15 Things You Might Not Know About Your Favorite Poets

English Romantic poet Lord Byron being visited by his muse.
English Romantic poet Lord Byron being visited by his muse.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

When we think of poets, too often we imagine posh parlors, stoic sophistication, and austere attitudes. But 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 PERSON.

portrait of Charles Bukowski
GABRIEL BOUYS, AFP / Getty Images

This transgressive German-American poet was once declared a "laureate of American lowlife" by Time magazine. But Bukowski had a soft spot for felines, and owned a pet cat 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.

Portrait of Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

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). Browning held her in his arms and asked how she was feeling. Her final word was simply, "Beautiful."

3. PABLO NERUDA PREFERRED TO HANDWRITE HIS POEMS IN GREEN INK.

portrait of Pablo Neruda
STF/AFP/Getty Images

The Pulitzer Prize-winner from Chile favored a fountain pen that he filled with his signature color. It's popularly believed that Neruda, who blended surrealism and politics into his poetry, saw green as the color of hope.

4. IN AN EYEBROW-RAISING DEDICATION PAGE, E.E. CUMMINGS ONCE CALLED OUT THOSE WHO SPURNED HIM.

E.E. Cummings
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

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 dismissal letters he'd received. And on its dedication page, Cummings printed a concrete poem—a poem written in the shape of a funereal urn, listing the names of every publisher who had rejected him.

5. SAPPHO MIGHT HAVE BEEN THE ADELE OF HER DAY.

Sappho
Picture Post, Getty Images

This 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 Sappho's fans copied her lyrics onto papyrus and pottery, unintentionally preserving her talent and verses for thousands of years.

6. SHEL SILVERSTEIN WAS AN AWARD-WINNING SONGWRITER.

A Shel Silverstein poem
Jabiz Raisdana, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

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," which Johnny Cash also won a performance Grammy for.

7. LANGSTON HUGHES MAY HAVE BEEN A KEY INFLUENCE ON MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.

Langston Hughes.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

The popular poet of the Harlem Renaissance and the bold Civil Rights leader were friends who exchanged letters, including one where 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. But English professor Jason Miller illuminates striking similarities, which suggest 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 1953 speech included, "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. FAMED CHICAGOAN GWENDOLYN BROOKS WAS AN INSPIRATION TO ANOTHER YOUNG CHICAGO CREATIVE.

sketch of Gwendolyn Brooks
Burns Library, Boston College, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In an interview early in his career, Kanye West noted that Brooks—the first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize, for her portrayal of a young black girl growing up on Chicago's South Side—was one of his favorite writers. West recounted how when he was in grade school, he'd 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. ONE POEM HELPED EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY GAIN BOTH NATIONAL ATTENTION AND A PATRON TO FUND HER EDUCATION.

portrait of Edna St. Vincent Millay
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Growing up on the coast of Maine, Edna 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 and at age 21, Millay enrolled at Vassar College.

10. ELIZABETH BISHOP REFUSED TO BE INCLUDED IN GENDER-SPECIFIC ANTHOLOGIES.

Elizabeth Bishop
Elizabeth Bishop in 1934, in the Vassar College yearbook.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning 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 that "(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. DENIED A DOG, LORD BYRON MADE A BEAR HIS PET.

portrait of Lord Byron
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

When the English nobleman 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. AFTER HER DEATH, DOROTHY PARKER'S ASHES SPENT NEARLY 20 YEARS IN A FILING CABINET.

Dorothy Parker
Evening Standard, Getty Images

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 interned 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 (who now controls her estate, following King's death). The plaque above her urn aptly reads, "Excuse My Dust."

13. AFTER HIS UNEXPECTED DEATH, PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY'S WIFE KEPT A GRISLY MEMENTO.

Portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelley
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

This English Romantic 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 CONCOCTED A PECULIAR PLAN TO CONVINCE T.S. ELIOT TO QUIT HIS DAY JOB.

Ezra Pound in Italy
Ezra Pound
Keystone, Getty Images

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.

photo of William Carlos Williams
Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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 served to benefit 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."

Need a Smart Comeback? This Literary Insult Chart Will Help

This literary insult chart will arm you with some eloquent comebacks during your next argument.
This literary insult chart will arm you with some eloquent comebacks during your next argument.
Curious Charts Commission/Amazon

If you’ve ever struggled to produce a comeback in the middle of a heated argument, this chart ($25 on Amazon) of literary insults is for you. With a glance at this 18-inch-by-24-inch poster, you can find one of more than 70 quotes from famous literary figures to throw at your enemies.

The chart is organized into different categories based on insult type. Want to insult someone’s cooking? Try a quote from novelist Margaret Storm Jameson—"She did not so much cook as assassinate food." Want something straightforward? Try a line from Shakespeare, who wrote, "I think thou art an ass." And if you really want to dig into someone, you can use poet Heinrich Heine's famed takedown, "Ordinarily he was insane, but he had lucid moments when he was merely stupid."

Literary Insult Chart Sold on Amazon.
The chart is divided into categories like bodily qualities, food, personal traits, and more.
Curious Charts Commission/Amazon

If you’re looking for even more ways to avoid a dreaded case of l’esprit de l’escalier, check out this list of 12 old-fashioned insults we should totally bring back.

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Give Your Morning Coffee a Literary Flair With Mugs Decorated With Quotes From Edgar Allan Poe, the Brontë sisters, and More

In addition to individual author mugs, there are also mugs decorated with famous first and last lines from classic books.
In addition to individual author mugs, there are also mugs decorated with famous first and last lines from classic books.
Unemployed Philosophers Guild/Amazon

Give your coffee (or tea) a little literary flavor with one of these mugs designed by the Unemployed Philosophers Guild. For between $16 and $24, you can purchase a mug that features quotes from Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, Lewis Carroll, Roald Dahl, Kurt Vonnegut, or the Brontë sisters, along with designs inspired by the mood of their works. Dahl's mug, for example, is fittingly whimsical, with illustrations by his longtime visual collaborator Quentin Blake; meanwhile, Poe's dreary, macabre design perfectly sums up that first cup of coffee at the beginning of the work week.

All Unemployed Philosophers Guild mugs are microwavable, and most are dishwasher-safe. Plus, a portion of all proceeds goes to supporting a variety of charitable organizations. If you’re looking for even more bookish drinkware, you can try out a mug featuring famous first or last lines from literature.

Greatest first lines in literature coffee mug.
This mug features the first lines of novels like Catch-22, Gravity's Rainbow, and more.
Unemployed Philosophers Guild/Amazon

If books aren't your thing, don’t worry—the Unemployed Philosophers Guild also sells mugs decorated with mathematical formulas, presidential slogans, and instructions for tying knots.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

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