Poetry is a beautiful literary form of expression that has the power to touch and caress the deepest core of one’s heart and soul. Poets are our mirrors, healers, and judges. They reflect back our values, actions, and priorities. Here is a list of the most prominent poets you should know.
Pablo Neruda was a famous Chilean poet and one of the most iconic writers of the twentieth century. Also, a Chilean senator and diplomat, Neruda won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1971.
He began writing at age 13, and among his collection are an epic, numerous love sonnets, odes, and also surrealist works, making him one of the most diverse talents in modern history.
Angelou was more than a poet—she was also a civil rights activist who spoke of the Black experience in America, particularly that of Black women. Many of her most celebrated works, including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, are considered autobiographical. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, and she was also nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
Born Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Balkhī, “Rumi” is the best-selling poet in the United States, and his influence in the Arab world remains even greater. His poems cover themes of love, religion, and science, and have been studied and admired for centuries by scholars, mystics, philosophers, and priests.
T.S. Eliot was a poet, essayist, playwright, literary critic, and editor born in the United States, but who later moved to England, where he published most of his known works and became a British citizen. Eliot is considered a key figure in Modernist poetry, which was a reaction to the perceived excesses of Victorian poetry. He first gained acclaim for his poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in 1915, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948.
Plath’s poems were known for personal and nature-based imagery with themes of love, rage, death, and resurrection. Many are thought to reflect her lifelong battle with depression and numerous breakdowns. Some feminists her as a symbol for their movement, for the way her poems channelled female rage and grief. Plath died by suicide at the age of 30.
Keats was a contemporary of second-generation Romantic poets, such as Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Like many talents on this list, his poems were unfortunately not well-appreciated by critics during his short lifetime (his poems were only in publication for four years before his death at age 25). By the end of 19th century, however, he became known as one of the most beloved English poets.
William Butler Yeats
Widely considered one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, Yeats was known for using allusive imagery and symbolic structures. His early poems drew on Irish myths and folklore, but his later works dealt more with contemporary issues. In 1923, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Khayyam was a Persian artist and scientist. He managed to write about philosophy, astronomy, mathematics and more. Like Rumi, he wrote rubaiyat (quatrains) and was introduced to the English-speaking world in the 19th century by Edward Fitzgerald. His poetry handles topics such as life, religion and Sufi philosophy. His lines carry a similar tone to Rumi’s as he addresses his reader with sage advice and hopeful endings.
An Iraqi poet who lived during the Abbasid Caliphate. He is considered one of the greatest poets in the Arabic language and has been translated into many languages. A wandering poet with political aspirations, Al Mutanabbi’s rich life in politics made his poetry especially insightful. His writing revolved around descriptions of life, the kings he’s met and philosophy. His way with words has led to his work being incorporated into many common Arab proverbs.
Hafez was a major poet with overreaching influence to this day, whose output is considered the height of Persian literature. He is best known for ghazals (rhyming couplets with a refrain) that revolve around love, life and religious hypocrisy. He had a notable influence on other poets and is still one of the most popular poets in Iran. His mystical lines make him a profound poet to read.
One of the most notable Lebanese poets, Khalil Gibran spent his life between Lebanon and the United States. He wrote poetry and prose in both English and Arabic; lines which are considered part of an Arabic literary renaissance. His poetry revolves around love, kinship and togetherness. Moreover, many cover spiritual devotion and Christianity. His mystical lines resonate will appeal to Rumi fans.
One of the greatest contemporary Arab Poets, the Egyptian Ahmed Shawqi introduced the art of the epic to Arabic poetry. His themes range from patriotism, to nostalgia and religion. It reflects different phases of his political life and his preoccupation with the greatness of Egyptian and Islamic history. His deep lines and complex, haunting images make for beautiful poetry.
Ali Ahmad Said Esber took on the name of the Greek goddess of fertility after starting his poetry career as a teenager. He was helped by his father, who taught him to read and encouraged him to memorise poems. After reciting a poem to the president of Syria, he received funds to enroll in Damascus University. Adonis was politically active in his teen years, and as a result, was imprisoned for a year. After his sentence was complete, he moved to Beirut and helped found two major literary journals: Sh’ir and Mawaqif.
Adonis’ style is experimental and innovative, utilising free verse, prose, and varying meter. His most famous compilations are Mihyar of Damascus: His Songs (2008) and The Blood of Adonis (1971), which won the International Poetry Forum’s Syria-Lebanon Award. He is also the recipient of the Nazim Hikmet Poetry Award and the Norwegian Academy for Literature and Freedom of Expression’s Bjornson Prize. He has worked as a professor, poetry theorist, and essayist, and he currently resides in Paris with his wife and two daughters.
Badr Shakir al-Sayyab
One of the most beloved poets across the Arab world, was born into a family of date farmers in the countryside of Iraq. When Sayyab was six, his mother passed away during childbirth. Her death would have a profound effect on Sayyab and his future poetic works, often reflecting on motherhood and the homeland in his writing.
In 1946 he broke with the traditions of Arabic verse poetry and founded the Arab Free Verse Movement with fellow poet Nazik al-Malaika. Their foundation of this movement pushed Iraq to embrace modernism, both in its literary and political realm. In 1948 he published his first compilation, entitled Withered Flowers. He worked briefly as a teacher but was then imprisoned for his communist affiliations. He worked several odd jobs following his imprisonment, remaining politically active all the while. In 1958 he was named the “Prophet of the 14 July 1958 Revolution” for his politically inspirational poems. One of his final, yet most popular poems written during this time was his work Rain Song.
Tuqan was born to a wealthy Palestinian family in the town of Nablus. Her poetry would undergo a transformation from social to political, especially following the destruction of her homeland. In the early stages of her life, however, she wrote primarily about her status as an Arab woman. Her poetry changed structurally as well, beginning in the classical style and later evolving into the modern free verse style. In her combination of romantic themes and social protest, Mahmoud Darwish named her “the mother of Palestinian poetry.”
Known as the “poet of Palestine,” Darwish grew up in Galilee. After his village was destroyed, he travelled illegally as an “internal refugee,” reciting poems all the while. Darwish was placed under house arrest and eventually exiled from the region after his poem Identity Card was used as a revolutionary song.
Naturally, Darwish’s poetry largely disparages the Israeli occupation and the destruction of Palestinian land. His poems portray loss and dispossession. He has published over thirty books of poetry and is the recipient of many critical awards, including the Lannan Cultural Freedom Prize.
Born in Baghdad, Al-Nawab’s life and work are deeply influenced by the conflict around him. He attended the University of Baghdad, and shortly after, he joined the Iraqi Communist Party.
One of his poems earned him a death sentence under the tyrannical government, which later reduced his sentence to life imprisonment. Al-Nawab escaped from prison by digging an underground tunnel through which he fled to the marshlands, joining a communist faction determined to overthrow the government. He spent several years living in exile in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Eritrea before returning to Iraq in 2011.
His work is revolutionary-minded and politically charged, reflective of his experiences with tyranny and oppression. His work is novel in its use of spoken dialect, crafting poems from the everyday speech of southern Iraq. Much of his work has been set to music.
As the main founder of the Arab Free Verse Movement, Nazik al-Malaika is among the leaders of Iraq’s cultural renaissance in the 20th century. Combining influences from both Shakespeare and classical Arab poetry, she pioneered a genre that allowed for greater freedom of expression and form. The new form enabled more powerful political expression. Malaika frequently wrote about honour killings and women’s rights. One of her most famous poems, To Wash Disgrace, discusses the enormous sacrifices of “honor” as perceived by a patriarchal society.
Qabbani was a Syrian poet, diplomat, and publisher often referred to as “Syria’s National Poet.” He was born in Damascus to a merchant family and studied at the Scientific College School and Damascus University. He wrote his first poetic compilation, The Brunette Told Me, while in college.
He wrote most of his poetry while living in Lebanon. Although he initially wrote in classic Arabic meter, his later work in free verse helped integrate the modern style into traditional Arabic poetry.
His poetry is romantic and erotic, using simple, elegant language to explore the meaning and mystery of love. Much of his work has been set to music, making his verses hugely popular across the Arab world.