here nine of the top contenders.

1. Don’t Shoot Yourself in the Albatross

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1798 poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is a rambling 636-line work about a grizzled old sailor who crashes a wedding ceremony and talks the ear off one of the guests.

As his story goes, the mariner was a member of a sailing crew that suffered a terrible demise: the wind stopped, the sun baked, the sea turned slimy, and everyone died of dehydration (but him). The crew then became re-animated à la Curse of the Black Pearl and manned the ship back to land – where it sank, condemning the mariner to a lifetime of survivor’s guilt and therapy bills.

Why? All because he shot a bird.

Before you put down that turkey sandwich, remember that this wasn’t just any bird; it was the ship’s lucky albatross, which had a knack for finding good wind and fair weather.

After shooting it with his crossbow – for inconceivable reasons that he never explains – the mariner is forced to wear its dead body around his neck as a reminder of his complicity in his shipmates’ suffering.

212 years later, people are still using the expression “the albatross around your neck” to describe things that will dog you or weigh down your conscience.

2. Mister Strangelove, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Start Running for the Hills

Porphyria’s Lover”, by Robert Browning

Robert Browning’s 1836 poem “Porphyria’s Lover” is a dramatic monologue about taking refuge from a storm with the person you love most. Nestled in a cottage in the woods, the narrator and his beautiful Porphyria cozy up by the fire and gaze longingly at each other.

Realizing that Porphyria loves him, the narrator decides to preserve the Kodak moment by strangling her with her own hair. He then kisses, props up, and sits beside her dead body, admiring its loveliness through the rest of the night. So much for everything you thought you knew about Victorian love poetry.

Describing all the ways in which this poem classifies as weird doesn’t seem like the best use of time, so let’s just stick with the theme of voyeurism for now.

“Porphyria’s Lover” is written in the first person, meaning the reader is temporarily forced into the narrator’s head. Experiencing this twisted a frame of mind should make any sane person want to take a long, well-lit shower.

So what does this say about Robert Browning’s own lovelife? Actually, Browning was happily married to Elizabeth Barrett – who, incidentally, is best known for writing “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…” about Robert. Guess there’s a lot to be said for the attraction of opposites.

3. Five Servings a Day Just Got Creepier…

Goblin Market”, by Christina Rossetti

Published in 1862, Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” is probably the most intensely detailed poem about goblin fruit-vendors that you’ll ever read. (It maxes out at a whopping 567 lines.)

The poem follows Laura and Lizzie, two young sisters struggling with the temptation to eat delicious-looking fruit sold by goblins from unknown lands.

Although Lizzie stands strong, Laura eventually succumbs to their exotic delights, ingesting poison in the process. Gradually, she becomes listless, thin, and gray-haired, forcing Lizzie to face the goblins and save her sister from a slow death. The poem is either an allegory demonstrating the power of sisterhood or a very early cautionary tale about buying locally.

Although Rossetti often said it was intended for children, the poem is so weirdly sexual that we expect an eyeshadowed, spandex-wearing David Bowie to turn up at any minute and proclaim himself Goblin King.

Some examples: Laura “suck[s]” of the forbidden fruit “until her lips [are] sore”; when Lizzie sister confronts the goblin vendors, they “beset” her like “bee[s]” pollinating an “orange-tree”; Lizzie is then compared to “a royal virgin town” being attacked by an army that wants “to tug her standard down.” Get the picture?

We’ll be the first to admit that people can get carried away with this “erotic undertones” business, but for a supposed kids’ story, this is pretty suggestive stuff.

4. In Uffish Thought by the Tumtum Tree

Jabberwocky”, by Lewis Carroll

Lewis Carroll’s 1872 poem “Jabberwocky” is some the most famous gibberish ever written in the English language… kind of.

Of the poem’s 166 words, 43 aren’t actually nineteenth-century English, but are in fact Carroll’s own invention. (As a mathematician, he’d point out that this comes to more than 1 in every 4 words.)

If Carroll can write poetry that’s popular, critically acclaimed, and almost 26% meaningless, he must be doing something right. Right?

Perhaps what’s weirdest about “Jabberwocky” is that it actually makes a lot of sense; Carroll’s invented words play enough with real English that we get an intuitive feel for the poem without having to think too hard.

The bandersnatch sounds like an animal that can snatch you up bandit-style. The Jabberwock burbles as it moves, which could easily be a sort of gurgling noise. The hero’s father chortles, which sounds like a mixture of a chuckle and a snort. (If you think this isn’t a made-up word because you’ve heard it before, think again; it didn’t exist before 1872.)

Of course, the Jabberwock itself calls to mind not only the jabbing of a sword, but also the useless jabber of pointless conversation – or, of nonsensical poetry.

Considering that the whole idea behind poetry is to convey meaning through sound, “Jabberwocky” is actually a brilliant work of art.  We only wish the other poems on the list were this straightforward.

5. Semicolon = ??

In a Station of the Metro”, by Ezra Pound

Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” has one of the longest titles in poetry – relative to the length of the poem, anyway.

In 1912, Pound was in the metro station at La Concorde in Paris when he had a deeply spiritual experience. He wanted to capture the moment in a painting, but since he was no painter, he wrote 30 lines of verse instead.

Realizing that the poem was too drawn-out, he attempted a shorter version six months later but was still unhappy with the result.

Another six months after that, Pound finally found the exact words he was looking for. All 14 of them.

The poem reads:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough.

The end.

The premise behind the two seemingly unconnected phrases is that of equation. After all, why bother with wordy descriptions and weak similes when you can reveal the exact nature of a thing by simply juxtaposing it with a second thing? (Think internet lingo. Ex. “you = fail.”)

Almost a century later, critics still go crazy over the poem, basing entire careers on the exact significance of the semicolon.

However, if this poem’s succinct beauty is exactly what you look for in literature, Ezra Pound is not for you. Most of the rest of his poems are immensely long, not to mention riddled with other languages.

6. the good, the bad,           and wee

in Just-”, by E.E. Cummings

E.E. Cummings’s “in Just-” is the only poem on this list that has the honor of not only being strange, but looking strange as well.

In addition to being a poet, Cummings was a painter, which made him more interested in poetry’s visual format than your average lit guy or gal. As a result, Cummings’s works are instantly recognizable for their unruly grammar, odd spacing, and unpredictable line breaks.

And if you think this looks pretty wild today, just imagine what it was like when “in Just-” was published in 1923.

The poem is about children romping in the springtime. According to many interpretations, it’s also about the inevitable and somewhat creepy end of innocence.

The children’s youthful, hyperactive glee is expressed through the rapid succession of words like “eddieandbill come / running from marbles and / piracies.” Set in opposition to the happy children is a “queer / old balloonman” whose actions are appropriately slowed down: he “whistles / far          and             wee / and bettyandisbel come dancing.”

Our gut tells us that this “goat-footed” guy doesn’t portend well for the youngsters, which perhaps explains the title’s double meaning: “in Just- / spring” might mean spring that has just sprung, or it might refer to the “injustice” of young lives destined to wither and fade.

7. Soup! – There It Is

“Oda al Caldillo de Congrio”, by Pablo Neruda

Nobel prize-winning Chilean Poet Pablo Neruda is known for his expansive, sensual writing style, and his 1954 “Oda al Caldillo de Congrio” is no exception. It soars. It triumphs. It… outlines a recipe?

For those of us who don’t speak Spanish, the title translates to “Ode to the Conger Chowder,” which, as Neruda lovingly explains, is made from garlic, onion, tomato, shrimp, cream, conger eel, and love – lots of it.

Wriggling sea beasties have never sounded so good.

Neruda writes, “que entre el congrio / y se sumerja en gloria, / que en la olla / se aceite / se contraiga y se impregne.”

Roughly translated, that’s: “let the conger enter to be submerged in glory, to be oiled, shrunk, and impregnated in the pot.”

We’ll have what he’s having.

Delicious though the recipe may be, we can’t help but ask ourselves, why the worshipful tones? As Neruda sees it, conger chowder is to Chile what wine is to France or pasta is to Italy.

A much loved patriot in his lifetime, Neruda famously considered himself of the Chilean people – and whatever the people ate, Neruda venerated.

8. I Yam What I Rutabaga

Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape”, by John Ashbery

Published in 1966, John Ashbery’s “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape” is a long, complex poem written in the style of a 12th-century French sestina.

Oh yeah, and it’s about Popeye. The sailor man.

The scene is set in Popeye’s apartment, the cast of characters includes Wimpy, the Sea Hag, Swee’pea, and Olive Oyl, and the word “spinach” appears no less than seven times.

At the end of the poem, Popeye “chuckle[s] and scratche[s] his balls,” remarking that it “sure was pleasant to spend a day in the country.” AP English, eat your heart out.

“Farm Implements” is one of those rare works of literature that leaves you unsure whether to laugh or crack open a dictionary; just when you never thought you’d hear the words “Popeye,” “henceforth,” and “salubrious” together in the same sentence, Ashbery decided it would be fun to mix high poetry with pop culture.

Think of it as the poetic answer to Andy Warhol’s soup cans and Technicolor Marilyn Monroes; perhaps this explains why the title that sounds like it belongs to a highfalutin oil painting.

9. A Writer Named Who?

“A Boy Named Sue”, by Johnny Cash Shel Silverstein

Among the experiences that many American children have in common is reading Where the Sidewalk Ends, a collection of offbeat poems that brilliantly play with words and poetic conventions.

As teens and adults, we then go through a Johnny Cash phase that involves singing Cash’s line “My name is Sue! How do you do!” at our windshields while stopped in traffic.

What most of us don’t realize, however, is that “A Boy Named Sue” is actually written by Shel Silverstein, the selfsame children’s writer who penned Where the Sidewalk Ends. And you thought those “Rock and Roll for Babies” CDs were innovative.

According to his autobiography, when Cash performed the song at San Quentin State Prison in 1969, he barely knew the lyrics – let alone how it would go over with the inmates. After all, how often do you hear songs about men who have complexes from being named after women? (Songs that are recited rather than sung, no less.)

Fortunately for our cathartic driving experiences, the song went on to spend weeks on the Billboard Top 100 and become one of Cash’s best known recordings.

13 New Learning Guides This Week on Shmoop

Spring is in the air, and Shmoop is ready to rumble. As we roll into the final months of the school year, we’re bringing you all kinds of new brain food and support.

2 New in Shmoop Bestsellers

5 New in Shmoop Literature

6 New in Poetry