10 BEST POETS
OF ALL TIME ( from the Musea Zine vaults)
The Greeks called the poet a maker (“poet” is from ‘poiein’ to make)
The English call him a seer (see-er)
– F.J. Sheed
Poetry is so broad an art form -epics, plays, scripture, novels, song lyrics, philosophical treatises and essays, romantic poetry, nonsense and children’s verse, etc. etc. etc. – that to say you don’t like poetry is to say you don’t much care for literature …art …thinking and feeling …or …life!
– Art S Revolutionary
what to do.
Let’s celebrate the best of the best! Here’s Musea’s picks for the 10 best poets of all time (and remember good poetry is not bad poetry) with perhaps a surprise or two for you. Also included in this POETRY issue is a listing of contenders – either great poets that I love with a passion, or great poets that I respect but don’t much care for. Plus our list of the best contemporary poets and more examples of the newest ‘form’ of poetry, the ‘quatro’. All poems without bylines are by me.
a songbird sings.
I read a poem.
1. HOMER: The blind poet, Homer (900-800? B.C, Asia Minor) began western literature with his 2 great epic poems, THE ILLIAD, and THE ODYSSEY. The Illiad tells an episode in the siege of Troy, while the Odyssey (a sort of sequel) tells of Odysseus’s voyage home from the war. Both are bold, dramatic, heroic, and straightforward storytelling with my favorite Odyssey, which in my opinion is the best adventure story ever told.
Loud rang the gates, and the bars crashed in, and the rush of the stone /splintered a gap. And through it, his face like terrible night; /Leaped Hector, shining with marvel of mail that engirdled his body,/ shaking two spears. No man could have stayed him then as he stormed/ Through the gates- nay, none but gods, and the light of his eyes /Flamed like a fire. (Trans. Auslander & Hill)
2. SAPPHO: First and greatest women poet, called the 10th Muse, (and my favorite poet of all time) Sappho (590 B.C., Lesbos) probably taught a girl’s school. A few poems and fragments of many more are enough to show the great depth and intensity of her love poems that held a passion no other poet has been able to equal.
In the spring twilight/ The full moon is shining: / Girls take their places / as though around an altar. (Tran. Mary Barnard, the best translator of Sappho by far)
3. AESCHYLUS, SOPHOCLES, EURIPIDES: Who could choose just one. These 3 are the worlds first (texts still around) playrights (500-400 B.C. Athens). It is said of their works (that read more like dramatic oratorio than the drama we know today), ‘Aeschulus wrote of the gods, Sophocles of heroes, and Euripides of men.’
O you gods! How I long for an end to all this strain: / This year-long watch, up on the roof of the Atreidae, / Crouched on my elbows like a kennel hound, / Scanning by heart the stars at night, / That chorus of the master shiners, … (Agamemnon, Aescylus, trans. Paul Roche)
4. TU FU & LI PO: The 2 greatest Tang poets (thus the 2 greatest Chinese poets) were dear friends. (7th century China). One critic said the real meaning of their poems is not in the words but between them. Li Po – facile brilliance, Tu Fu bittersweet intensity.
Before my bed / there is bright moonlight / So that it seems / like frost on the ground; / Lifting my head / I watch the bright moon, / Lowering my head / I dream that I’m home. (Li Po, trans. A. Cooper)
5. DANTE ALIGHIERI: (1265-1321 Florence). His greatest work TheDivine Comedy (in 3 parts: Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise) is a love story for his Beatrice, an encyclopedia of the Middle ages, a great spiritual poem, and much more – incredible scope, marvelous poetry.
“You are so near the final health of man / you will do well to go clear-eyed and keen / into that good,” my Beatrice began. / ‘Therefore, before you enter further here / look down and see how vast a universe / I have put beneath your feet, bright sphere on sphere. (Paradise, trans. J. Ciardi)
6. GEOFFREY CHAUCER: (1340-1400 London) Educated, sophisticated, Medieval poet best known for the vast, unfinished, The Cantebury Tales an anthology of stories from pilgrims traveling to Cantebury. Note his fine sense of humor.
And as for me, although my wit is small, / I find that books most happily enthral ; / That I so reverence them in my heart, / So trust their truth, so pleasure in their art, / That there is scarce a single joy I know / That can persuade me from my books to go … (The legend of Good Women, trans. B. Stone)
7. WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE: The ‘Bard of Avon’ (1564-1616) is rightly celebrated as the best poet/playright in English with 37 plays, plus sonnets and 2 longer poems. In an age of excellence he was the age’s best.
Double, double, toil and trouble; / Fire burn, and cauldron bubble. (Macbeth)
8. MATSUO BASHO: (1644-94, Ueno, Japan) This haiku master could picture a universe in a handfull of words. His simple short poems suggest vast meanings with endless overtones.
Lightning flashes / Then drops into darkness / A heron in flight screeches. ( trans. th.)
9. MOTHER GOOSE: The classic children’s verse anthology of nursery rhymes is playful, musical, often nonsensical, and always a pure delight for all ages. The earliest known book of nursery rhymes is Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, Vol. II (1744?) with only 1 copy in existence. In the 1770’s publisher John Newbery printed Mother Goose’s Melody: or Sonnets for the cradle. Celebrated author, Oliver Goldsmith may have edited this collection.
High diddle, diddle, / The Cat and the Fiddle, / The Cow jump’d over the Moon, / The little Dog laugh’d / To see such Craft, / And the Dish ran away with the Spoon. ( The Annotated Mother Goose)
10. WALT WHITMAN: (1819, Long Island, NY) Whitman’s unbounded (and big in every way) messages needed an unbounded verse format – no format – and he broke the mold of what poetry had to be. Leaves Of Grass is his masterpiece flying with hope, mercurial, startling, but also at times tedious, boring, and incomprehensible with some pages – listings like inventory sheets – all this in one.
Poets to come! Orators, singers, musicians to come! / Not to-day is to justify me, and answer what I am for; / But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than before known, / Arouse! Arouse – for you must justify me – you must answer. / I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future, / I but advance a moment, only to wheel and hurry back in the darkness… (Poets to Come)
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The poet, has a way of communicating truth that no one else has, – F.J. Sheed
If you don’t enjoy poetry now, then put it aside for a while. You can probably judge from the authority of the ages that it is good, even if you don’t happen to like it now. – M Paietta
Poetry – Dressed up prose!
– Art S Revolutionary
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Here’s a quick listing of more best poets, all favorites of mine, or at least, highly respected – Contenders:
Greek & Roman:
Lucretius: Philosopher poet of “On The Nature of Things”
Martial: Poet of short sharp epigrams (see end of this essay)
Omar Khayyam: Persian author of the bittersweet “Rubaiyat”(280 quatrains) – ‘A jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou’.
Book of Songs: One of the Five Confuscian Classics, and the oldest collection of poetry in the world is lively, fresh and unaffected.
Su Tung Po: Best of the Sung Dynasty poets.
Issa: Buddhist monk and Japanese master of Haiku – insightful in a lighthearted way.
Ryokan: Japanese recluse, zen poet, and calligrapher. First collection “Dewdrops On a Lotus Leaf”.
Beowulf: Old English epic and a great monster story.
Medieval Miracle Plays: Biblical pageants in verse. Strikingly moving.
Christopher Marlowe: Before the duel that killed him, a real rival in talent to Shakespeare, “Come live with me and be my love, / and we will all the pleasures prove…”
Phillip Sidney: His “Astophel and Stella” sonnet sequence, is the most romantic poetry written.
Robert Burns: Scottish poet of lyrical poems, ballads, and songs.
William Wordsworth: First of the great group of English Romantic poets.
Norse Sagas: Simple, tough, straightforward storytelling with not an ounce of excess words
Francois Villon: Medieval rogue poet.
Torquato Tasso: author of the epic poem on the First Crusade,‘Jerusalem Delivered’.
Alexander Puskin: author of “Eugene Onegin” a novel in verse that started the Golden age of Russian literature.
Edgar Allan Poe: Extremely musical verse that is often romantic or fantastic.
Emily Dickinson: Short, compact, highly wound verse with spiritual overtones.
Robert Frost: Poet using nature as a metaphor for vast-er meanings.
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Other Notable Poets
Greek & Roman:
Hesiod, Aristophanes, Pindar, Ovid, Vergil.
Wang Wei, Po Chu-i, Han-shan, Manyoshu (Japanese anthology of verse), Ferdowsi, Rumi, Sadi, Hafiz, Kalidasi
Edmund Spencer, John Donne, John Milton, Robert Herrick, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, William Blake, Lord Byron, Robert Browning, Lewis Carroll, Robert Lewis Stevenson. T. S. Eliot. (note: although I’ve chosen not to include religious poetry in my lists, I’m going to add the King James Version of the Bible here. For examples of it’s poetic beauty see the Book of Psalms)
Song of Roland, Nibelungenlied, Francesco Petrach, Ludovico Ariosto, Johann Goethe, Charles Baudelaire.
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(a very brief essay on)
Understanding Chinese Poetry
Here’s a hint that should make Chinese Poetry understandable and much much more enjoyable – in Chinese Poetry they don’t say ‘like’.
Here’s an example of a poem from a western poet (actually both by me):
THE FULL MOON RISES
IN THE EAST
LIKE A CHILD’S
Now take the same idea and remove the ‘like’. What you end up with is 2 statements that YOU the reader must assemble and find the connection.
THE FULL MOON RISES
IN THE EAST
A CHILD LOOSES
HIS WHITE BALLOON
The Chinese version says the same thing in the same way but it becomes more subtle, more refined, more open-ended for interpretation. And when, in a Chinese poem you have not 2 layers but multi layers of meaning the poems are all the more sophisticated.
Pretty cool huh? (This mini-essay is from Musea e-mail club, #15)
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Great poetry is far from over. In fact it’s having a resurgence as we speak. And out of the dross of horrid zine poetry, a lot of pure gold shines. Here are my favorite contemporary poets.
Gifted Contemporary Poets:
Robert W. Howington, Kevin E. White (‘Weasel Boy’), and William Bryan Massey III: 3 Fort Worth poets of the “White Trash” poetry style. Poetry of stark reality with intense overtones.
Gregory K.H. Bryant. His book of poems, “Sequences” took experimental poetry to the limit.
Sparrow: playful, surreal, nonsensical, musings from this NY poet.
John Sweet: poems of dark, and often hopeless, useless, beauty.
Robert James Berry: Malaysian poet of the South Seas.
Asher A Jones: San Antonio poet that specializes in children’s poems.
Me: the author of this essay, (and many poems, including those that follow:).
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