Scholars, writers, and lovers of poetry have all asked the same question at some point in their lives, what makes a poet great?
The greatest poets of all time have several important things in common—their approach to their subject matter, the style and formal elements of their writing, their dedication to their literary goals, and the lasting influence of their work.
What Makes a Poet Great?
The 10 Greatest English Language Poets of All Time
Before getting into the details of why poets are great, consider this list of those we consider to be the 10 greatest English language poets of all time. Many of their literary qualities are discussed in detail below.
- William Shakespeare
- Walt Whitman
- Ezra Pound
- Emily Dickinson
- T.S. Eliot
- Maya Angelou
- John Milton
- William Wordsworth
- John Keats
- Edgar Allan Poe
Originality and Style
While the greatest poets of all time share many things in common, those who have been the most successful, have had the longest-lasting influence, and are still read today, are those who possess something original in their writing. This “something” is a feature that other writers don’t have. It could be their approach to the content they’re writing about, willingness to address taboo, yet important subjects, some formal, stylistic choice, or anything else that sets the writer apart from the millions of other poets putting pen to paper.
When considering literary history from a contemporary perceptive, scholars and writers are lucky in that they’re able to see how writers like Ezra Pound, William Shakespeare, and T.S. Eliot, among others, have stood out from the crowd. Sometimes, a poet’s influence or their radical departure from the norm isn’t felt until decades after they’ve passed away. Even if their work was well-known, such as in the case of William Shakespeare, their reputations were not solidified until after their deaths when scholars could look over their entire body of work and see how they changed poetry forever.
Consider, for example, Maya Angelou’s approach to the incredibly important issues of race, gender, and equality or Emily Dickinson’s break with traditional poetic conventions. The imagist movement, created in part by Ezra Pound, is another vastly influential moment in the history of English language poetry.
William Wordsworth’s Originality and Style
As a more detailed example, consider William Wordsworth. He is undoubtedly one of the most influential poets of all time, and certainly one of the greatest. He is remembered today, along with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, as the progenitor of Romanticism, a period that started with the publication of their volume Lyrical Ballads in 1798. He is considered today to be an archetypal Romantic poet.
Wordsworth focused on topics like humankind’s connection to the natural world, and its broader beauty and power, in a way that no one ever had before. Luckily for Wordsworth, his poetry came into the spotlight at the exact moment it was needed. Romanticism was a reaction against the scientific rationalization of nature during the Age of Enlightenment and readers were craving a return to a more spiritual and inherently beautiful image of the natural world. His work helped to legitimize the value of individuals and individual imagination.
Walt Whitman’s Originality and Style
Another great example of originality as a primary driver of what makes a poet great can be seen in the work of Walt Whitman. Today, Whitman is considered the father of free verse poetry, a style of writing in which the poet ignores conventional rhyme and meter. This, taken alongside his use of accessible poetic language, made his writing incredibly popular. At this time it was still conventional to write in elevated verse, using intentionally poetic words, and often confusing diction, in order to make lines of verse feel poetic.
His monumental volume, Leaves of Grass, is considered to be one of the most influential in American poetic history, as well as in the broader history of the literary world. He celebrated his body, and others, democracy, nature, friendship, and the individual throughout this immense collection. His poems engage with topics that many considered to be taboo. He spoke about sex and alluded to his own homosexuality, something that some readers called “obscene.” Despite some initial reactions to his poetry, Whitman continued to edit his collection, expanding it throughout the years of his career until it reached the form it’s published in today.
A Love of Literature
One of the less commonly discussed features of great poets that’s incredibly important to their success is their broad love of literature. This refers to their devotion to their own work as well as their love for the literary accomplishments of their peers, and their predecessors. The best writers are those who have a deep understanding of and appreciation for those who came before them.
In addition to having an understanding of the poets who came before them, the greatest writers of all time also have an unfailing dedication to their own work. They pursue their desired out coming single-mindedly until they’re accomplished it. Poets like Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, and William Blake may have had other minor interests in their lives but their writing was their all-consuming passion. It was what they spent each day of their lives focusing on. It is through this intense focus that a writer discovers their most important sources of inspiration and that original “something” that’s going to set them apart from everyone else.
When contemporary readers look back on the vast history of the literary world it is often a writer’s legacy that elevates them to the highest level. The writers who left behind the most important literary works influenced their peers, started a literary movement, and took bold steps towards a new form of writing, are those who are best-remembered and most commonly labeled as the “greatest poets of all time.”
These writers listed above, among many others, have forged a path through history, changing it as they wrote. Often, the poets that followed cited these names as primary influences on their work. The same is true for contemporary poets. Many of the best-known contemporary writers can trace their interest in poetry back to one of these names.
For example, when considering the American free verse poet Walt Whitman, his influence can be traced to poets like Oscar Wilde, Edward Carpenter, Adrienne Rich, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg, who in turn influenced many other writers. Ezra Pound’s influence is quite broad as well. As the founder of the imagist movement, Pound has an important influence on writers like Robert Frost, Ernest Hemingway, Ted Hughes, Wallace Stevens, and Gwendolyn Brooks. One final example is Edgar Allan Poe, and his poetry, which influenced the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche, Maya Angelou, and Oscar Wilde.