Greetings! We have received a few emails requesting a list of the world’s “most-influential” poets. It took some time to gather this list together, as the art of poetry is sometimes mistaken for poetry as a form of entertainment. Where there is civilization, there is poetry. Poetry is said by some sources to even predate literacy. In ancient times, poetry was not used to call attention to the problems of mankind, but called attention to spiritual truths that aided in the evolution of man.
In both Sufism and Taoism, poetry is held as a sacred art, where the poet is held in the same regard, as the priest and the sage. Steve Fine, in his classic work, Jews, Christians, and Polytheists in the Ancient Synagogue, makes the following observation on page 99:
“But the poet, author of the compositions and our guide to the sacrifice, stands behind both priest and sage. it is he, armed with the memory of the Divine Name and the Temple furnishings, who has the power to invoke the encounter between the divine and human that was the prerogative of the priest. This encounter takes place not in the realm of sacred space that was the Temple, nor in the scholastic environment of the house of study, but in the synagogue, the realm of song and imagination.”
Long before the catchy the colorful sarcasms and witty conclusions, misquoted from other sciences as seen in today’s so-called “poets,” poetry was revered as a sacred art and could impart a certain quality of “spirit” upon the audience. Published in 1849, Friedrich Von Schlegel, noted similar in The Aesthetic And Miscellaneous Works Comprising Letters On Christian Art:
“The copiousness of the earliest poetry, and its wild and gigantic creations, arose from a superstitious worship of the divinely productive power in nature, and the idea of infinity attached to it; and when the beautiful light of a softer, holier inspiration beamed upon those loftier fables, their very wildness gave them the stamp of poetry and imagination.”
The song of words that we call poetry today, relates not only the attitudes and hidden “currents” of the time, but has always been the translucent curtain between the divine and physical worlds. Here is a list of Blue Steel’s Greatest Poets of All-Time:
10. Akinwande Oluwole “Wole” Soyinka, Nigerian playwright, poet, novelist, and critic, first black African who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986. Soyinka has been imprisoned several times for his criticism of the government. From the 1970s he has lived long periods in exile. Soyinka’s plays range from comedy to tragedy, and from political satire to the theatre of the absurd. He has combined influences from Western traditions with African myth, legends and folklore, and such techniques as singing and drumming.
9. Emily Dickinson, regarded as one of America’s greatest poets, is also well-known for her unusual life of self-imposed social seclusion. Living a life of simplicity and seclusion, she yet wrote poetry of great power; questioning the nature of immortality and death, with at times an almost mantric quality. Her different lifestyle created an aura; often romanticized, and frequently a source of interest and speculation. But ultimately Emily Dickinson is remembered for her unique poetry. Within short, compact phrases she expressed far-reaching ideas; amidst paradox and uncertainty her poetry has an undeniable capacity to move and provoke.
8. Pablo Neruda. This Chilean poet, and diplomat, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971. His original name was Neftali Ricardo Reyes Basoalto, but he used the pen name Pablo Neruda for over 20 years before adopting it legally in 1946. Neruda is the most widely read of the Spanish-American poets. From the 1940s on, his works reflected the political struggle of the left and the socio-historical developments in South America. He also wrote love poems. Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair (1924) have sold over a million copies since it first appeared.
7. Langston Hughes. African-American poet, novelist, and playwright, who became one of the foremost interpreters of racial relationships in the United States. Hughes depicted realistically the ordinary lives of black people. Many of his poems, written in rhythmical language, have been set to music. Hughes’s poems were meant ‘to be read aloud, crooned, shouted and sung’.
6. William Shakespeare. While Shakespeare was regarded as the foremost dramatist of his time, evidence indicates that both he and his world looked to poetry, not playwriting, for enduring fame. Shakespeare’s sonnets were composed between 1593 and 1601, though not published until 1609. That edition, The Sonnets of Shakespeare, consists of 154 sonnets, all written in the form of three quatrains and a couplet that is now recognized as Shakespearean. The sonnets fall into two groups: sonnets 1-126, addressed to a beloved friend, a handsome and noble young man, and sonnets 127-152, to a malignant but fascinating “Dark Lady,” whom the poet loves in spite of himself. Nearly all of Shakespeare’s sonnets examine the inevitable decay of time, and the immortalization of beauty and love in poetry.
5. Rumi. Jelaluddin Rumi, the 13th century mystic poet, was truly one of the most passionate and profound poets in history. Now, today his presence still remains strong, due in part to how his words seem to drip of the divine, and startle a profound rememberance that links all back to the Soul-Essence. Born in what is present day Afghanistan in 1207, he produced his master work the Masnawi which consists of over 60,000 poems before he died in 1273. The best way to fully say in words his impact, is that he has the ability to describe the Indescribable, Ineffable– God.
4. Matsu Basho. Matsuo Basho was one of the greatest Japanese poets. He elevated haiku to the level of serious poetry in numerous anthologies and travel diaries. The name of Matsuo Basho is associated especially with the celebrated Genroku era (ca. 1680-1730), which saw the flourishing of many of Japan’s greatest and most typical literary and artistic personalities. Although Basho was the contemporary of writers like the novelist and poet Ihara Saikaku and the dramatist Chikamatsu Monzaemon, he was far from being an exponent of the new middle-class culture of the city dwellers of that day. Rather, in his poetry and in his attitude toward life he seemed to harken back to a period some 300 years earlier. An innovator in poetry, spiritually and culturally he maintained a great tradition of the past.
3. Xue Tao. Xue Tao was well respected as a poet during the Tang Dynasty, when she lived. She was born either in the Tang capital Zhangan or later on when her father, a minor government official, was posted to Chengdu in present day Sichuan province. A story about her childhood, perhaps apocryphal, suggests that she was able to write complex poems by the age of seven or eight. She may have gained some literary education from her father, but he died before she had come to marriageable age and she ended up being a very successful courtesan (one of the few paths for women in Tang Dynasty China in which conversation and artistic talent were encouraged). After Wei Gao, the military governor, became her literary patron, her reputation was widespread. She seems to have had an affair with another famous literary figure, Yuan Zhen. Late in life she went to live in seclusion and put on the habit of a Taoist churchwoman. More than one hundred of her poems survive. She is often considered (with Yu Xuanji) to be one of the two finest female poets of the Tang Dynasty.
2. St John of the Cross. Saint John of the Cross is the mystical doctor. His writings on the soul united with God in prayer reveal the most profound mystical expressions, experiences and insights ever imagined. They are for those precise reasons often misunderstood or misinterpreted unless one has a wise spiritual director who is experienced in contemplative prayer and well versed in mystical and ascetical theology. This Carmelite saint writings are the most profound, literary masterpieces both in his gorgeous prose and poetry. “As a poet St. John of the Cross ranks with the greatest. Many literary critics consider him Spain’s greatest lyric poet. He was a supremely great artist, endowed with a full measure of natural skill.” (E. Allison Peers, The Tablet, July 4, 1942, p 6.)
1. Enheduanna. Regarded by literary and historical scholars as possibly the earliest known author and poet of either gender, Enheduanna served as the High Priestess during the third millennium BCE. She was appointed to the role by her father, King Sargon of Akkad. Her mother was Queen Tashlultum. Enheduanna has left behind a corpus of literary works definitively ascribed to her that include many personal devotions to the goddess Inanna and a collection of hymns known as the “Sumerian Temple Hymns” that are regarded as one of the first attempts at a systematic theology. In addition, scholars such as Hallo and Van Dijk suggest that certain texts that have not been ascribed to her may also be her works.
We encourage our readers to explore the works of these great men and women. I am sure that you gain much from their work that can enrich your life tremendously.