It's National Poetry Month! Is there a better way to celebrate than cracking open a book of poetry? Here are eleven poets from all over the world, ready to grace your eyes with witty verses and intriguing metaphors.
Curious about poems from Japan that break away from the traditional haiku format? Look no further than Nakahara Chūya, modernist Japanese poet hailed as the “Japanese Rimbaud” (after French poet Arthur Rimbaud) who was one of the leading innovators of Japanese poetry, with his lyrical and poignant verse. The Poems of Nakahara Chūya is a translation of Nakahara’s work throughout his creative life, including selections from his poetry anthologies “Goat Songs” and “Songs of Bygone Days.”
Take a step back into the past with poems written in the 18th century! Known not only as the first African-American author of a published book of poetry but also as the first enslaved person to ever do so, Phillis Wheatley-Peters published Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral at the age of 20 and gained international renown in England and America, with George Washington himself praising the quality of her work. Want to read more? Pick up Phillis Wheatley, Complete Writings with its definitive collection of Wheatley-Peters’ poems and letters, published by Penguin Classics.
Dato’ Usman Awang – Malaysia
Travel to the multicultural world of Malaysia with poems by Usman Awang, recipient of the Malaysian National Laureate for his contribution to Malay literature. Popularly (and justifiably) considered as the best poet in Malay language, Usman is known for his simple yet beautiful verse, writing enthusiastically about his homeland, love, and freedom with rich and euphonious language. Read his poems in their original form at UsmaYayasann Awang, a website dedicated to preserving the memory of this man who was truly a poet of the people.
Once praised as “The Nightingale of India” by Mahatma Gandhi himself, Sarojini Naidu was an important figure in India’s struggle for independence from colonial rule, becoming India’s first woman governor after years of political activism. Her poetry is known for its lyrical quality and colorful imagery, ranging from themes of patriotism, romance, and tragedy. Written in English, The Golden Threshold is Naidu’s first published book of poetry, characterized by her vivid use of rich sensory images and lush depictions of India.
Li Bai – China
“Since life is but a dream,
Why toil to no avail?”
So says the poet, drinking his fill of wine. Called the Poet Immortal, Li Bai is often regarded as one of the greatest poets in China’s literary history, with around a thousand poems that have survived to this day. His work, notable for its extravagant imagination and striking Taoist imagery, focuses on Li’s life – from journeys and friends to current events, chronicling the radical changes in China’s history that occurred during his lifetime. A selection of his poetry can be found in Three Hundred Tang Poems, published in the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets Series; or if you fancy a bilingual version, try David Young’s translation of Five T’ang Poets, which contains some of the greatest lyric poetry ever written.
Bold, daring, and defiant, Rosalía de Castro is now hailed as the founder of modern Galician literature, having taken the unconventional step of writing her early poetry in Galician rather than mainstream Spanish. As a strong opponent against abuse of authority and an ardent defender of women’s rights, Castro utilized folklore and popular songs amongst other literary devices to disguise her political activism and avoid censorship. Her poetry is marked by saudade, a virtually ineffable combination of nostalgia, longing, and melancholy – which can be read in Small Stations Press’ translation of her first poetry collection, Galician Songs.
Rabindranath Tagore – Bengal
The first non-European and the first lyricist to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, Rabindranath Tagore was a Bengali polymath who reshaped Bengali literature, music, and Indian art with Contextual Modernism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Writing his first poems as an eight-year-old, Tagore’s style ranges from classical formalism to the comic, visionary, and ecstatic, with his most innovative and mature poetry pieces embodying his exposure to Bengali rural folk music. His self-translated work, Gitanjali, explores a wide variety of life’s experiences, from the quiet pleasures of watching children at play to man’s struggle with his god.
Living under the ax of Stalinism, Russian poet Anna Akhmatova saw friends and family either flee to greener pastures or be arrested and sentenced to gulag. For over thirty years, Akhmatova labored over Requiem, an elegy about the suffering of the people under the Great Purge as she survived through the surveillance of an uncompromising regime that executed her ex-husband, imprisoned her son, and left her third husband dying in a Siberian prison camp. Now, she is regarded as one of Russia’s greatest poets, with a selection of her works (along with the aforementioned Requiem) translated and published in the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets Series.
Have you ever wondered about the types of poetry that kings read? Thai royal poet Phra Sunthonwohan (also known as Sunthorn Phu) would be able to answer that question, having written for not one, not two, but three Thai kings over the course of his life. Sunthonwohan was renowned for his epic poetry, including one of Thailand’s national epics: Phra Aphai Mani. With over 48,000 couplets, Phra Aphai Mani is a colossal work of mythical creatures in a fantasy land, though some Thai literary critics believe that the poem was crafted as an anti-colonialist tale. An English (albeit summarized) translation of the work is available online.
“So, here you are
too foreign for home,
too foreign for here.
Never enough for both.”
These lines, raw and aching, are written by contemporary poet Ijeoma Umebinyuo in her collection of poems titled Questions for Ada. Born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria, Umebinyuo highlights the tribulations of being a woman in her work, exposing both vulnerability and her strong will to be heard with lyrical lushness and harsh candor. Interested in learning more about her? Follow Umebinyuo on Instagram @theijeoma where she posts shorter poems, captivating audiences with the strength and beauty of her words.
Born into a family of artists, writers, and intellectuals, it is no surprise that Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska later came to be known as the Polish Sappho and “queen of lyrical poetry,” leaving behind a dozen volumes of poetry and as many theater and radio plays. She was associated with the Polish group of experimental poets Skamander, and established herself as one of the most innovative poets of the Polish interwar period with her witty and lyrical love poetry that broke the taboo on the expression of female eroticism. Her poems are available in English through this website, dedicated towards bringing Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska’s writings and life story to the English-speaking world.