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.