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PORTRAITS: Poetic Justice

As we pick up our well-thumbed collections and anthologies from our bookshelves ahead of World Poetry Day, we look back at masters of the art whose lines of carefully crafted verse have indelibly shaped modern man

Poetry is an echo, asking a shadow to dance. ~Carl Sandburg

Words are powerful in so many ways. They give us a sense of freedom to express our beliefs; they have an ability to make a social impact, in a grand or small scale; they can inspire us and stir deep emotions, and they also have the power to unite us, as one. Poetry has a unique way to capture our creative spirit, to speak from our hearts, and voice deep thoughts of humankind.

With World Poetry Day on March 21, it’s a reminder that poetry reaffirms our common humanity by revealing that individuals, all over the globe, share the same questions and feelings. No matter where we have come from, whatever our backgrounds – throughout different periods of time – poetry shows us that we can be all the same. Here, we honour those great poets and celebrate our favourites of all-time.

Poetry is an echo, asking a shadow to dance. ~Carl Sandburg

[Langston Hughes]

A pioneer of the Harlem Renaissance for the way his innovative verse captured and celebrated black life and culture in 1920s America, Hughes also looked as cool as his form-defying poetry. A simple but elegant shirt-and-tie combo was all he needed to accentuate a bright smile that became synonymous with the jazz rhythms that emanated from the pages of his poems. Remember, “A dream deferred is a dream denied.”

[Allen Ginsberg]

Howl changed the way people read and conceived of poetry. Its vitriolic rage against the capitalist machine, camped in a deliberately defiant form and meter that stuck a middle finger to traditional verse, has echoed through the years since it was first penned in 1954. And so has the unexpected popularity of the thick, round frame 1950s specs the Beat poet donned. “I don’t think there is any truth. There are only points of view.”

[Rabindranath Tagore]

For the way he single-handedly reformed and reshaped Bengali literature and music, Tagore became first non-European to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1913. “Age considers; youth ventures,” Tagore once said. If anyone wanted to imitate his look, they better start young. His long, bedraggled wizard-like beard is not an easy grooming feat — neither to achieve, nor to pass off as stylish. Tagore managed both. 

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[T.S. Eliot]

In depicting the broken post-war world he saw in The Waste Land, Eliot is generally regarded by scholars and poets as the most influential writer in the modernist movement. His poetry was a fusion of classic influences with a sometimes-bizarre modern aesthetic that contorted form and language to suit a bizarre and contorted modern world. His look was classic all the way, though. Three-piece tweed suits, a side-parting and a pipe: the carefully chosen aesthetic of a British gentleman. Though American by birth, Eliot was granted British citizenship in 1927. Note: “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”

[Wole Soyinka]

That vibrant shock of white hair that springs out from his head and matches the fluffy beard below highlights the Nigerian poet and essayist wherever he goes. It stands out much like his verse. A great defender of liberty and freedom of speech, Soyinka became the first African to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1986 for his post-colonial voice. “All forms of writing are a terror to those who want to suppress the truth,” he once said. Words which find a renewed relevance in today’s fake news era.

[Oscar Wilde]

The Irish dandy who had nothing to declare but his genius. A life of flamboyant decadence and a self-righteous defiance of convention exalted Wilde in the popular imagination as the quintessential poetic artist. His artistic philosophy, “art for art’s sake”, has become a mantra for the individual poet who balks at popular movements. And few, if any, could carry off tights like Wilde, who said: “You can never be overdressed or overeducated.”

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[E.E. Cummings]

An aversion to the tyranny of capital letters and their habitual sense of self-importance, Cummings often used the traditional sonnet form and sought to add a modern twist to it. Though his verse was undeniably post-modern in its thematic concerns, Cummings’ sartorial style was undeniably traditional. Rarely seen without a waistcoat, his boyish countenance gave his appearance an air of innocence that is belied in his verse. Heed his words: “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”

[Pablo Neruda]

The Chilean poet who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971 was an early starter: he was reputedly just 10 years old when his first poems were published. Surreal and explicitly political in nature, Neruda’s poetry was just one half of his professional self. He also held a number of diplomatic positions, and had an arrest warrant placed on his head in 1948 for Communist allegiances. None of which could deter him from always wearing a neat suit and tie. “Someday, somewhere — anywhere, unfailingly, you’ll find yourself, and that, and only that, can be the happiest or bitterest hour of your life.” Which will it be? 

[Khalil Gibran]

According to estimates, the Lebanese artist is the third-best-selling poet ever. Just behind a certain William Shakespeare and Chinese philosophical poet Laozi. That success can largely be explained by the popularity of Gibran’s prose-poetry fables contained in The Prophet, which has been translated into more than 40 languages. Consider this: “They deem me mad because I will not sell my days for gold; and I deem them mad because they think my days have a price.”

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