15 Things You Might Not Know About Your Favorite Poets
The lives, hobbies, and eccentricities of some of the world’s greatest poets made them much more than titans of the turn of phrase. Here are 15 fun facts about some of your favorite poets.
1. Charles Bukowski was a cat guy.
This transgressive German-American poet was once declared a “laureate of American lowlife” by TIME. But Bukowski had a soft spot for cats, and owned a pet feline called Minx. In the poem “My Cats,” he wrote, “when I am feeling/low/all I have to do is/watch my cats/and my/courage/returns.”
2. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s last words were fittingly sweet.
Many of the Victorian-era writer’s romantic poems, like “How Do I Love Thee?”, were inspired by her beloved husband, poet Robert Browning. And even her death had an air of romance—at 55, she was dying of an undetermined illness (she had spent most of her life in poor health). Robert Browning held her in his arms and asked how she was feeling. Her final word was “beautiful.”
3. Pablo Neruda preferred to handwrite his poems in green ink.
The Nobel Prize winner from Chile favored a fountain pen that he filled with his signature color. It’s believed that Neruda, who blended surrealism and politics into his poetry, saw green as the color of hope.
4. E.E. Cummings publicly named those who spurned him.
Even after releasing a novel, poetry collections, and plays, American writer E.E. Cummings’s proposed collection 70 Poems was rejected by 14 publishers. With a loan from his mother, he finally managed to publish the book in 1935, but with two noteworthy revisions. First, he changed its title to No Thanks, a reference to the rejection letters he’d received. And on its dedication page, Cummings printed a concrete poem—a poem written in the shape of a funeral urn, listing the names of every publisher who had rejected him.
5. Sappho might have been a songwriter rather than a poet.
The archaic Greek poet is touted as one of the greatest to ever work in the medium. However, ancient texts described her writing as melê, which translates to “songs.” Historians still debate how Sappho’s works were performed, but this description suggests they were lyrics set to music, meaning Sappho may have been a popular songwriter more than a poet. It’s speculated that Sappho’s fans copied her lyrics onto papyrus and pottery, unintentionally preserving her talent and verses for thousands of years.
6. Shel Silverstein was definitely an award-winning songwriter.
Shel Silverstein is best known for his illustrated poetry books for children, like Where The Sidewalk Ends and A Light In the Attic, but the American humorist also earned Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations in 1991 for writing the song “I’m Checkin’ Out,” which was performed by Meryl Streep at the end of the movie Postcards From the Edge. Two decades earlier, he won the Grammy for Best Country Song for penning the playful (if violent) “A Boy Named Sue,” for which Johnny Cash also won a performance Grammy.
7. Langston Hughes likely influenced Martin Luther King, Jr.’s writing.
The popular poet of the Harlem Renaissance and the bold civil rights leader were friends who exchanged letters, including one in which King told Hughes, “I can no longer count the number of times and places … in which I have read your poems.”
Scholars have long explored how this friendship shaped both men. English professor Jason Miller illuminates striking similarities; for example, Hughes’s poem “I Dream A World” may have inspired King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. Hughes wrote, “A world I dream where Black or white,/Whatever race you be,/Will share the bounties of the earth/And every man is free.” In comparison, King’s 1963 speech included the passage, “I have a dream that one day … little Black boys and Black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.”
8. Chicago-based poet Gwendolyn Brooks inspired another artist from the Windy City.
With her poetry collection Annie Allen (1950), a portrayal of a young Black girl growing up on Chicago’s South Side, Gwendolyn Brooks became the first Black writer to win a Pulitzer Prize. Her work influenced Kanye West, who said in an early interview that Brooks was one of his favorite writers. West recounted that when he was in grade school, he met Brooks at a dinner for local students (she was an educator and longtime advocate for children’s education). “They had a dinner and Gwendolyn Brooks was there and everyone was reading their poems,” he said. “She said, ‘Do you have a poem?’ I said [switches to a high-pitched voice], ‘No, but I can write one real quick.’ I went in the back, wrote a poem, and then read it for her and the 40 staff members.”
9. Edna St. Vincent Millay’s early poem snagged her a benefactor to pay for college.
Growing up on the coast of Maine, Edna St. Vincent Millay was an outgoing tomboy who preferred to be called Vincent. Her parents had divorced when she was young, and her mother was raising three young girls on her own. They were quite poor, but her mother had long encouraged her writing pursuits, and when Edna was 20, Cora Millay insisted she enter a poem in a contest. “Renascence” didn’t win, but there was such an outcry from readers and columnists that it gave Edna instant clout. At a reading she gave not long after, one guest was so impressed that she offered to help fund Millay’s college education. Millay enrolled in Vassar College.
10. Elizabeth Bishop refused to be included in gender-specific anthologies.
Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning poet Elizabeth Bishop loathed when her gender was mentioned in connection with her talent as a writer. When she was asked in the early ’70s if she would allow one of her poems to be included in an anthology called The Women Poets in English, Bishop responded, “(Men and women) do not write differently,” adding, “Why not Men Poets in English? Don’t you see how silly it is? … I don’t like things compartmentalized like that.” She echoed this belief throughout her career: “Literature is literature, no matter who produces it.”
11. Lord Byron had a pet bear.
When the English poet was a young, cheeky student at Trinity College in Cambridge, the school had a rule against students keeping dogs. Byron—who so famously loved his Newfoundland, Boatswain, that he had a tomb inscribed with a poem for the dog after its death in 1808—obliged, but instead took advantage of the language and purchased a bear instead, which he would walk around the grounds on a chain leash.
In an 1807 letter to a friend, Byron wrote of his unusual pet, “I have got a new friend, the finest in the world, a tame bear. When I brought him here, they asked me what to do with him, and my reply was, ‘he should sit for a fellowship.’”
12. Dorothy Parker’s ashes spent nearly 20 years in a filing cabinet.
When poet and satirist Dorothy Parker died in 1967, she left instructions for her entire estate to be left to Martin Luther King, Jr. and for her body to be cremated—she didn’t, however, specify where she wanted her ashes interred or scattered. After the executor of her estate failed to claim her ashes from the mortuary, her attorney collected them, put them in a filing cabinet, and left them there until 1987, when a Parker biographer mentioned wanting to visit her grave. Her remains were eventually moved to a memorial garden built by the NAACP (which now controls her estate, following King’s death in 1968). The plaque above her urn aptly reads, “Excuse My Dust.”
13. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s wife Mary kept an unusual memento of him.
This English Romantic poet was husband to Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. So perhaps it’s fitting that when he drowned tragically at 29, Mary held onto his heart, literally. The story goes that the organ did not burn when the rest of his remains were cremated. So his loving widow wrapped it in a silken shroud, and took it with her wherever she went. Nearly 70 years later, Shelley’s heart was finally buried in the family vault with the couple’s son.
14. Ezra Pound convinced T.S. Eliot to quit his day job.
Ezra Pound was so in awe of fellow American ex-pat T.S. Eliot’s 1922 masterpiece “The Waste Land” that he felt the London bank teller should devote himself completely to poetry. Pound even crowdfunded to make it happen, but without consulting Eliot first to see if he’d be game. This impulsive plan sparked a scandal when Eliot wouldn’t leave the bank (he stayed in the job for another couple of years, before moving to a publishing house). But Pound was right about his instinct to help foster Eliot’s career—20-some years later, Eliot won the Nobel Prize in Literature.
15. William Carlos Williams believed his work as a doctor made him a better poet.
While many artists bemoan their survival jobs, Williams relished his. Trained in pediatrics and general medicine, Williams found inspiration in his patients. And in his 1967 autobiography, he aimed to explain how he felt his two jobs benefited each other: “They are two parts of a whole. It is not two jobs at all … one rests the man when the other fatigues him.”
A version of this story was published in 2018; it has been updated for 2023.